Francaise fries

Bang your head

As I’ve written several times before, I just love it when the news section of the New York Times tackles pop culture. Because they assume their news readers are totally ignorant of any pop ephemera at all, the reporters invariably discuss mainstream culture with the baffled dispassion of a Vulcan from Star Trek.

Thus I was delighted to open the news section today to find a small feature on Great White, the heavy metal band that ignited the recent clubhouse blaze in Rhode Island. Obviously, that’s still an incredibly sad and tragic story. But this piece is a masterpiece of understated hilarity: The prose is so tinderbox-dry, and the band’s life so cringe-inducingly bleak, that the news story reads like a script treatment for This is Spinal Tap:

For a brief period in the very late 80’s and early 90’s, they were headlining at 20,000-to-60,000-seat arenas, sharing the limelight with some of the biggest rock bands of the day.

But that faded quickly, as it usually does. By middecade they were back in the small clubs — guided by the lead singer, Jack Russell, one of two remaining founding members — and the thousands of young, shaggy fans who had once cheered them in basketball arenas were reduced to hundreds of the aging faithful, hoping to hear the band churn out some 15-year-old hits between renditions of Led Zeppelin classics.

It is hard to eke out a living, though, on the basis of good impersonations and half-forgotten hits, especially when playing to a couple of hundred people a night in clubs that rely on bar sales to turn a profit …

“Playing to 250 people, like they were doing in Rhode Island, is probably the farthest down you can go,” Mr. Fraser said. “After that, it’s just not financially viable.” …

“I was really shocked when I heard it was Great White playing that club in Rhode Island,” Mr. Folgner said. “As far as I knew, their farewell concert had been in 2001. I thought this latest band was supposed to be Jack’s new project, not a return to Great White. And then I saw him on television after the fire and I was surprised to see that he’d gained a lot of weight.”

It all reminds me of a book I’ve recently been enjoying — Bang Your Head, a history of heavy metal by David Konow. It’s like a 500-page edition of VH1’s “Behind the Music” — huge amounts of drugs, booze-addled car accidents that ripped off bandmembers’ arms, and so many albums with “blood” in the title that I lost track. For a while, I was deeply into big-hair metal when I was teenager, and since I was getting precisely zero action, I spent about 56,000 hours in the basement trying to learn Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” on my cheapo electric guitar. I never quite mastered it, but I can still shred 8 to 12 notes per second reasonably well — though, sadly, journalism does not require this skill as often as you’d imagine.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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