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Out of the Pit Photographs by Tim Tronckoe.

Out of the Pit

Life of Agony was about to hit it big when their lead singer walked. How Mina Caputo found her way back to the band and became an advocate for transgender rights.

LIFE OF AGONY is about to end a two-year hiatus. The band is onstage at the 2014 Alcatraz Metal Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium. Earlier that day, remnants of thrash stalwarts Pantera and Mudvayne performed under the banner of Hellyeah. Later, death metal mainstays Cradle of Filth will growl their way through a set before the first night of the two-day festival ends with the man formerly known as the Antichrist Superstar, Marilyn Manson.

This is not a concert for the faint of heart. In a crowd-shot video of Life of Agony’s set, angry-looking white guys in black concert t-shirts and denim fill the screen. It seems an unlikely venue for a groundbreaking moment in LGBTQ history—the audience members look like they’d be happier trading punches in the pit than trading ideas on cis-privilege.

Then Mina Caputo walks to the front of the stage.

This will be the first time that Mina Caputo formally plays with the band, which is strange, considering she helped found the group over twenty years ago, recorded four studio albums with them and played hundreds of shows holding a microphone as their lead singer.

Guitarist Joey Zampella adjusts a tobacco-sunburst Stratocaster-style guitar and pumps his fists in the air. “Let’s fucking do this shit together today!” he shouts, but it sounds more like “fuckin,” “dis,” and “togethah,” and you know there’s only one place the band could be from—Brooklyn. Caputo struts around the stage in low-rise jeans and a brown vest with twin rows of shiny buttons, revealing her midriff as she claps her hands above her head and blows a kiss to the crowd.

With guitar feedback ringing for dramatic effect, the band rips into the title track off of 1993’s River Runs Red, and a two-year silence is broken. While Caputo has performed solo gigs in the last couple of years, those were quieter affairs with acoustic guitars and pianos instead of walls of Marshall stacks. “River Runs Red” leads into the sludgy “This Time,” and as the song ends, Caputo takes the opportunity to flirt with the audience.

“You want to see my tits?” she asks. The crowd cheers. Then, the punchline. “What about my dick? You want to fuck me?”

Though many view the genre as a rough, intolerant subculture, when it comes to accepting what used to be patronizingly called “alternative lifestyles,” heavy metal has always been ahead of the game. 

IT’S 1986 and the faithful have gathered to tailgate in front of the Capital Centre in Largo, Maryland. On the bill that night are Judas Priest and Dokken. A camera crew is interviewing the gathered masses, whose levels of intoxication range from mildly blitzed to tripping fuckin’ balls.

An obviously smashed young metalhead in an unfortunate zebra-print spandex sleeveless unitard is asked what he thinks about punk music.

“It sucks shit!” he rants into the microphone. “Heavy metal rules! All that punk shit sucks, it doesn’t belong in this world, it belongs on fuckin’ Mars, man. What the hell is punk shit?”

His buddy leans in and interjects. “Gay shit!”

This is the defining moment of cult classic short documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and in thirty seconds it concisely sums up the public perception of heavy metal. Questionable fashion choices, hedonism, alcohol and chemical abuse, a certain type of wilful closed-mindedness and casual homophobia. The stereotype of the zonked-out, moronic metalhead who just wants to “rawk” has endured for years, but has little to do with the modern social culture of the genre.

In 1998, Rob Halford, then-former lead singer of Judas Priest and an ultimate metal god who introduced leather-and-studs fashion to hard rock, came out as a gay man on MTV. Queen had a gay frontman, Freddie Mercury. In May 2014, Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, two-thirds of alternative metal band Cynic, simultaneously came out of the closet. The metal world took this declaration in with what amounted to a gigantic “meh,” something that Amber Clifford-Napoleone, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Central Missouri who studies the intersection of heavy metal and queer identities, attributes to the community’s progressive attitude towards gender.

YOU’D BE FORGIVEN if you didn’t hear about Life of Agony’s reunion—they’re one of those bands whose following is usually described as “cultish.” They came up in the early nineties New York metal scene, alongside punishing acts such as Type O Negative, Biohazard and Sick Of It All, and never charted an album higher than 147 on the Billboard charts (2005’s Broken Valley). Yet rock radio carried their mark, even if DJs weren’t playing their songs: the brutal, chugging guitars and pounding rhythm sections topped by brooding, emotionally tortured vocals inspired by the band would become hallmarks of the genre known as numetal. More commercially successful artists such as Drowning Pool and Disturbed would sing the praises of Life of Agony and lead singer Keith Caputo.

Caputo’s vocal range of expression was tremendous: one minute a Jim Morrison-esque baritone, the next a Chris Cornell wail that reached for the rafters. But the band would never be able to ride their influence to overwhelming success. Mere weeks after the release of 1997’s Soul Searching Sun, Caputo quit the band. Their shot at the mainstream was dead, just as they were about to break.

“We learned onstage that she was quitting,” recalled Zampella, who is also Caputo’s cousin. “We were onstage doing a show in New York City, sold out, crazy crowd and Mina was like, ‘This is my last show with Life of Agony. Last song.’ That’s what she said.”

Mina Caputo was born as Keith on December 4, 1973, in the then-rough-and-tumble borough of Brooklyn. Her father, Tony, was what you might charitably call a character. A biker-looking guy with long hair and a big heart, he was an artist, a criminal and a skilled mechanic. Tony had acquired a taste for heroin during his time in the Air Force, and he shared this weakness with Caputo’s mother, Marilyn. Addiction would prove to be fatal for both. Within months of Caputo’s birth, Marilyn died of an overdose.

Despite her death, Tony was unable to quit. When he wasn’t in prison, he’d show up to work loaded, and frequently went missing from his parents’ house where they lived. The responsibility of raising Caputo quickly fell to her grandparents.

Caputo was a self-described loner, with few friends and little interest in the world outside her own head. She couldn’t have been more different than her grandfather, a Jake LaMotta-in-Raging Bull type. “He was racist, he was homophobic, he was definitely transphobic, even though that word didn’t exist,” Caputo says. On more than one occasion, he dealt with Caputo by punching her in the face. But her aunt and grandmother offered strong female presences to offset the harshness of her grandfather. She remembers going through her aunt’s drawers and trying on her lingerie. “All the women in my household were my inspirations,” she recalls. “I had no connection with the male species growing up. I hated myself because I was male.”

Caputo dreamt of going to Juilliard, and cut classes at school to come home and practice the piano, absorbing the sounds of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, the Doors and Miles Davis. When she heard Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant for the first time, Caputo asked herself, “Who is this man who looks like a lady and sings like a bird?”

Zampella was also a music fanatic but where Caputo was digging everything from classic rock to classical, he liked the obscene horror-punk of the Misfits. He wanted to start a band, and dragged Caputo to a jam session, telling his cousin that she was going to sing.

“Mina grabbed a Raid can,” says Zampella. “She started just ranting words off the can, screaming words off the can. It was the most hysterical thing.” That was the beginning of Life of Agony.

In early concert footage, Keith Caputo appears withdrawn. Zampella and bassist Alan Robert, meanwhile, are in their element, beating on their instruments and screaming at audience members. As the band’s star kept rising, there was a shadow over their singer. Caputo was feeling suicidal. “I was ungrateful because of that one thing, that lady, that little girl that wanted to come out, and I wouldn’t let her,” Caputo says. The pressure to be not just a singer, but a frontman, to sell herself to the audience as something she wasn’t, just kept building.

AFTER SHE QUIT THE BAND IN 1997, Caputo headed to Amsterdam. Plagued by suicidal thoughts and in a haze of drugs, she managed to write and record her first solo album, Died Laughing. It would be years before she returned home.

On March 2, 2002, Caputo played a solo show at CBGB’s in Manhattan. Her father had just died, and she had left the wake to come play the gig. Zampella got onstage to play a song with his cousin that night. The next year, Life of Agony reunited. They put out Broken Valley in 2005, disbanded again after touring and then got back together. They seemed destined to live the on-again/off-again life of countless nostalgia acts, never quite able to call it quits when an opportunity for a lucrative tour came up.

In 2008, Caputo privately came out, telling only a select few confidantes. In 2011, inspired by transphobic comments she read online, Caputo came out publicly. She gained thousands of new Twitter followers and widespread press attention (much of which pissed her off because the reporting contained inaccuracies, such as claiming she had undergone bottom surgery).

Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist and a longtime Life of Agony fan. He got in touch with Caputo after learning about her transition and interviewed her for a blog post about trans issues. Friedman borrowed a term from trans author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein, dubbing Caputo “music’s gender outlaw.”

THERE ARE CHERUBS OVERHEAD as Against Me! takes the stage under the intricately painted ceiling at Montreal’s Corona Theatre. Singer Laura Jane Grace is a woman possessed, in a sleeveless white t-shirt carefully ripped in the prescribed punk rock manner, straps of her black bra peeking through, a guitar slung low near her hips. Her long hair thrashes around a face covered in black and white corpse paint as the band rips through cuts from their new album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. When they hit the title track, the chorus is anything but subtle.

You want them to notice

The ragged ends of your summer dress. You want them to see you

Like they see every other girl

They just see a faggot.

The last time I had seen Against Me! was on March 24, 2010. They’d been opening for Billy Talent and Alexisonfire at Montreal’s Bell Centre. Singer Tom Gable stood stock-still at the microphone for the entire set. The band was tight, but there was never that moment of visceral connection that makes punk rock shows, even at soulless arenas, worth going to. Then the interview in Rolling Stone came out, and it all made sense.

In that sprawling profile, Grace revealed her new name and told the world that she was, and always had been, a woman. She’d been exploring this in her work for years, especially in the now-famous lyrics of “The Ocean.” At the Corona, the crowd shouts every word: “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman. My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.”

Grace’s coming out was public on a level never before seen by a rock star. But she was offered support from someone who had been there before: Mina Caputo. The two had met online (“I’d never listened to Life of Agony,” Grace says) and in August 2013, they played six shows together along the American east coast. “She was really supportive of me,” Grace says of Caputo. “I was really inspired by her.” The shows were low-key affairs, just two women onstage with acoustic guitars. Tonight’s show is a different deal entirely, with crowd members stage-diving and crowd-surfing. As the band plays “Thrash Unreal,” one teenage woman elbows Grace away from the mic to take over lead vocals on the chorus. Grace, laughing, obliges her. The difference between the angry young man I was used to seeing fronting the band and the confident, playful woman who topped the encore by diving into the crowd was shocking.

LIFE OF AGONY wrapped up its reunion set in Belgium with “Underground,” off River Runs Red. (In metal, when in doubt, play the old shit.)

“If you don’t walk with me, I will walk alone,” Caputo sings.

Hard enough to believe in myself

When I know they don’t believe in me Unwilling to change for society

I’ll be who I want to be

I want to tear it up, tear it out

Get my aggression out

This is what we’re here for, control the dance floor.

As the band pounds out the last notes, Caputo towels off her face and waves. One hand on each breast, she shakes them at the crowd and walks offstage.

In metal, there is no normal, there are no heroes. Only people with the courage to live under their own terms. I once asked Caputo if she felt like a role model. “No, I don’t like that word,” she says. “How about anti-hero?” She pauses, and thinks of the perfect punchline.

“Or how about anti-shero?”