Led Astray

WRITTEN BY
Brian Raftery

Ifyou were to examine my video-rental records from the summer of 1991 --and you can now do so, thanks to the Patriot Act -- you'd quicklyrecognize two recurring behavioral patterns. First, I had taken it uponmyself to repeatedly scrutinize Winona Ryder's body of work. Andsecond, on nearly every other Friday night, I checked out the sametape: Led Zeppelin's 1976 concert film, The Song Remains the Same.

The Ryder infatuation was bad enough -- after all, no self-respecting 13-year-old boy should ever get caught renting Mermaids. But getting hooked on The Song Remains the Sameis simply inexcusable; it's a famously turgid slog, remembered mostlyfor bizarre fantasy sequences in which the band members wear medievalcostumes, ride horses through the countryside, and generally behavelike tipsy theater-camp senior counselors. It was recently reissued ina collector's DVD edition -- a fortuitously timed cash-in, consideringthe band's reunion performance in November. But I doubt even the mostdevoted Zephead is pining to relive the days when Jimmy Page dressed uplike a hermit with dandruff.

Despite the film's pompous digressions -- which go on way too long to qualify as avant-garde -- I watched Songeagerly, each time hoping it would miraculously improve or some hiddengenius would reveal itself. This was a band that, as far as I couldtell, had done everything perfectly, from its mungo riffs to itsunsubtle sex-talk lyrics to its cryptic album covers. Even their cameltoes were cool. "There has to be something, somewhere in this movie,that's as great as the band," I thought. "Maybe this time I'll find it,even if it means once again having to watch Robert Plant wave a sword,which, even as an eighth grader, I recognize as way too overtlyphallic."

I wish I could say that this repeat-abuse patternwas just youthful idealism, and that age and experience have taught methat no artist is infallible. But to this day, I remain a true believerin my favorite bands, writers, and filmmakers, looking for something ofvalue in even their biggest misfires, hoping I was simply wrong thefirst time around. It's why I sat through The Phantom Menacefive times in the theater, and why I still own the complete works ofPorno for Pyros. Being a diehard means I've had my heart broken ahundred times, and I'm not alone: Have you ever heard an R.E.M. nutrationalize Around the Sun? They become glassy-eyed, loud, and confused, like an accident victim waiting for the medics.

Obsessivefandom is a lot like young, stupid love, with all of the attendantphases: There's the googly-eyed period, when even your beloved's flaws-- the unpredictable drinking, the occasional forays into roots rock --seem charming. Then, after a while, you start to question whether thetwo of you are a good fit, and decide to break it off. Finally, after atrial separation rife with ambivalence, you reunite, wise to the factthat no relationship will ever be perfect. "Billy Corgan may descendinto full-on chuckletardedness from time to time," you'll think, "but Istill have Siamese Dream."

My problem is that I oftenget stuck in the young-and-stupid phase, expecting that every artistwill remain forever awesome, and going into denial when they inevitablystart to whiff. This is mostly because I don't want to reexamine pastmistakes -- if I was wrong about a band I loved back then, how am Isupposed to trust my instincts now? In ten years, will I look back atall my circa-2007 passions with regret?

I hope not: Age andirritability have made me wiser, and I've learned to take a somewhatmore generous view of an artist's time line, treating duds not asdeal-breakers, but as ugly, necessary burps in the creative tenure.*Neil Young fans, for example, have come to expect two or three Trans-style gaffes for every Ragged Glory,and the careers of Elvis Costello, Radiohead, Frank Black, Spike Lee,and Richard Linklater have all been marked with similar trajectories.Much of the time, artists seem to learn from those missteps, even if ittakes awhile for the lessons to become clear: Prince followed up anentire decade of nonessential releases with Planet Earth, hiscatchiest album in years. Maybe he needed some time to fully explorehis wankier tendencies. Or maybe he just got as sick of free-form saxsolos as the rest of us.

That said, there are still moments,especially after that first listen or viewing, when we can loseourselves trying to defend that which confounds us, hoping our mindscan be changed; being a fan means maintaining at least a little of theillogical optimism that got you into this mess in the first place.(Even those beaten-down R.E.M. fans still get all worked up when a newsong leaks, praying it can blot out the recent past.) I'm too far goneto do that with the newly protracted The Song Remains the Same-- I know that spending $45 on a movie that's caused me so muchdistress and self-doubt will yield nothing but more frustration. Butthat doesn't mean I'm beyond keeping it at the bottom of my Netflixqueue, waiting for an open Friday night.

*That's not to say that my gusto won't still occasionally get the bestof me, resulting in some iffy endorsements. So my apologies to anyonewho purchased Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather based on my three-star review in this magazine earlier this year. It's worthy of two and a half stars, tops.

Now Watch This:
Spin's Doug Brod Talks Led Zeppelin Reunion with Fox Business Network

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