August 2021: Charles Bukowski’s “This” & Pantera’s “A New Level”

August is the birth month of my favorite poet Charles Bukowski; he would’ve been 101 this year. The poem I’m going to discuss is called “This” and it’s from The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 (2000), the single most important poetry book I own. The cover is faded and the top corner of it is missing; many pages have been dog-eared. In my opinion, this book contains Bukowski’s best work because it shows the range he had even at the very beginning of his poetry career and the immediate strength of his voice. It also shows how ahead of the times he was in terms of poetic experimentation and expression. I discovered him when I was twenty and bought a good portion of his books at that time; this book was the one that stood out to me the most and has continued to serve as my primary poetic influence.

“This” is my favorite poem by Bukowski because it captures all of his strengths as a poet: the natural voice, the earthy images, the rhythmic style, and his apolitical mindset (that was more anarchic than dismissive toward political/societal concerns in my opinion). Here is the first half of the poem:

I have refused the discipline
of Art and Government and
God and all that which
destroys my seeming
and lifting my beer now
frothy
in the golden afternoon
light
I have it:
plateaus of softness, wire
leaves, spirit of the sidewalks
walls that weep like old paintings
everything real, not bent,

What I love so much about this poem is its straightforward declaration at the beginning: “I have refused the discipline / of Art and Government and / God and all that which / destroys my seeming.” Not only does it set the tone for the entire poem, it is an outright rejection of societal oppression which typically comes in the form of “Art,” “Government,” and “God.” This has always read as anarchic to me, although I don’t think Bukowski was thinking about anarchism when he wrote this poem. Here, there is a clear denouncement of anything that “destroys my seeming”—anything that attempts to force the speaker to go against his natural instincts. After lifting his beer to solidify his truth, the speaker declares “I have it” and lists a series of images that give him satisfaction: “plateaus of softness,” “wire / leaves,” “spirit of the sidewalks,” “walls that weep like old paintings,” and “everything real, not bent.” The images are down-to-earth and seemingly unpoetic in the traditional sense, but for the speaker, these images exist in his environment and he celebrates them because they are authentic. The last image—“everything real, not bent” is a metaphorical image because it encompasses all the images the came before it and reinforces the speaker’s desire to inhabit a true-to-life world rather than a world that has been constructed to be aesthetically pleasing. Here is the last half of the poem:

and as a brown sparrow
drops across my window’s sight
and the planes graze Africa again
in fire-lit nightmare
I have all I need on this tablecloth:
sunflower seeds, can opener
razor, 2 pencils, bent paper clip
memory of sparrow, angular sidewalk—
this under my fingers
myself myself myself.

What is particularly interesting in this last part is the contrast between “…as a brown sparrow / drops across my window’s sight,” and “the planes graze Africa again / in fire-lit nightmare.” A compelling tension is created here between nature and political violence, however, the speaker chooses not to meditate on it and instead focuses on more images: “sunflower seeds,” “can opener,” “razor,” “2 pencils,” “bent paper clip,” “memory of sparrow,” and “angular sidewalk.” Again, these images are reflective of the world as the speaker knows it: unadorned and basic, but also deeply profound because they have personal value to him. “I have all I need on this tablecloth” is powerfully assertive because it presses against the two lines that come before it. The speaker is helpless to do anything about political violence, but his one source of power is to affirm his own environment. The last two lines take this sentiment further as the speaker includes himself as a valued aspect of his world: “this under my fingers / myself myself myself.”

August also marks the birth month of my favorite guitarist Dimebag Darrell; he would’ve been 55 this year. The song I want to discuss is “A New Level” from Pantera’s sixth album Vulgar Display of Power (1992). Pantera was a band I had always been aware of, but I didn’t start listening to the group’s music until I met my ex-husband. Pantera was his favorite band and like the group, he was from Forth Worth, Texas. As a result, the band’s music became part of my life, but I didn’t fully embrace Pantera until after my ex-husband and I parted ways. I started going through my music in order to purge anything that no longer spoke to me; that was the first time I began to listen to the band’s music on a serious level. I became increasingly impressed with Phil Anselmo’s vocal abilities and Dimebag Darrell’s transcendent guitar skills and it wasn’t long before Pantera became my favorite metal band.

“A New Level” is one of the group’s trademark songs and it’s no surprise why. It contains all the elements that make Pantera not just unique, but one of the most important bands in the metal genre: superior guitar sounds, aggressive vocals, and powerful percussive rhythms. What is immediately noticeable about the song is Dimebag’s impressive guitar intro. It begins with an intense scratching guitar sound that lands into a simple, but monstrous repeating riff that intensifies and then shifts into a faster thrash-influenced riff. Anselmo doesn’t actually start singing until about fifty seconds into the song. Here is the first verse:

Now a new look in my eyes, my spirit rise
Forget the past
Present tense works and lasts
Got shit on, pissed on, spit on
Stepped on, fucked with
Pointed at by lesser men

What sets Anselmo apart from other metal vocalists is the spoken word nature of his singing. His vocal style is aggressive and employs hardcore metal and punk elements, but he’s very good at utilizing syllabic enhancement and rhythmic tension. In this first verse, there is a desire to rise above being bullied by “lesser men.” “Present tense works and lasts” speaks to the nature of being in the moment and not allowing past trauma and abuse to dominate one’s life. Not only is the present moment a safe place, it “works and lasts”—it is functional and continuous. The chorus is the most captivating part of the song because of its powerful simplicity. It’s only seven words and it’s accompanied by the opening riff: “A new level / Of confidence / And power.” What also makes it profound is the way Anselmo sings it: he draws out “level,” “confidence,” and “power” to masterful effect, creating a sense of empowerment laced with antagonistic arrogance that is satisfying for listeners to hear and sing along to. Here is the second verse:

Demanding plea for unity between us all
United stand
Death before divided fall
In mock military order
Vulgar power
Impatient because time is shorter

Here, the song zooms out to encompass more than just the individual’s relationship to self-empowerment. It plays with multiple concepts having to do with unity, oppression, liberation, and time. This verse invites listeners to contemplate what is important in the present moment: unity or ideological divisions. “Impatient because time is shorter” is an interesting statement because it describes a feeling about how time is perceived: it’s wild and fleeting, much like the song itself, which enacts a desire to take action in the moment. It’s also a wonderful contrast to “mock military order” which identifies authoritarianism and ideology as artificial constructs that present themselves as being unchangeable and therefore timeless. This verse very much rails against the notion of conformity and encourages listeners to free themselves from oppressive thought systems that create division instead of harmony. Here, the repeated pre-chorus has deeper meaning because it reinforces the need to shift out of old concepts of self and embrace perseverance: “New life in place of old life / Unscarred by trials.”

After the repeated chorus, the song slows down and Dimebag plays a groove-infused riff that is equally as menacing as the main riff. He repeats this riff in an exaggerated manner that mirrors the antagonistic arrogant sentiment of the lyrical content (Anselmo shouts “That’s right!” in the middle of it to intensify the moment) and then transitions into an aggressive solo that utilizes a variety of wildly ominous sounds. Here, the song slows down again and shifts into a spoken word medley: “No fucking surrender / Can’t lose / No fucking surrender,” “No respect gets no one nowhere / Show respect.” The song immediately shoots back up to the chorus, accompanied by Dimebag’s monstrous main riff that has now become even more powerful after the solo. The song shifts into a thrash-like percussive conclusion as Anselmo repeats “Life kills” four times and the song ends abruptly. It would be easy to describe this song as a massive rollercoaster ride because of the way it employs tempo shifts that give listeners an adrenaline rush, but what makes it truly powerful is its sense of self-awareness. Pantera feels very much like a postmodern metal band to me because of the group’s keen awareness of itself as a metal band. Pantera’s use of metal elements—low, heavy tones, wild guitar solos, and aggressive vocals—was not only conscious, but purposeful in the sense that the band understood the specific aims of metal music: to uplift and instill confidence, and to encourage a healthy dose of arrogance and self-empowerment through powerful and heavy music. It is this purposefulness that makes Pantera brilliant and enduring as a metal band.

Charles Bukowski and Pantera have a lot in common in the sense that there is an understanding of how important environment is in terms of generating self-worth. Charles Bukowski is a poet of the disenfranchised because he lived among them and was one of them; Pantera’s music is impactful to metal music listeners because of the band’s ability to empathize with the metal genre demographic: poor, frustrated individuals looking for emotional support and affirmation. In retrospect, I should’ve embraced Pantera much sooner than I did. It wasn’t until I connected Anselmo’s voice to Bukowski’s voice that I truly began to see how important he is as a vocalist with a strong sense of poetic artfulness. Bukowski and Anselmo are both gritty, down-to-earth, antiestablishment, and brutally honest in how they represent themselves and their environments. I could also see those same elements running all through Dimebag Darrell’s guitar sounds; he was an exceptionally gifted and skilled guitar player not because of his technical knowledge, but because of how he employed it—with that same gritty, aggressive, no-nonsense manner that Bukowski and Anselmo embody. The poet and the band are a perfect pairing; I would encourage fans of Bukowski to check out Pantera and those who love Pantera to give Bukowski a try.

August 2, 2021