From Baghdad With Blood: The Long, Strange Trip of Acrassicauda
Late at night when you're all alone
Take a ride to the danger zone
If someone wants to cut you down to size
You never argue with a loaded .45 - The Scorpions, "Hit Between the Eyes"
Maybe because I have so many of my own, I've always been a sucker for a hard luck story. And because I'm a head banger from way back, I'm always on the lookout for the next Metallica. Acrassicauda appeals to both.
To my reckoning, they're still the only heavy metal band to ever come out of Iraq. Their dark, heavy, ugly-sounding Latin-based moniker translates to "black scorpion" and is a perfect onomatopoetic name for what they are and what they play. They were written up in the New York Times just under a year ago and the article by Ben Sisario only alludes to the danger, prejudice and persecution these four young men had faced while trying to keep their group alive in Baghdad. If you want a visual impression of what life was like for them, click on the title of this post and if you have 84 minutes to spare, watch the 2007 documentary on them.
While struggling valiantly to avoid political and geopolitical overtones, Vice Records, the makers of the documentary, couldn't merely present the rise of just another heavy metal band. Acrassicauda is not just another up-and-coming heavy metal band. For starters, they originate from Baghdad, Iraq, a city still plagued by death squads, homegrown terrorists, insurgencies and corrupt militias. It's a city in which the average resident gets perhaps 2-4 hours a day of electricity, a fact that alone would kill most rock and roll bands that rely exclusively on amplifiers. At one point, a gig in a Baghdad hotel is interrupted when the power went out. Before their hovel of a rehearsal venue was bombed, they had to use generators and they had to carry loaded .45's on their way to rehearsals.
They lived a life straight out of "Hit Between the Eyes" by their German namesakes, the Scorpions. If you want an idea of what it's like to be a heavy metal musician in Iraq, the ultimate anomaly, if you want a taste of the prejudice to which American rock and roll pioneers were subjected in the 50's, watch "Heavy Metal in Baghdad." Imagine fearing being jailed for growing your hair long or even just for wearing a goatee or for being mistaken for engaging in Jewish religious rites simply for violently moving your head. I think it's a safe bet Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Chuck Berry never had to go through any of that. And that freedom and democracy was mainly after the American invasion and occupation.
As if that isn't hard enough to imagine, try to imagine how difficult it was for the band's founding members to come across the Western style of music they now play. There are no rock and roll radio stations in Iraq, no Strawberry's or Sam Goodies. One of the few guitar shops in Baghdad closed down years ago simply because they sold guitars.
Yet that's not to say these young men were writing and performing in a complete vacuum. The rare shows they were able to do in Baghdad usually attracted at least a dozen or two other young Iraqi men who had also been indoctrinated into the Western hard rock and heavy metal of Metallica, System of a Down and Megadeth. Yet, while being encouraged by their tiny but fanatical fanship, there was a small price to pay. In "Heavy Metal in Baghdad", the group recounts an early gig in which a necessary concession to the pre-invasion government was that they sing a song in praise of Saddam Hussein. The song wasn't shit, as Acrassicauda is quick to establish yet the lyrics were pure bullshit. That may be a difficult thing for some of you to distinguish but to an artist, the dividing line is clear. And these guys are real artists. They're the real fucking deal, as the video below ("Garden of Stones") proves.
Just when you've had enough
It's really getting tough
I'm ready for that hit between the eyes
Someone get me out of here alive
I'm ready for that hit between the eyes
Can't you see I'm much too young to die
You can feel the tension in the street
There's no escape, getting closer to the heat
You play with fire, get your fingers burned
It's too late, past the point of no return
Other young musicians play until their fingers bleed. Acrassicauda played until their family bled. By 2006, all the band's members had relocated piecemeal to Damascus, Syria, a place where Iraqis are treated as being "less than zero." In order to preserve the Syrian infrastructure, the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees weren't allowed to legally work unless they found menial labor making $100 a month working 12 hour days, seven days a week because their employers knew they couldn't complain. Back in Baghdad, the band would go for a year or two between gigs. Two of the founding members, though close friends, lived fifteen minutes from each other but the danger and curfews would make them go five or six months without their meeting.
In Syria, a safer country, their reception was hardly what one would call welcoming. Heavy metal in Syria and all over the Middle East is rarer than Jewish rappers. The band was so close to giving up that they'd played a make-or-break gig at a night club in Damascus. Bassist Firas Al-Lateef, front man and rhythm guitarist Faisal Talal, drummer Marwan Riyadh and lead guitarist Tony Aziz, one of the most electrifying new talents I've ever seen, would've hung it up if they couldn't get the crowd into it.
After a few covers, it didn't start out promisingly. But then they started doing their own material, including "Massacre" (which they pronounce ma-SOCCER), the young men in the club got into it and they were given a new lease on life.
While heavily influenced by System of a Down and Metallica and being the genuine article, an Arabic influence understandably shows, especially in some of the riffs played in "Garden of Stones" by the shy but brilliant Tony Aziz. Their music achieves a virtually impossible synthesis of heavy metal and traditional Arabic chords. But in their music, this and the subject matter is their only nod to their Iraqi background. They'd fit seamlessly into Ozzfest. But they will never let you forget that they're Iraqi in either their tracks or videos. Slipknot has the corn fields of Iowa. Acrassicauda has the battlefields of Baghdad. These aren't political statements but bloody nuggets of a heritage midwifed by a brutal and negligent occupying government, as organic as any blood-carrying organ.
After getting forced out of Syria, they spent another term of purgatory in Istanbul, Turkey while struggling to keep the group together and to get as much of their families out of Iraq as possible and to find a permanent home while scratching to support themselves. While in Iraq, their equipment and rehearsal spot was obliterated by different bombings (of American origin), they were robbed on the way to Damascus and what little gear they'd subsequently cobbled together they had to sell to pay the rent. If any rock and roll story defines stubborn, almost pathological perseverance, it's Acrassicauda.
Finally, after being granted refugee status by the State Department, the band made it to William Carlos Williams' old haunts in Elizabeth, New Jersey. At long last, things began looking up for the band and they were actually able to meet James Hetfield of Metallica, who magnanimously presented a dumbfounded Mr. Talal with one of his own guitars which he then signed.
One must never forget the 1,000,000 Iraqis that had died, the 2.5 million we had displaced and the countless hundreds of thousands if not millions of the largely undocumented wounded as a result of our invasion and occupation. Our senseless squattage and raping of Iraq is racking up a debt that we can barely hope to repay. And while Metallica's James Hetfield hardly represents our government or even serves as an international goodwill ambassador, he, Vice Records, the International Rescue Committee and their growing legion of fans are showing this quartet that not all Americans are bad and that we're willing to accept them into the country that had displaced them, welcoming them on their terms not merely as refugees but as recording artists in their own right.
Toward the end of the documentary, just before the Vice crew left Iraq to go back to New York, the group was shown the raw material that had been filmed in the years since the documentary began (October 2003, early in the occupation). Only after viewing the DVD did the bitterness toward Americans reveal itself, a justified anger felt not just for the members of Acrassicauda but all Iraqis whose lives had been brutally ended and upended.
But this brief video of the band meeting James Hetfield backstage is a necessary counterpoint to that bitterness. The ESP's gift was a necessary, if unofficial, redemption and reward for them keeping the faith in a way that our government did not keep for the Iraqi people (if we ever held any). While not serving as an apology on any level, what Hetfield and Vice did (the latter kicking in as much as $40,000 at a time to keep them alive) was a necessary first step toward healing the first four of 26,000,000 wounds that may or may not be sealed with scar tissue in the years and decades to come.
Their dedication to a purely western style of music should not be viewed as the triumph of the endemic nature of western culture but one of the human spirit. To this day, they're still looking for a record label and have produced and recorded nothing more substantial than the 2009 EP entitled "Only the Dead See the End of the War."