It was the lead pencil that first brought heavy metal into my life, although it was never the core, but the exterior coating of yellow paint that was the problem. The yellow coating, was outlawed in the late 1970’s, after entire generations of pencil chewing children who are now adults, were exposed to the toxic poison. The repercussions of that lead ingestion are thought to be contributing and augmenting to this day many of the health issues faced by those individuals. Lead paint on toys is still not unheard of with a national recall of toys from China headlining the news in 2007. Lessons can be hard to learn.
My second exposure to heavy metal was the rock band Black Sabbath, but that is another kind of story. With lead singer Ozzy Osbourne singing songs full of melancholy and foreboding, Sabbath’s music was full of allusions to the occult, the magical and mysterious, political protest and warnings about the dangers of substance abuse. It was the perfect soundtrack to my teenage life at that time; dark, and filled with feelings of alienation and suppressed anger at the politics of the world iced with the social repression I felt. Throughout my high school years, bullied for most of it and called a faggot half of it, I knew pretty much every riff and song by heart.
I was riveted by the image of the witch on the cover of their debut album and the dark brooding music. The songs ‘Paranoid’, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘War Pigs’ with its antiwar message on their follow-up record, are still some of my all-time favorites. I was tripping right along with Ozzy on ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ and coughing on bong hits with ‘Sweet Leaf’. Hard to come to any critical acclaim, Black Sabbath’s history of heavy drug and alcohol use is reflected in the songs they sing. Just when they seemed to be reaching a pinnacle, they were nearing an end. The period of time between the recordings of the two albums ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and ‘Sabotage’ to ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and ‘Never Say Die’ saw the band die. Too much coke, too many drugs, too much alcohol.
When listened to, with an ear to the tragedy that was unfolding in the band member’s lives, the music on these records finds meaning in a layered context much like the geological strata of the Earth beneath my feet. It would take many more years before I finally met a drug that would kick my ass and when I did the kick was delivered because of arrogance in thinking there wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Some lessons are hard to learn.
Lead based and other toxic paint was used for centuries and many artists are believed to be victims of their usage. Highly toxic heavy metals like cadmium and lead are still used to manufacture paint today, but the practice has declined. If I were so inclined do so they are available although concentrations have often been reduced and warning labels are lawfully in place. I no longer need to die to paint, nor do I bother heedlessly or needlessly with drugs or alcohol these days. Some lessons can be learned.
The terrestrial world beneath my feet holds a world of wonders. A rich biomass of soil filled with water, gases, organic solids and minerals held together by the secretions of various bacteria. The ground beneath my feet is a living world, where roots and microbes exist in tandem with members of the animal kingdom. It is also the source of heavy metals.
For a metal to be heavy, its density must be at least five times heavier than that of water and have a high atomic weight. Trace elements, they can be found throughout the Earth’s crust. Some metals are essential. Required for various physiological and biochemical functions, a lack of these micro-nutrients can result in deficiency diseases or syndromes.
Glancing at a Periodic Table, there are many metals unfamiliar, but others stand out as elements heavily mined and are used in domestic and medical applications, in industry and agricultural. Due to human activity, heavy metals are now widely dispersed in the environment posing risks of toxicity to all lifeforms. There has been such a rapid rise in the obtaining and use of these ions, global contamination has become a great concern and risk of human exposure increasingly high. Toxicity can be dependent on many factors, not with-standing, the health, age and gender of those exposed. Species as well as exposure type also play a role and metal ions can interact with DNA and cells leading to damage and carcinogenic effects. Heavy metals are also coveted and it seems somehow fitting that among the poisons are counted some of the most prized of all, gold, silver, nickel and platinum. It could be a modern anthem; in pencil or in paint, in the name of rock and roll, in the pursuit of wealth, power and beauty, heavy metals permeate our lives and accompany the rise and fall of the mighty.