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Led Astray

If you 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 quickly recognize two recurring behavioral patterns. First, I had taken it upon myself to repeatedly scrutinize Winona Ryder’s body of work. And second, on nearly every other Friday night, I checked out the same tape: 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 Same is simply inexcusable; it’s a famously turgid slog, remembered mostly for bizarre fantasy sequences in which the band members wear medieval costumes, ride horses through the countryside, and generally behave like tipsy theater-camp senior counselors. It was recently reissued in a collector’s DVD edition — a fortuitously timed cash-in, considering the band’s reunion performance in November. But I doubt even the most devoted Zephead is pining to relive the days when Jimmy Page dressed up like a hermit with dandruff.

Despite the film’s pompous digressions — which go on way too long to qualify as avant-garde — I watched Song eagerly, each time hoping it would miraculously improve or some hidden genius would reveal itself. This was a band that, as far as I could tell, had done everything perfectly, from its mungo riffs to its unsubtle sex-talk lyrics to its cryptic album covers. Even their camel toes 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 overtly phallic.”

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

Obsessive fandom is a lot like young, stupid love, with all of the attendant phases: 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 the two of you are a good fit, and decide to break it off. Finally, after a trial separation rife with ambivalence, you reunite, wise to the fact that no relationship will ever be perfect. “Billy Corgan may descend into full-on chuckletardedness from time to time,” you’ll think, “but I still have Siamese Dream.”

My problem is that I often get stuck in the young-and-stupid phase, expecting that every artist will remain forever awesome, and going into denial when they inevitably start to whiff. This is mostly because I don’t want to reexamine past mistakes — if I was wrong about a band I loved back then, how am I supposed to trust my instincts now? In ten years, will I look back at all my circa-2007 passions with regret?

I hope not: Age and irritability have made me wiser, and I’ve learned to take a somewhat more generous view of an artist’s time line, treating duds not as deal-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 it takes awhile for the lessons to become clear: Prince followed up an entire decade of nonessential releases with Planet Earth, his catchiest album in years. Maybe he needed some time to fully explore his wankier tendencies. Or maybe he just got as sick of free-form sax solos as the rest of us.

That said, there are still moments, especially after that first listen or viewing, when we can lose ourselves trying to defend that which confounds us, hoping our minds can be changed; being a fan means maintaining at least a little of the illogical 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 new song leaks, praying it can blot out the recent past.) I’m too far gone to do that with the newly protracted The Song Remains the Same — I know that spending $45 on a movie that’s caused me so much distress and self-doubt will yield nothing but more frustration. But that doesn’t mean I’m beyond keeping it at the bottom of my Netflix queue, waiting for an open Friday night.

* That’s not to say that my gusto won’t still occasionally get the best of me, resulting in some iffy endorsements. So my apologies to anyone who 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.