IT'S dark in the barn-like club. Kids sit quietly on the floor, while ``roadies'' set up for the next band. Suddenly four long-haired, disheveled guys in torn jeans and leather jump out on stage, grab the mikes, and start screaming unintelligible lyrics over a lightning-speed guitar buzz and a deafening drum beat. Immediately the kids jump up and start slamming into each other and lifting each other up, trying to push past the burly bodyguards who line the front of the stage.
This scene at a popular Manhattan rock emporium might be described as a typical night on the town for a teen-age subculture - fans of heavy metal. Except that now heavy metal can no longer be regarded as a subculture; it has moved into the mainstream of pop music.
In spite of the bad publicity metal has gotten over the past couple of years - including accusations that the sexually explicit, savage, and even demonic lyrics it sometimes projects can lead to teen-age violence and suicide - bands like Def Leppard, Guns 'n' Roses, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Poison, the Scorpions, and Cinderella were steadily in the Top 10 on the Billboard magazine charts during 1988.
In fact, heavy metal is more popular than ever, in spite of the efforts of the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), founded by Washington wives Susan Baker and Tipper Gore, to persuade record companies of the need to put voluntary warning stickers on albums that might be offensive, and in spite of efforts last autumn in Congress to pass anti-pornography legislation, sponsored by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, which included an ``auditory pornography'' clause that would have levied stiff fines on distributors of ``pornographic'' records. This portion of the legislation died in the last Congress, and the sponsors have no immediate plans to reintroduce it in the new one.
Heavy metal isn't new, of course. It all started with Cream and Jimi Hendrix in the '60s. Then came Steppenwolf, Slade, Alice Cooper, Twisted Sister, M"otley Cr"ue, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Dokken, Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, and on and on.
Today, major record labels are turning out metal groups like batches of cookies, one band sounding and dressing exactly like the next - the so-called ``glam'' metal bands decked out in spandex tights, makeup, and long hair, playing a ``softer'' version of metal that's sometimes classified as hard rock, and the ``thrash'' or ``speed'' metal bands in funky jeans, T-shirts, and long hair, playing a faster, more intense brand.
Is heavy metal dangerous? Does it really incite teen-agers to commit crimes against themselves and others? Or is a Judas Priest or an Ozzy Osbourne really no worse than Elvis Presley shaking his hips on ``The Ed Sullivan Show?'' in the '50s?
``I think a lot of the problem that people have with metal is that it's teen-age and rebellious, and it's something they don't understand,'' said Jem Aswad of the CMJ New Music Report, an alternative-music radio trade paper published here in New York. ``Along with rap, it's the most aggressive music around today. People seem to think it incites people to do bad things. I think it's being used as a scapegoat.'' Mr. Aswad was speaking at a panel on heavy metal at the ``Music Marathon'' sponsored here in October by CMJ.
But Tipper Gore, co-founder of the PMRC, regards the music differently. In her book ``Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,'' she remarks, ``We should be deeply concerned about the obvious cumulative effect of this cult of violence that has captured the public's imagination and pervaded our society. Few parents realize how much the angry brand of music that is part of it has presented suicide, glorified rape, and condoned murder. The message is more than repulsive - it's deadly.''
Among the several hundred people attending the metal panels at the CMJ Marathon, most were aware of the PMRC stance but considered it unrealistic. For one thing, they said, the number of bands involved in explicit violence, sex, or Satanism is tiny. Many regarded the PMRC as a censorship organization.
Jennifer Norwood, executive director of the PMRC, answered the censorship charge in a Monitor telephone interview. ``We do not wish to ban, restrict, or censor any type of rock music, including heavy metal,'' she said. ``The agreement that we made with the record industry in 1985 is not a restrictive one. It's simply informative. The agreement was that they would label albums that had lyric content referring to explicit sex, explicit violence, or explicit substance abuse. We're not trying to put a childproof cap on the recording industry.''
Instead, she said, the PMRC is telling parents that they need to be ``as tuned in to music as they are television or the movies. We want to bring this material out into the public eye, where it can be judged in the free marketplace and not hidden away where only children know where it is and what it's about.''
However, Howard Bloom of Music in Action, the record industry's leading anti-censorship group, alleges that the PMRC, while presenting a reasoned, rational view to the public, actually harbors views about heavy metal that are ``violently inaccurate.''
Mr. Bloom was particularly concerned about the PMRC video ``Rising to the Challenge,'' which focuses on the most inflammatory aspects of pop music. ``I showed the video at a censorship panel at the new-music seminar here, and the audience thought it was funny, it was so way off the mark,'' he said. ``What they didn't realize is that billions of people who've seen it have accepted it as gospel.''
Although Bloom admits that some heavy metal is downright disgusting, he maintains that such material is a small part of the overall picture.
On the album-warning and censorship issues, the attitude of metal fans and performers ranges from indifference to concern. Some young people view the warnings as a joke. In fact, a few underground bands have devised their own labels: ``Warning - explicit lyrics. Hide from parents!'' But others at the Marathon were worried that provisions of the Thurmond bill, if revived, could get the government involved in setting standards for lyrics.
Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc. (NARAS), predictably has come out in opposition to such legislation.
The PMRC's Ms. Norwood says there is no connection between the bill and her group. ``As an organization,'' she said, ``the PMRC does not take a position on any type of federal legislation. Our focus is that it's really up to the parents to teach a child to think critically,'' added Norwood, who grew up in a liberal family and whose parents liked rock and ``listened to Alice Cooper.''
Central questions that emerge from the heavy metal debate: Is the metal phenomenon a cause or an effect? Is it a pernicious influence that is capable of turning teen-agers into angry, hostile rebels, criminals, or Satanists? Or is it merely a mirror of the intensity of our times? So far, no one has been able to give a definitive answer.
One question that can be answered: Are a majority of kids being hurt by this music, or are its possible victims a tiny minority? The evidence indicates the latter is true.
``Not every child is going to become deeply involved with themes of death or depression, which make up a lot of heavy metal,'' says the PMRC's Norwood. ``And certainly not every child is going to be negatively affected, even by the most destructive groups, if there is a good communication between parent and child. That's the key.''
Even many metal performers take a dim view of the so-called ``death metal'' or ``Satanist'' bands. ``A band that only sings about doom and gloom and the darker side of things - I think they're cutting their own throat ... because there's a small market for that kind of thing,'' said Dave Ellefson of the band Megadeth.
Billy Milano, of the group M.O.D., argued that metal songs which mention suicide and Satanism are often misinterpreted. ``We have a song, `Satan's Cronies,' on our upcoming album, which puts down Satan and the people who follow him,'' said Mr. Milano. ``I'm sure somebody's gonna take it as, well, that we're following Satan, and we worship him, and that I'm the most twisted person they can imagine.''
As far as the link between heavy metal and teen-age suicide is concerned, the most widely publicized case is that of a boy whose body was found with an Ozzy Osbourne tape in the pocket cued to the song ``Suicide Solution.'' At the CMJ Marathon, Deena Weinstein, Professor of Sociology at DePaul University in Chicago, said, ``There is very little logic in the criticisms we've been hearing about metal causing suicide. ... After all, the suicide rate has been going up, not only for kids, but for adults and all sorts of demographic groups that don't listen to metal, and they've been going up since before metal was invented.''
Music in Action's Mr. Bloom frames the ongoing debate over regulation in First Amendment terms: ``If we're going to live in a country that's actually free, we're going to have to tolerate a wide variety of expression. If we want to see the forms of expression that we disagree with eliminated, then the question is: Who is going to make the choices about what is distasteful?''
As the debate continues, heavy metal is still climbing the charts. One sign of its growing popularity is that a new category - Hard Rock/Heavy Metal - will be added to this year's Grammy Awards.