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It Might Get Loud: Some thoughts on obsession, addiction, and freedom


This is the second of what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts on the themes of obsession and authenticity. To see where I'm coming from, maybe read the first one  before continuing below.


I finally got around to watching It Might Get Loud, the documentary film by Davis Guggenheim that brings together Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge to talk about music and their careers, and to jam with one another and teach one another some tricks. It’s been out for almost a decade, and it’s one of those films I’ve been both dying to see, while ever so slightly slightly dreading.

And sure enough, about halfway through, I started to get a familiar feeling: I started to regret not having taken my own guitar playing more seriously. It was at the point in the film where the three of them are talking about their first guitars, and how much they loved those first instruments from the moment they got their hands on them.

Like a lot of my friends, I saved up for an electric guitar in high school. I paid $120 for a second hand piece of crap Stratocaster knockoff that played terribly and sounded worse. I never liked the guitar, and couldn’t tell you where it is now; I think maybe my brother used it for spare parts.

To some extent, the stories Page, White, and Edge tell are not unlike the experience a lot of kids have -- getting your first guitar, playing in bands going nowhere, bonding with schoolmates over music, struggling for an identity. But for me that’s more or less where it stopped. I’m musically anti-talented, and certainly wasn’t obsessed with music or the guitar the way some guys were. Even during the short time when I was in a band, I could barely get up the motivation to practice much. I loved the idea of having a guitar a lot more than I loved having a guitar. 

So it was probably inevitable that my career as a guitar hero never really went anywhere. So why the twinge of regret?

It wasn’t for the music, or its absence. It was, as it always is, for the absence of something, anything, to play the role that music plays for Edge or Jack White or Jimmy Page.  I mean just LOOK at their faces when, for example, Page shows them the riff to Whole Lotta Love:



 Call it passion, call it love, call it obsession. Not everyone has it, and if you don't you can't fake it.

The regret for its absence is the same regret I feel watching movies like Dogtown and Z Boys or Jiro Dreams of Sushi, or reading books like Barbarian Days, or every two years watching the Olympics: a dissatisfaction with the realization I have never taken something so seriously that it dominates my life, and probably never will.   

Not everyone who is obsessed becomes a famous musician or athlete or chef or artist, and not every famous musician or athlete or chef or artist is obsessed. In fact, there’s a fascinating bit in It Might Get Loud, when the three guitarists talk about the place of music in their life. In one scene, the Edge is walking through his old high school and he points to a noticeboard in the hall where Larry Mullen Jr., the drummer for U2, had put up an ad looking for a guitarist. The Edge matter-of-factly says that if he hadn’t seen the notice, or hadn’t answered it, who knows if he’d even be a musician. If he hadn’t answered that ad on the board, he says, “I might be doing anything. I might be a banker.”

Compare this with Jack White, who was the tenth of ten children, most of whom were musicians. Can you imagine him doing anything else? You know whatever happened in his life, Jack White would be making music. But the real contrast here is with Jimmy Page talking about his relationship with music:  

“Whether I took it on, or it took me on, I don't know.  The jury's out on that. But I don't care. I just really really enjoyed it."

This is the sort of thing you can imagine Keith Richards saying about his own guitar playing, or Laird Hamilton saying about surfing, or Ivan Orkin about cooking. Did they choose their calling, or did it choose them? It’s a pointless question.

And that of course is why it is pointless for me to keep going through this exercise where I drink deeply of someone else’s obsession, only to sigh and wonder why I don’t share it. The problem is not that I didn’t try harder to become obsessed with something. I didn’t try harder at something because I wasn’t obsessed. I didn’t call it, because it wasn’t calling me.

The essence of a true obsession is that it serves as a complete and final answer to the question: what to do? That is, it reduces the whole range of questions that preoccupy a normal life -- who to love, what to do, where to live, how to be -- and reduces them to a single question: how do I feed my obsession?

And so obsession is a close relative of addiction. For addicts, too, the addiction reduces life’s multitude down to a single overriding goal -- getting the next fix. Think for example of Renton’s famous “Choose Life” speech from Trainspotting, and it’s killer kicker: “Who needs reasons, when there’s heroin?”



Aside from the moral judgment of society, is there anything to distinguish an obsession from an addiction? What’s the difference between the two?

Back before he died but when his emphysema was slowly robbing him of his lifeforce, Peter Gzowski started talking and writing about his lifelong addiction to cigarettes. He smoked three packs a day, which could only be achieved, he noted, by lighting up the minute he rolled out of bed, and butting out just before turning out the lights.  But I remember he said something to the effect that, when he took his first drag on a cigarette, he knew immediately that it was for him -- it was like his body had found its soulmate.

That sounds more than a bit like Jimmy Page on his relationship to music. Except here’s what else Peter Gzowski had to say about his smoking:

"If anyone asked, and they did, all the time, I'd say I hated my habit. It's hard to duck the fact that I probably hated myself for being such a slave to it."

And that is ultimately the difference between and addiction and an obsession:

The first is enslavement, the second is freedom.