November 2022: Wanda Coleman’s “They Came Knocking on My Door at 7 A.M.” & Anthrax’s “Random Acts of Senseless Violence”

This month I want to talk about a poet I recently started reading: Wanda Coleman. I bought her selected poems, Wicked Enchantment (2020) which was edited by Terrance Hayes and I find her poems to be incredibly moving and aesthetically unique. One of the biggest things I picked up on with her work was the fact that she was deeply influenced by Charles Bukowski. Along with an introduction, Hayes included a series of small passages at the beginning of the book taken from Coleman’s prose where she talks about her journey as a writer. In one of the passages, Coleman talks about Bukowski. She considered him to be her favorite poet early on in her writing career, attended his readings and parties, and was published by Black Sparrow Press (his publisher). Given that Charles Bukowski is my favorite poet, it’s no surprise I took to her work. Coleman’s poems are political and surreal, voice-driven and honest, and lyrically smart. Coleman grew up in Watts, and her experience as a Black woman definitely brings an edge to her poems that feel both feminist and politically-conscious.

The poem I want to discuss is called “They Came Knocking on My Door at 7 A.M.” What I like so much about this poem is how she evolves a style that Bukowski refined and makes it her own. Bukowski was known for writing poems that dealt with life at the bottom of society and his work embodied that experience through dialogue, conversational voice, and clever lyrical turns. Coleman furthers this aesthetic by writing from the perspective of a Black female criminal. Here it is in its entirety:

they had a warrant out for my arrest
“what’s your name? where’s your identification”
i was half naked so they didn’t come inside,
figuring they’d caught me mid-fuck
they were right
coitus interruptus LAPD is a drag
i showed ‘em alias #3
they said “oh, well where is she?”
i said, “man, she was staying here, but she
hooked up with some niggah and split”
“ok. ok.”
they left
i went back into the bedroom
you were naked and still hungry, curious
“what was that all about”
i laughed, took off the rag i was wearing
eased into the sheets next to you
we started fucking again
but things had changed

What I find so impressive about this poem is the empowerment the speaker exudes. When the cops show up at her door, a dynamic is immediately established wherein the speaker has the upper hand rather than the cops. They do not enter her apartment because she answers the door half-naked: “i was half naked so they didn’t come inside, / figuring they caught me mid-fuck / they were right / coitus interruptus LAPD is a drag.” That last line points to the cops as being an inconvenience precisely because they have interrupted the speaker’s lovemaking. When she shows them her fake ID—“alias #3”—readers learn that the speaker is not only prepared for this unfortunate situation, she is experienced in warding off the police. “Alias #3” suggests that she has multiple aliases, possibly for a variety of situations. What is also interesting is the fact that the cops believe her: “ok. ok.” They are duped. And yet, the best part of the poem is when the speaker returns to bed and her lover asks, “what was that all about” and she responds “nothing.” She doesn’t feel compelled to talk to him about the cops. The end of the poem, although very Bukowskiesque in its clever turn, shifts into something more serious: “i laughed, took off the rag i was wearing / eased into the sheets next to you / we started fucking again / but things had changed.” In a good portion of Bukowski’s poems, the speaker ends up on top of the situation through a clever lyrical realization, but here, Coleman takes the poem to an interesting place with the last line: “but things had changed.” The speaker inserts a personal realization: she is still hyperaware of her interaction with the police and how it is affecting her lovemaking. Her lover is none the wiser, but she knows better, and this awareness is what complicates the poem in interesting ways. Even though she maintains the upper hand, her criminal status is now at the forefront of her mind.

Like many of the poems in Wicked Enchantment, Coleman is masterful at sucking the reader into the underbelly of the oppressed yet empowered Black female experience. Much like Bukowski, Coleman found a way to flip the script of her low status into an opportunity to uplift herself through poetry. “They Came Knocking on My Door at 7 A.M.” is a perfect example of Coleman’s resourcefulness as a poet. This resourcefulness allowed her to articulate her experiences in creatively unique ways. Many of her poems, like Bukowski, embrace surrealism and language-play as a way to enhance the oppressed environment she wrote from and depicted in her poems. This poem in particular is rare in poetry in general because it is feminine and gritty and amusing. Wanda Coleman is a wonderfully gifted poet not just because she utilized the aesthetic Bukowski established to effectively represent Black female empowerment, but because she is one of the few Black female poets to embrace her low status and translate it into profoundly honest, free-spirited poetry.

The song I want to talk about this month is Anthrax’s “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” from their seventh studio album Stomp 442 (1995). I am new to Anthrax’s music, but I have always been aware of the band. They are one of The Big Four metal bands that shifted metal music in the 1980s into the realm of thrash alongside Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth. I was also familiar with the group’s version of the Public Enemy song “Bring the Noise” (released in 1991 on their album Attack of the Killer B’s which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1992) which led to the two groups touring and performing together on stage, helping to bring the two genres (hip hop and metal) into conversation with each other for the first time in a significant way. The reason why I want to talk about “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” in particular is because it embodies exactly what I think Anthrax wanted to become as a band: aggressive metal with hip hop/groove elements. Anthrax in the eighties was a slightly different band than what Anthrax became in the 1990s. Early on in the band’s career, they were primarily thrash, but there was the beginnings of what I would call a “street metal” sound embedded in their music. Anthrax is from New York City; their music has an urban quality to it that definitely sets it apart from the other three big thrash metal bands that were based on the West Coast. Stomp 442 is the second album in a trio of albums that explored this new groove-infused metal aesthetic (The Sound of White Noise came out in 1993 and Volume 8: The Threat Is Real came out in 1998). However, this is the album that really refined the band’s aesthetic and I consider it to be Anthrax’s strongest album. The lyrics were written by rhythm guitarist Scott Ian and vocalist John Bush; the music was written by drummer Charlie Bentante; the album reached number 47 on the Billboard 200 at a time when metal was incorrectly considered to be struggling (along with Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven which reached number 1 on the Billboard 200 in 1994) and was forced to take a backseat to the amorphous “alternative” music genre. Additionally, Dimebag Darrell plays lead guitar on two of the songs, which further helps to explain Anthrax’s aesthetic shift. Although the band was heavily influenced by Pantera, I want to point out that Anthrax was ripe for that influence due to the fact that they were already experimenting with rhythmic metal and hip hop prior to their aesthetic change.

“Random Acts of Senseless Violence” is incredibly powerful musically and lyrically but has a very basic structure to it: two verses, a pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus, and a slightly altered chorus at the end. The song begins with feedback followed by a quick aggressive drumbeat and a low guitar sound that bleeds into a monstrous repeating riff. Bush sings the word “Puto” (Spanish curse word for a male prostitute, coward, traitor, etc.) and the song shifts into the first verse:

Shut up, I don’t pass the blame
The same goddamn thing
But the names have changed
On the day you were busted
You forgot the line
Don’t do the crime
If you can’t do the time
An animal’s acting instinctively
A glorified murderer, insanity
If you think I’d kill you
Just count to one
You’re the coward
Coward with a gun

Bush sings these lyrics along with the rhythm of the song, which is maintained by the groove-infused drumbeats and guitars. However, what I really enjoy about this song is how Bush marries his aggressive and gritty tone with the content of the lyrics which are essentially calling out an antagonist who is really a coward. “Don’t do the crime / If you can’t do the time,” and “If you think I’d kill you / Just count to one” are indicative of the lyricist’s mindset: a real man takes his punishment like a man, and his inclination toward handling gutless men: I would end you in a second. The last two lines: “You’re the coward / Coward with a gun” points to a basic truth: the weapon doesn’t make the man. The song shifts slightly as the pre-chorus, chorus, and post-chorus follow. Here are all three parts:

You thought you knew me
You hardly knew me
You don’t know me
I shouldn’t care
My crazy sense of right and wrong
That can’t be made to break this
Break this, break this

I see something wrong and
I fix it with my hands
I walk the thin blue line
This cross I came to bear

Random acts of senseless
Random acts of senseless
Random acts of senseless violence

Bush draws out the word “hardly” to emphasize the fact that the antagonist he’s addressing messed with the wrong person (the lyricist) and showed his true (cowardly) colors. Here, I’d like to point to the core of the song which is the chorus: “I see something wrong and / I fix it with my hands.” These two lines define the sentiment of the song, which isn’t actually about “Random acts of senseless violence” or revenge per se, but about using violence to correct a moral problem: chickenshit men. The lyricist feels a strong obligation to rid the earth of masculine scum: “I walk the thin blue line / This cross I came to bear.” I also want to point out that “thin blue line” is a phrase that is associated with the police: cops are the ones who maintain order in society by enforcing laws. The lyricist, however, appropriates the phrase to empower himself as a man with vigilante sensibilities. By the time the post-chorus comes (which is spoken by an unidentified male voice in public service announcement style) it would seem that the lyrical nature of the song has been fully established.

However, the second verse is interesting because it contains a twist: the lyricist has killed the antagonist and yet he feels compelled to address him anyway:

So now you’re dead
Well, what do you know?
And am I sorry?
No, I don’t think so
They wanted sympathy
Now, that’s a bit much
How much did you show, how much?
Take the value for one human life
And place it all right down
On a roll of dice
And a one, two, three
For the pain you bring
I’m the bird without the left wing

This verse is compelling lyrically because the lyricist uses metaphors to justify his decision to kill the antagonist: “Take the value for one human life / And place it all right down / On a roll of dice / And a one, two three, / For the pain you bring / I’m the bird without the left wing.” The lyricist wants to believe that life is one giant gamble (the rolling of the dice is the metaphor), but more specifically, that the choices one makes are also a gamble. And yet, the lyricist knew with 100% certainty that he wanted to kill his antagonist (and succeeded) and takes absolutely no shame in admitting it. On the one hand, his action seems “random” because it is a gut-reaction to how his antagonist behaved. However, if the lyricist is inclined to handle cowards (“I see something wrong and / I fix it with my hands”), the act isn’t so random. And yet, the antagonist “took a chance” by fucking with the lyricist. That line “For the pain you bring” and the metaphor that follows “I’m the bird without the left wing” brings on a different meaning: the lyricist was injured in a major way by the antagonist. Because he was crippled, he had to take action toward the one who crippled him—by ending his life.

The song shifts back into the pre-chorus, chorus, and post-chorus. This time, Bush sings the repeated phrase “Random acts of senseless” and when he adds violence at the end, he draws out the word, thereby owning it and empowering himself. A wild guitar solo follows that is less technical and more free-spirited and concludes with a drum and guitar rhythmic shift. The chorus is sung one last time with the additional lines: “And I’ll be the one who laughs / When, when you die / You die.” The song ends as Bush repeats the phrase “Random acts of senseless” but doesn’t say the word violence this time, to great effect. “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” is easily my favorite Anthrax song because it is a morally justified revenge song that plays on the idea of anarchy as a true equalizer: this is what happens when a coward has to contend with a truly superior force—a man who can bring order to chaos by literally taking out the garbage through the act of killing. Along with the aesthetic shifts that Anthrax employed in the nineties, the lyrics also became heightened and better tuned to the band’s already established street vibe. With this song, Anthrax really showed what they were (already) made of.

There are two things that connect Wanda Coleman and Anthrax: influence and perspective. Wanda Coleman was influenced by Charles Bukowski in such a way that it gave her a blueprint in which to build her own career with a voice-driven foundation that communicated authenticity: she was at the bottom of society, so she wrote from that perspective. Anthrax was influenced by hip hop and Pantera in such a way that it allowed them to better utilized the urban elements that were already present in their music to become more concentrated aesthetically and lyrically: they refined their “street metal” perspective as a result of their musical shift toward groove-driven guitars, drums, and lyrics. Even though Wanda Coleman was based in Los Angeles (like Bukowski) and Anthrax is based in New York City, “They Came Knocking on My Door at 7 A.M.” and “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” both track a common experience that involves overcoming oppressive forces, whether they be racial or social. Coleman empowered herself as a Black female against the poetic status quo of her time; Anthrax empowered themselves as metal musicians during a time when metal was ignorantly seen as irrelevant. What I also want to make note of is the fact that both the poet and the metal band were able to transform the styles that influenced them; they weren’t merely imitators. I would highly recommend that readers who are poets and musicians themselves take a look at Wanda Coleman and Anthrax especially if they find themselves heavily influenced by a particular style and want to see how they can translate their own experiences through the aesthetic that speaks to them. Coleman and Anthrax both did it to great effect and helped further their mediums in interesting and complex ways.  

November 7, 2022