Some of you may have been wondering where I’ve been. Well, I’ve had to miss some post dates, because I’m writing an 800-page book about how great the Celtics are… oh wait, that’s Bill Simmons. Really, I’ve been too frozen by the indie success of my super-literate trilogy to continue… no, no that’s Whit Stillman. OK, OK, I’ve been spending $13 million producing the greatest album of all time… sorry, that’s Axl Rose.
In between my many worthwhile endevours, I’ve found a moment or two to relax in front of the television. One of the movies I was able to fit in was It Might Get Loud, a documentary about electric guitar. The film follows Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White as they reflect on their careers, until they finally congregate and play some songs. Not groundbreaking, but entertaining and well-produced.
However, something bothered me about it, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the scenes of the three playing together. Then it hit me… one of these things is not like the others. There may be aspects of Led Zeppelin that are easily mockable, such as:
T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her….yeah.
But Jimmy Page’s awesomeness isn’t one of them. While guitars have ruled rock since the Beatles, Page was pretty much the first lead guitar god, the screaming from his guitar existing on an equal plane with the vocals. And Jack White is a direct descendant… his playing manages to be both traditional and ground-breaking. It howls with an immediacy unparalleled in the past decade.
And then there’s The Edge. Now, I love The Edge. He’s a great musician, a great songwriter, and seems like a genuinely nice guy, which he’d have to be to put up with Bono for thirty years. But he’s not a Guitar God with two capital “G”s. He’s part of the wave of reaction against Page’s generation, along with Peter Buck and Johnny Marr, which integrated guitar back into the song and got rid of the bombastic overkill. For which I say thanks. We no longer have to hear nine minute guitar solos played with a violin string.
But he doesn’t have that killer instinct that a Guitar God needs. Just watch this version of Gimme Shelter with Mick Jagger from this past winter. It’s a song that calls for a heavy punch of fury from the guitar. The Edge just doesn’t have it in him… Mick Jagger looks like for the first time he finally respects Ron Wood.
That got me to thinking… who would have been a better fit as the conduit between Jimmy Page and Jack Black, the Godfather and the Reigning Guitar Gods? Certainly, Kurt Cobain could have made a case, but that one isn’t really the filmmakers fault. There’s Kirk Hammett and Tom Morello… both are in bands that put the guitar and vocals on equal footing. But part of being a Guitar God is having a personality to match the playing, and those guys are beyond boring. Eddie Van Halen is a possibility, but he seems like a total douchebag. There’s all those guys ’80s guitar mags jerked off to (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yves Malstrom)… that’d be a no.
Then it came to me, like a shot of Jack Daniels hitting the back of my dry throat:
Saul Hudson. Slash himself. You put him in a room with Page and White, and you could chart the course of the chunky riff. You would be able to tell them apart, and yet they would all fit together. Hearing “Appetite For Destruction” for the first time, the first thing you noticed was the guitar, a perfect combination of melody and energy, heavy metal and punk.
However, it doesn’t surprise me that Slash wasn’t the choice for the film. Because of the truncated nature of his career, he is almost an afterthought at this point. (Rant of the day: Just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting somebody obvious, I looked at some online lists. In 2007, Rolling Stone came out with a list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. SLASH WASN’T ON IT!!! Are you fucking joking? John Frusciante is 19, George Harrison is 21, and Robby Krieger is 91, but there’s no room for Slash?!? Jann Wenner must die.) It’s OK for Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix to come out with only a few albums; their greatness will always be remembered because they’re beautiful tragic figures. Plus they were also the front men, and being the lead guitarist/lead singer is the easiest path to rock n’ roll immortality.
But, Slash had the mixed luck of tying his legacy to the aforementioned W. Axl Rose. There are many pluses on the Axl Pro/Con list… he’s certainly one of the most charismatic singers in rock history and his voice is killer. But one of the cons, maybe an unforgivable one, is the way he spat in the face of luck when he took Slash for granted. Now, relationships between “the front man and the guitarist with mystique” are fraught with peril. Page and Plant, Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, Noel and Liam… the tension usually leads to horrible fights and ultimate breakup. But usually they’re smart enough to put the music first for a while. And while you never know what is going on behind the scenes… Guns n’ Roses demise was Axl’s fault.
So, one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, the necessary link between the metal of the ’80s and the grunge of the ’90s, is thought of as something of a joke, a goofy caricature, rock’s Flavor Flav. Some of this he undoubtedly did to himself. But some of it is just the bad luck of not dying and betting on the wrong frontman. If you want to hear him at his best, listen to Appetite, or the songs on Use Your Illusion that Axl let Slash play on. Or listen to some of these guest appearances and think about what could have been.