crew at “Bright Wall/Dark Room” continue their two-month look at
music with the March 2015 issue, out today, that examines, “Musicians and Fans.”
What better film for that subject than Rob Reiner’s timeless “This is Spinal
Tap”? Other films covered this month include “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Amadeus”, “Love
Me Tender”, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”, “Almost Famous”, “Be Here to Love Me”, “Mistaken
for Strangers”, “Heima”, and a piece about Paul Simon on film. Read more
excerpts here and you can buy the magazine on your iPhone and iPad here or sign up for the web-based online
version here. The illustration above is by Brianna Ashby.
you feel that playing rock ‘n’ roll music keeps you a child? That is, keeps you
in a state of arrested development?”
no, no. I feel it’s like going to a national park or something. And, you know,
they preserve the moose. And that’s my childhood up there on stage. That
when you’re playing, you feel like a preserved moose?”
Marti DiBergi in conversation with Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap (bass guitar)
My brother called me one afternoon
and said “I’m sick of being a Canadian and never having seen a moose.” So we
gathered up my father, my two brother-in-laws, and a dog for good measure, and
piled into a car for the drive north to Algonquin Park, Canada’s largest national
park. It was raining and cool—perfect weather for spotting a moose, the kindly
guide at the gatehouse told us. Despite the rain, the dog’s nervous and
unpredictable digestive system forced us to drive with the windows down. The
forest smelled sharply of wet leaves and pine resin as we drove slowly along
the paths, occasionally calling out false sightings to break up the
monotony—and then, through a break in the trees, I spotted an enormous bull
“STOP! STOP! STOP THE CAR!” I
yelled, hitting the headrest of my father’s seat. We piled out, cameras at the
ready. There, in the small clearing, he stood: nearly eight feet tall, with
huge, mossy antlers and a handsome, dripping beard. He regarded us casually,
slowly pulling a fern frond into his mouth with his massive, horse-like lips.
We snapped pictures, forgetting all about the open car door until the dog
jumped out and started barking wildly. As my brother attempted to corral the
dog back into the car, the moose turned and walked calmly back into the trees.
A few seconds later, across the same clearing, walked a female and her calf. On
our way out of the park, the guide at the gatehouse told us that in twenty
years, he’d never seen a family group together before, and we drove home
buzzing with a great sense of luck and accomplishment.
The buzz died down significantly on
trying to explain to my unimpressed five-year-old niece the rarity of having
been there for something so special. The debate (and, reader, never enter into
a debate with a five-year-old) centered around the fact that the moose didn’t
really do anything, so who cares? The moose’s job, I feverishly tried to
explain, isn’t to do anything at all. The moose’s job is just to be a
“I like horses,” said my niece.
Everyone’s a critic.
musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in
a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.
of Spinal Tap’s “Intravenous DiMilo”
That’s just nit-picking, isn’t it?
Tufnel, Spinal Tap (lead guitar)
“I didn’t laugh, I wept,” remarked
U2 guitarist The Edge, on seeing This Is Spinal Tap, the faux
documentary chronicling the not-so-slow decline into obscurity of England’s
Loudest Band. “It was so close to the truth.” This is Spinal Tap is a
work of fiction that so adeptly captures the truth that the two can become
indistinguishable if you’re not looking very carefully. There are countless
stories of musicians watching the film and thinking it was about a real band.
Director Rob Reiner was criticized for not picking a more prominent band to
document. Spinal Tap has an album you can buy on iTunes (true to form, it’s not
a very good album). When I picked up a copy of the film recently, it was filed
in the Non-Fiction section, cozied up against the World War I documentaries.
The characters have an uncanny, richly-detailed history, peopled with pitch
perfect fake rock ‘n’ rollers (on a scale of believable musician names, “Peter
James Bond” is neck-and-neck with the likes of “Keith Moon” or “Dave Davies”),
and backed up by period-appropriate footage from TV appearances. And just like
in real life, the characters have no idea that they’re utter morons. It is
The story is simple, but potent; a
group of musicians—so deeply entrenched in the music world that their fallback
plans include being a “full-time dreamer” and maybe working in a hat shop
(depending on the hours)—fall from celebrated heights to the pits of public
indifference. Their mercurial musical existence has left them without a legacy
hit, as they ride wave after wave of fads, from skiffle to flower-power to
heavy metal. Lead guitarist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist
Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) of
course don’t know they’re riding fads, which is a tricky thing for a musician
pushing forty to do. There’s very little awareness of cultural trends. In fact,
there’s very little awareness of any kind (such as the difference between feet
and inches). Luckily, they’re part of an industry that—as Cameron Crowe notes
in Almost Famous—is “gloriously and righteously dumb.” Ignorance is
bliss, as they say.
The members of Spinal Tap seem to
exist in a world devoid of self-reflection, so watching them attempt to explain
themselves is like watching Bambi on the ice; they’re adorable for their lack
of practice. With ids as unruly as the bulges beneath their spandex, the
musicians are mystified by their superego counterparts—manager Ian Faith (Tony
Hendra) and the meddlesome wife/girlfriend/Yoko Ono figure Jeanine (June
Chadwick)—simply unable, or unwilling, to comprehend the mechanics behind the
business of art. But despite their clashes and professional
frustrations—despite the costume designing, arguing with hotel clerks, tracking
down mandolin strings and getting only a few hours of sleep a night—Ian and
Jeanine can agree that the band, their music and their performances are what’s
most important. Their self-imposed mantle is to ensure the flourishing of the
band, a mission they follow through with enthusiasm, if with mixed results.
It’s hard work managing wild animals.
such a fine line between stupid, and, uh… and clever.”
St. Hubbins, Spinal Tap (lead guitar).
“No one looks stupid when they’re having fun.”
Comedian Eddie Izzard describes
being cool as a circular pursuit: at the top of the circle is looking like a
dickhead, followed by average looking, before cycling into cool,
cool, cool, hip & groovy, and inevitably crashing headlong back into looking
like a dickhead. “One matchstick out the corner of your mouth? Quite cool,”
explains the comedian. “A second matchstick out the other side of the mouth?
Looking like a dickhead!” The cutting edge is aptly named. The sequences in Spinal
Tap in which the band attempts to craft their stage personas are like
watching a tightrope walker with both arms tied behind his back. In the case of
this band, the acrobat is also blindfolded and probably a little hungry.
Counter-intuitively, when the band tries—when they really put effort into
improving their stage show—everything falls apart.
There’s an old argument that’s
popular among young children and stubborn men regarding the intelligence of
animals; if pigs (or dogs or dolphins or moose or whatever) are so smart, why
can’t they drive cars? The unfairness of this question is rooted in a basic
lack of empathy; pigs can’t drive cars because cars weren’t made with pigs in
mind, and pigs have no interest in automobile travel. The preserved moose
couldn’t be less interested in the ins and outs of managing his day-to-day,
perhaps because they have no capacity for understanding those issues. The moose
just does his thing, and though we may not know exactly what that entails, it’s
easy to see that he does it very well. Spinal Tap is at its best when
performing. The sneers, the rolling eyeballs, the sweat all mingle with the
pounding drums, the shrieking guitars, the gut-rattling bass to create
something bigger, more powerful, more eternal than any one person in that stadium,
or amphitheater, or—in one unfortunate instance—puppet show.
don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a
“If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing
you have on your hands is a nonworking cat.”
Spinal Tap, the film, functions similarly to Spinal Tap, the band: you
just have to let it be. A successful satire speaks for itself, raising and then
addressing concerns in a not-as-oblivious-as-it-seems manner. The film is
perfectly suited to its specific environment, but becomes more and more
prominent in its symbolic form; just as certain wild animals have taken on a
mythic spiritual shorthand, so too has the band become totemistic of the
excesses and shortfalls of the music world.
Whatever the musical preference of
the viewer, there is something far more universal at play here: vanity,
ambition, childishness, devotion, talent, strife and spontaneous combustion
(which is not as widely reported as it ought to be). The more you attempt to
dissect and examine this particular animal, the more you look foolish in your
attempt to determine the source of its mystique, and the more likely you are to
end up with a total mess on your hands. You can cut open a songbird, but you
won’t find the music inside. If you’re lucky, on a rainy day with a group of
special people, the woods might part and reveal something grand and
otherworldly, something that you’ll never be able to explain to anyone. And
that’s ok. The moose isn’t for explaining.
our quiet driver,
at that, would you.”
he shifts gears.
Bishop, “The Moose”
at this. This miniature bread, it like… I’ve been working with this now for
about half an hour and I can’t figure it out.”
Tufnel, Spinal Tap (lead guitar)