By Karen Fletcher
Nigel Schmidt died in front of his class at Melville High school in Kempsey just before 10 a.m. on May 2. The immediate cause of death was a blast from a sawn-off shotgun he carried to school in his sports bag and turned on himself during a double music period.
"Police believe Nigel's problems stemmed from his obsession with US heavy metal band Metallica", reported the papers the next day. "It appears he was into, very much, heavy metal rock music and even satanism", said senior sergeant Gordon Smith of Kempsey police. "He and his friends, they had been talking about death and things like that."
Eighteen months before Nigel Schmidt's death, Justin Weir, another year 10 student from Melville High, hanged himself under a bridge on the Macleay River. He too was influenced by heavy metal music, police said.
Each day in Australia a young man or woman commits suicide. According to John Pilger's A Secret Country, Australia has the highest suicide rate for teenage males recorded anywhere in the world. Many young people know of a peer who has taken their life.
How accurate are the accusations against the infamous and conveniently blamable "heavy metal rock music"?
Aunetta Roberson of Reno, Nevada, brought a legal action against CBS Records, alleging that the music of Judas Priest materially contributed to the death of her son, Ray Belknap. Ray and his friend Jay Vance took a 12-gauge shotgun to a children's playground on December 23, 1985, by turn placed the gun to their heads and pulled the trigger. Ray Belknap died. Jay Vance survived with severe head and facial injuries.
Aunetta Roberson and her born-again Christian attorney argued that the lyrics to Judas Priest's Beyond the Realms of Death and other Priest recordings had induced the suicide pact.
Both Ray Belknap and Jay Vance left school before they turned 16. They were regularly unemployed. At the time of his suicide, Ray was 18 and working as a casual labourer for a local contractor. Jay was 20 and employed in a printing plant. Both came from low-income families and had been physically abused by alcoholic parents and step-parents. Both hated their jobs and were bored with their lives. Their main interests were "doing drugs, drinking beer and music."
Yeah I have left the world behind
I am safe now in my mind
free to speak with my own mind
This is my life this is my life and
I'll decide not you
Keep the world with all its sin
It's not fit for living
— Judas Priest Beyond the Realms of Death
Police officers interviewing Jay in hospital asked him why his best friend would want to kill himself. Unable to speak due to his injuries he drew letters in the air: "Life sucks".
But it was the music, really.
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free
— Metallica "Fade to Black"
What do they mean, "it's the music"?
Do they mean, like the religious fundamentalists in the USA who have bought actions against Judas Priest and CBS Records, that the music has some evil power that compels otherwise happy and well-adjusted kids to get a 12-gauge shotgun and turn it on themselves? Are they talking subliminal demonic chants or messages from Satan which can be heard only when the record is played backwards?
Or do they mean that the lyrics place ideas into the heads of young people which would otherwise never have occurred to them? Ideas which, at another time or for a different person, could just as easily be picked up from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
The popularity of heavy metal does, I believe, reflect anger and bitterness among large numbers of young men and women. The lyrics and the music give vent to emotions and perceptions very real to a generation alienated from their own lives.
For young Australian men, the alienation is compounded by the myth of machismo. As a rule — a very bad rule — Australian boys do not share their emotional problems with each other or with anyone.
In these days of growing youth unemployment, "no future" is not a song lyric, it's a reality. The anger of young people is not an abstract creation of record company executives or servants of Satan, though the execs are not likely to turn down a chance to make a buck out of anything.
This is not to say suicide is a sensible or heroic response to feelings of anger and alienation. There is an alternative, though it's not offered by the born-agains, psychologists or the commercial media. That is to organise, at school, in the dole queue and at work, so that we build a future where there is currently none.
The lives of Nigel Schmidt, Justin Weir, Ray Belknap, John McCollum, Michael Walker and countless others deserve more than the easy answer: "It was the music". n