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Don’t be a TOOL

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. megelison.com

“TOOL is just Radiohead for Juggalos.”

This is, to date, still the most devastating thing anyone has ever said to my face about my tastes. But it wasn’t the first time a man had tried to explain this band to me.

Aenima, TOOL’s second studio album, was released in 1996. I was fourteen years old, living on my own, washing dishes in a pizza place at night. I was angrier than I could possibly put words to about my life. I didn’t understand why I didn’t have parents like everyone else, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to finish high school at all (spoiler alert: I dropped out.). I was exclusively listening to music that sounded as miserable as I felt. A friend played Aenima for me in her earwax-gold Toyota, sliding the disc into the car’s hungry mouth and letting it roll.

Something has to change,
Undeniable dilemma
Boredom’s not a burden anyone should bear

I had so many unmet needs in my life that I was terrified of ever saying what I wanted out loud. Relief washed over me when I realized Maynard James Keenan would say it for me.

“There’s two kinds of rock music,” he said. He was the kind of guy every kid had to beat like a low-level dungeon boss before Joe Rogan bought the concept and went national with it. Blacklight posters and the stink of weed. Greasy unwashed hair and a mall katana. Loud, boorish opinions he thought of as refined tastes and broadcast without the slightest encouragement. “There’s cock rock and there’s pussy rock.”

I thought he might be another dime-a-dozen Hole hater and was preparing to launch a limp invective against Courtney Love, but it wasn’t that.

“There’s the kind of rock you make because you’re mad, and the kind you make because you want to get laid.” Satisfied as any man is when he alone cleaves the Gordian knot of human existence into a simple binary, he chugged on his three-foot bong before continuing. “They can both be good. But if you’re angrier than horny, pussy rock sounds like dogshit. If you’re hornier than you are angry, cock rock just sounds like complaints. TOOL is cock rock, obviously.”

This garage dweller had just introduced me to several concepts at once, and I thought about it at length as I played and replayed my own copy of Aenima in the months that followed. First, I had learned that music was gendered, both in its creation and in its enjoyment; a fact I had never really considered though I had spent the early nineties gobbling a steady diet of very misogynist hip hop. Second, I had learned that most men had two emotions they were comfortable with expressing: anger and lust. Third, I had come to understand that for the rest of my life, men were going to explain this band to me.

He had a lot to say
He had a lot of nothing to say
We’ll miss him

“TOOL is really beyond most people,” the guy on my bus who would not shut up was saying. “The drummer is this guy named Danny Carey and he’s like a math genius or whatever. He like invents new time signatures. They’re called like polyrhythms or whatever. The radio only plays the simple stuff like ‘Sober’ because the dumb little bitches who like Limp Bizkit will get those, but they don’t play the good stuff off the album.”

“I have the album,” I said, under the mistaken assumption that this was a conversation.

“I understand it because I’m in AP Calc,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “I can like sense how complex it is. Plus the lyrics are like esoteric. Maynard is basically a philosopher and writes about like logic and the nature of existence. It’s really mind-blowing when you get into it. You should read the liner notes.”

“Yeah, I noticed that the hidden track is kind of a parody—”

“It’s not just like ‘waaaahhh Mommy doesn’t love me,’ like Korn does.”

TOOL’s lyrics were about profound interpersonal pain and disillusionment, and of that I was unshakably sure. I was living it. They were about climate change and the hypocrisy of turning art into a business. But I didn’t matter what I knew, or what I was living. What mattered was that I was going to get lectured about TOOL for the rest of my life.

KROQ was playing “Sober,” with its trenchant baseline and glorious rising action like a furtive, guilty sex act about once an hour, and it seemed that almost as often, some boy at school, some man at work, some stranger on the street was trying to tell me a fun fact. The music video for “Prison Sex” was so evocatively disturbing that one kid I knew told me his therapist had shown it to him to see if it would get him talking about his childhood trauma. It had, he explained. It had broken the seal.

“If my mom had told me the truth about putting my dog down, I’d still be able to trust her now. But she just manipulated me! Like the doll. It’s such a crazy video, it like unlocks your worst memories about your parents.”

I nodded. I didn’t have a therapist. Or a mother, anymore. When I watched the video, I felt a little jealous that the kid-puppet was getting so much individual attention.

As I approached legal adulthood, I tried to let go of things that were beloved of the most annoying men on the planet. I listened to more women, I hid my interests in science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to be allowed to like a thing without being graded on it. I wanted to wear my TOOL t-shirt without getting asked to name three songs; a thing that never happened in my Veruca Salt t-shirt.

I was 19 when Lateralus, TOOL’s third studio album,was released. I was about to get my heart broken by my first internet boyfriend, and I could feel the loosening of that bond even over AOL Instant Messenger.

I know the pieces fit, ’cause I watched them fall away
Mildewed and smoldering, fundamental differing
Pure intention juxtaposed
Will set two lovers’ souls in motion
Disintegrating as it goes
Testing our communication

I had the lyrics set as my away message, challenging him to talk to me about our problems. When he messaged me, I was ready.

“So, you’re listening to Lateralus?”

“Yeah, I’m just really feeling the album, you know?”

“Did you know that the art for the album is by a guy named Alex Gray? He paints what it’s like to be on LSD and engaged in the worship of the cosmic body. I’m getting the poster.”

If you search for it, deep in your memory, you will find the sound of a door shutting on AIM.

I’ve kept up my love through Keenan’s iterations, buying the albums by A Perfect Circle and seeing them in concert, adding Puscifer to my playlists, since we don’t really do albums anymore. I’ve stopped telling men that I listen to TOOL. The band came up in conversation with a friend of mine, I can’t remember why. All I can remember is that this friend is stylish and classy and has a vinyl collection; the kind of man who declares something cringe and no one present will ever touch that tainted thing again.

“Oh yeah,” I said, my angry 15-year-old cringe self tucked somewhere safely inside me. “That’s TOOL.”

Cool stylish guy laughed a little. “TOOL is just Radiohead for Juggalos.”

I didn’t mention the Radiohead albums I owned and violently loved. I didn’t say anything at all.