Last week, I rented a couple of documentaries. One was “Lost in La Mancha,” which was about Terry Gilliam’s disastrous attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. The two surprises in this film for me were that I walked away liking both Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp a little bit less. Nothing major. I just found Johnny shy of the absolute charm that I unfairly expect of him. And Terry has a rat tail. There’s just something wrong with that. The other film was “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” I expected to hate Lars Ulrich (and I did) and James Hetfield (and I didn’t). I found myself liking Hetfield quite a lot, actually. After having seen the brilliant Flash film Napster Bad, I thoroughly expected him to be an idiot.
There are a number of things about “Some Kind of Monster” that I loved, not least of which was how close to self-parody this band is. There were many, many moments that could have been dropped straight into “This Is Spinal Tap.” But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to to talk about rock and roll and literature. Sorta.
When I moved to Seattle fifteen years ago, it was to start a theater company with seven other fellow graduates from Northwestern University. We used to refer to the kind of theater we did as “rock and roll theater.” But what the hell did that mean? To me, it meant a few things. It had urgency. It had contemporary relevance. And it was entertaining–it wasn’t just arty and weird for the sake of being arty and weird. In other words, it wasn’t traditional, but it wasn’t difficult to understand, either.
So what does that have to do with literature and Metallica? I found myself surprisingly impressed with Hetfield’s lyrics. Here’s one I love: “I’m madly in anger with you.” That’s a surprisingly literary yet accessible sentence, in my not so humble opinion. And I started thinking about how rock and roll, particularly good rock and roll, has a visceral effect on people in much the way that really good flash has. While rock and roll may not always have the same musical complexity as a symphony, similarly, a flash will likely not have the same literary complexity as a novel. Occasionally, however, the layers and subtext are so strong that it does aspire to that same level of… I hesitate to say artistry, because flash has its own artistry… perhaps craftsmanship? Try the metaphor of woodworking–flash generally doesn’t require the same bevel-work, the same carvings that a novel requires. There simply isn’t the space for much adornment, except that which is not immediately visible. So it is with rock versus a symphony. There are the freaks like Zappa, of course, who have so many different things going on in a five-minute song, but they’re the exception rather than the norm. And, in so doing, they quite often alienate a sizable chunk of their potential audience (think arty and weird for its own sake).
In a roundabout way, what I’m trying to say is that when I view my very best flashes, what I see are pieces of “rock and roll literature.” They demand attention. They’re energetic. Sometimes, they’re exuberant. Sometimes, they’re angry. But they’re always easy to read. One doesn’t need a degree to understand them. When my flashes work, in short, they rock. They may even make the reader madly in anger with me. And that’s pretty damned exciting.
Oh, and Metallica’s new bassist kicks some serious ass.