Saturday was one of the first warm, sunny spring days. People wore shorts and flip-flops, got their bikes out, and worked in their gardens. MSU students were dressed up for the award ceremonies and parties that mark the end of a school year; driving out of East Lansing we passed swaths of Lily Pulitzer-bright dresses, khakis and navy blazers.
The second-floor smoking deck at Mac’s Bar was packed with black-clad, tattooed, pierced, and spiked humanity. There were several men sporting topknots, one of which was neon green. There were lots of Chuck Taylors, Doc Martens, and metal band t-shirts.
Elle Zerfas and Erin Leister-Brown, blinded by the sun after the darkness inside Mac's
Same sunny day; entirely different universe.
Mac’s has hovered just outside the city limits since the 1940s, and has booked the edgiest of underground music since the mid-1990s. On Saturday, I was Captain Carnivore’s date for Ogrefest IX, an all-day metal festival featuring multiple bands and more than ten hours of music.
Staging started in the parking lot.
We arrived at the start of the sole 45-minute intermission to find the inside of the bar relatively empty. Much of the crowd had gone in search of food at neighboring Theio’s, Quality Dairy or the El Oasis taco truck. You don’t go to Mac’s for food, because there isn’t any. You probably don’t go for the drinks, which are pretty standard. You go for the music.
Mary Kay AND Mosh Pits.
Inside the bar, it was dark. Very dark. The floor was sticky, the furniture was diner-functional, and the bar was across a narrow aisle from tables of merchandise. In a back corner were a couple of young guys in camo hoodies playing games on pinball machines. We ordered beers, and Captain Carnivore (a Mac’s regular) introduced me to some people.
The view from the bar.
I found myself transfixed by the crowd. At one table sat a boy and a girl with hair dyed poppy-red, along with a second girl with pale green hair held back with a butterfly clip; I immediately dubbed them Raggedy Ann, Raggedy Andy and The Mermaid Girl. Across the room was a group of men who could have been taken from a painting of Old Testament heroes with their long, black hair, aquiline noses and full beards. The Old Testament thing was only slightly ruined by the fact that they were all wearing black band T-shirts, and that the one I thought of as Moses knocked back enough whiskey sodas to kill Pharaoh’s army.
We moved to the floor near the stage for Hellmouth, a thrash/punk/metal band from Detroit. When they started to play, the noise was incredible; unable to speak to Captain Carnivore I texted him. “All these people are wearing earplugs. Should we be wearing earplugs?!” He shrugged. It was too late.
Hellmouth’s singer, a menacing guy in a billed cap growled, swore, drank, and, at one point, swung at a suspended amp and caused a board to fall on the head of a fan. Nothing stopped.
Hellmouth, sneering & banging
The floor vibrated, I vibrated, and the guitarist banged his head so that his long hair whipped back and forth across his face. This was not about “listening” to music as a thing separate from oneself; it was about becoming the music, being part of it and taking it in like a drug. No one tapped their feet, but everyone moved their heads, from a slight bobbing to full-on, hair-flinging banging.
Suddenly, a mosh pit formed. Like molecules in heated water, a group began to move at various speeds, intentionally colliding with each other and spinning away. A large man with a bald head moved at a stately pace, and a tiny young woman was faster and more aggressive in her jabs. As if by silent decree, an edge formed, beyond which we were safe from collision: Captain Carnivore reached out to gently repel an oncoming mosher, and in that moment we were marked as “outside” the pit. (I did move to stand behind him, just in case.)
The floor was slippery, and the bald giant fell, crushed under an equally massive guy wearing a bandanna over the lower part of his face. They had words, and in a matter of seconds they were being pulled apart and held back as the singer denounced fighting. Eventually, Bald Guy and Bandanna Guy hugged each other in that manly, back-patting kind of way, and it looked like they meant it.
After that set, we snagged a couple of wobbly bar stools and ordered again. The speakers blared country music, and Hellmouth’s scary singer came to the bar to order one of Mac’s signature Pabst Blue Ribbon Tallboys. He was considerably less scary in person, looking older than I’d originally thought, and very tired. I heard him tell a fan that he’d just gotten back from touring with another band, and that he had six kids.
Guitar case on a pool table
Lots more happened: three guys with topknots, gages and nose rings showing me how to do an Irish Car Bomb, we heard sets from Pan, The Stonecutters and Genocya, and I saw the best bathroom stall art I’ve seen in decades.
Also, I banged my head, because it was so hard not to.