On December 8, 2004 a young man named Nathan Gale, armed with a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, walked on to the stage at a club in Columbus, Ohio during a performance by the heavy metal band Damageplan. He shot and killed the lead guitarist, Dimebag Darrell Abbott, and then began shooting into the audience, killing three more people before he was shot dead by an armed policeman. While the news was sketchy at first, it now appears that Gale was a schizophrenic with paranoid delusions. His illness was diagnosed after he had joined the Marines. He had been discharged in November 2003 on medical grounds.
Gale had been a fan of the metal band Pantera, and Abbott had been a member of Pantera until it broke up last year. Gale’s high school football coach knew that he listened to Pantera to get pumped before playing football. His mother and his friends knew that he was a fan, and that he had drug issues. He became so wrapped up in the lyrics that he came to the deluded belief that he has written them and that the band had stolen his identity.
Metal singers play with fire when they fire up their fans. Metal is full of anger and violence. Angry teenagers feed off of it, and it was a matter of time until that anger flashed back, whether by riot or mania, at the bands who exploit and promote it. There has been a progression of intensity in popular music. Some branches of popular music are now devoted to touching and stroking primal feelings of anger. It is not only that teens need their own music – they have been desensitized in a culture of intense stimulation and need intense music. The themes of rock and roll were independence and rebellion. Grunge, rap and metal have brought messages of blaming “them” – parents, police, political figures – for repressing teen needs, and messages of bloody revenge.
It is hard to tell the difference between a hostile paranoid schizophrenic and a hostile teenager on drugs rocking to metal. Both are disengaged from the rest of the world, and wrapped up in a story that is meaningful to them but sounds insanely dangerous and dangerously insane. My son’s contacts with metal health system usually have involved drug use and reciting the memorized lyrics of metal songs in an intense, confrontational manner.
It is common for schizophrenics to have delusions that popular songs are about them or are carrying messages to them. My law partner has handled many NCR/Insanity defences in which insane messages were delivered through songs, including one where the accused was obsessed with Kiss, and another in which the accused insisted that Dylan’s songs had hidden messages. Of course, this isn’t necessarily connected to any particular kind of music. Schizophrenics may be obsessed with any kind of music or story that conveys private meaning, and obsessed fans stalk all kinds of celebrities. I see an increased risk of violence when the song and the story carry a message for violence, when the fan and the singer are united in anger in the fan’s delusional system. When the theme of the fantasy is violence, it takes very little for the unstable fan to move from imagination to reality.
Regardless of mental illness, people become engaged by songs and stories and incorporate values or messages into their own emotional and intellectual process. In that context, free speech for metal singers is basically free speech for racism, Satanism, drug abuse, anarchism, anger and violence. It is free speech for the fundamentalism of anger and narcissism.