The Autoethnography: Ten Examples
Tony Gorta is the artist for a metal band. He has long red-blond hair, hair that comes down past his shoulders and ends in ringlet curls a hairdresser would spend hours just trying to replicate. He’s thin—wiry almost—and grandly tall, standing at 6’4”. His glasses, rimmed with thin wire, slide halfway down his nose and rest there, as though the contours of the fixture were molded just to hold them in place. His eyes are wide and glassy, a gorgeous teal color that’s repeated in his shirt, which is every color. The shirt is pinstriped and buttoned up, evocative of a psychedelic poster. His skin is a chalky white and almost all covered, with the exception of his hands and face. He wears Doc Martens, the kind that only go up to the ankle and could be mistaken for regular dress shoes if not for the signature yellow threading along the outsole. The dark denim of his jeans is patched only in one place, right under the front left pocket, “It’s because I lit them on fire,” he tells me, for the fourth time. The first time he told me was the night I met him, on the edge of the water on the Upper East Side at four in the morning. The second time was on a subway to Brooklyn, and the third time just a bit earlier this very night in a sparsely populated diner. He’s very proud of the incident, as it’s very edgy to set one’s own pants on fire. He’s even more proud that he sewed up the pants himself. The band that Tony is the artist for is the recently signed Manhattan-based metal band called Steel Paradise. “I met Christian through Moise and I met Moise in high school,” he explains. We’re sitting on a bus stop on a Tuesday night, lit by the passing cars and street lights, and I am asking him questions. “That was when Moise still had his afro,” he continues, as though I should remember this seemingly important nugget of information that apparently divides Moise’s entire life into Before Afro, During Afro and After Afro. His left arm lays across his lap, fingers curled around a cigarette the way a pencil might be grasped. His legs are crossed and he’s slouched over, just slightly. Tony went to LaGuardia High School for the Arts, where he met a whole slew of eccentric ruffians which he can, and will, talk about for hours. Mostly he likes to talk about the ones that he smoked with before he got arrested, but also he likes to talk about the ones that he gave baby animal themed nicknames to. Moise Scott, who Tony has taken to calling “Mouse,” is a muscular 6’2” musical performance major who plays drums for Steel Paradise. In high school he played the flute. Christian Realmuto is the lead guitarist of Steel Paradise, and probably the only person I’ve ever met who is taller than Tony. The three of them are a bit frightening upon first glance, but after you’ve seen them talk about baby animals for twenty minutes the hardcore metal aesthetic doesn’t seem quite as intimidating.
Christian is the center of Steel Paradise, and is thus the center of the local community that has risen around it. Steel Paradise, according to Moise Scott (sans afro), started as a project of Christian’s in middle school. “Yeah he was like, ‘I’m really serious about learning guitar,’” Scott says as he flips a pancake on the stove of his mother’s Washington Heights apartment. He’s making me breakfast while we talk. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever Christian, because I know Christian isn’t serious about shit. But I went along with it and I guess he kind of was because we’re still doing it.” He wrenches the pancake out of the pan and unceremoniously drops it onto an empty ceramic plate. “I knew Christian for a while because he was friends with my best friend in elementary school.” Moise goes on to explain the complex intricacies of elementary school social circles, taking care to explain the weight of the word “best friend” several times before telling me that they didn’t really become close until they were in high school band together. They both play flute.
The band has changed members several times, and several members have left and come back. The members of the band and the friends and fans that have flocked to it have formed a sort of intimate group that participates in activities centered around the band’s performances and events. Not everyone is directly connected to the band, like Tony, who creates all of their promotional art, or Moise, who is a member of the band. The majority of the people in this group are just fans of the band’s music, actively attend their shows, or are associated with other local metal bands that come into contact with Steel Paradise. Members of this small community include a variety of interesting factions, including “Christian’s Neighbors”, “Art Girls from LaGuardia”, “People Christian Works with at the Deli”, and “People Who Have Dated Someone We Know”, which is probably the largest faction. There is also, always, a small faction of people Steel Paradise is currently dating, the only member of which right now is Emma Montgomery, Christian’s girlfriend.
“Emma is a saint” Tony tells me, sitting all the way back in his seat and looking upward toward the heavens with an expression of ultimate gratitude. Every time someone says that, which is often, it’s always followed by a story about Christian pissing on something.
“One time Christian was pissing on a car and he didn’t check to see if it was empty first—which it wasn’t, there was a family in it—and he’s drunkenly cursing at the top of his lungs and we were all yelling at him and Emma just goes over to him and touches his arm to pull him away—and he just stops!” Tony sighs, leans forward in his seat and kind of smiles, peacefully.Emma has also ignored antics such as the 24” x 36” poster of Megan Fox that is hanging on his wall, his firm stance as a Republican despite his liberal beliefs, his long, uncombed hair, and the fact that his name is also her brother’s name. Emma can stop Christian from doing things that Christian does while he is drunk and for that reason she is the unknowing savior of the Steel Paradise group.
“Emma is a saint,” Moise says, breathlessly, when asked about the subject. He stares blankly into space for a couple of moments, probably recalling horrors unbeknownst to common folk such as you or I, and lets the pancake currently in the skillet cook slightly past golden-brown before taking it out. I don’t question him further.“The Steel Paradise Crew,” as Moise refers to the group as, is typically recognizable by their typical metal aesthetic, sporting all sorts of black band t-shirts, double-grommetted belts, lace, wristbands, ripped jeans, and everything obtainable that is black and covered in studs. Other notable clues include Metallica paraphernalia, large, bulky instruments thrown over their backs in black cases, long, tangled, unruly hair, and the repeated use of the phrase popularized by the adult cartoon Metalocolypse, “Metal as hell.” There are, however several notable exceptions. Moise, the drummer, likes to wear patterns and bright colors, and is often in athletic-wear and shirts with rappers on them. Tony is usually wearing a colorful button-up, and sometimes what the Art Girls from LaGuardia refer to as “Dad clothes,” a pair of thicker-rimmed glasses combined with a tweed jacket that Tony has never been carded in a liquor store while wearing (this is the only reason I have uncovered that explains why they all call him “dad”). My favorite example of this is a smiley, clean-cut boy named Weston who is always wearing salmon-colored, tailored clothing that looks like it’s from a J. Crew catalog. He lives on the Upper East Side and doesn’t like metal music, but seems to enjoy drinking as much as metal kids do.The Steel Paradise shows are most notable for being loud, sticky, and erratic. They typically take place below the ground floor in some hole in the wall, and no matter where it is the same people go every time. Any venue they play in reeks strongly of beer and is dimly lit. The last show they played was in a bar on Lafayette Street with walls painted black and colored lights that reached over the span of the room, flooded the entire scene. The audience wasn’t generously populated, but the male crowd still managed to cause some sort of commotion with a frivolous show of violently throwing themselves into one another in some sort of display of support of the band. This had to be explained to me multiple times and I am still not sure that I can properly articulate its purpose.
Local music shows aside, drinking is the most notable Steel Paradise event. Usually this is set in some poor kid’s dirty New York apartment, but it really can happen anywhere and they are not very discriminant about it. Currently, the most frequented place for a Steel Paradise drinking event is the Chelsea Galleries, specifically on Thursdays between six and eight when free wine is given out.
“I think this is about how life always changes,” Moise says, looking quizzically at a painting. It’s a series of smudged paint strokes that don’t really seem to form much of anything at all. We are on a 25th Street gallery and he has one cup of free—presumably Trader Joe’s—wine that the studio is giving out, in each hand. He’s trying very hard to seem interested in the art. “And about old people. And death probably.” He notices his empty glass and, abruptly ending his analysis, goes back to the wine table. I am treated with these gorgeous, half-assed analyses all night. “I think this is about sex,” he says, looking at a black and white photo of just an erect penis. “And about how it’s art. Is there only white wine here? Because if there is then we should go to the next one.”
At the galleries where beer is served everyone collects a can and, upon remembering they hate beer, pass each one to Christian. He puts them in his messenger bag and walks around with six open beer cans under the buckled canvas flap.
At eight o’clock, after the wine is done being served, they usually go to a liquor store and dedicatedly continue to drink through the night. On every occasion that I have had the pleasure of being present, this has meant a night of cheap whiskey being poured into a plastic red cup with store-brand soda, someone vomiting in timely intervals for three hours, metal music by different bands that I virtually can’t distinguish from one another blasting from a cheap iPod docking station, Christian drunkenly screaming at innocent passersby and urinating on something that is public property, Emma somehow calming him down, and Tony whispering “Emma is a saint” the whole way home.
Typically there are some delightful surprises that come with a night spent with Steel Paradise drinking crew. Once a radio station promised to play one of their singles but played the song “This is Halloween” from the soundtrack of some Tim Burton movie instead. Another night I entered a room to find Christian wearing women’s Guns N’ Roses leggings. One night, a night that I wasn’t there, they found out that a recording studio liked their work and wanted to fly them out to California for a month to record an EP. I didn’t get to witness it firsthand, but Moise says the excitement and celebration that night held can be measured in the sheer amount of things Christian pissed on that night.
“California was great,” Moise confides in me. “There was this restaurant there. Oh man, I would fly all the way back to California just for the hamburgers at that restaurant.”
From what I understand, Steel Paradise had a very wonderful experience in California, but I couldn’t elicit much from Moise, or anyone else for that matter, other than two subjects that he was very, very passionate about that he dabbled in quite a bit during the trip to California: the food and the weed.
And, oh, how they love to talk about the weed. “California…is a different way of life,” Christian says, reclined on a musty couch in an apartment that belongs to some poor soul who got suckered into hosting thirteen kids looking for somewhere to smoke after a metal show. He goes on to explain things very specifically, such as accessibility societal acceptance, and drug culture, but he does so in such an aimless, unacademic, ridiculous and nonsensical way that it’s not even worth noting. He closes his eyes, and then, losing track of what he was talking about, mutters again, “California was really different.”
Tony sits at a table nearby with some of the Art Girls from LaGuardia. They’re fumbling with some sort of vaporizer that was legally purchased online from a site with some statement about only endorsing the use of legal aromatherapy as though they don’t know who their audience are. Two of the art girls are piecing the contraption together, attaching some sort of nozzle and sliding batteries into it. “There’s really no need for this,” Tony is telling them, “Weston and I once smoked out of a bell pepper and it worked fine.”
America’s real engineers are not at Princeton.
In accordance with their views on marijuana, the Steel Paradise group is also, for the most part, unified by their liberal social and political views. Much of the Steel Paradise group advocates queer rights and feminism, and most all members, like in any Manhattan-based group, identify with either the Democratic Party or some sort of liberal party. “Ben and I are basically socialists,” Tony explains to me as we sit on the bus stop. Ben is Steel Paradise’s bassist. He grows visibly frustrated and his tone changes as a thought passes over him. “It’s just Christian who’s the problem.”
Christian, Tony explains, “thinks he’s a Republican just because he believes in God.” Tony grows visibly upset as he delves further into the subject. “And I’ve tried telling him, ‘Christian, you play rock music. You don’t hate gay people. You don’t hate black people. You like smoking weed, you aren’t a Republican.’” Impressed at this Official List of Qualities that, according to Tony Gorta, invalidate a Republican identity, I nod my head wordlessly. “I think hopefully Emma’s gonna change him,” Tony confides in me. “She’s liberal; she goes to art school for Christ’s sake.” I nod my head again, taking in this Official Qualification for a liberal identity. There is a silence invaded only by the sound of passing cars and then, as I expected him to, Tony gratefully mutters, “Emma is a saint.”
Despite the fact that going to art school isn’t quite directly correlated with identifying in a liberal way, liberal viewpoints are certainly common in artists and art students, and a good portion of the Steel Paradise community are artists and art students. Often too, it seems, that the community is a place where eccentrics and misfits often fit in. Having the connecting factor of interest in the same musical genre opens opportunity to participate in an assortment of events on a regular basis, and the opportunity to meet other people in the group.
Regardless of whether or not they agree with liberal views, the group seems to be deeply rooted not in a shared belief, but in a familial, communal sort of way. Despite the differences within the subculture, it seems as though they are all ready and willing to support each other. “These are just really open and accepting people,” Tony tells me. “There’s a lot of support between friends here.”
And he’s right, the community has provided a support system for a lot of people who have felt otherwise lost when times are bleak. As in any group of people, there have been tragedies faced by participants throughout the years, and they are always met with an overwhelming show of compassion and sympathy. Most recently, Vironika, the lead singer of Steel Paradise, suffered the loss of her older brother. All of the band members shed their ridiculous garments on November 6th to attend the wake and support her.
“Vironika is like a sister to me,” Moise tells me, sincerely. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”
The band is currently on hiatus until Vironika feels ready to come back. In the meantime, Tony is currently working on a new logo design for the band, and the other members are looking forward to the release of more music, maybe even a full album. The band will continue to hold practices once per week once their lead singer is well enough to return, and hopes to continue performing local shows.
“The group is still going to see each other even if there aren’t any shows,” Tony says, now walking along the edge of the sidewalk, Doc Martens scuffing against the cement. “It’s not like we aren’t friends outside of band [functions].”
As I finally get ready to say my goodbyes and take myself home, Tony gives me a quizzical look.
“It’s dark out. I’m taking you home,” he says, plainly. I can’t help but laugh at the tall, scary metalhead that will pay the extra fare to make sure a girl gets home safe at eight o’clock on a Tuesday night. Gladly accepting his offer, I consent to hearing about how Emma is a saint and a tentative list of things Christian has pissed on for another thirty minutes.
“Steel Paradise.” Steel Paradise. ReverbNation.com. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://www.steelparadise.com/about-us>
“Steel Paradise.” Facebook. Facebook. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <https://www.facebook.com/steelparadiseband>
“Let’s Talk About Metal Kids: The Interview.” Personal interviews with Moise Scott and Anthony Gorta. 11/2014.
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