Doom, Gloom, and Bloom
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 Music special. "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 invented that 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.
Then came grunge. Out went spandex, mousse, stripper girlfriends, and stage pyrotechnics. Even the very notion of the cocksure rocker appeared to be under fire. The new rock stars -- Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder -- wore thrift-store clothes, seemed embarrassed by the spotlight, and above all eschewed technical prowess for punk's Everyman spirit.
The era of skintight leather was over, and Malmsteen found himself dropped by his major label. "All of sudden it's not hip to be a good musician," snorts the Swedish rocker, still visibly pained at the memory. "I managed to survive, but many bands completely folded and" -- his body recoils slightly -- "took day jobs."
Malmsteen's last noteworthy appearance in the mainstream media came in August 1993. As reported in the Miami Herald and on Sweden's front pages, Elaine Potter, mother of Malmsteen's nineteen-year-old girlfriend, Amber, called the Miami Shores police, claiming a drunken Malmsteen had threatened her with a shotgun and was "upstairs" with her daughter. Having already been to Malmsteen's house twice before in response to allegations of domestic abuse, police surrounded Malmsteen's home wearing bulletproof vests, guns at the ready.
After a four-hour standoff, Malmsteen emerged in his bathrobe and was promptly arrested and charged with aggravated assault. For her part Amber refused to press charges and insisted her mother was simply trying to break up the couple, who had met a year earlier as she waited outside his tour bus for an autograph after a Phoenix concert stop. The case was soon dropped, and he and Amber were married several months later. (The two later divorced.)
That might have been an appropriate blaze of glory for metal's cultural fade into the sunset. Except that Malmsteen and the heavy metal faithful didn't disappear; they simply slipped under the media radar. That much is clear from the tour receipts for Malmsteen's most recent national trek. Despite little or no press coverage, his shows regularly drew crowds of 2000 to 3000 and pulled in six-figure ticket grosses; even larger audiences turned out for his overseas concerts. New albums have been released annually like clockwork, and while they may not garner reviews in Rolling Stone, they remain solid international sellers, achieving gold and platinum status in Europe and Japan.
Today Malmsteen certainly doesn't fit Miami's version of a rock star. Unlike Miami Beach homeowner Lenny Kravitz, you won't find Malmsteen on MTV, hobnobbing with aspiring models on South Beach, or being bandied about the Hollywood gossip columns. And should Malmsteen find himself arrested again, it's doubtful he'll receive the sort of personal apology from Mayor Alex Penelas that greeted Kravitz recently when he was handcuffed briefly on suspicion of having robbed an Alton Road bank.
And that's fine with Malmsteen. "In my younger days," he says, "it was party, party, party' and look at me.' But you grow out of that. Sometimes I just want to be left alone. So if I can drive around Miami and not get recognized, it's kind of a breath of fresh air."
Later that afternoon the Malmsteen family sits in their gleaming white living room. Little Antonio is sprawled on the floor in front of a large-screen television, transfixed by his Sony PlayStation video game. Malmsteen's wife of the past four years, British-born April, is tucked into a couch across from him, beaming adoringly. It would be difficult to imagine a more peculiar formula for domestic bliss. April is not exactly the image of a heavy-metal maiden. In fact she looks much more like a fashionable Bal Harbour matron than the kind of woman you'd expect to find banging her head at one of Malmsteen's shows.
So what's the secret to maintaining a heavy-metal marriage?
"It's not like that," Malmsteen patiently explains. "I go on the stage, and I'm a showman, but at home I'm totally normal."
"He's not Marilyn Manson," April stresses. "His music is very empowering. It's about releasing your anger, releasing your frustration."
Kulchur holds up the cover of War to End All Wars, which features a apocalyptic painting of a musclebound knight impaling a web-toed goblin on the gory end of a spear. The lyrics printed inside the CD booklet are hardly cheerier: "In Hell your soul will burn forever/Bringing you eternal pain" and "The sun is falling down/I can hear people cry.... The end is drawing near."
If this is such a happy home, then where on earth do these disturbing thoughts come from?
Both April and Yngwie laugh, and she explains that her husband's "imagination is amazing, like Clive Barker -- he can create all these fantasies." She shakes her head good-naturedly. "He's really not into that stuff; it's just fantasy."
So, April, you've never been awakened at 3:00 a.m. by strange chants and discovered Yngwie sacrificing a goat?
"Absolutely not!" she protests, rolling her eyes.
Malmsteen himself seems a bit less ready to dismiss outright the existence of a dark corner in his soul, a trait he ascribes to his Swedish heritage. As he puts it: "It's a very depressing place, very dark, very cold and gloomy."
As the conversation continues, he also seems a bit nonplussed with April's description of him as a regular well-adjusted family man who just happens to pen some awfully disturbing verse. Not that he can explain the dichotomy either.
Recalling a writing session for his 1999 album, Alchemy, he says, "I remember sitting in the kitchen, having a cup of coffee, my beautiful son is running around playing, it's sunny with palm trees swaying. And I'm sitting there writing about demons and war!" He begins bellowing that record's "Legion of the Damned."
April, glancing at the television, suddenly cries out: "Oh no! That is disgusting!"
Frozen on the screen is the image of a hatchet framed against a dark-red background. Antonio seems to know he's been busted. "You cannot play this game," Malmsteen says sternly. "It has a lot of blood." Turning to Kulchur, he explains that he bought the offending game on tour without knowing how violent it was.
"We keep a lot of things away from him," April adds. "He's not allowed to watch certain programs either."
Wait a minute. Mr. and Mrs. Malmsteen are concerned about exposing little Antonio to violence?
Kulchur frantically waves the War to End All Wars CD in the air.
"We're very, very strict with him when it comes to stuff like that," April replies. Her husband nods his head in agreement.
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