Friday, September 4, 2009

When you come to a fork in the road...

...take it.

I saw a movie last night that I'd been dying to see, "It Might Get Loud". The movie is a documentary about three guitarists, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and others, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. The director of the film invited the three generations of rock guitarists to a summit of sorts where they would talk about their influences, music and maybe jam a little. On the way, the film has segments featuring the three guitarists in the different locales where they grew up and started playing. There's a segment of Jimmy Page in his hometown in England along with a trip to Headley Grange, where Led Zeppelin recorded much of the Led Zeppelin IV album. The Edge has segments in Dublin along with a great trip to the school where he and the other lads formed U2 as teenagers. Jack White has segments in the rougher areas of Detroit where he started.

Interspersed amongst all of this is archival footage of the guys as young men, before they were famous. Jimmy Page is featured in a wonderful film clip where he is playing skiffle music on an English TV show. He must be about 14 at the time, many years away from fame and fortune. When the TV host asks him what he'll do when he grows up, his answer is "Biological Research". Jack White, who used to apprentice at a furniture upholstery shop, explains from photographs how the shop owner used to jam with him after the workday was over. White is shown extensively throughout the film tinkering with instruments and you can see the direct connection between his work with furniture and his obsessive crafting of guitars and other sounds. One of his guitars has a vocal mic on a wire built right in so he can take it out during a concert and sing right into it. Like a power cord on an old vaccuum cleaner, the mic zips right back into place inside the guitar when he's done with it. The footage of him using it is raw indeed.

The film had amazing promise, bringing three different generations of guitarists, all of whom stretched and expanded their instrument's boundaries. But the film wanders aimlessly quite a bit and never seems to find real focus. It's almost like the filmmaker, in obvious awe of the legends he's gathered, is content with filming a reality show and forgets he's telling a story. But there are some great moments in there, if you're interested in this kind of music. Most of the best moments come from Jack White, who I'm convinced is this generation's best musician. His honesty, abilities and hauntingly scorched vocals always bring me back to what music is supposed to be. He spends a good deal of time in the film discussing why he thinks honesty in music is so important. As he plays a record of the Delta Blues musician, Son House, who's doing nothing more than singing and clapping on a record, he nearly tears up at the emotional intensity. No instruments on the record, just a mic, a clap and a vocal. This is his favorite record, he says. "People know when you're being honest. They know when you're telling the same joke onstage between songs that you told last night in Poughkeepsie." White also has a great throw-away line at the end of the movie. His car is going down a back-alley, behind the studio, on his way home, and they nearly hit a guy walking in the alley with a suit on and a cell phone to his ear.

"We nearly hit a suit with a phone," he says, turning to the camera. "I bet he was saying something with the words 'totally organic' in it."

White's disdain for all that is fake and processed is searing and jarring. And beautiful. He's only concern is to expose the true emotion of his feelings, or any feeling, and that's what makes him a fantastic artist. I always get the feeling that he could absolutely care less how many records he sells, just so long as he satisfies his need for expression in a manner which he can live with, artistically. Almost like he's making that point, he picks up an old guitar in his attic, starts an old reel-to-reel machine and starts making up a song to some lyrics he had jotted down earlier. He records for maybe two minutes, winds the tape, and then hands it to a guy off-camera saying, "that's it".

But the biggest jolt for me came in a scene with The Edge. As he's touring around his old grade school, you can see the shock of recognition on his face as he's remembering how this juggernaut of a band he's in got it's start. He goes to the classroom where they used to practice. He stands on top of the impromptu concrete stage where his band played it's first 'gig' in the schoolyard and the wave of nostalgia and memory washes over him. He remembers the details of where he stood and says, "I was on the right over here next to Bono. In fact, that's where I've stood ever since." The film is driving home the point that what we do in our youth is what we end up doing quite often as adults.

As he's leaving the school he looks wistfully at the old corkboard in the hallway where his bandmate, Larry Mullen, first put up the ad that got the band together. "If I'd never answered this," he says, "I wonder if I would be doing what I'm doing now. Probably not. I'd probably be working in a bank somewhere."

And that's what hit me the most. *I'm* working in a bank somewhere (ok, an insurance company but it's the same for the purpose of this conversation). And I started to ask myself, did I take all the right paths in my life? Have I made the most of all the opportunities that presented themselves? Why aren't I a rock star right now? Am I really happy doing what I'm doing?

The fact is that life is a funny game sometimes. People make it big, or they don't, and quite often it's complete luck. If The Edge hadn't answered that ad, the band might have gotten an inferior guitarist and they may never have made it and we would have been without U2. If I had had more luck in my life, I might be in a different spot. Or maybe I've been very lucky and made the most of my opportunities and this is just as far as I could have come at this point. Dawn had an interesting post a few days ago where she talked about Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken". Are we really all the victims/beneficiaries of the roads we travel? And is it our fault if we choose one path over another? How are we to ever know if we chose the 'right' path?

I prefer to think that life is a random collection of events, the interactions of which end up determining what happens to us. In other words, it's more or less luck. But we have an amazing ability granted to us as thinking individuals. We can absolutely make the most of our circumstances. We can live life to the fullest, we can recognize being fortunate and take happiness in what we've achieved. If you live your life in comparison to others, you'll never truly be happy. There is always someone more talented, more handsome, richer, happier. Your only hope to come out of this world better than you came in is to make sure that YOU are as happy and satisfied as you can be. You need to please yourself.

I want to be a rock star. I do. But I'm not upset in the least that I'm not. I recognize the reality of a 37 year old man, with limited ability, breaking through to the big time. So instead of putting it all on the line to chase a one in a million dream, I am very happy tasting the smaller triumphs of my own life. I'm making the best with the gifts I have and not regretting the roads I've traveled. They've gotten me here, and that's not a bad place at all. Not at all.


Anonymous said...

I belive in making one's own luck. "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

Memphis MOJO said...

"forgets he's telling a story"
Sometimes the story can get in the way.

I enjoyed the review -- well said.

genomeboy said...

Nice post, one of your best.

To Anonymous;I think you can make your own luck, but to a point. At some level, it is difficult to factor in all the variables when making or not making a decision.