There’s an epigraph at the beginning of Weiner, the sad and hilarious documentary about Anthony Weiner’s failed New York City mayoral campaign. It’s a quote from the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”
McLuhan was riffing on a line from James Joyce, but he could have just as easily been talking about Weiner, or about a less immediately obvious example of 20th-century phallic nomenclature: the California progressive metal band Tool, headliners of the second day of this year’s Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. With their resolutely complex and adenoidal music, Tool would at first seem like an odd choice for a headliner, and for an object of popular mockery. “Schism,” the closest thing they have to a hit single, is a seven-minute breakup song from 2001 featuring dozens of time signature changes and lyrical imagery of mildew and crumbling temples. Another of their best-known songs is a bleak extended metaphor about anal fisting.
And yet their music and their cult of fans have made them into rock stars, and the numbing blow of their name has made them into a joke. On Saturday in New Orleans, thousands of those fans congregated to hear Tool’s thudding down-tuned riffs and see singer Maynard James Keenan gyrating in some sort of riot-cop-fetishist uniform—despite the fact that Tool hasn’t released any new music in a decade, and the release date of their long-awaited fifth full-length is still unclear. Many fans were wearing Tool shirts—some with a picture of a wrench shaped like a dick and balls, in case the double entendre isn’t clear—reflecting back and owning the identity that the rest of the world has chosen for them. “I am a Tool fan,” the shirts say to fellow listeners. To just about everyone else, they announce just as proudly, “I am a tool.”
When Pitchfork, our generation’s most important arbiter of hipness in music, gave Tool’s Lateralus a withering 1.9 review upon its release in 2001, the writer quoted a dictionary of 19th-century slang that defined “tool” as “a small boy used to creep through windows.” When they gave followup 10,000 Days a less dismissive 5.9 review five years later, they still noted, as I’ve done here, that Tool fans “wear an insult on their T-shirts.” It’s hard to imagine the band would have amassed the same army of casual haters if they had just called themselves Hammer, or Bandsaw.
My own Tool fandom began—and pretty much ended, until I saw them at Voodoo—with Lateralus, their double-platinum third album. I briefly gravitated toward it as a teenager, after hearing Keenan’s guest appearance on the self-titled Rage Against the Machine album, a sacred text for me at the time. Today, I most enjoy Tool when they’re indulging their most experimental tendencies, riding one rhythmic pulse against the waves of a completely different one. But Keenan’s mewling melodies and Freudian fixations just don’t resonate with me.
During their Voodoo set, I met a zonked-out attendee who’d fashioned himself a garment somewhere between a romper and a toga, entirely out of red saran wrap—complete with a tiny, red saran-wrap door providing bathroom access to his own tool, which he was more than happy to demonstrate. (Voodoo weekend was also Halloween weekend, remember.) While the band twisted its way through some incredible Möbius strip of a riff, and Keenan howled over it, saran man waved his arm and asked, “Could they be fucking it any harder right now?” I couldn’t tell if his zen-like rhetorical question was intended as criticism or praise, but it felt exactly right either way.
Still, I admire Tool’s devotion to the old-fashioned idea that rock music can be a platform for high populist art. And as a recently born-again Grateful Dead convert, I’m interested in acts that have huge obsessive followings, but are largely laughed off by the rest of the music-listening populace. To that end, I interviewed my friends Kevin and Jimmy, two Tool fans who drove an insane 24-hour straight shot from New York City to Louisiana to see their favorite band in action, assisted by two Tool-agnostics who just wanted to be in New Orleans for Halloween. I got periodic text and phone call updates over the course of Thursday night and Friday as they drove: “In VA now, cruising,” “Coming up on Georgia, ready to get out of this car hahaha.”
After the show, I asked the guys how they felt about the performance, and what being a Tool fan means to them. As I write this, they’re probably just finishing up with their second daylong drive, headed back to New York.
How was the drive down?
Jimmy: It was great. I drove for seven hours and it only felt like an hour.
Kevin: I thought the driving went really smoothly, for the most part.
And what did you think of the set?
K: My first Tool show was nine years ago, in 2007, and I’ve only seen them four times since then, because the last album they put out was in 2006, and they don’t play many shows. So it was a really special event. As I’ve gotten older, going to a show where I really enjoy myself is a cathartic event. Last night, because I had seen Ghost beforehand—he was dressed up like an evil pope—and Voodoo fest has this religious theme going on, I had this moment where I was like, this is almost like communion, you know what I mean? They played one of my favorite songs, “Parabola.” That’s a song where the lyrics are cathartic. They invoke a feeling of release, of letting go.
J: They also played two of my favorite songs. They did an extended version of “Opiate,” the eponymous song from their first EP. They sometimes incorporate weird little jams into their songs, but it’s always very structured. They also played “Sweat,” which is also from the Opiate EP. I used to play it on drums, growing up.
K: I liked “Opiate” a lot too. My brother and sister turned me on to Tool when I was growing up, but it was starting out with Lateralus, and [their second album, 1996’s] AEnima. But when I started hanging out with Jimmy, he turned me on to the older stuff, like [1993’s] Undertow and [1992’s] Opiate. “Opiate” was a song that I’d only ever heard on the record, which was cool, because they’re not a band that always reaches into the back catalog when they play live.
For me, they’re a band that’s the total package. The way that they conduct themselves, their visuals, their instrumentals, their vocals. I couldn’t see from all the way in the back, but it looked like Maynard was wearing some kind of S&M gear. A leather bodysuit with some zippers. Danny Carey, the drummer, was on the right, and Adam Jones, the guitarist, was on the left. And Maynard is always in the back. No matter if you’re stage right or stage left, you get a good view of what’s going on.
I feel like Tool is a sort of misunderstood band. If you’re not really into them, they’re kind of laughed off as ridiculous. I think part of it is the name. But I definitely talked to people who were like, “You’re going to see Tool this weekend, really?”
K: I don’t really encounter that, but that’s probably because lots of the people I hang out with like Tool. But it’s also one of those things where, if you say your own name like 100 times, it doesn’t even sound like your own name anymore. The familiarity gives it a different aspect. I don’t think of Tool as, like, the word “tool.”
But it’s true that once you get to a show, maybe there’s some douchey fans around you. I saw them a few years ago, and My Bloody Valentine was playing before them, and some guy was like, “Fuck these guys, bring out Tool!” I think that kind of fan is the fan that they’d rather not have.
J: At the show last night, there was this guy next to me who was like eight feet tall, and he was singing along. He wouldn’t shut the fuck up.
K: I liked that he was singing!
J: Yeah, but he would ruin the moment because he was singing out of key. I’m like, “Dude, I get it. You love this band. So do I. But I didn’t pay 70 dollars for a ticket to hear you sing.” He was also talking about the set list, telling me what songs they were going to play before they played them. Some Tool fans are like fucking Phish geeks, man. Some people follow them, go to all the shows. Some people just go on the internet and look at every set list they’ve played on the tour.
K: I don’t want to be able to accurately predict what they’ll play because I looked it up online beforehand.
J: Which is why it was so awesome when they played “Sweat.” I was like, “Oh my God.” That was a genuine surprise.
Tool can be fucking assholes about this kind of thing, and I love it. On the internet, they’re known for putting out bullshit information about songs that are going to be released, or when the new album is going to be released. Really dicky shit. They’re kind of a gimmicky band. They have at least a few songs about how absurdly popular they are, and their way of dealing with it.
They seem to value privacy, and not to be too invested in the idea of being rock stars.
J: Yeah, but that’s part of their shtick. I don’t think they’re dudes who don’t want to be recognized for the art that they do. It’s all part of their act.
How do you guys feel about driving back tomorrow?