The Troubadour was the only club in the West LA area that featured metal bands, versus the Sunset Strip glam metal scene of 87/88—the only place my friends and I could get to by bus from Hollywood, since we were losers without cars. This was in the days before internet, so learning about music and bands was word of mouth among the few of us at Musicians Institute into heavy metal. We had actually come to see the opening band, Wrathchild. None of us had been in LA very long at all, so had never heard of the headliner, Detente, who actually looked a little ‘poseur’-like, with the guys with some hairspray and shiny guitars and one of them even wearing pointy elf boots. Their singer though: She came out on stage with torn black jeans, boots and black t-shirt. Her voice magic. Not in a Disney cute way, but in an evil-spell way. She did not sing: she yelled. With force. With power. With authority. But also sometimes a wail, like a banshee, or what mexicans would call a llorona—wailing for the dead. Angry at times, sad at times, though more like sorrow.
I could not take my ears off of her. The band proved to be heavier than they looked (which I believe, now, decades later, with research, was her influence, her push to go heavy, and dark). They didn’t have much stage presence, but they didn’t need it, they had her. I think, even on that slow weeknight, what captivated us, those that were listening, was her confidence—always true with any musicians, and I’m not even sure she broke a sweat that night, but her voice seemed to almost not even need the PA.
After the set, the woman, Dawn, ended up standing fifteen feet away from me, by herself, while the band packed up their stuff. I remember thinking, Why is this woman standing there alone? She is the most interesting person in the room. She wasn’t conventionally sexy, not in that groupie or actress or dancer way (which LA was filled with). But she did have a rip in the butt of her jeans, right at the bottom, where you, I, could see just the glimpse of her black panties. I’m sure I stared. She looked at me. Saw me looking at her. She didn’t seem bothered, and I think, now, that I might even have gone over and talked to her—I certainly had the best excuse in the world, to just simply compliment her voice. But I didn’t. I never talk to women.
What did she see when she looked at me? Some scrawny 18-year-old kid with long curly hair, probably wearing a Slayer Hell Awaits t-shirt and jeans. I know now she was five years older than me, so what would a 23-year-old woman in, it turns out, a band with at least one album out, want with someone like me? What I should have done, and did think about later (over and over), was ask if she needed a bass player. I know now Detente went through many line-ups, continued to do so as they morphed into Fear of God. So, you know, another example of my life of making assumptions and excuses to not even just connect with people at a basic level. But in my own minor music career, very minor, with some very minor what-ifs, I can’t help but selfishly imagine, day-dream, that I might have done something useful with my life, like play bass for Dawn Crosby.
Dawn Crosby died in 1996 of liver failure associated with a history of alcohol and drug abuse.
I left, though never forgot her either, even about a decade later, leaving the music biz for the Po Biz, attempting a poem about her and the one song I remembered from that night, about a prostitute who commits suicide by swimming off into the ocean. I was and am haunted by this image and the idea that this was how a woman would (or at least could) approach metal: no dungeons and dragons, no faux-satanism, but a story about a real person, or a believable low-life person from real low life, a topic that would later interest me in writers such as Charles Bukowski and Kim Addonizio and (early) Richard Ford.
I remember writing the poem, the desire to write the poem, though not the poem itself, lost somewhere on an old computer. I remember it not being as good as I wanted, as good as it should have been. Worthy of her approval.
Again, pre-Internet, and back in Michigan, where exposure to smaller bands on smaller record labels was hit or miss—I never found a Detente album. And if I heard of Dawn Crosby’s next band, Fear of God, I didn’t make the connection and assumed it was the European death metal band of the same name around that time. Three decades later (!) with the magic of YouTube, you can do a search of about any band like Detente and find whole albums uploaded, and listenable, for free. But the real power of the internet is discovering others, in the comments sections, who remember Detente and Fear of God, scattered all over the North America and Europe.
Because listen to the music. Listen to the Fear of God album Within The Veil, imho Crosby’s best work, the last four songs especially. Everything I love, with props to guitarist Mike Carlino, Crosby’s partner at the time—gloomy minor key (lots of harmonic minor, with that major seventh, to boot), with both clean and distorted guitar, varying tempos, and a little odd-time signatures slipped in. But really, listen to the fucking voice. Or, voices: Here is Dawn Crosby at the most haunting. She’s still using her healthy lungs, yes, belting them out, but now with multiple vocal tracks, multiple voices, calling out to each other, or to us. Like ghosts.
Listen, even, to the lyrics, like “Red To Grey,” which I think may be that song I remember from the Troubadour show:
There’s something troubling in your eyes…
but I’ve seen it before
She calls out to you
From behind sin’s doorway
Her 13 years have left her
So calloused, so diseased…
Oh but she’s begging you
Like you wish your daughter would…
(Half a world…away)
Betrayal fills her eyes
It’s the sick of the unkind years…
And scars…scars…start to form…start to form
A tangled web of shame
Across her bleeding, tortured flesh
But you want…more…
Goddamn if that doesn’t sound like Sylvia Plath’s Daddy poems to me, with that addressing of a ‘you’, that accusation. This from a person, as far as I can tell, without any education beyond high school. But listen to the song—I really do think these lyrics in particular stand up on their own, but listen to the song, and you’ll hear Crosby’s ghosts, the ghosts of all women and girls who have been wronged. “Her voice keeps echoing” could be the one-line summary of all of Crosby’s work. Here is the voice of an accuser, be it Crosby or a persona (my bet is Crosby) come back to haunt (I think we would agree) a man who raped a 13-year old girl. What makes the song deeper is the juxtaposition of the Lord’s Prayer at the end, implicating the whole system of Male Authority Figures, from God on down.
But mostly just listen to the voices. Whereas many, most, metal singers might just power out the lyrics and have done with it (like, say, in her Detente stuff) here is Crosby involved with the music too, envisaging layers of voices—planning for multiple voices, harmonizing is not quite the right word, but echoing and answering, sometimes sounding more like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, sometimes like a lost little girl, sometimes a siren luring sailors to their deaths. And sometimes like a falling angel. What I mean is, Crosby had the vision for all this. This album is Crosby not just as a singer, but a composer, or a ghost-choir director.
And I missed it. Only recently, after finally realizing Crosby was in Fear of God, I stood in my kitchen staring at my computer while Within The Veil played, saying to myself, holy fuck, holy fuck….
Back then I was listening to what became know as the Big Four of Metal: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, but also ‘progressive’ metal, with actual real singers, like Queenrsyche and Fates Warning. Fear of God is kind of right in the middle. In fact, I’d put Crosby, in her Detente years, as the vocal equivalent of Tom Arraya from Slayer, for sheer power. But on Within The Veil she goes way beyond. The power is still there, but the closest I could even compare is old-style eastern european choir music, the really sad stuff that comes from centuries of brutal living. That or some kind of Japanese horror soundtrack. Which is to maybe say that I don’t know if what Crosby envisioned would ever have been really popular, though it does seem that Warner Brothers, which put out the two Fear of God albums, had somewhat big plans for them, if only they could have held together.
Dear Dawn: I’m sorry I missed you.
When I read tidbits of her life, which aren’t much, mostly from her Wikipedia page and the Dawn Crosby website, fear-of-god.com (from which most info for the various wikipedia pages seems to be drawn) I see a teenage girl from Maryland who went out and did it, made it, knew she wanted to do it—somehow even ending up in England still as a teenager to sing in a band. Then LA, where even if Detente was underground, Fear of God got signed to Warner Brothers Records while she was in her late mid- to late 20s. She seems to have known what she wanted to do, early, and did it, unlike me, say, who played it safe, only moving to LA if my dad would pay my tuition to MIT. I mean, who knows, anything in the arts and entertainments biz seems like a crapshoot and a lot of pure luck, but she took chances, didn’t play anything safe, and went for it.
None of her lyrics, that I can tell, are overtly autobiographical—each song, though almost always in the point of view of a female speaker, seems to be a persona. That said, I can’t help thinking Crosby herself boils up in a song like “Blood I Bleed” on the Detente album Recognize No Authority:
Drill in my mind little girls are tolerated
often used, despised and hated
gonna rot alone in them middle ages
kept in line must control their rages
Ghosts. Here the ghost of a hurt, probably abused (verbally if not mentally) little daughter. Even if a persona, this is the accusation against probably a father, and whatever you may think of the quality of the lyrics (this is early stuff) the subject matter alone is, again, distinctly female, and more interesting, more real, more human, than most metal lyrics by men, which tend to avoid the real, especially anything showing emotions (except maybe anger). While dudes are writing about Cthulu and devils, Crosby is writing about real shit. The only other (metal) lyricist I can think of who went there, went at all into real human darkness, is James Hetfield on a few mid-career Metallica songs about his own abuse. (“Dear Mother Dear Father / What is this hell you have put me through?!”)
Not that Crosby couldn’t get political, or write about war, like in the early Detente song “Holy War,” also off of Recognize No Authority, a song maybe more relevant today than when it was written, pre-Iraq/Afghanistan invasion:
Suicidal bomber dying for a cause
and the life you’re losing
it’s well worth the price
you’re on a mission for your god
and the innocents you take with you
are an example to us all
Though even in this early stuff, Crosby transcends merely just describing, or even judging the suicide bomber, but in those last two lines is warning us listeners, us innocents, to maybe not be so naive, so innocent, when dealing with religious extremists, or maybe religion in general.
Or check out this one line from the song “Emily” on Within The Veil: “Love was just something I did to survive.” Which is about the most sorrowful sentence I’ve ever heard. Which could also basically sum up Crosby’s work. Except it doesn’t, because there’s more, there’s her motherfucking voice, like in “Drift” which seems a series of voices, from an accusing female voice to an abuser, to perhaps Death and to (another) beaten and battered young woman or girl, who at the end seems to be reclaiming, or wanting to reclaim, a normal life she’s drifted away from: “I need to feel something real!”
Notice the exclamation point, because Crosby then begins a rant, or a chant, an incantation, repeating and amplifying that word: “Real! Real! REAL! REAL!” over and over, her voice changing, starting to sound in/un-human, and more like an animal, a raptor, the word becoming accusation, because whoever, a man (with sampled religious line implying a priest? Or some kind of supposed father figure christian?) who through his (un-said but implied actions) has taken away the speaker’s to ability to feel, forever.
Overall, both the lyrics and the tone of Crosby’s singing are accusatory. Common themes and imagery in Crosby’s lyrics: Crawling. Being on one’s knees (or being ordered to, or resisting it). The ocean. Swimming. Men as liars. Disease (dis-ease?). Her vocal arsenal including whispers, growls, childlike shrieks, screams, moans—both the ghost kind and maybe (kinda?) of some kind of sexual activity, though more the kind one might emit after some kind of assault. A lot of times, when Crosby holds a long, sustained, note, she’ll gradually let the pitch fall, as if the speaker were flying away, or falling away over a cliff, pushed. Or having jumped.
Online, I’ve gotten glimpses of her: Interviews with her, people who knew her. It’s a testimony to her that two to three (!) decades later people go out of their way to give anecdotes, and to say what a wonderful person she was. That said, there are also many times, it seems, in which she was not exactly easy to get along with, especially in the bands, perhaps caused, or fueled, by her alcoholism and drug use, though I can’t help wonder if her arguments with band members may have (at least a little?) stemmed from macho metal men not liking having a woman in charge.
This is the kind of stuff that a good documentary would uncover, and one of Dawn Crosby is (as of this writing) in the works, titled Behind The Veil. I don’t need to know more about her (and I know little) to love her as an artist, though I can’t help but be curious, based on the subject matter of some of her songs, if and how much they are autobiographical. Not in a gossipy way—I’d like to know if these ghosts are her own, and whether she’s turning pain and trauma into art, or if she’s channeling the voices of ghosts/people she’s known, or of ghosts in general. But also, say, how did she become a lead singer? And how achieve (if only minor) success so young? And, how much education did she have? Because as far as I can tell, she didn’t go to college. Where did those lyrics come from? Did she read? Where did she come from, creatively?
I’d also love to see testimony from artists who came after, because I think, but can’t prove for sure, that Crosby and Fear Of God had a huge (if underground) influence on a lot of the European death metal bands of the late 90s and aughts, and female metal singers in general, even if they haven’t even heard of her. Maybe I’m wrong (it’s happened before) and maybe this is more a case of thinking everyone should have been influenced by her. We may never know, but how many singers from underground metal band in the 80s and 90s would inspire a documentary two decades later? I have to say though that of various Crosby apocrypha, the most intriguing is the claim (on the fear-of-god.com website) that she started a “riot” in a club by pelting Dave Mustaine of Megadeth with (full) beer cans. I’m not saying that he deserved that, though I’m not saying he didn’t either. An oral history, narrated by people who were there (including Mustaine) has the potential to be hilarious, and maybe somehow profound and human, showing the anger of a woman pounding on the no-girls-allowed metal boys club.
Note: Detente reformed in the late aughts, and put out an album called Decline, with a low-quality-sounding return to the early hardcore sound. Vocals by Tiina Teale, of whom I’ve found little info, though she has a good set of lungs as well. The music is ok, though the dudes look old (I do too, so I can say that). They did achieve some fame and/or notoriety for their song “Kill Rush,” about radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Which, you know, seems quaint now, but which opened up a (minor) rift between liberal and conservative metal fans, revealing, to my mind, just how much most metal lyrics avoid any overt political messages, releasing a whole can of worms about whether it should, and whether metal might inherently lean towards being conservative? But, it’s not Crosby.
I may be thinking too much about it (as I do) but I’d like to think that Crosby was trying to put the fear of God in us, so we could stop fucking around with our lives and, say, fight the system, fight the power, resist the patriarchy that eats people up, especially women, and spits them out. I’d like to think that Crosby would approve of that interpretation, or at least be amused. Because I think I’ve lived my life, or at least the last thirty years or so, seeking her approval.
Keening: a traditional form of vocal lament for the dead. Keening has also been used as part of civil disobedience and protest.
For further info (including the status of the documentary), check out the “official” (poorly designed and therefore hard to read—though created and maintained with love) website for Dawn Crosby:
If you listen to one album featuring Dawn Crosby, let it be Fear of God’s Within The Veil.
And if you only listen to one song, let it be “Drift.”