Cemetery Gates: Saints and Survivors of the Heavy Metal Scene by Mick O'Shea

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Cemetery Gates: Saints and Survivors of the Heavy Metal Scene by Mick O'Shea

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Twenty icons of the heavy metal scene, of which ten have passed on but ten still remain beyond reach of the cemetery gates.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Plexus
ISBN: 9780859654838

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The way to hell is paved with dead heavy metal stars, or so you might be forgiven for thinking after reading this book. On the other hand, some have made it back from the brink. In this book, Mick O’Shea has summarised in twenty chapters the lives and often troubled times of ten 'saints' who ended up inside the cemetery gates, and ten survivors.

Perhaps it is some comfort to report that the first obituary chapter commemorates the passing of one who died of natural causes. Ronnie James Dio, who fronted his own band after paying his dues fronting Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, then Black Sabbath, sustained a relatively clean-living career until his death from liver cancer in 2012 at the age of 67. Most of the other nine, however, were considerably less long-lived. The saddest case was that of Bon Scott, vocalist with AC/DC and the only one of the dramatis personae in this book I ever saw on stage. Well known for his love of a drink or several, he went out for a night on the town, a cold February night at that, with a friend who was unable to move him out of the car when he had passed out, left him there and only remembered many hours later after he had sobered up. By that time, to quote one of his song titles, Scott was well along the ‘Highway to Hell’. A few months later that same year, 1980, Led Zeppelin drummer, hellraiser and similarly renowned drinker John Bonham shuffled off this mortal coil in a not dissimilar fashion.

I will admit that I only had a passing knowledge or less with some of these characters before reading the book. Peter Steele, born Petrus Ratacjzyk, bassist and vocalist of Carnivore and Type O Negative, who died of heart failure in 2010 after having put the drink and drugs excesses behind him, was a new name to me. Likewise I had known little about Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton, killed in 1986 in an accident on board the band touring bus in Sweden, and even less than that about Paul Gray, bassist with Slipknot, whose drug-addled history caught up with him in 2010. Perhaps the most horrific episode was that of Darrell Abbott, alias Dimebag Darrell, guitarist with Pantera and Damageplan and writer of the song which gives the book its title. I suspect I was one of many who had never heard of him until the news that night in 2004 when he was shot dead on stage during a gig in Columbus, Ohio, as were three others present, by a schizophrenic member of the audience whose murderous spree only came to an end when he was similarly gunned down by police officers.

Some of the survivors are likewise household names, others not. An obvious omission is Alice Cooper, the first and the most successful in chart terms of the shock rockers whose appearances on Top Of The Pops in 1972 delighted, amazed and horrified television audiences in equal measure at the time. However we do have a chapter on Ozzy Osbourne, the man whose group Black Sabbath virtually invented heavy and death metal and who has taken his mortal frame to the abyss in almost every way possible, been pronounced briefly and clinically dead at least once during his sixty-plus years, and is still recording and performing, still alive and well – or make that ‘'well, considering'. Likewise we are taken backstage in the life of Ian Fraser ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, of Hawkwind and Motörhead fame (only censorship laws made him think twice about calling his band Bastard), the eternally hoarse vocalist and bassist who has also reached his bus pass age in spite of a lifetime of chemical excess and a daily bottle of Jack Daniels. He once tried to have a full infusion of untainted blood in order to save his body from the stress of undergoing detoxification. After tests, the doctor informed him that pure blood would prove fatal. The message was clear – if your body is still functioning as it is, Lemmy, don’t try and fix it.

Axl Rose and Slash, the mutually antagonistic vocalist and guitarist or rather ex-guitarist of Guns’n’Roses, likewise get a few pages each to themselves. In the lesser-knowns corner is Varg Vikernes, bassist with Norwegian black metal outfit Mayhem. Described by one commentator as ‘the most notorious metal musician of all time’, he is known less for his musical prowess than for his involvement in arson attacks on at least three Christian churches in Norway and the subsequent murder of the group’s guitarist, who was similarly involved. He has since been released from prison on probation after serving over half of a 21-year sentence.

O’Shea has done his research pretty thoroughly, but I can imagine that this was not the most cheerful book to write. I’m tempted to suggest that he should go and write a book on someone more cuddly, like Val Doonican or The Seekers next, although he might not thank me for that idea. It’s a good read, but the blurb on the back is quite honest about the fact that this is going to be a book for those with fairly strong stomachs. The author refrains from any judgemental comments on his subjects, but the introduction by Laura Coulman calls the book ‘a celebration of life’ of these incendiary talents. I suspect she probably had her tongue firmly in cheek.

If this book appeals then you might like to have a look at Hammered: Heavy tales from the hard rock highway by Kirk Blows.

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Buy Cemetery Gates: Saints and Survivors of the Heavy Metal Scene by Mick O'Shea at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cemetery Gates: Saints and Survivors of the Heavy Metal Scene by Mick O'Shea at Amazon.com.


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