THE MASTODON BEARD
[Writer and musician Tres Crow comes to us from the excellent blog Dog Eat Crow, for which I just published a Halloween-inspired list of The Top 5 Goriest Metal Album Covers of All Time. What follows is an incredible piece of creative writing written by Mr. Crow based on Mastodon’s Crack the Skye. The first part (“Intro”) is a true recounting of a run-in we had with Brent “Tasmanian Devil” Hinds whilst visiting Atlanta for the Scion Rock Fest. The rest is all culled from the twisted, Mastodon-induced imaginings of Tres’ own mind. It is long, but worth it. Enjoy! – Ed.]
The Mastodon Beard
By Tres Crow
Before I really get into the meat and potatoes of this thing I think I need to make a little confession: I first became interested in Mastodon primarily because of Brent Hinds’ totally wicked beard. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t any kind of creepy infatuation, like watching him shower through peepholes type of thing, but more like, let’s say, professional admiration, as in one bearded red-headed dude to another.
You see I am a man of relatively modest bearded means, and though in my chosen field of Banking I am considered a rebel for wearing facial hair so defiantly against accepted business attire and hygiene, when I first saw the tarantula legs Mr. Hinds was sporting from his chin I was totally awed.
Let me break this first meeting down for you: I’m standing in a tiny hole in the wall bar in Atlanta with the esteemed moderators of this very blog, Mssrs. Neilstein and Rosenberg, a bar which has this night been totally taken over by Metal fans of every shape and size on account of the Scion Metal Fest. I’m sipping a beer and feeling extraordinarily out of place in my bright blue rain jacket and neatly trimmed rebel-Banker beard and I keep eyeing all the khaki military jackets and black band shirts and ferocious, tousled facial mats with a mixture of wariness and wonder. Clearly I am in the midst of something extraordinary, beard-wise; from wall to wall there is the most amazing array of goatees, full-on Hemingway bushes, twisty oriental spires descending like stalactites several inches, handlebars like the Hulk used to wear (still does apparently), faces that seem to grow out from the beards instead of the other way around. Hell, there is even the occasional mustache sprinkled through the crowd for good measure. I mean, basically, the place is like a veritable Beard Convention and we’re all milling about, drinking beers and shuffling feet and exclaiming loudly about one thing or another, everyone with the unmistakable posture of someone waiting for something. It’s like we’ve all come together for a purpose that maybe not everyone even realizes what it is yet, but there’s definitely this feeling of purposeful waiting, of expectation.
And then it happens, what we’ve all been waiting for without even really knowing it. Like some kind of verbal version of the wave a rumor starts to spread throughout the tiny place: Brent Hinds is here. I crane my neck to get a glimpse of this Brent guy even though I’m not really even certain who he is.
Vince, understanding that I’m probably a little out of the loop leans over and fills me in, “Brent Hinds’s the guitar player from Mastodon”
“Ahh,” I nod. Mastodon. I’ve heard quite a bit about them: Saviors of Prog-Metal, Tool upstarts, Evil side of the proverbial Stoner-rock coin (with Queens of the Stone Age of course being the Good side of the coin), etc, and naturally I start to get a little excited too. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to see a real life rock star in person. I sip beer. The crowd hushes, making the same kind of whispery sounds you’d expect a crowd waiting on the ground below a jumper to make, rippling in some psychic wind like a big flag made of people.
Now I know the analogy is so obvious as to almost be ironic, but let me tell you, for real, after an hour or so of sipped beers and awkwardly shuffled feet, Brent Hinds breaks the suicide-watch silence like a goddamn hairy-tusked-prehistoric beast through a plate of that sugar water shit filmmakers use for panes of glass in movies. As in, like a mastodon in a proverbial china shop, this hairy-faced, barrel-chested monster of a man staggers into the tiny hole in the wall bar and pushes, heedless of anyone who may have made the mistake of standing anywhere near where he wanted to go, to the bar. Beers are served, jovial words are exchanged, more people are pushed out of the way, and then Hinds is standing in the middle of the room, literally both the center of the room and of the room’s attention. With his long, red, matted hair and protuberant, wagging beard he looks Viking-like. He looks like he should be wearing a metal cap with horns protruding from each side of his head. He looks like he should be carrying a shield and mace and ravaging the English countryside, raping and pillaging and burning shit to the ground. In short, in a room full of every possible type of beard, this guy’s beard is the supreme ruler of them all. It waggles and waves and twists and turns and distends from his face like some burning bush of awesomeness, and just generally kicks ass in ways no one else’s beard can really hold a candle to. I rub my chin and grimace at my pathetic face moss.
I lean over to Vince: “I wish I had a beard as awesome as that.”
Brent polishes off both of the beers he’d purchased with a gusto that suggests he knows he’s being watched and then with a ferocious, satisfied grunt he turns to one of the friends who’d accompanied him [High on Fire’s Matt Pike. –Ed.] and just up and clocks the guy in the face. I mean, like right there in the middle of the crowded bar. The effect on the crowd is instantaneous; everyone backs suddenly away from the brawling pair and presses themselves against the walls or empties out into the streets to avoid getting inadvertently pulled into the imbroglio. Tables are knocked over, drinks tip and smash on the cement floor, more fists are thrown, some connecting, some not. Vince and Axl and I are too far inside the bar to do more than retreat to the wall and keep a folding table covered with promotional flyers and cards between the fight and us. I have this vision of Brent lifting his friend above his head and smashing him WWE-style into the folding table. It doesn’t happen. No one tries to break the fight up.
Next to us someone says in a matter-of-fact tone: “He does this shit all the time.”
Then just as suddenly as it started the two dudes just stop fighting, straighten up with wide, drunken grins spread across their Viking-faces, and man-hug right there in front of everybody as if nothing has happened. They lean back, the two friends, and beam at each other like they haven’t seen each other in years. The crowd is too stunned to really say anything or comment on the impromptu sparring, but then just as everyone starts relaxing a little and some people start shuffling back into the bar Brent leans in close to his friend like maybe he’s going to kiss him or something and there’s this really tense moment when everyone watching actually thinks that’s what’s going to happen and you can tell that we’re all really horrified by the prospect of seeing these two hairy dudes kiss, but then Brent at the last minute head butts his friend just above the eye and lets out this howling laugh like, “Ha ha, I got you good,” which seems completely inappropriate to me since he just sucker-head-butted his friend. His beard waggles and writhes as his friend stands up holding his eye, which looks like it’s bleeding a little, but I guess it’s ok because he’s smiling as if Brent just told him a really good joke instead of head butted him when he wasn’t ready. So, well, the head butt more or less gets the brawl started again and before long the two of them have emptied into the street like dueling bears, dragging with them a significant portion of the bar crowd. They yell and howl and punch and scratch and expound unintelligibly.
Then, ten minutes later, they are gone, leaving us all to wonder if it was just a dream.
The Mastodon Beard
Over the course of the next several months after the fight I began to be haunted by Brent’s Beard, the Mastodon Beard, this writhing, flaming, Spanish mossy thumb of facial hair dripping like frozen wax from his Vikingish face, with eyes glowing in the dark recesses of my mind. The Mastodon Beard began to take on this Golden-idolish quality for me, beckoning me terribly from the most unlikely places, calling to me to start good-natured fistfights with my coworkers, my wife, my grandmother. “All in good fun, my friend, all in good fun,” the Mastodon Beard would say with a twinkle deep in its wiry folds, but I knew better. I knew what the Beard wanted.
I began to see the Beard everywhere: on bikers in restaurants, on old ladies playing bridge in the park, on skateboarding kids, on babies grinning like jack-o-lanterns at me from their bassinets. It was horrible; the Beard was stalking me, watching me, trying to bend me to its evil will. I saw it leering from tattoo parlors, waggling ornate, swirling designs at me, beckoning me to come in and get just one…just one tattoo. I saw the Beard on street corners outside liquor stores holding out brown paper bag sleeved liquor bottles out to me as I passed, like Gatorade for marathon runners.
I became more withdrawn. I left the house little except to go to work and the liquor store. I stopped eating. I stopped even watching TV for fear that even there, in that most blessed of American past times, the Beard could reach me.
Then one day, sitting exhausted in my swivel chair at the Bank after another sleepless night and perusing the latest posts on Metalsucks, my branch manager walks up to me and gripping his steaming coffee cup tight asks, “I don’t mean this to put you on the spot or anything, but don’t you think your beard may be a little beyond the Bank’s standards?”
“What are you talk…?” I felt my face and my hand plunged deep into inches of lush, wiry beardness.
I rushed to the bathroom and stared in horror at my reflection. There, on what used to be my beautiful, nubile, rebellious-but-still-Bank-regulation face was the Mastodon Beard, waving and twinkling and mocking me from my own chin and cheeks.
That night, with nowhere else to turn I called up Vince, the only person I inherently trust with beard-related psychological problems. I explained that me and the Mastodon Beard had somehow fused into one, that I could feel myself changing already, I could feel the Mastodon Beard taking over…becoming me.
“There’s only one solution, dude,” Vince said. “You have to meet the Beard on its own territory. You have to face it head on. You can’t run anymore.”
Moments later I had Mastodon’s Crack the Skye downloaded to my mp3 player and went to my bathroom mirror. The Beard waggled from my face, smiled maliciously at me, taunted me. I knew what I had to do; I had to go where the Beard lived, where it drew its power from; I needed to listen to Mastodon records nonstop until I could find the Beard and I could destroy it. Through the tangle of the Beard I could see my mouth drawn and grim, determined. I pressed play.
For a moment everything was still. The music had begun but nothing was happening, even the Beard wasn’t moving. I opened my mouth to speak but before I could the Beard shivered and said, “Alright. Have it your way, then.” And it started to retreat into me, as though my face were sucking the beard into my pores. As the beard retreated into me, there was this sucking sound like water swirling into a drain and the bathroom around me started to break up, as in like a strong, raging wind was literally ripping the bathroom walls and the sink and the mirror into tiny bits of grainy sand and everything became this raging wind and howling and blurred sandstorm.
I couldn’t see anything before or behind me, so strong was the storm, and my hair and clothes whipped about me violently, making snapping, rippling noises as I walked forward. I could hear nothing but the snapping of my clothes and the howling of the wind. Gray, dusty rocks dug into my shoes underfoot. I had this sense that I was on a distant planet; the wind was pinkish-orange in color in the sunlight that filtered somehow through the maelstrom, which reminded me inexplicably of some artist’s rendering of the Venusian surface I’d seen once in a High School science class. I struggled forward in the wind for what seemed like hours, each foot placed in front of the other more difficult than the last.
Then ahead of me a powerful light flickered through the wind and I ran to it, with no concern for what might lie ahead, thinking only of relief from the storm. Out of the gale slowly emerged a massive, stone castle whose spires upon spires rose and piled on one another until they seemed to fuse into a single stone tower, high in the air. The light I’d been following was coming from that tower, and in the storm it looked more distant and weak than it had just moments before.
Before me was a large golden door with ornate sculpted friezes set into its entire gilded surface. I walked to the doors and as I approached they opened inward with a fiendish squeal, revealing a pitch-black throat of a hallway leading into the castle. As soon as I crossed the threshold and the shadows wrapped their cold arms around me, the howling of the wind stopped and everything became hollowly silent. The doors closed behind me with the thunk of heavy, dusty books slamming shut.
I could see nothing except a pale light ahead which drew me forward, my arms flailing about, expecting at any moment to be attacked or tripped or worse. I drew nearer the light at it resolved into an unhealthily glowing mirror with ancient rusty crud crusting its edges. In scrawling, looping letters I could see the word oblivion written at the top of the mirror and I leaned closer, and saw only my reflection. I reached out a hand and touched the surface of the mirror. It was cold glass. I shivered. My face looked ghostly, hollowed out somehow in the reflection, pale and wan.
I asked: “Where am I?”
Behind me a shadowed face with a long, wiry Beard emerged, the top half of which was obscured by darkness.
“You are here,” said the Bearded face. I turned to face the spectre.
All at once it seemed as though every light in the world exploded and I spluttered in my blindness, staggering in circles and shouting that I was lost and I just needed someone to help me. To help. All around I heard the sounds of a boisterous party: clinking plates; loud, mingled voices; chewing; singing; music, thundering in the distance. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the light and I saw that I was on the edge of a vast circular chamber whose ceiling was unfathomably high, obscured in darkness. Everywhere I looked there was a riot of commotion, people eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, talking, singing, playing instruments I didn’t recognize. It was a feast; tables ringed the room in ever-smaller concentric circles, loaded to the very edges with every possible type of food or drink. Nightmarish creatures milled about, meat juices running down their chins, their hands coated with grease. There were men with goat heads, wrapped in togas and laurel wreaths circling their brows; beautiful, shapely, naked women with the beaks of vultures with huge eyes of deepest black; small, rodent-like monsters, which stood on two legs and ferreted about the ground, picking up crumbs and fighting over scraps of bone and meat.
And in the center of it all, set atop a massive throne of skulls was Layne Staley, pale as death, a black sheet draped over his shoulders and dripping to the floor like black water. His eyes were larger than normal, his teeth sharpened to points, a three-tired crown of bone protruded from the top of his skull, beset with rubies and dripping with something brackish, dripping down his face and onto his chest and shoulders. He smiled horribly at the chaos around him, the same mud-like substance vomiting out from between his teeth and down his chin. On either side of him, two of the bird-women held out legs of uncooked and bleeding meat, and goblet of a dark red wine, but he ignored them, scanning the crowd.
I turned on the spot, looking for a way out of this terrible place but there were no doors or passageways into or out of the hall. I was trapped. I melted against the wall, my hands splayed against the cold stone, hoping desperately to blend in but knowing it was hopeless. A massive beast with hairy goat legs distending from a muscular human body bumped into me and glared down at me with its huge, horrible blank eyes.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“You should watch where you’re going,” the goat-creature said.
I nodded in agreement and shuffled along my way, stepping over a few of the oversized rats to a dark area by the band. I pulled at the ear buds dangling from my head, thinking that if I could simply stop the music maybe I would just be like transported back into my bathroom. I was beginning to think maybe I could live with the Mastodon Beard on my face after all. Maybe trying to beat the Beard at its own game hadn’t been the best idea.
The band was pretty much a normal metal ensemble, the kind you’d expect to find back on Planet Earth but instead of humans playing the instruments the band consisted of two bird-people (bass and rhythm guitar), a giant praying-mantis on drums, and a bull-headed man-thing on lead vocals and guitar. They played like the most hellishly awesome sludge metal I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, like the bull-headed thing’s voice literally sounded like two really old gravestones rubbing together, and the praying mantis drummer really took advantage of the extra six or so legs, playing bass drum blasts that just wouldn’t’ve been possible without them.
I cowered at the edges of the moshpit that swirled and roiled in front of them, trying to not get my arms ripped out of their sockets (which seemed to be a horribly common occurrence), letting the washes of machine-gun metal rip through me.
Suddenly from behind me I heard a whispered voice: “Don’t stay; run away. He has ordered assassination.”
I turned and a bird-woman was stooping down to look at me, her large black eyes blank and endlessly deep. Sparkles of torch flame glittered in the blackness. She was naked and but for her vulture beak, creepy eyes, and inhumanly tall stature, I might have found her sort of attractive given the perfectly round breasts and butt. It seemed kind of a waste, honestly, to have such a beautiful body attached to a vulture head.
“Beg your pardon,” I said. Somehow there was fear showing in those unfathomable eyes.
“Don’t stay; run away. The henchmen have gathered in waiting. Run away. Your role as usurper has been found.”
I shrugged and looked as innocent as I possibly could: “I think you got the wrong guy, honestly. I have no plans to usurp anything, except maybe some of that wine over there.” I pointed at the nearest feasting table, but the joke was lost on the bird-woman. She grabbed my upper arm and tried to drag me away.
“You must escape into the black of the night,” she said as she dragged me. She was really very strong and there was something kind of sexy about the way she pulled and prodded me to move.
It took a long time for me to realize the music had stopped, but the silence of the room slowly occurred to me, almost like the silence had like faded in or something. Both the bird-woman and me stopped short and looked around, my heart sinking like a slug down through my stomach to my shoes. All eyes were on us, frozen like statues, the bird-woman’s hand gripping my arm so hard I could feel her nails pinching into my skin. Layne Staley looked down at us from his skulled throne, his black eyes indecipherable, his mouth twisted as a scar on his face. He straightened and when he spoke his voice was like lava burbling through stony cracks.
“Bring them to me,” Layne Staley said and two big goat-men grabbed the bird-woman and me and dragged us with strong hands to the feet of Staley’s throne. “Did you think you could get away with this?” I assumed he was addressing me, although since he had no pupils it was a little hard to determine.
I stammered: “As I was just explaining to, umm, to…” I looked at the bird-woman for some prompting as to her name but she was trembling with fear and murmuring some prayer, “…to this young lady, I think you may be mistaken. I, honestly, I mean, I don’t really know where I am right now…”
“Bullshit!” shouted Staley. Out of the corner of my eye I could see this big bovine creature bent over in the corner, frozen terrified in the act of crapping. Staley hadn’t seen the creature; he was responding to me. “I know why you’re here. You’ve come to supplant me.”
“I think you might have been given some bad information…”
“No, you are mistaken. I have been told this by the wisest of all creatures,” and then Staley sort of turned his head around to look at this shadow crouched on the headrest behind him. I squinted to see. Out from the shadow of his bony crown the Mastodon Beard slithered onto Staley’s shoulder and whispered something quietly into his ear. I pointed an accusatory finger at the Beard. The bird-woman next to me cowered and murmured even more fiercely.
“You,” I said, filled with indignant rage. “You son of a bitching pile of whistling pubes! You’re telling lies about me!? To Layne Staley of all people!? What treachery! What base fucking treachery! This is bullshit, and you know that Mastodon Beard! Bullshit!”
Again the cow-man froze mid-poo. Staley stood suddenly and he looked terrible with his crown of bones and that lying piece of trash, Mastodon Beard, on his shoulder. “Do not use that kind of language in my castle! You are a guest in my home and I will not have you speaking that way around my friends.” He gestured around the room at all the bird-people and goat-people and finished with a sly smile at the Beard. I swear it looked like Mastodon Beard was grinning mischievously at me, and winking. I fumed.
“If I’m a guest, then why haven’t I been offered anything to eat or drink?” I asked, hoping to divert Staley’s attention from all this usurper business. He stroked his goatee and looked thoughtfully askance, but the Beard whispered something in his ear and Staley’s face lit up with comprehension.
“Well, that’s your own fault. Have I not laid everything out for you? Have my other guests not eaten and drunk all they desire?”
“Certainly. But I just arrived, and all I was doing was standing listening to that extraordinary sludge metal band over there…what’s their name?”
“Yes, Remission, and so over there I was politely minding my own business and listening to the truly extraordinary band, Remission, when you had your thugs here drag me away, and then you accusing me of usurping and all of this funny business. Well, I’ve gotta be honest, Mr. Staley, I must protest at the way I’ve been treated.”
I felt like maybe I was getting the rhetorical upper hand in the situation; Staley had sort of a vacant expression and I could see the gears working in his head, trying to find a way around my accusation. The Mastodon Beard looked from me to him and I could tell by the way the Beard’s little beardy legs trembled that it was growing frustrated with the debate. The Beard slunk closer to Staley’s face and then, faster than Staley could react, it sort of wriggled into his ear and then reemerged out of his facial pores, as a fully-fledged Staley Beard. Staley’s face instantly became enraged, terrible to behold, full of righteous anger, filled with the unfathomable rage of the Mastodon Beard.
“You dare question my authority!?” he screamed and all the goat-people trembled.
“I, um, well, no, sir. All I was saying was that I was really enjoying Remission’s set, and I think that there may be some sort of misunderstanding betwixt the two of us.”
“NO! I never misunderstand anything! Tsarina has warned of the danger!”
“Who’s Tsarina…?” I tried, but I knew it was a lost cause by the way Staley’s nostrils flared above the Mastodon Beard. He roared and raged, and waved his arms all around him. All the tables tipped over and goat-people fled the room in all directions, disappearing through doors that had heretofore been invisible. The bird-woman next to me tried to slink away too but Staley-Mastodon Beard pointed at her and some of his henchmen renewed their grip on her. She screamed.
“Please! Please! I’ve had no part in this!” she cried, falling to her bony knees.
“No!” The henchmen pulled on her arms at the same time and they were ripped from the sockets. Blood splattered the stone and my face. The bird-woman screamed this horrible inhuman scream and then was silenced forever when one of the henchmen twisted her head off her body like a bottle top. I flinched as more blood flew over my head. Staley’s cold eyes fell on me, and the henchmen moved to either side. He smiled cruelly and his pointed teeth were stained with blood. The Beard waggled and waved.
“Your role as usurper has been found out.”
“Enough. The punishment for usurpation is death.”
“But since you haven proven too dangerous for Death to even stop I have determined a worse punishment for you.”
“Worse than death?” I asked.
“Yes, worse than death. I banish you henceforth to eternity in the Pit of Endless Despair.” The henchmen on either side of me quailed and murmured darkly to each other. I heard a squeak come from the cow-man who was still dropping a deuce over by the wall.
“How long will I have to be there?” I asked.
“Eternity. I just said that. Weren’t you listening to me?”
“I must’ve missed that part. So…”
“No more talking! You have been sentenced. But I am not a cruel master. I will offer you one last condolence. You may ask Remission to play one last song for you. Any song.”
“Hmmm. Well, you know I haven’t heard ‘Anything Jesus Can Do I Can Do Better’ by The Locust in a really long time. I’d like to hear that.”
The lead singer of Remission shook his great Bull head and waved off my request, “No, no, no, we don’t have any keyboards. Can’t do that song.”
“But…Layne Staley said…” I grumbled.
The Bull was indignant, “The keyboard noise-thing is integral to the apocalyptic sound of The Locust, can’t do it without the keyboards. I pride myself on technical proficiency and accuracy above all else with my cover songs…”
“Stop bickering!” shouted Staley. “I can take care of this.” He snapped his fingers and suddenly Geddy Lee appeared with a wicked looking black keyboard and dark sunglasses, his hair parted and falling in waves around his nose. “There.”
The band, newly outfitted with a very proficient keyboard player indeed, played my song and when they were finished Staley stood above me and waved his arms regally in the air.
“You have plotted to usurp my throne as King of Blood Mountain and as punishment you are banished to the Pit of Endless Despair. May you find lots and lots to despair there. Good bye.”
The floor below me widened into a vast, bloody maw and as I fell into the pit I saw the Mastodon Beard sort of do this taunting little waggle at me, a twinkle in its proverbial eye.
“Yooooooouuuuuuu Baaaaassstaaaaard!!!” I yelled at the Beard as I fell down down down down into complete darkness. I fell for a long time until it stopped feeling like I was falling at all, and I sort of just felt like I was floating in the air. Wind whistled passed me but I had no concept of time or distance in the blackness. After awhile I stopped even really being afraid because, I mean, there’s really only so long one can fall into a vast pit and scream in terror without hitting the bottom of the pit before it becomes a little bit boring to just keep screaming. So, instead I just turned my attention to the music still blasting through my ear buds.
It occurred to me that Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher have really outdone themselves in the intricate-guitar category on this album. I mean some of these licks are simply wicked sick and I almost have a hard time believing human beings actually played these parts. Then, as I was thinking about how awesome the guitar work on Crack the Skye is, I noticed that the pit had started to lighten up a bit and I could see the walls very far off in the distance. The pit was something like three or four football fields wide at this point and they looked ridged and red, almost like intestines piled on top of one another. Below me I could see the flat, red stone of the floor rushing to meet me and I could almost like feel the miles and miles of compressed air pressing up against me as I prepared in vain for impact.
The Pit of Endless Despair
Hitting the ground didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I thought; it was more like falling off a chair onto new shag carpeting, but still I banged my funny bone and as I sat up rubbing my arm I saw a pair of torn-jeaned legs walking toward me. A hand with calloused fingertips reached out for me.
“Please, please take my hand,” said a gruff voice and I obeyed and was lifted roughly to my feet. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Who are you?” I asked, looking at the owner of the voice. He was tallish with shaggy red hair and he was wearing one of those tuxedo-shirts. He was clean-shaven and he compulsively rubbed his face as though surprised to find no hair there.
“I would think you would know that,” the red-haired man said, smiling sadly. “You’re listening to my album, after-all.”
Suddenly it dawned on me; I hadn’t recognized him without his beard: “Brent Hinds? Holy shit, what are you doing here?”
“It’s a long story, bro. D’you like the Game of Life?”
I marveled at how bizarro Brent looked without the beard. He looked like that bald bear from The Great Outdoors after it gets the hair blown off its ass.
“Sure. I guess. They have that game down here?”
“Yeah, of course. They got just about everything: Monopoly, Boggle, Trouble. Hell, they’ve even got Hungry, Hungry Hippos, but Ozzy says that shit gives ‘im the heebie jeebies.”
“Ozzy Osbourne is down here too!?” My mind was literally blowing a gasket.
“Why the hell do they call this the Pit of Endless Despair then? I mean, getting to hang with you and Ozzy fuckin Osbourne for the rest of eternity, what’s so despairing about that?”
“You obviously haven’t spent that much time with the Oz-Man,” Hinds chuffed to himself a little but his eyes looked, well, a little despairing, honestly. “No, I think the name is more because it sounds cool. In case you didn’t notice Staley’s a little insecure about his whole terrible-Undead-King thing and so he has a tendency to use a lot of superlatives when he names things, or tells stories and stuff. I kind of feel bad for the guy, honestly. I would say this place is more like the Pit of Endless Boredom.”
“But you have all these board games…?”
“Yeah but Ozzy’s not much for games. I tried playing Scrabble with him once and about the ninth time he tried playing the word ‘mghyg’ I smashed those little round glasses of his and ever since he’s been kind of a bitch about playing games with me.”
“Hmmm. That sucks. So what happened to your beard?” I asked, then added: “You know I have a bone to pick with that thing; it told Layne Staley I was trying to usurp his throne or something like that…”
“Yeah, that sounds about right. That fuckin beard, man. That thing is trouble,” Hinds sighed and then kind of waved vaguely over toward the corner. “Here, let’s play a game and I’ll tell you the whole story. I think we might be able to help each other.”
We sat down on these two pink humps that rose out of the ground on either side of a table where a board was set up.
“What color car you wanna be?” asked Hinds.
“Blue, I guess.”
“No blue, only shades of black down here. You want Midnight Black, Satin Black, Gangrene Black…?”
“Isn’t black actually the absence of color?”
“The fuck you talking about? You makin fun of me?”
“No, not at all. Just trying to be semantically correct.”
“Hmm, well, you just take Superman’s-hair black. It’s the bluest of them all, I guess.” We spun the wheel to see who would go first and after some doling out of responsibilities Hinds started to tell his tale. “So, I met the Beard about, I dunno, eight years ago at this basement club in Alabama. It was dangling from some pathetic fucker’s face like a limp rag, drinkin double shots of Wild Turkey and just generally being pathetic as fuck. I dunno why, but I just struck up this conversation with it and found out that it’d been on this dude’s face for nearly 20 years, ever since like David Lee was with Van Halen. It’d joined up with the dude back then because he was the drummer in a wicked speed metal group called Kiss of the Lightning and everything looked like they were really going places. But then, you know, the normal shit, the singer got lung cancer from huffing paint and the guitar player got thrown in jail for screwing some 16 year old girl on tour, and before the drummer and Beard knew it Kiss of the Lightning was up shit creek and, according to the Beard, the drummer dude never really recovered. He’d spent like the last 15 years drinking whiskey and fucking anything with teased blond hair, man or woman.
“I told the Beard I was in a band back in Atlanta and told him all about Mastodon and the kind of Thrash/Hard Rock/Punk/Sludge-fusion thing we were doing and that things were starting to kind of pick up for us. And the Beard just sort of listened and I didn’t really notice at the time, but there was definitely this twinkle in the damn thing’s eyes. I mean, I know a beard don’t have no eyes, but, you know, there was something, deep down. It scared me but also intrigued me.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re talking about,” I said, thinking of the improbable look the Beard had given me as I’d fallen in the Pit.
“Well, anyway, so I kicked the pathetic drummer guy’s ass in for good measure. You know, just for being a pathetic fuck. He deserved it.” Hinds paused as if reflecting on past ass kickings for a moment. “So I get back to ATL a couple days later and like every morning I shave but by noon I have a wicked 5-o-clock shadow, and after a few days of this shit I have to like shave five, six times a day to get rid of all the hair. Finally I just get sick of shaving so I let the thing grow and by about midnight that night, right before we got this really important show opening for Neurosis I’m looking in the mirror and I see it, there on my face, the goddamn same beard I’d seen on the pathetic fuck back in ‘Bama, only the Beard looks kind of badass on me. And the Beard like looks at me and it says, ‘Brent, listen, I know I didn’t exactly ask permission, but I think I can help you. Your band really kicks ass but there’s something missing. You need something. Something only I can provide.’ So I just go along with it and before I know it I’m like storming around the dressing room slamming bottles of Wild Turkey and doing lines off some goth chick’s stomach and then I go out on stage and, I can’t explain it, I just turned into this wild beast on stage and by the time we were done, people’s faces had literally like started to melt off their skulls. Right there in the crowd…like off their skulls in little puddles on the floor.
“So for like the next few years me and the Beard were literally inseparable and things just got better and better for the band. We got write-ups everywhere. We got great fuckin tours, Leviathan was considered one of the best records of the year. You know things were going real good. But then we won that goddamn Grammy and things started to get really weird after that. I dunno, I think the Beard just started to get a big head, figuratively speaking of course, after that because it started doing some really fucked up stuff. It made me start putting lamb’s head on the band rider for shows, and not like cooked lamb’s head, but raw, bloody lamb heads. It was gross. It started making me get naked and chase Troy around the dressing rooms screaming, ‘Snake in the grass! Snake in the grass!’ It made me start requiring all interviews to be conducted topless. I mean, it was just one crazy thing after another, and the worst was I was completely helpless to stop it.
“One night I got so desperate I just shaved the damn thing off and I looked down at its crumpled, shaved body in the sink and it looked up at me and said, ‘You’ll pay for this you ungrateful son of a bitch. I made you. You’re nothing without me.’ And of course, like two days later it grew back and was meaner than fuckin ever. A couple weeks later, after the VMAs it just went berserk and took me over completely and that’s when I got in that fight with the dude from System of a Down.
“The next thing I know I’m in a coma, and the Beard’s imprisoned me here in the Pit of Endless Despair and it’s completely taken me over. And the rest of the Mastodon guys didn’t even suspect a thing because as far as they knew I was always this drunk asshole, you know? They had no idea that it was the Beard running the show the whole time; that I was just a slave to the Beard. So here I was, trapped in this pit and listening as they wrote and recorded Crack the Skye with this fuckin imposter posing as me, and the whole time Troy and Bill are like congratulating the Beard about how good its playing is and about how awesome this fuckin record is gonna be, and I have to just sit by and listen as they slob on this imposter’s knob and lavish him with the most bullshit praise. It was driving me batshit.”
“So you’ve really been in here since like 2007? And the Beard has been running the show the whole time? Recording albums, doing interviews, making an ass of itself…you…whatever?” I asked.
“Bullshit, ain’t it?”
“Yeah it is,” I said.
Hinds stroked his hairless chin and studied the game board. “I think I just picked up a couple of kids,” he said and I gave him a few pegs to put in his Gangrene Black car.
“So, how exactly does the Oz-man fit into all of this?”
“Fit? I dunno. He just showed up one day. ‘Bout two months ago.”
“But…I don’t get it. Has Ozzy ever even had a beard? I mean, how the hell did he get imprisoned by the Beard if like he’s been beardless for all of his career?”
“Zakk Wylde. Apparently the Beard has a cousin. They share the pit.”
“Ahhh.” I nodded and spun the wheel, picking up a good lawyering career on the turn. “So you’ve just been down here hanging for two years…?”
“You see, that’s just it. That’s why it’s so crazy you actually showed up, because I haven’t just like been sitting down here all helpless and shit. I’ve been up to some mischief of my own, see?”
“No, not really…”
“Ok, like, here’s the deal. While the band was recording Crack the Skye there was this moment when the Beard was working on a vocal in, I think ummm it was, ‘Divinations’ and he was fuckin up the vocal so bad I just like got so mad I started going crazy down here, just screaming and yelling and cursing the gods and everything, and the messed up thing is that the Beard actually started like screaming what I was screaming. That’s when I realized a couple of things: number one, that this pit, this Pit of Endless Despair, is actually inside my own mind…”
“…That makes total sense, that’s why I thought the walls looked like intestines. But it wasn’t intestines, it was brains…”
“…Yeah, exactly. You and me and Ozzy are, right now, inside my brain. Well anyway, like the second thing I realized was that because I was trapped inside myself, I still had some control over my body, but only when I really concentrated or got really mad or excited. It required a moment of total single-mindedness to take control of the ship, if you will.”
“So, why haven’t you just thought really hard and kicked the Beard’s ass?” I asked.
“I don’t have the strength for it, not to keep him at bay for the time it would take to regain complete control. I’m just not strong enough. But the thing is, once I knew I could regain control, even if for only a few seconds, I came up with this plan. Well actually I got the idea from Ozzy because, turns out, that crazy fucker figured out how to escape the pit decades ago but he just keeps coming back to get away from Sharon for awhile. Apparently she’s been a real bitch since this whole America’s Got Talent shit started. But anyway, Ozzy like told me a few months back that all you gotta do to get out of this place is get the Beard to insert a code word into one of your recordings and then once the song is released you just have to sing the word and…there you are…you’re free. I guess it’s kind of like in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy clicks her heels.
“But anyway, so what I did was in the middle of recording ‘The Last Baron’ I got the Beard to insert this like really obvious line: ‘Will he save me?’ I mean the damn thing repeats like ten times or something so I figured that would be more than enough to get me the hell out of here. But you wanna know what the fuckin thing was?”
“Sure,” I said.
“The Oz-man forgot to tell me that this lyric shit only works that easily when you’re being possessed from afar. You see, Ozzy’s been possessed all this time by Zakk Wylde’s beard, not his own, so all he has to do is click his heels and sing some lyric from ‘Mama, I’m Coming Home’ and bam! he’s back in his mansion getting bossed around by Sharon again. But when I tried the same thing, nothing happened.”
“That sucks, man,” I said and clapped Hinds on the shoulder, commiserating. “So…I guess we’re both like stuck here then, eh?”
He smiled suddenly and shook his head: “No. That’s just it. You see I never even thought of the possibility that someone else would find me here.” He gestured at the vast black and red pit we were in and continued, “I mean come on, I’m at the bottom of the Pit of Endless Despair in the middle of my own mind. I don’t even want to know what sort of fucked up magical shit brought you here, but I think you just might be the key to getting me out.”
“Well, you aren’t possessed by the Beard…not really. It’s sort of been fucking with you because you looked like such a pussy at that bar a few months back—I mean come on, that blue rain jacket was really pussified. Does your wife dress you?”
“Fuck man, I knew it…Well anyway, the gist is that the Beard is really attached to me, not you.”
“I don’t understand…”
Hinds smacked me upside the head and looked impatient, “Come on, college boy. Pay attention? Because you aren’t possessed the damn beard doesn’t have any real power to hold you here. So I think if you sing the lyrics I put into place we both might be able to escape. You see you were brought here against your will, not because you wanted the Beard for yourself. You never had any intention of using the Beard for your own personal gain. I mean you work in a bank and you have a wife and child; you’d never have anything to gain by using such an incredible beard. You were awed by the Beard, but here’s the key, you never had any intention of using it. You were a stronger man than me.”
“Aww, you don’t mean that, dude. I’m not stronger than anybody.”
“No, I was weak. I was drawn in by the Beard’s promises of metal domination. This is what I get for believing the lies of a transient clump of talking facial hair, ya know?” The two of us sat in ruminative silence for a few moments and then Hinds gripped my wrist and said, “You ready to go?”
“Yeah now. We don’t have much time.”
“But…” I started, but before I could say anything Ozzy suddenly emerged from the darkness.
“Mdfhsdj kjsd khdkshdksd,” he said. “Wha’ y’ do’n, Hinds y’ f’k’n pussy-masfjdkfbdsieoncbjsdhksadhfi?”
“Not now, Ozzy,” said Hinds. He looked agitated. “Get outta here.”
“There’s on’y tw’n’y f’k’n yards in th’ place. Where th’ ‘ell ‘m I s’pose ta go, y’ f’k’n bastard?”
“Ozzy, Jesus, man. Speak English.”
“Who’s th’ bloke?”
“Name’s Tres, sir. It’s a real honor…” I moved toward Ozzy with my hand outstretched.
“Please don’t encourage him? We gotta get going,” said Hinds grabbing my hand and spinning me around.
“Where y’ go’n?”
“We’re getting out of here…” I said and Hinds shot me a nasty look and punched me in the arm.
“Brilliant. ‘Bout time I git the ‘ell out’a ‘ere too. Me mum prol’y won’rin where I am.”
“Alright, whatever. Let’s just make this quick,” said Hinds, red faced and clearly irritated by Ozzy’s insistence on hitching a ride.
The three of us stood in a circle facing one another.
“What do I need to do?” I asked. Hinds rubbed his beardless face and looked thoughtful.
“You just need to click your heels and sing three times, ‘Will he save me’.”
“Do I have to sing it?”
“Just fuckin do it.”
“Alright, alright.” I clicked my heels and sang the lyric and on the third time we were suddenly thrown in the air, and the wind rushed passed us and whipped our hair in all directions. I heard a terrible scream, a string of obscenities and words I hadn’t even heard of but which didn’t sound very pleasant at all; it sounded like the walls themselves were screaming.
“No, no, he’s escaping.”
We moved even faster and above us a bright spotlight, like the coming of a train, grew larger and larger until I had to brace myself for the impact. There was screaming. The sound of breaking glass and choking and vomit splattering on floors filled my ears. I realized I was the one screaming.
And then everything went quiet and white. I was cold, blind. I opened my eyes and squinted into the brightness of the small, brilliantly white room I was in. I sat up, clutching my aching ribs, and leaned against the wall. Opposite me was a massive mirror and I looked at my reflection. I was bruised and bloodied. I was dressed all in white and blooms of blood splotched my clothes. But I wasn’t alone; there on my face was the Mastodon Beard, waggling its streamers of hair at me.
I recoiled: “No! But I freed us? I escaped…”
The Beard laughed, a sad laugh, it was the sound of birds being scrunched under foot. “No, you have been deceived, my naïve child. You were all too eager to believe someone whom you admired. You couldn’t possibly conceive of the great Brent Hinds lying to you. You never thought for one instant that his story might not be true.”
“What are you talking about…?”
“You are an idiot, my boy. You were deceived. Several years ago I imprisoned Brent because he was a danger to himself and to his friends. I imprisoned him for his own good, and the good of the world. You see Brent possesses the Power of Shred so potently that it could destroy everything we call good and beautiful in this world. When I met him in that bar in Alabama I recognized this power in him immediately and decided to keep a closer eye on him. As you will see it was very fortunate that Brent beat up my previous owner because it allowed me to abandon him and attach myself to Brent.
“For awhile everything was fine because his penchant for getting wasted and fighting people for no reason was more than enough to keep his power hidden and untapped. But somewhere around Leviathan he began to realize his potential for destruction and began to experiment with more great and terrible guitar licks. Once Blood Mountain was released I knew the situation was dire; I needed to step in or the world would be nothing more than a burnt coal floating around the sun. So when Brent got in that fight with the guy from System of a Down I knew my opportunity had come. I imprisoned Brent in his own mind, took over his body, and helped steer Mastodon in a more progressive, lyrical direction, thereby averting a horrible, burning hell on Earth.”
“Then why am I here now? What do you want with me?” I asked, weak and sick of being lied to.
“You are here because you are too trusting. I am here because I made one fatal mistake: I allowed that no good cousin of mine hanging off of Zakk Wylde to use Brent’s mind to let Ozzy Osbourne take temporary breaks from consciousness. At the time I had no idea how much Ozzy knew about the mystical connection between man and beard. I mean, he’s never had a beard, you know? But he knew too much and he told Brent the one way to break my spell: to get another man to forcefully take me as his own. That was why he had me write those lyrics in ‘The Last Baron’; that was why he had you sing those lyrics. That was why he tricked you into coming into the Pit of Endless Despair.” The Beard was solemn, and there was a sadness I’d never seen in his whiskers before.
“He tricked me? But it was you…?” I protested.
“No, it was Brent the whole time. It was smoke and mirrors. He was more powerful than even I’d imagined. He used me to get to you.”
“So, you are my new master and Brent is free to play whatever wickedness occurs to him. I would imagine the world doesn’t have much longer now; he’s already had 12 hours to write and record while you were passed out.”
“I had no idea. My God what have I done…?” I was horrified. The weight of all those lives that would be snuffed out in the coming weeks weighed on me like sacks of something heavy and dead. I looked around at the small, bright white room and asked, “But where are we now?”
The Beard merely waggled its whiskers pathetically and said, “We’re inside you. This is your Pit of Endless Despair.”
I looked at my reflection and at the anguish of the Mastodon Beard.
“A mirror?” I asked.
Tres invites you to scratch his beard at Dog Eat Crow.