There was an enormous hi-fi system, more furniture than appliance, in the living room of my childhood home. It was filled with dusty old records that I was forbidden to touch; naturally I found them irresistible. I wondered what the music recorded on them was like. Besides the general prohibition against “fiddling with the stereo,” the turntable didn’t work, so it would be years before I found out what those grooves etched in vinyl contained. I also remember my mother singing little snippets of songs I didn’t know as she washed dishes. Otherwise, there wasn’t much music in my home when I was small. Please don’t misunderstand – overall I had a pleasant and enriching childhood – music just wasn’t a big part of it. I suppose no one in my family was musically inclined.
So it wasn’t until my mid-teen years that music became an important part of my life. As I began to spend more of my time with friends and outside the home, I discovered Top 40 radio. From there I developed a taste for classic rock, and finally – heavy metal (sounds like the beginning of a 12-step program testimonial, doesn’t it?). Within a couple of years, I wanted to play music myself. My kind and supportive mother was persuaded to purchase a 1989 Les Paul Standard for me (more guitar than I had any business owning at that age) and I took a few guitar lessons here and there. My approach to playing and practicing was desultory at best; at the time I think I was more interested in the glamorous, hedonistic lifestyles of my rock idols than in the disciplined work it takes to truly learn an instrument.
My best memories from those years come from the hours I spent playing and taking about music with friends. I was lucky enough to know a few fellows who shared some of my musical tastes, and we had a lot of fun making noise in basements and garages around town. I can’t say I was ever part of a real band, nor was I a very good player, but we did make a few recordings that I still have – somewhere. Not too long ago, I finally made time to watch the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, and it took me back to those happy times.
The premise of It Might Get Loud is simple: put three guitar pickers together in a room with their instruments, and see what happens. The curious part is who they selected for this six-string summit; to me, the Edge, Jimmy Page, and Jack White don’t seem to have much in common. They represent three generations, three nationalities, and three radically different styles of music. Page and White do share a love for the Blues, but the Edge and U2 have their roots in the New Wave/Post-Punk movement that was a reaction against the perceived excesses of 1970s arena rock, embodied so well by Page and Led Zeppelin. Though the three had met one another briefly before filming took place, they certainly had never played together before. I wondered how well their personalities would mesh.
Turns out I had no reason to worry. The movie is an affirmation of the old cliché about the power of music to bring people together. The three guitarists banter back and forth comfortably, discussing their individual approaches to the instrument and sharing the secrets of their signature riffs. Their enthusiasm and love for the music is abundantly clear. Check out this clip, where Page shows us how to play the Led Zeppelin classic Kashmir:
It reminds me so much of that long-ago time, spending evenings and afternoons with my friends, just “trading licks.” Watch what happens as the clip progresses: at first, the Edge and White watch Page’s hands in rapt attention. Soon, they begin playing along – tentatively at first, then with growing confidence. By the end of the clip the three are playing in unison, making music together – yet each player is also blissfully alone, lost in communion with his instrument. That balance between shared experience and creative solitude is one of the most magical things about playing guitar for me.
There’s also an endearing element of fanboy hero-worship present in It Might Get Loud. Watch the Edge and White’s reaction when Page brings out his Theremin, an early form of electronic instrument used prominently in Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love:
I wonder if I would be able to maintain that level of composure if I had the opportunity to meet Page (or the Edge and Jack White, for that matter). Still, It Might Get Loud is more than a puff piece about three famous guitar players or their respective bands. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in music and/or the creative process.
I’ll close this post with a moment of sincere appreciation for the guys who were generous enough to share their time and talents during those high school-era jam sessions. To Matt, James, Paul, Rod, Heath, Rusty, and anyone else who I may have forgotten: thank you for the music.