A new memoir tells the story of youthful rebellion in Rock Springs. Writer J.J. Anselmi recalls growing up in the hardscrabble mining town on a steady diet of drugs, vandalism, heavy metal, and tattoos. But this story of teenage angst also explores Rock Springs’ history.
As a teenager, J.J. Anselmi covered his body with tattoos of his favorite bands: Metallica, Pantera, Black Sabbath. They represented the anger he felt growing up. But a few years later, Anselmi began having his tattoos surgically cut from his skin.
“I guess it’s kind of a metaphor for the book as a whole, looking at the binary between creation and destruction—creating being getting the tattoos and destruction, having them removed in this grotesque way,” he says.
At its heart, Anselmi’s new book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy F***ng Music, is about personal transformation. Today, Anselmi lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He says writing the book allowed him to process the things about Rock Springs he despised—the provincialism, the good ol’ boys, the lack of places for young people to go. But it also involved being honest about his own shortcomings. “For me that entailed just realizing what a jerk I’d been in many ways,” he says.
Rock Springs in the early 2000s had little to offer teenagers like Anselmi who would rather play rock music than football, or who would rather ride a BMX bike than a bucking bronc. So he and his friends organized their own concerts in odd venues like the town’s old train station. “It was bands just completely out of their own volition getting a show together,” he explains, “and making it happen in a place where, you know, there wasn’t really a space for it.”
Riding BMX bikes gave Anselmi and his friends another outlet for their wild energy. They rode in public places, sometimes damaging property. They thought the skate park the town had built was a joke. So, Anselmi and his friends built their own BMX ramps. “The Spann brothers had this huge garage and their dad was insanely cool and supportive and he just let us build our own skate park,” he recalls.
But Anselmi’s youth of BMX and heavy metal is only half the story. Heavy is also about Rock Springs—and the Anselmi family’s place in it. The Anselmi name is still associated with prominent businesses in the town: a bank, a hotel, a major apartment complex. And when 60 Minutes came to Rock Springs in 1977 to expose the town’s corruption and vice, Anselmi’s grandfather was at the center of it.
In one episode, Dan Rather looked at Rock Springs’ seedy underbelly, “how, basically, K Street was this open boulevard for prostitution and the cops would let it happen,” Anselmi says.
The following week, the show turned its attention toward higher levels of graft. “The one about my grandpa was more about money laundering in connection to the governor at the time and kind of shady real estate dealings and stuff like that.”
Anselmi says rumors of his family’s mob connections followed him through high school 30 years later. Although Rock Springs was a tough place for him to grow up, he says the town taught him a Do-It-Yourself ethos he wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. And that’s given him a new appreciation for the place he couldn’t escape fast enough.
“If I could go back and tell myself something while I was growing up there it would be: Be glad, actually, that you’re from here,” he says. “Look at maybe some of the more generic suburbs and stuff like that throughout the country and how there’s this beige, almost static existence, and appreciate that you’re from a place that’s as crazy and unique as Rock Springs.”
Today, Anselmi teaches English at a community college and plays drums for two heavy metal bands. He has no plans to move back to Wyoming, but he’ll continue to write about it. He says his next project will look at Rock Springs again, this time through the lens of his family’s checkered role in the town’s history.
“The narrative that they would tell was always the 60 Minutes episode and all that stuff is just complete bull,” says Anselmi. “I think the truth is maybe not quite in the middle, but definitely more tinges of shadiness with my grandpa than my family told me about.”
For someone who was so angry about growing up in Wyoming, Anselmi sure is getting a lot of literary mileage out of it.