Friday, November 13, 2009

IT MIGHT GET LOUD; or, a Note of Contrition to Edge from a Rock'n'Roll Penitent

File under: ZooTV Confessional.

I think I’ve been taking Edge for granted all these years. Not his art, or his virtuosity, or his unmistakeable personal style … we all know Edge is as much “the sound of U2” as Bono’s vocals. But I think – well, this is Confession, so I know – that I have failed to connect Edge the man (read: his heart) with the interplanetary fire, rage, and tenderness that come out of his guitar. It's as if the guitars were playing the man. I’ve failed to feel the soul of Edge as I have so painfully and gratefully felt the soul of his literate bandmate, Bono.

Until I saw this movie. If you’re a guitar freak; if you’re a rock’n’roll fiend; if you’re a fan of White Stripes OR Raconteurs OR U2 OR Zeppelin, you will love It Might Get Loud. It’s built on a High Concept: find 3 rock guitar icons of 3 distinct generations; let each of them talk about The Guitar; and then put them together in a room, with a bunch of their favourite instruments and amps. It’s a little bit precious, a little bit self-conscious… but the 3 musicians are young Jack White, Renaissance man and demographic representative of a generation that knows not the liberating magic of the electric guitar; Jimmy Page, snowy-haired Lord of the Sex-Drugs’n’rock’n’roll Manor; and our beloved soft-spoken guitar geek, Edge.

Purely from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven angle? Jimmy Page picking a mandolin while sitting at the blustery gates of Headley Grange nearly 40 years later? Crikey. You tell me what happens to you, but I got chills and hot flashes and little starbursts behind my eyes watching him. Not only for the surreal flashbacks to Going to California and Battle of Evermore, but for the new appreciation of the depth of his mastery and the breadth of his musical voice. What a thrill.
Similarly, Edge gives us typically understated commentary on his visit back to Mount Temple Comprehensive School ... after so many years of reading about the place, I confess it was a total fan-thrill to actually see the ordinariness of the linoleum hallways, the lockers and the little classroom that he and Paul (soon to be "Bono Vox"), Larry and Adam, used to learn how to play their instruments. Edge takes us to THE bulletin board, where Larry put up the notice ... and he kind of smirks at the anti-climactic banality of the thing. Very Edge. Very Irish. Delicious.

Jack White was a bit of an unknown quantity to me, going in. I knew a couple of White Stripes songs, and liked them a lot for their unapologetic guitar-rock thrust. There isn’t a lot of that in hit music these days … not that I listen to radio much anymore, except by accident. However, my movie companion is a fan of Jack, and set me up to expect to like what I saw. I did. Having spent some valuable time on my own spiritual journey with Robert Johnson and the hellhound myths of the Delta, I instantly wanted Jack White to succeed at whatever he next attempts. I liked getting to know him.

But our dear Edge: who is every bit the cultural icon and innovator that Jimmy Page is, but with a much LONGER Top 40 resume! – our dear Edge … the zen guy. The techie guy. For all that Jack is an upstart (just 10 years in the game), he and Jimmy were clearly guitar kin, both reincarnations of Delta bluesmen handed Marshall stacks and MTV. U2 has never been a “roots” rock’n’roll band, Rattle & Hum notwithstanding. Their basis was never the blues and 3 chords, a sex-thrust and a bent blue note. No, the evolution of U2 was a military punk tattoo out of the clouds, a swirl of sensation resolved into a growing-up boom-cha! Edge is not historical kin to Jack or Jimmy. But he is like them, channeled through his guitar music.
In this movie we learn a lot about Edge the U2 member, and a little about Edge the wealthy rock star (yoga accessorized with a Blackberry?), but he talks relatively little about his “feelings” about things. The most heat you will hear in his voice is nearer the beginning of the film, when he is trying to explain that the guitar “… is my voice.” As compared, we should infer, to the ubiquitous Bono’s verbal and theatrical arsenal, i.e. Himself.

And so, taking him at face value, I endeavoured with the film’s considerable help to hear Edge at the centre of U2’s songs – to hear not merely “the guitar sound,” but Edge’s song within the collective that is U2. (After all, it’s just as important to sift out Bono’s own “songs,” his poetic impulse, to better appreciate the collaboration that is a U2 recording.) My favourite scene is the source of the film’s title, when Edge is standing in a small room, guitar strapped on and encircled by electronic boards and cords and switches and pedals. He explains that most of what people hear is his experimentation with the effects of amplification. Magically from his fingers comes that rubbery pogo-spring riff that opens Elevation … until he turns off everything electric, and picks the same strings on the guitar. *pinggggg?…. pinggggggg* Chuckling, he enacts a mock meeting with the band: “Hey, guys, listen to this great new riff!” *pinggggg?…. pinggggg*
Immediately I was reminded of the many live versions of Bullet the Blue Sky we’ve heard and seen – Edge’s solos like an apocalyptic judgement of rage and death, which never fails to chill my viscera, from a shadowy source that sometimes scares me. But the chasm between that sound and the gentle demeanour of the guy in the toque breaks off the emotional connection that should be made between me and that artist. And that does an injustice to him.

Not that one ever forgets that Edge’s sound is front and centre … but since seeing this documentary, I’ve consciously listened to those sounds in the same way I listen to the lyric-less Beethoven or Mozart. My weakness is for words, so I readily default to sympathies with the lyricist. But we already know that often, Bono’s words come after the music has started to take shape; that Bono finds words that reflect the essence in the band’s musical sketches. So now I’m listening for Edge’s voice, within the orchestra of U2 sounds. How does Edge feel about, for example, the Spirit’s Mysterious Ways? How does he feel about information overload – in the graceless squawk of Numb, or the breathless seduction of (Even Better Than) The Real Thing? In every song there’s a man in dialogue with his world, musically; a man who is clearly a reservoir of deep connection to pain – hear in the patient chick-a-chick of Bad, the unconditional love of the friend who lets you cry; a man whose read of the world’s senseless waste aims his machine-gun guitar at the people who can make it stop, in Sunday Bloody Sunday.
And Mofo – I can’t even.
Edge’s book of poetry is in many ways more graphic and profane than Bono’s, even as they serve the same sacred Muse in musical praise and prayer. Against Edge’s characteristic personal restraint, his creative voice is a gift I never properly received, until now. (Forgive me, Mother Muse, for I have sinned…) Thanks to Davis Guggenheim, the director of It Might Get Loud, I have repented. And thanks truly to a humble man who lays his heart out in a global spotlight, without strutting, posing, embarrassing himself or imploding, an artist of conspicuous audacity who draws no attention to himself …
Edge, you are an enigma and a master I haven’t properly honoured, not really. But that’s changed now. Thanks for letting us in.

Okay, everybody, we all get to do penance: Turn it up.

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