When Coming of Age Was Horror Time by Joe Pagetta

The first lines of the song “Pure” by the early ’90s alternative metal and hardcore band, Horror Time, are “In all my conversations with my hero in the heavens / all he ever taught me was how to be a savior.”

“But I ask him,” the lyric continues, “Lord, can you teach me more?”

I’m not sure what more there is than that, but as the song continues, it’s clear what the narrator really wants is to be taught less.

Teach me how to live this life and not to just get by.
How to make decisions when they flash before my eyes.
How do I know what’s right and wrong if it changes everyday?
And how do I know what’s right for me, just because you say?

The song continues in this vein, circling around the general question of how to live.

I wrote those lyrics more than 30 years ago. Horror Time was my band; I was its lead singer and chief lyricist. To commemorate the initial release three decades ago of the four-song cassette containing “Pure,” and take advantage of today’s affordable streaming technology, my former bandmates and I decided last year to reissue it digitally with three unearthed live tracks. The full album is titled 1991. The reissue gives our small fan base of mostly old friends a chance to hear the songs again, and provides an opportunity for a new generation of alternative hardcore and metal fans to consider what we were doing.

Prepping for the release offered me a chance to revisit lyrics I have very little recollection of writing, but that appear to be somewhat influenced by my Roman Catholic upbringing and search for meaning in its tradition. There’s even a song called “The Search.”

That we as a band were exploring those things is not surprising. Joining me in the group were Chris Morelli and Jonpaul Pantozzi, who were both half Italian American and grew up in a combination of Protestant and Catholic households, and Rocky Patel, who was Indian American. All four of us went to Catholic boys high schools in Jersey City, New Jersey; three of us classmates at Hudson Catholic. By the time I wrote those lyrics, I’d already had 12 years of Catholic school education and was headed for four more. I’d been an altar boy. I lived in an Italian American household with a picture of the Sacred Heart with eyes that followed me everywhere I went. My mother and grandmother made the sign of the cross all the time, for reasons I never really understood, and invoked the Blessed Mother on every occasion possible. My father invoked her too, but only in Italian and only when he was angry. We wore gold horns around our necks to ward off the evil eye of neighbors and enemies.

Catholic imagery in metal music at the time was not uncommon. I was a big fan of Ronnie James Dio, whose lyrics were full of it. There was “Holy Diver,” and “The Last in Line,” and an entire album entitled Sacred Heart. It is generally considered a fact that two fingers raised in a horn symbol at a rock show originated with Dio. He learned the hand gesture from his Italian grandmother.

The Horror Time song “Fortunes in Despair” opens with me singing about being “crucified in my own bed / left to look down upon myself in anguish / beneath the thundering sound.” It’s straight out of the Dio songwriting manual. The song’s outro has me imploring the listener to live their lives and “choose not to burn.” Repeatedly. Listening back 30 years later, from my mellow middle-age perch, is a bit shocking. But again, not surprising.

What strikes me now, all these years later, is the depths I appear to be going to try to explore my faith—challenge it, even—and understand my role in it. This has never really stopped. I’ve only matured in my approach. Instead of playing power chords on a black Stratocaster run through a Marshall half stack and screaming into a microphone at a half-filled local rock club, I’m tapping on a Chromebook late into the evening in my home office after I’ve seen my young daughters to bed. In poet and former chairman of the Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia’s landmark 2013 essay on the state of the Catholic faith in American letters, “The Catholic Writer Today,” he doesn’t mention anyone who used to be in a hardcore band. Is it too late to have him consider me?

I’d never put together who I was then with the Catholic writer I am today until I went back and listened to those songs. They felt like another version of me, a humorous anecdote for professional friends. But I see now they are part of a whole continued search for meaning.

Horror Time’s name came from two sources. We were originally called Rocky Horror, after our guitar player’s name, but knew if we were serious about what we were doing, we needed to avoid a copyright infringement suit. It was at that time that M.C. Hammer’s song “Hammer Time” was released. The unbridled enthusiasm of the song, and its unapologetic—and, some might say, uncreative—use of Rick James’s “Super Freak” was appalling to us angry, confused, and instrument-playing teenagers. We had our name and our mission. Our bio talked of us “looking truth in the eye and coming to grips with day to day reality.” As Jim Testa of the Jersey Beat fanzine wrote in an early review of the band, “the ‘horror’ in their name . . . comes from the fears and apprehension faced by most teenagers today.”

As a band, we weren’t so sure what M.C. Hammer, or anybody else for that matter, had to be so happy and positive about. In 1991, with the waging of the first Gulf War, the raging of the AIDS crisis, the gay community fighting for their lives and their rights, and a president in office we did not feel represented us, all we saw around us was horror and misery. Religion would not have been free from that criticism. In part one of her memoir, The Long Loneliness, appropriately titled “Searching,” Dorothy Day touches on a similar perplexity:

I felt even at fifteen, that God meant man to be happy, that He meant to provide him with what he needed to maintain life in order to be happy, and that we did not need to have quite so much destitution and misery as I saw all around and read in the daily press.

She expands on the confusion several times in the “University” chapter:

In my reading I must have absorbed a scorn of religion at the time, a consciously critical attitude toward religious people who were so comfortably happy in the face of the injustices in the world.

I had time to read, and the ugliness of life in a world which professed itself to be Christian appalled me.

As a child the happy peace of the Methodists who lived next door appealed to me deeply. Now that same happiness seemed to be a disregard of the misery of the world.

Unsure where my faith fit in the world I found myself in, but not ready to dismiss it, I sought to wrestle with it. It’s a stance I had begun to explore a year earlier when I was given the Excellence in Religious Studies Award at Hudson Catholic’s annual year-end awards ceremony at St. Aedan’s Church. These awards typically went to students with the highest grade point average. While I was a good student, I knew I didn’t have the best grade. But I also knew I may have been the most engaged student in the class, constantly asking questions and challenging the teaching. My final paper that year was a review of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian.

Beyond the Catholic imagery in my lyrics—the song “The Search” includes the couplet, “So many times, I showed you my goal / And so many times, you nailed it to my soul”—there’s a simple lyric in the punk-influenced song “Sweet India Relish” that also strikes me now. As opposed to the other lyrics, I remember writing it. In the song’s second movement, I follow the throwaway line, “Same situation,” with the pointed “Gay liberation.” In an age where referring to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community is more acceptable, “Gay liberation” sounds extremely antiquated. But at the time, liberation was the proper nomenclature. I felt strongly in support of the movement, and the line gave me a chance to at least say something in solidarity, if not entirely explicitly. (It would portend my desire when I got to Saint Peter’s College a year later, after a freshman year at New York University, to join gay friends in trying to start a student gay and lesbian union on campus. We didn’t succeed.) I’m not sure how common it was for hardcore and metal bands to say things like that in 1991, but for a bunch of Catholic school kids, I felt we were pushing the needle. As the lyricist, I felt like I was living up to my Excellence in Religious Studies Award, and that Brother Tony would be proud.

Horror Time broke up in 1992 after playing dozens of shows just about anywhere anyone would have us in New York and New Jersey. We were young and still individually exploring the kind of music we wanted to make. Everyone continued in some capacity in the years that followed, and some still play to this day. I continued to write and record music for about a decade and half, my search for meaning in my faith and my writing never really subsiding. If I listen back, I can hear it slipping into countless songs about hope and reconciliation. I had been writing prose all along, first as a journalist, and eventually found the written word a better medium for exploration. It wasn’t until the last five years or so, inspired by Gioia’s essay, the writing of the late Brian Doyle, and the encouragement of my friend, mentor, and New York Times opinion writer Margaret Renkl, that I decided to own the idea of being a Catholic writer. Instead of burying my inquiry in the faith, I would start writing faith-forward. It felt like a new endeavor, but listening back to Horror Time reminded me that it wasn’t. The Catholic writer has always been there, regardless of the medium.

Beyond the darkness that seems pervasive in the music of Dio, I’ve always heard the hope in it. His song “Rainbow in the Dark” is probably the best example of this. It’s right there in the title. But it’s also explicit in “Sacred Heart,” too:

So here is a dream
For just you and I
We’ll find the sacred heart
Somewhere bleeding in the night, yeah
Look for the light
And find the sacred heart

And then from that same album, there’s the unambiguous, “Hungry for Heaven.” Go listen to it. It’s joyful.

Horror Time may have been a hardcore band. Our music was heavy and we were frequently angry. But I think my bandmates and I were ultimately hopeful that what we perceived as the horrors of the world could be turned around. In our song “Horror Time”—yes, we had a song named after us*—I sing, “We must move forward / confront our fears.” I’m not sure what’s more hopeful, or Catholic, than that.

Joe Pagetta is a museum professional, arts writer, and personal essayist whose work has appeared in America, Ambassador Magazine (the National Italian American Foundation), Chapter 16, Wordpeace, Ovunque Siamo, and more. He has a B.A. from Saint Peter’s University and currently serves as the director of communications for the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. More at JoePagetta.com.

* All the best bands have songs named after themselves. See “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath as an example, a band fronted by none other than Ronnie James Dio after Ozzy Osbourne left.
** Photo: wetwebwork from London, UK / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
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