Monday, February 07, 2005

Boredom – The Inescapable Link Between Drugs And Rock & Roll

What Dr. Phil should probably advise Metallica is to call it a day. Why work with people you can't stand, doing work you're sick of, and that may be killing you? Lots of people have jobs like that, but Metallica has a choice. Roger Ebert, reviewing Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster.

I have an acoustic guitar collecting dust in the corner of our bedroom. I'd been eyeing it for the last few weeks, wondering why I don't pick it up and play it the way I used to. In my 20s, I played it every night. I took enough lessons to figure out what I needed for fun, then ran with it. I experimented with chord changes, and different finger-picking techniques; I learned several scales, and picked out the usual "solo" patterns (early Angus Young is a cinch). I went as far as my natural abilities and ambition took me, then lost interest.

Yesterday I unpacked the guitar, tuned it, strummed and picked through half-a-dozen of the old songs and discovered another reason why I don't play it anymore: the music I learned - rock music, mostly - is boring as dirt. I mentioned this to my teenage nephew, who plays drums. He snickered, and drawled, "Tragic, huh?" This kid once aspired to drum for a punk band, until a teacher pulled him aside and informed him he had untapped natural ability. Now he sets his kit up at a strange angle, eschews 4/4 timing, seeks out obscure jazz artists and crams music theory in his spare time. Tragic, indeed.

My first guitar teacher told me, "If you're gonna play Stairway To Heaven, you first gotta play This Old Man." Encouraging words, but he might as well have given it to me straight: I'd be playing Stairway by the end of the month - Led Zep just ain't that far removed from This Old Man. I think this is why drugs are an inescapable element in rock & roll. They get introduced as part of the fun, but quickly become a necessary ingredient. Physical addiction counts for something, of course, but surely every rock star reaches a point, while building a spice rack or changing his kid's diaper, when he realizes if it doesn't have a 4/4 time signature, he's born to screw it up. When you're caught between boredom and desperation, the obvious "exit" is drugs.

This is one of the clear subtexts to Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, available on DVD this month. It opens with an album-release press junket where the band members sit in front of TV cameras and recite the usual tropes about the creative process. The next two hours document just what a crock those tropes amount to. Relationships in the band are toxic, different members are struggling with monsters of their own making, but the one monster they're all facing in the studio is boredom. Thanks to a bout of rehab, and their ever-present therapist's "I hear you" exercises, they manage to generate enough material to release an album that garners financial success - and critical shrugs. They have to go on tour to promote the album, so they hold auditions to replace their AWOL bass player. It's only when they discover their new bassist - an unknown session player from the barrio, who walks around with a permanent "I can't believe I'm playing with Metallica!" look - that they discover what the band and its music have been missing for years: genuine excitement.

Roger Ebert's analysis is right on the money: Metallica should call it a day. I'm glad they kept it together long enough to make the movie, however - watching that reality take shape in flesh and blood makes for sharp entertainment. The band members have compelling personalities, and you realize pretty quickly why their working relationship has gone off the rails. I know a great many people loathe drummer Lars Ulrich, but to my mind he's the Donald Trump of rock & roll: a self-obsessed, loudmouthed schnook, with an abrasive charm that gets results and is fun to witness (at arm's length). For guys like me, the DVD offers reams of delightful extra footage and goodies galore. For the morbidly curious, it offers a recommended evening's viewing.

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