Some buddies and I got together to watch It Might Get Loud a while ago. This is a modestly interesting documentary whose central structure follows a single day in which Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White get together to compare notes on guitar godhood. It’s obvious from the start that the movie grew out of someone having a simple, mind-blowing idea: “Wait- what would happen if you got Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White together in the same room, at the same time? Seriously- what would HAPPEN???” I suppose the assumption is that the magnitude of the collected awesomeness would fracture the very fabric of rock and roll spacetime, perhaps creating an alternative dimension of flying shapes and talking elephants made out of druidic runes.
(Yeah, sort of like this)
The movie, being live-action, does not take place in rock and roll spacetime. It actually takes place on several couches gathered together in the middle of a pretty large warehouse in a very authentic looking part of a hardscrabble city. There are some grapes and melon slices on the table. Jack White tries to impress The Edge by showing him the custom guitar he commissioned, in which he had a vocal distortion microphone implanted directly in the body of the guitar on some kind of retractable cord. So Jack can pull this thing out of his guitar mid-performance and start singing in distortion. The Edge admits to playing the wrong chord on one of the verses of something. They jam dramatically on their guitars, Jimmy Page pasting a 26 year old’s callous pucker onto his septuagenarian face, and after a while you think “hmm, this needs a little more . . . Robert Plant.”
The movie isn’t bad; I actually enjoyed it. But somewhere in the middle, I got the feeling that everything was hollow, that for some reason, all of this artistry and attitude lacked something. The best way I could sum it up is that this movie made no case for the idea that what these men have done is consequential. I’m not judging them on some moral scale, I just didn’t get the feeling that Whole Lotta Love and Icky Thump mean as much to the world as perhaps some of us, including Jimmy and The Edge and Jack, assume they mean. (And yes, every time I type ‘The Edge’, which is a name of a person, my computer’s custom ‘ridiculous pretentiousness’ macro sends 50 volts through my body. Thanks, The Edge.)
Rock and roll wasn’t always inconsequential to me. I used to jam in high school. Seriously. Once a few of us showed up at Chris Hepworth’s house (I hardly ever spoke to Chris Hepworth before or since, but he had a bass), and sat down to play a few tunes. I think Wade played the intro to Under the Bridge, and then when it was my turn I absolutely wailed out Golden Slumbers on the piano. No one was good enough to play anything anyone else could play, so the group jamming was mostly theoretical, except for the tune-ups. But another time we were in Ferg’s basement and things came together. Wade had a melody that I figured out fit well as the chorus for one of my tunes. I had the lyrics I’d written for the song there with me too, so we laid down a track on the spot. Now that really feels like something important, singing lead over your own guitar and two others, with Lochhead on the bass and Ferg on the drums, everyone more or less in sync.
We took the tape to school and played it around for people. When Spence Matthews- one of Davis’s friends, who was younger than me, but could play more chords- said he thought it was a pretty cool song, I spent a few minutes thinking that this was exactly how careers started. The words I was writing in my yellow legal pads (the same yellow legal pads that Paul Simon writes all of his lyrics in) started getting more authentic and more fraught. People were bringing their guitars to school, but playing them in small groups of exclusively males, not like the wannabe guy who did it in the halls just for attention. We were serious. The high school felt like it was entering a golden age of nascent rock experimentation. We’d take drives to Guitar City in Centerville and gravely handle the Fenders. This one kid was mastering Sting’s whole catalogue. Crazy stuff like that. I even stumbled on some freshly-penned lyrics in Davis’s room once (though I could tell easily that he didn’t have what it takes to make it in the business.)
(That’s a lot like what we looked like, but maybe not quite that cool)
You know what happened then? Nothing. The Principal didn’t kick us all out, and we didn’t have our most talented guitarist forced out of the band by a parent worrying about him getting into West Point. No one had anything to fight against, and then somebody started a weekly Friday afternoon football game behind the old junior high. That semi-formal band that put together the killer track never got together again– not once. I have no idea why, except that we were teenagers and there was more to figure out than how to get the right reverb on your new guitar hook.
I was thinking about those high school jams the other night while I watched Jimmy and The Edge and their striving shadow Jack. Those guys are probably better than we were. But they had that same unconquerable distance between them that we did. You watch them try to connect, and the different styles and eras and tastes and neuroses make it too unwieldy, like trying to move through a crowded room while wearing a long musical instrument on your chest. Turns out Rock Gods can safely get together and jam without igniting the atmosphere with purple dragon flames. The surprise is that I don’t really find that disappointing.