At The Heavy Metal Shop in Sugarhouse, Kevin Kirk says business has never been so good.
The store, a tiny cubicle along a strip mall, is jammed with quasi-obscene posters and permeated with the smell of incense. Glass jewelry cases feature leather bracelets studded with spikes and skull-shaped earrings and necklaces. Kids mill about, fingering the tapes and CDs of bands with names like Anthrax, Poison, Slaughter, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Faith No More.It's music that, in many instances, seems to glorify decadence, drunkenness, misogyny and mischief. But it's big business in Utah. And it promises to get even bigger. Industry officials say Salt Lake City, conservative by most standards, is a hotbed of heavy metal.
"This Salt Lake City market is very unique," said Eric Yaillen, marketing director for Spectacor, the company that manages the Salt Palace.
He recently moved to Salt Lake City from Florida and was a bit surprised at what he found. "Based on the stereotypes people have of Salt Lake City, no one would expect this to be a popular heavy metal area, but it is. Part of it is based on teenagers' desire to rebel. Heavy metal music is that rebellion in this town."
Record sales lend further support to the notion thatheavy metal is hot in Utah. Officials at Broadway Music, 3130 S. State, say up to 40 percent of the compact discs they sell are of heavy metal music. Hastings Records in the Crossroads Plaza says 30 percent of the rock and pop music it sells is heavy metal.
The question for most adults is: Why?
Psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists provide some answers. Much of what they say could apply as easily to teenagers of the 1960s, who embraced a hippie movement, or of the '50s, who were excited by the on-stage gyrations of Elvis Presley.
Heavy metal is an escape from the real world, experts say. It is a way of rebelling against parents and other authority figures.
Most of the music's enthusiasts agree.
Kirk, the 29-year-old owner of the Sugarhouse store, said he was a big Alice Cooper fan as a teenager "because he was so wild, and my parents hated him. That has a lot to do with it - shocking your parents. Rebellion. It has always been that way back with Elvis and the Beatles."
Tyler Stillman, a 16-year-old Cottonwood High student, said the music allows him temporarily to escape. "If you have a bad day at school and your parents are on your a--, you come home and turn it up - go to sleep. And your problems go away."
Stillman's response is reminiscent of youths in other eras - many of whom now are the parents of heavy metal fans.
But when it comes to explaining why three concertgoers were trampled to death at a Salt Palace show Jan. 18 by the Australian group AC/DC, the answers become more difficult. The experts talk of concert conditions that make each patron anonymous, and of a mob psychology that encourages deviant, and often violent, behavior.
They talk of a need to shock mainstream society - a task that requires pushing limits never before imagined as mainstream society becomes more permissive.
Lewis B. Hancock, former director of a chemical-dependency treatment center for adolescents and author of the book "When Drugs Hit Home," said heavy metal enthusiasts love the perception they are living on the edge, whether that edge involves sexuality, vulgarity or the occult. The bands have stage props that deal with death, cemeteries and things grotesque.
"There are very few that would admit to being satanists or into the occult, but they love to live on the edge of it all. They love to make innuendo," he said.
Hancock predicts heavy metal's next step will be to exploit outrageous sexual themes, prompted by Madonna's recent video that was deemed too racy to show on the music network MTV.
"I would predict that within two years videos with increasingly sophisticated themes will be aired on the cable networks on a regular basis," Hancock said.
Hancock said the idea is that kids need to find new ways of getting excited or of feeling "with it."
"Music has had to progress to more and more extremes - becoming more violent. Heavy beat, out-of-control."
Like other experts, Hancock, who has attended many concerts, does not want to sound like an alarmist. He said most youths who attend concerts are not adversely affected by the music or the themes. The bands poke fun at the establishment, at churches and at authority.
"But I guess that's not a whole lot different than the Johnny Carson show or any comedian that cuts at the establishment," he said.
But for youths who already have emotional problems or who are dependent on drugs, the music may be a further catalyst to trouble.
Richard A. Segal, a psychiatrist at Alta View and Wasatch Canyons hospitals, said the people who become obsessed with heavy metal tend to be either psychologically disturbed, depressed, dependent on drugs or a combination of those factors. Some youths are loners whose best friends are headphones.
"When you put these kids in a concert who have spent 100 hours listening to the same song, some may get a bit in their own head and own world," Segal said. "They are not dancing with someone else. They are dancing to the music totally with themselves. Then they become oblivious . . . They can become destructive."
Critics have blamed the Salt Palace's "festival seating" arrangement for the deaths at the AC/DC concert. Under that arrangement, concertgoers were allowed to roam freely on the arena floor.
While the Salt Lake County attorney's office is conducting an investigation that may point to other factors as causing the tragedy, psychologists and psychiatrists say festival seating creates conditions condusive to deviant mob behavior.
Fredrick Rhodewalt, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, said people feel anonymous when part of a mob on a dark arena floor.
"You feel you're much less responsible for your behavior; less inhibited," he said. "There has to be some sort of lure that suggests anti-social behavior," Rhodewalt said. "One person has to start pushing and shoving to get the whole crowd going. Turning up the house lights serves the purpose of making people more identifiable and tends to solve the problem."
It was the anonymity, not the music, that likely led to the Salt Palace tragedy, Rhodewalt said.
If people all had their own chairs, they still may feel anonymous, but they would be less likely lured by someone pushing and shoving, he said.
Kirk, goes along with that idea. He believes festival seating should be stopped. He also said parents and community leaders shouldn't take heavy metal's outrageousness too seriously.
"I don't think everyone who buys these is out to hurt people," he said, pointing to paraphernalia that looked as if it belonged in a street gang's arsenal. "They just want to look mean. Most kids are into it just because of the music."
A rock'n roll town?
Paul Kiss Aerosmith* Montley
Simon Slaughter* Crue*
Salt Palace Date 1-16-91 9-1-90 3-31-90 -
Attendance 10.655 12,274 13,237 -
% of capacity 100% 100% 100% -
Gross $229,005 $217,413 $252,954 -
McNichols Date 1-17-91 - 5-20-89 8-2-90
Arena Attendance 12,448 - 8,361 13,503
(Denver) % of capacity 88% - 64% 82%
Gross $288,112 - $150,619 $297,066
Sports Arena (San Diego) Date 1-20-91 9-15-90 3-2-90 -
Attendance 10,104 6,620 13,166 -
% of capacity 93% 77% 100% -
Gross $242,275 $111,503 $270,921 -
Veterans Date - 9-16-90 2-7-88 11-17-89
Memorial Attendance 8,892 14,000 14,042
Coliseum % of capacity - 63% 100% 100%
(Phoenix) Gross - $149,408 $226,291 $259,272
*Heavy Metal band
Arena capacities vary from concert to concert
Source: Pollstar Magazine