Anna-Marie O'Brien Talks the "Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian" and the Music Scene of 1990s L.A.
Let's make one thing very clear: Anna-Marie O’Brien’s memoir Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian (2019) is not another tell-all from a rock n roll groupie. It is the story of a beautiful young woman who was offered a coveted behind-the-scenes view of the heavy metal music scene at its early-90s zenith, during which she came face to face with many titans of the day. She had dinner with Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee after he gave her a tour of his house and played her the basis of the band’s future hit song “Primal Scream.” Dave Mustaine, lead singer of Megadeth, sat down in her office desk chair and chatted to her about life just a few weeks before the band released their album Rust in Peace (1990), which has since been regarded by many as one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time. She was one of the first people to hear Metallica’s self-titled fifth album, commonly referred to as the Black album, before its release propelled the band to global superstardom in August of 1991. But O’Brien’s backstage laminate and lanyard came courtesy of her job as an administrative assistant, most notably to Brian Slagel, founder and CEO of Metal Blade Records, the label responsible for launching and promoting some of the most notable and enduring heavy metal acts of the era.
From the moment 18-year-old O’Brien pulled up to the Laurel Canyon address where she was to stay with a friend of a friend, her time in Los Angeles unfolded like a teenage dream. The first person to greet her at the gate, she would later learn, was Mario Maglieri Jr. His family owned several properties along the Sunset Strip — ground zero for the metal scene — like the Whiskey A Go Go where every metal act in town cut their teeth and the celebrity-packed Rainbow Bar and Grill where he took her as a guest later that night. Just as she was finishing her meal, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister (1945 - 2015), the statuesque lead singer of metal forerunners Motorhead, slid in next to her in the booth and had a conversation with Maglieri over her head. That same night, a man named Steve wound her through the hills above Los Angeles on his motorcycle. Only when he dropped her back off at her new apartment would Maglieri inform her that the man whose rather vulgar proposition she had just turned down was Steve Jones, guitarist of the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols. She’d been in Los Angeles for about 12 hours.
There’s something symbolic about a member of the last major rock movement ushering her to her destination and then retreating into the shadows. It was June 2,1990, a new decade was in bloom and heavy metal music was ruling radio with an iron fist. Eventually, O’Brien would attend the 5th anniversary party for Rip Magazine that would retrospectively be viewed as the beginning of the end of metal’s reign. But for the next two years O’Brien would meet and interact with nearly all of the characters whom she had blasted incessantly from her stereo and plastered all over her bedroom walls back in her native Ohio, where the groundwork of the dream was first laid.
As it did for so many American teenagers in the 80s, heavy metal music perfectly narrated O’Brien’s coming-of-rage. It was, she explains in the book, the soundtrack to Generation X, and this memoir is very much a Gen-X story.
“Metal — with all its volume, angst, darkness, sex and devil-talk — was an affront to [the] happy, hippie Boomer kind of music, and we were proud of it,” O’Brien explains in an interview with ARTpublika. “Growing up in the 70s and 80s, divorce was the new normal, families were ripped apart, kids were raising themselves,” she elaborates. “I can’t speak geographically for the whole of the US, but where I grew up on the edges of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, metal represented the working class kids who didn’t have any economic or educational advantages, and often many disadvantages, like generational poverty.” In short: “We were pissed.”
Her first and most enduring encounter with the genre was with Motley Crue, and she even names each of the chapters in the book after the band’s songs. When pressed, she cites Shout at the Devil (1983) as the quintessential heavy metal record of all time, though she notes Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction (1987) as a very close second. “I’m not sure if [it] would even qualify as metal by today’s standards, but [it was] metal back then and absolutely reflected every bit of teenage angst, anger and rebellion that I felt. It tell[s] very compelling stories full of sex, drugs, death, and survival...as beautifully as any good book I've read.” She found a kindred in the band’s bass player Nikki Sixx, who like O’Brien and so many of her contemporaries, had been raised by a single mother, and an absent father. In the book, when describing her meeting with Dave Mustaine in L.A., she realizes that “so many metalheads seemed to have a similar story. An unstable home, moving around a lot, an alcoholic or absent dad and a working mom, or some other version of parental instability or heartbreak.”
Many of these absent fathers, like O’Brien’s, found it impossible to parent while buckling under the weight of trauma that they had brought back from the Vietnam War. In a few deft sentences, she describes the unspeakable assaults that her father endured during his tour, opening up a whole expanse of compassion for him and those like him, diffusing the stereotype of the deadbeat dad, and making his tiny, sporadic efforts over the years to connect with his daughter seem both Herculean and eggshell delicate. “Many of these men were just completely broken, and in different ways than the generation of soldiers before them were from the last World War,” she explains. “Not even to speak of the disrespect and controversy they faced stateside when coming home after the war.”
What she did have, was a close and loving bond with her mother, Mary Ann, who worked tirelessly to give the two of them an increasingly better life, and from whom she learned a serious work ethic, practicality, and resourcefulness. For the first seven years of her life, her doting Sicilian grandmother, Mama, taught her to believe in magic as an everyday occurrence. When she set her sights on moving to Los Angeles to find her place among those whom she had deemed as her tribe, this combination of otherworldly belief and practical application would help her get there, an instinctual form of the manifesting and creative visualization that’s become so prevalent today. “We are like tuning forks. We have the ability to resonate with the energy that surrounds us, so you have to be careful of what you let in and what you put out into the world.” states O’Brien. “Thoughts are things, and with the power of our mind we create our reality. It’s really that simple. I think they call it ‘the Law of Attraction’ these days, but I still just think of it as magic.”
Her other source of refuge, and lifelong passion, lay in books. The title of the memoir plays on the stereotype that those who bang their heads would have little use for what lay therein. Yet, as it turns out, the two worlds intersect quite naturally. “Many of us metalheads started as the kids who wanted to sit and read books all day, or who didn’t like sports, or who were shy or introverted,” she explains. “For some of us, being a book nerd and a metalhead was camouflage for being deeply anxious and overly sensitive. We found safety in books, and with each other.” She goes on to say: “Metal music is often telling a very vivid, heartfelt story, and I think this is why there is an overlap — the love of story.”
Books found a home in her, too. When an upstairs neighbor named Claire went missing, O’Brien’s landlord was forced to evict her and leave her things for the taking. While walking around the missing woman’s apartment, O’Brien felt a preternatural pull toward her collection of books, which she created a space for back in her own bedroom. “She recognized her kind, and those books were meant for me” reasons O’Brien. “She knew I’d take good care of them.” Beginning that night, she started having dreams of Claire and where her body could be found, which proved to be prophetic as a detective later confirmed.
She would care for a great number of other books throughout her nearly 20-year career as a librarian, which she describes as a “full-body contact sport,” and which she’ll explore in her third book, the forthcoming Library Confidential. It’s a world she says is as misunderstood as the metal scene once was. “People have this idea that working in a library is akin to working in a church, peaceful and serene, surrounded by rainbows and kittens - but it’s not like that, AT ALL,” she explains. “So, I’m revealing the hard, gritty underbelly of working in a public library, similar to how Anthony Bourdain approached the truth of his craft in Kitchen Confidential (2000) so many years ago.”
For some time, the metal scene had been feeling that cool northwesterly breeze at its neck, until finally the Seattle cold front came and settled over Los Angeles, and the entire world. Grunge was in and metal was out. O’Brien was out, too, her love of the city’s story and myth and even its fascinating underbelly overtaken by her repulsion to its emphasis on the superficial, its promotion of narcissism. She’d return nine years later though, to complete her master’s degree in library science. Her thesis, which she defended in front of a room full of people to thunderous applause, was about heavy metal, and how it championed free speech and freedom of expression for a whole generation. She would like to see more from that generation, one that has largely been overlooked, use their voices to tell their stories.
“Understanding Generation X is like understanding a secret history, in some ways,” she says. “We are always overlooked, but I think we’ve used it to our advantage to survive between these two bigger generations. We quietly dominate the culture now, and I’d like to see more stories like mine, honestly — coming of age, growing up analog, what we experienced, what truths we’ve learned now that we are middle-aged.”
At the end of the day: “I’d love some more real, honest memoir by rocker types. Not a blow by blow of their career or accomplishments or a who’s who, but actual, real, transformative, heartfelt stories.”
Note* All images are the creative property of Anna-Marie O'Brien, used with permission.