By Michael E. Miller
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Nearly two decades before legions of concerned parents and oh-so-earnest editorial writers spent sleepless nights fretting over Eminem winning a Grammy Award, heavy metal was the musical siren luring America's impressionable youth to their ruin. As he answers the door to his spacious Miami Shores home, Swedish-born heavy-metal warrior Yngwie Malmsteen looks ready to revisit that notorious Eighties role: black boots, black pants, black shirt open to the navel, large black cross dangling from his neck, lots of heavy gold jewelry, and aviator sunglasses. Topping off his imposing six-foot three-inch frame is a thick black mane of hair that drapes over his shoulders and hangs halfway down his back.
The Grim Reaper visage seems perfectly suited to both the guitar virtuoso's music and his lyrics -- fist-pumping hard-rock riffs circling around squealing solos and accompanied by tales of demonic armies on the march chock-a-block with Gothic imagery and a healthy dose of teen angst. This suburban citadel also fits the bill of what a heavy-metal star's home should look like; a large stone lion on the front lawn is but one of many oversize statues that dot the three-and-a-half-acre spread.
Yet Yngwie [pronounced Ing-vay] Malmsteen, Lord of the Underworld, is not what he seems. True, a martial theme runs throughout his house, from the samurai swords and vintage rifles mounted on the walls to the custom-fitted suit of armor that stands in the foyer. But the only sounds of fury on this afternoon come from an upstairs bedroom, where Yngwie's son, two-and-a-half-year-old Antonio, is crashing away on his miniature drum kit.
Malmsteen owns a large collection of rare guitars, which would seem to be a natural conversation starter when strangers pay a visit. Instead he chooses to lead Kulchur on a tour of the grounds, his immaculately kept tennis court ("I have a teacher at the country club"), and a row of newly planted hedges. Almost apologetically he explains, "These hedges haven't really started coming in yet." Then, casting an admiring gaze across the street to his neighbor's healthy chest-high shrubbery, he adds, "They grow better in the summer."
At ease on his front lawn, bathed in bright sunshine and framed by a bucolic street, Malmsteen makes for a bizarre sight. This is a man, after all, whose latest album, War to End All Wars, opens with the screamed advice: "Run for your lives!" It's a bit hard to envision this foreboding black-clad figure as a contented homeowner worrying about landscaping projects and his tennis backhand. Evidently we're a long, long way from the debauched Los Angeles rock world of the Eighties that first made Yngwie Malmsteen a star.
Malmsteen settles into a chair inside his impressively arrayed home recording studio. With a bust of Bach and another suit of armor flanking the mixing board, this darkened soundproof sanctum seems a more appropriate venue to discuss his rock and roll life and how it has led him to Miami Shores, of all places.
"I started playing guitar when I was five years old," he recalls, laying out a life story with a narrative arc tailor-made for a VH1 Behind the Musicspecial. "In Sweden it was impossible to get somewhere. I had a following, I had a buzz -- record companies didn't want to know. Neoclassical heavy metal? Nobody even knew what that was." He adds proudly: "I inventedthat style of music."
In 1983 Malmsteen's homemade demo sufficiently impressed the head of a prominent L.A. indie metal label. He offered the eighteen-year-old Swede an airline ticket and the promise of a recording contract. There was just one hitch: Malmsteen was then just beginning his nation's mandatory military service.
"When I was eighteen years old, eighteen months [in uniform] seemed like a lifetime," he remembers. "If I didn't get to play guitar all day, every day, I would've gone insane." And of course fame was beckoning. "I was definitely aiming at getting discharged -- honorably or dishonorably, I didn't care." Malmsteen allegedly walked into his commanding officer's office with a pistol pointed at his own head. Asked to elaborate, he says only that the incident involved "screaming and a loaded weapon."
Shortly thereafter Malmsteen moved to Los Angeles, where he became a veritable overnight sensation in the then-exploding big-haired rock milieu. His first solo album (released in 1984) received a Grammy nomination as gushing metal fans touted him as the heir to Eddie Van Halen's fast-fingered, ear-piercing throne.
Malmsteen's response, as he graced the covers of guitar-hero bibles such as Kerrang! and Guitar World, was to dismiss the competition. "I'm the master. I wrote the book," he said at the time. Moreover, he advised, if you really want to hear some serious string-shredding, forget about Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and his blues-based kin. Classical was where it was at -- violin wizard Niccolò Paganini rules. "Sometimes I'm playing way over people's heads," Malmsteen told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Although he never achieved the crossover success of a Motley Crüe or a Guns N' Roses, Malmsteen developed an international following that kept him in the high life, complete with expensive sports cars and groupies.