IT WAS two days before Christmas when Jay Vance blew the bottom of his face off with a shotgun still slippery with his best friend's blood. He went second. Ray Belknap went first.
Ray died and Jay lived, and people said that when you looked at Jay's face afterward it was hard to tell which of them got the worst of the deal. "He just had no luck," Ray's mother would later say of her AnnaQuindlenson to a writer from Rolling Stone, which was a considerable understatement.
Jay and Ray are both dead now. They might be only two of an endless number of American teen-agers in concert T-shirts who drop out of school and live from album to album and beer to beer, except for two things. The first was that they decided to kill themselves as 1985 drew to a close.
The second is that their parents decided to blame it on rock 'n' roll.
When it was first filed in Nevada, the lawsuit brought by the families of Jay Vance and Ray Belknap against the members of the English band Judas Priest and their record company was said to be heavy metal on trial.
I would love to convict heavy metal of almost anything -- I would rather be locked in a room with 100 accordion players than listen to Metallica -- but music has little to do with this litigation. It is a sad attempt by grieving grown-ups to say, in a public forum, what their lost boys had been saying privately for years: Someone's to blame for my failures, but it can't be me.
The product liability suit, which sought $6.2 million in damages, contended that the boys were "mesmerized" by subliminal suicide messages on a Judas Priest album.
The most famous subliminal debate before this case was the section of a Beatles song that fans believed hinted at the death of Paul McCartney. The enormous interest that surrounded this JTC seems terribly silly now, when Paul McCartney, far from being dead, has become the oldest living cute boy in the world.
There is nothing silly about the Judas Priest case, only something infinitely sad. Ray Belknap was 18. His parents split up before he was born. His mother has been married four times.
Her last husband beat Ray with a belt and, according to police, once threatened her with a gun while Ray watched. Like Jay Vance, Ray had a police record and had quit high school after two years. Like Jay, he liked guns and beer and used marijuana, hallucinogens and cocaine.
Jay Vance, who died three years after the suicide attempt, his face a reconstructed Halloween mask, had had a comparable coming of age. His mother was 17 when he was born. When he was a child, she beat him often.
As he got older, he beat her back. Once, checking himself into a detox center, he was asked, "What is your favorite leisure-time activity?" He answered "Doing drugs." Jay is said to have consumed two six-packs of beer a day. There's a suicide note if I ever heard one.
It is difficult to understand how anyone could blame covert musical mumbling for what happened to these boys. On paper they had little to live for. But the truth is that their lives were not unlike the lives of many kids who live for their stereos and their beer buzz, who open the door to the corridor of the next 40 years and see a future as empty and truncated as a closet.
"Get a life," they say to one another. In the responsibility department, no one is home.
They are legion. Young men kill someone for a handful of coins, then are remorseless, even casual: Hey, man, things happen. And their parents nab the culprit: It was the city, the cops, the system, the crowd, the music. Anyone but him. Anyone but me.
There's a new product on the market I call Parent in a Can. You can wipe a piece of paper on something in your kid's room and then spray the paper with this chemical.
Cocaine traces, and the paper will turn turquoise. Marijuana, reddish brown. So easy to use -- and no messy heart-to-heart talks, no constant parental presence. Only $44.95 plus $5 shipping and handling to do in a minute what you should have been doing for years.
In the Judas Priest lawsuit, it's easy to see how kids get the idea that they are not responsible for their actions. They inherit it. Heavy metal music is filled with violence, but Jay and Ray got plenty of that even with the stereo unplugged.
The trial judge ruled that the band was not responsible for the suicides, but the families are pressing ahead with an appeal, looking for absolution for the horrible deaths of their sons. Heavy metal made them do it -- not the revolving fathers, the beatings, the alcohol, the drugs, a failure of will or of nurturing. Someone's to blame. Someone else. Always someone else.