“Do you feel that playing rock ‘n’ roll music keeps you a child? That is, keeps you in a state of arrested development?”
“No, 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 moose.”
“So when you’re playing, you feel like a preserved moose?”
—Documentarian 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 moose.
“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 moose.
“I like horses,” said my niece.
Everyone’s a critic.
“The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.”
—Review of Spinal Tap’s “Intravenous DiMilo”
“That’s just nit-picking, isn’t it?”
—Nigel 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 immensely believable.
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.
“There’s such a fine line between stupid, and, uh… and clever.”
—David 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 intolooking 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.
“Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?”
“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.
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Moose”
“Look 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.”
—Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap (lead guitar)
Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.