Judging by the huge high-school turnout, even bigger white-boy Afros, and their love for the Mars Volta, Press Play can faithfully say that the kids are alright. Evidence to the contrary abounds: the success of High School Musical, Young Republicans, Good Charlotte. All these indicate a plastic, safe, and sane Generation Z, cowed by terrorism fears and interested in Choosing Life.
But not the fuckups in the cowtown of Petaluma. On August 9, forty miles north of San Francisco, the kids drink Slugarcanes (Slurpees, sugar, and hard liquor), smoke cigarettes, and metal-fist their support for the death of organized religion. The occasion? An incredibly rare, secret, and totally sold-out show by full-metal alchemists the Mars Volta. With more than 600,000 albums sold, this eight-piece rock band from El Paso releases Amputechture, its third full-length, on September 12. Tonight’s tiny show is the last dry run before the band begins supporting the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a huge national tour that swings through the Oakland Arena this week. The Peppers’ latest platinum-plated poo pile Stadium Arcadium would easily lose to Amputechture in a fistfight, as evinced by the vibe in Petaluma’s all-ages Phoenix Theater right now.
In the graffitied, cavernous, skate-ramp-lined main room, a holy terror-wall of distorted jet engine screaming turns the superheated air to plasma. Jackhammer drums, train-horn guitar licks, and falsetto vocals mix with wailing organ and … “Is that a sax?!” I shout, fingers in ears. “Goddamn!”
Mars Volta lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala stands a skinny five-ten in thick-heeled boots, tight blue slacks, and a polo shirt. His huge Afro, which probably weighs as much as he does, duels for superiority with that of fellow ‘fro-sporter, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Volta’s brain trust, Lopez peels off these tweedelee-deedelee-dee! guitar licks — blasphemy in modern rock. Alchemical symbols and a huge Mexican flag provide the backdrop.
Down in the crowd, the X-Games extras and mini-Hessians in their Doc Martens or acid-washed jeans stand in worship. Despite going deaf from the jet-engine sonic assault, the kids barely move. Even the overlong, downtempo experimental sections don’t alter their rapture. Only Cedric’s jerky, tarantistic dance moves wakes them up. Whenever things get really heavy, Cedric spazzes out like a holy roller on LSD, and the crowd mimics him. These guys aren’t fucking around.
Formed in 2001, the Mars (sci-fi planet of choice, god of war) Volta (director Federico Fellini’s term for a scene change) has put out two major albums, both concept pieces laced with death. De-Loused in the Comatorium deals with the suicide of a Texas artist and mentor to the band, while Frances the Mute is based on the fallout from the fatal drug overdose of Volta sound manipulator Jeremy Ward in 2003. One song from … the Mute lasts 32 minutes. Its first segment is called “Tarantism,” a reference to the reputed effects of a tarantula bite. Legend — i.e. Wikipedia — has it that 17th-century Italian peasants would dance wildly to prevent death from tarantism, a phenomenon that may even have spawned the couples dance known as the tarantella. Modern researchers figure the whole thing was just an excuse to get around religious bans on dancing: “Never mind us, priest. Me and my fifty friends, we’re, uh, we’re curing our spider bites.”
Judging from the track list on the eight-song, 78-minute Amputechture, Cedric is still pissed off about religion. References to Jesus, God, extermination, devil worship, and religious killings abound. The song “Meccamputechture” translates as “the study of cutting off pieces from the edifice of religion. In this case, Islam.” Anyone who’s tired of huge fights over the One True God can relate.
Of course, all this heady talk dissolves in the visceral experience of seeing the Mars Volta live. It was hotter than Satan’s armpit in the Phoenix, and people’s faces appeared to be melting.
Nineteen-year-old Petaluma resident Nick Wan waited thirteen hours for tickets. He camped out in front of the nearby Heebe Jeebe General Store to be first in line, and said it was worth every moment. “AFI and Green Day played the Phoenix when they were nobodies, but mostly we get local bands,” he said. “I think this is the biggest thing to happen to the place since Hilary Duff two years ago.” His friend Bryan Hernandez, who clutched a psychedelic Mars Volta poster, added: “You just sit there in the balcony and it hits you, ‘I’m seeing the modern-day Led Zeppelin.'”
Many Petaluma fans said they intended to follow the Volta down to Oakland, never mind the old farts the band is opening for. Sausalito houseboat resident Monet Wingate, also nineteen, wished the ninety-minute set had lasted longer. She’d gladly switch the headliner for the opener at the Arena. “I’m not a big Red Hot Chili Peppers fan,” she said. “I liked their old stuff, but now I feel like they’re sellouts. Mars Volta, I just love everything about them. Especially [radio hit] ‘The Widow.'”
Attagirl. Wingate lights another Marlboro Light from a friend, while a local health clinic street team passes out rubbers and lube to little white kids with proto-‘fros. Omar and Cedric are clearly leading a follicular revolution that harks back to the Jimmy Page days.
Up until now, it’s been hard to have squirrelly hair in high school. You either cut it short, or take your chances with the Saved by the Bell “Screech” jokes. These kids could give a crap about what other people think, which again has me feeling good about the future. Watch the Mars Volta crowd and see for yourself. The kids are alright.