I recently witnessed two things that resonated for me. The first took place on a fall evening while watching Anvil - The Story of Anvil: a documentary film following the misfortunes of a Canadian heavy metal band. The second happened the following day when I took a bicycle ride in the park and noticed a small family spending time together. The two events made me think of an important lesson for all of us who struggle with our art and performance.
I want to get the depressing part over with first; so I'll begin with the bike ride. A beautiful autumn day; people were dressed warmly as they played, strolled and kicked at the leaves in the park. As long as you were in the sunshine it wasn't a cold day; quite pleasant in fact. And on entering the park I slowed my pace down to enjoy the sight of people communing with the outdoors in countless different ways.
My eye was caught by a small boy, about three years old, who was about to kick a soccer ball to his father. The ball seemed half as big as the boy and I wondered how he'd manage. The boy ran at the ball. His kick connected far better than I ever thought it could. He shouted with joy and I looked at the father's face to watch his response. Instead of taking delight in his son's achievement he was deeply engrossed in a phone conversation and paid only cursory attention to his son. The boy however continued to kick the ball surprisingly well while shouting enthusiastically to his mentally absent dad.
Meanwhile the boy's mother was filming this activity. Her camera followed the two of them as the husband trailed after his son at a pace slow enough to ensure that he wouldn't catch up with the boy and thereby have to interrupt his call. It broke my heart to see the boy's exuberant enthusiasm so much on display while his parents remained completely disengaged.
I don't own a mobile phone and therefore have no temptation to talk, text and take pictures during my every waking moment. This is perhaps why I get so appalled at the increasing disengagement of people from the present. My mind fast-forwarded to a time when the boy's unbridled enthusiasm would suddenly halt as he looked around and realized that his efforts were going unnoticed and unappreciated; that others were too engaged in their handheld communication devices to spare any attention for him. I wondered, what will happen then. Will he try harder? Or will he eventually quit the wearisome effort of showing how great life can be and in turn curl up in his own technological cocoon. As I said, it was a depressing moment, but quickly alleviated by remembering the life-affirming message of Anvil-The Story of Anvil.
The band Anvil, a heavy metal combo formed in Toronto in 1978, teetered on the brink of fame when they co-headlined Japan's Super Rock Festival in 1984. The other headliners were The Scorpions, Whitesnake and Bon Jovi. All these bands went on to sell millions of records while Anvil--whose name literally means a big piece of heavy metal--sank into obscurity.
The 2008 film catches up with Anvil thirty years from their formation. Steve "Lips" Kudlow, on lead vocal and lead guitar, now drives trucks for Children's Choice Catering which delivers children's meals to schools and institutions. He reflects on why the band, after thirty years and twelve albums, have still made no headway in becoming successful. The film follows them on a European tour where everything goes wrong. They get lost, miss trains, don't get paid and when they finally get to Transylvania to play the Monsters of Rock Festival in a 10,000 seat arena, only 174 people show up. With such a description you might think the movie would be a dreary, or at least a farcical, bad-luck story but not so. Part of its charm is the brilliant film-making skill of Sacha Gervasi (Anvil fan and former Anvil roadie) but what really grabbed me was the tireless optimism of "Lips" himself. There are many moments in the film where he is dealt severe setbacks and we see him momentarily mourn his ill-fortune. And then, again and again, we watch his spirit rebuild by sheer dint of his own powerful optimism. Seeing him transform his outlook over and over like this we come to realize what has made him, and his close friend, drummer Robb Reiner, hang in for all these years.
Life is worth nothing if we don't try to make our dreams come true. "Lips" Kudlow knows this instinctively. All musicians, artists and performers understand the power of holding on to the dream, even when things get dire. Sometimes misfortune can take place over a period of years--as in Anvil's case--or the misery may be agonizingly brief such as when we perform a disastrous show for an unappreciative crowd; the sort of show that leaves you questioning both your purpose and commitment.
Longevity has its own value. There is majesty in not giving up. Going through the personal fires of soul searing performance agony and coming out the other side really does make us better in so many more ways than just as entertainers. It gives us empathy for the myriad struggles of others and helps us understand what things in life are truly important; and what aren't.
The wonderful irony of the film is that its popularity has made Anvil a cult phenomenon; finally giving them a measure of fame that includes (paid!) concert bookings all over the world.
And, as the years go by, I'll wonder about that little boy and his talent and enthusiasm for kicking a ball. I pray that, regardless of whether people notice him, he will never give up. May he always delight in the physicality of playing outdoors. And as he grows I want him to keep striving to shoot further, higher and ever more gracefully. Perhaps he’ll even reach a goal at some point; but truthfully, I really don’t think that matters too much.
© Ralph Shaw 2012