I am 22, in 2001, sweating through black denim in the humid haze of a summer evening. I’m surrounded by my people, sullen youth in revolt; against what, we don’t yet know. We have gathered at the Docks, a garish outdoor concert venue in the port lands, for the ultimate heavy metal experience. Ozzfest—where the four original members of Black Sabbath have reunited. The stage is a carousel of men adrenalized with rage, screaming admonitions and pleas out into a gravel lot surrounded by chain link, lined with portable toilets and beer kiosks where wiry, drunk metalheads line up for plastic cups of warm brew to pour into their thirsty mouths.
I am here, with my friends, drunk on life and Labatt 50, willing the world to end in song. This is before everything. The date is July 24th. Still nearly two months before the towers fall, the crackdown comes; before the rich double down and begin milking the system toward the collapse of 2008; before all of the apocalyptic verse of my metal idols coheres into a visible threat, a constant anxiety, like the whine of feedback from a hot mic left too close to amplified stacks.
As the day wanes and the lineup progresses through its featured ghouls—Papa Roach, Marilyn Manson, the masked fiends of Slipknot—I stand, wobbly, feeling the twilight breeze blow in off the lake, taking some of the pressure out of the day’s heat. This is long before I come to understand the sun as something like poison. The feeling is already there, though: a tingle of something incongruous.
As the twisted, tritone bars of a metal anthem conjure the raised arms of the angsty but elated thousands, I look up at the sky. The sun is setting. For a moment, its beauty stops time. Pink, orange and violet smears; accents of blue flame; a webbing of ivory white. A brilliant, impossible palette. At first, I see an inverse to the pessimism and bile coming from the speakers, and I marvel at how nothing can match the primal ache of nature’s grace. The intensity of colour triggers associations with other landscapes of my youth: clustered evergreens, cottage docks, glassy lakes reflecting the roseate sunsets of the rugged lower north. A peaceful, pristine world.
Then, jolted out of reverie by a cymbal crashing, I look around. Coloured dry-ice billows out from the stage. Behind us, the slag heaps and smokestacks of the port lands loom. The smell of tar gusts in from somewhere beyond the fences—and I remember that the colours of the city sunset result from refraction through the haze of the urban environment. These hues in the sky are not natural; they’re too vivid, too hot. They know what only the oilmen know: that whole days will soon be like poison. The colours are already an emergency. This spectrum over the skyline keens with the knowledge I don’t yet have:
Our blindness has led us to change the world in ways we can’t fathom; and the beauty of what is left will only become more sorrowful as we mourn the beauty of that which is already gone.
In the crowd, I raise my arms, trying to brush toxic colour from the sky. I close my eyes and search for that place in the oblivion of music where the chemical sunset can remain dazzling, and its septic whispers don’t have to lead to this place we are in, now: the sky a prism of dread, the future a fever we cannot break.