Steeltown was headbanger heaven. Heavy metal devotees stomped the streets of my hometown in their mustard-yellow Kodiak boots, fingering their long, ratty hair behind their ears exactly like Wayne Campbell, the jackets of their Canadian tuxedos embellished with off-register head-shop Led Zeppelin patches.
Not that I had to see them at my all-girls Catholic school. And they steered clear of “weird” Star Records. But headbangers still cluttered up the joint, and I especially resented their routine occupation of the Broadway. The city’s only rep cinema, a block from our apartment, was my sanctuary from The Drunken Stepfather when my mother worked late and I needed a place to hole up in until he passed out. And The Song Remains the Same sure as hell did, way too often on the Broadway schedule for my liking, paired with—I think? —some Pink Floyd thing that wasn’t The Wall.
Admittedly, those sold-out rock-themed double features probably kept the shabby theater’s lights on (or rather, off), showing Amarcord and King of Hearts to a half-empty house all the other nights of the year.
And on one of those nights, the Broadway ran The Kids Are Alright.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” Emily Dickinson said. That was the effect watching that rather roughshod documentary about the Who had on me. Here at last was a “dinosaur” band—they recorded their first single the year I was born—with power, brains of a sort, and a surfeit of style. The Who were speed, not weed, a mix-matched quartet of jolie laide soloists-at-heart, a group greater than the sum of its eccentric parts.
While not my first musical crush—that would be the Sex Pistols—the Who introduced me to a branch of rock’s family tree blessedly devoid of hirsute hippies yodeling about fairies and elves between 20-minute guitar solos. And I love them still.
So like any Who fan, I noted the death last week of Gustav Metzger. While a student at the Ealing School of Art, Pete Townshend had been inspired by performance artist Metzger and his theories of auto-destructive art, which Metzger conceived of as “a desperate last-minute subversive political weapon…an attack on the capitalist system.”
His resulting displays, passing condemnatory Marxist judgment on everything from the Nazism that had killed Metzger’s parents—he had come to England with the Kindertransport—to rampant post-rationing consumerism and the supposedly ever-looming threat of nuclear war, were fueled by the spirit of demolition rather than creativity in the traditional sense.
So, for example, Metzger threw acid on a nylon sheet rigged up at the river’s edge, with the resulting hole, he explained, “opening up a new view across the Thames of St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
Metzger wasn’t entirely above indulging in old-fashioned handiwork and its more permanent results. By heating and cooling liquid crystals stuck between glass slides, then projecting their hypnotically oozing colors on walls, Metzger helped invent those nasty-ass psychedelic light shows that made the 1960s such a puke-tastic era.
And at one of his auto-destructive symposia, a pre-Lennon Yoko Ono invited punters to cut off chunks of her clothing and actually had quite a few takers.
But almost every headline announcing Metzger’s death noted his most notorious contribution of all to modern music.
As Townshend wrote in his memoir:
Encouraged too by the work of Gustav Metzger, the pioneer of auto-destructive art, I secretly planned to completely destroy my guitar if the moment seemed right.
That moment came, but whether it was quite “right” or not isn’t entirely clear, because Townshend has told differently shaded versions of this tale over the intervening half century. In that same autobiography, he claims he destroyed the first of many guitars by accident rather than artistically inspired design, blaming the too-low ceiling of the Railway Hotel. Regardless, Townshend (encouraged by the band’s appropriately mismatched, eccentric “managers”) kept the stunt in the act. (When the band was still broke, he snapped his guitars at easily reparable spots.)
(Not that Townshend was the first instrument-smashing musician. Amusingly, this feat was born on the decidedly uncool soundstage of The Lawrence Welk Show in 1956, and these days, its most famous exemplar is probably not Townshend, but the Clash’s Paul Simonon, whose oft-parodied one-off tantrum has even made it onto a Royal Mail stamp.)
“[Metzger] had a profound effect on me,” Townshend recalled long afterward. “I really believed it was my responsibility to start a rock band that would only last three months, an auto-destructive rock group. The Who would have been the first punk band except that we had a hit.”
And then another. Three months stretched into three decades. No longer forced to fret (no pun intended) about mounting luthier bills, Townshend devoted himself not just to music, but to cultivating spirituality and sobriety, and tending his often-quirky charitable endeavors (of which this is a too-modest sketch).
Alas, it was that last powerful (and almost always unharnessed) instinct that got Townshend into the trouble of his life—but rarely mentioned is the accidental role Gustav Metzger played in that particular ruination.
I remember driving to Oxford, determined I was going to do something soon about the sudden whirlwind of news about child pornography on the internet. I remember feeling that being on my own, spending time with Gustav again, who was so saintly in a sense, set up a determination in me to do something so profoundly impetuous and brave.
The compulsively philanthropic Townshend had Googled the words “Russia,” “orphanages,” and “boys,” and been presented with a photo of a 2-year-old being raped. Long haunted by (then still-nebulous) memories of his own sexual abuse, he became obsessed with—in some flaky, ill-defined fashion—exposing international kiddie-porn operations. Moral panic or not, the topic was all over the media; Townshend wasn’t the only concerned individual reading or even writing about it. But his trail of bread crumbs led police to his computer.
And yes, he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. (I get sick of explaining that.)
But in a strange way, the resulting scandal was—in my twisted mind if certainly not, never, Townshend’s—Gustav Metzger’s most destructive “creation” of all.
However, the one noted in pretty much every obit last week was a “work of art” that, along with sounding exactly like a Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Wolfe vignette made flesh, inadvertently revealed that Metzger’s touted Marxism was (you’ll never guess!) rather provisional.
You’d think that a Champion of the Working Man would have been delighted to somehow acquire an unlikely collaborator in proletarian form.
And, of course, you’d be wrong.
Because Metzger threw a tantrum when it happened:
In 2004, London’s Tate Britain gallery displayed a Metzger installation that included a bag of garbage. A cleaner mistook it for real trash and threw it out.
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