Sunday, January 8, 2012

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
By Lips and Robb Reiner

Late edit: I just finished watching the film and I am completely wrong in my assessment here. Anvil is nothing like Spinal Tap and the film is much, MUCH better than the book (sorry Robb and Lips). Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a truly amazing story and the film is a must watch. For everyone. Everywhere. Period. (Lars Ulrich is still an insufferable ass, though)

Anyone (like me) who was a fan of heavy metal in the early 80s will remember the band Anvil. They were a heavier than heavy outfit from Toronto that seemed to burst onto the scene with an instantly classic album called Metal On Metal and then, seemingly, melted back into the ether from which they had emerged. Their album was mildly successful but their sound was wildly influential. Other bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax would cite Anvil as a major influence and those four bands would go onto superstardom while Anvil went.... nowhere.

But Anvil never broke up. The founding members, Lips and Robb Reiner (not to be confused with Rob "One B" Reiner, director of This is Spinal Tap) endured a fall from grace so humiliating that by the mid-90s they would be touring North America in a rented van, playing to audiences as small as a single person in tiny clubs where they would make enough for gas money to get to their next gig hundreds of miles away. Having made a pact to stick it out through thick and thin Lips and Robb continued to record albums (thirteen in all over the course of their career from 1978 to the present) and tour both in North America and Europe.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the premise of the movie This is Spinal Tap, you'd be absolutely correct, and the similarities are astounding. So much so that I was beside myself that This Is Spinal Tap is only mentioned once in the entire book (although references to the volume going to 11 are rife). Lips and Robb reminded me so much of Nigel Tufnel and David St.Hubbins from Spinal Tap I often heard them with those snooty British accents while reading. I don't mean to sound condescending or dismissive. On the contrary, I think that Nigel and David are two of the most wonderfully crafted characters in film and you can't help root for them throughout the This Is Spinal Tap. I found the same endearing qualities in Lips and Robb Reiner. I so badly wanted them to make it, even when they were acting like complete rock n' roll tools.

Many people say that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica more aptly recreate the inanity and pomposity of Spinal Tap in their rockumentary Some Kind of Monster. But while the similarities in pretentiousness, arrogance and cluelessness between Metallica and Spinal Tap are identical, Metallica lack the endearing qualities and viewers are very hard pressed to root for (or even like) either James or Lars by the end of that film. Especially Lars.

The story of Anvil is the quintessential story of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how far away they seem to be, which is far more akin to the premise of Spinal Tap than the overblown nonesense Metallica whines about in their rockumentary. Sympathy and empathy have a way of making or breaking a film about losers (and I use this word in the most loveable way).

The book is written (not ghost written, mind you... written) by Lips and Robb and while this deters from the stories in one way (the dialogue is almost unreadable) it makes up with in brutal, heart-wrenching honesty. It ranges from the absurdly moronic (the very serious introspection Lips goes through when a promoter tells him to stop using a dildo as a slide on his guitar... "...but it was fun and it was always done with integrity. And sometimes I would jack it off...") to tear-jerkingly touching (the last 40 pages of the book, really). Obviously, their literary range is limited. Their reaction to encountering any sort of fame from meeting Ozzy to recording with Chris Tsangarides was: "Like.... wow!" This book won't be winning any Pulitzers, but that's okay.

Instead, the book reads like a how-to manual on how to fail in the music industry. You can see that even years later both Lips and Robb agonize over the precise moment in which fame passes them by. Whether it was the time that Lipps insisted to their new record company that he wanted his drums shipped to Japan despite having not recorded a single album for the company or whether it was their brief and disasterous flirtation with Poison-esque glam metal. It would be comedy gold if it weren't so tragic. Reading about their descent from heavy metal stardom to fighting promoters for their $300 performance fee and taking second jobs as delivery boys for sushi restaurants in Toronto was gut-wrenching. Thank god this book had a happy ending. I don't think I could have handled a real-life Hard Core Logo.

I do think this story is better suited to film and I am aware that there is a movie (it is profiled extensively in the book). The Sacha Gervasi film is the reason for the sudden resurgence in interest for the hardest working band in heavy metal. The film received all sorts of accolades at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and you've probably heard of it. Michael Moore called it one of the best documentaries in years.

If you are a fan of Anvil or simply early 80s heavy metal you have probably seen the movie or at least heard about it. If you haven't read this companion to the film, I urge you to do so. There is something extraordinarily personal about the way Lips and Robb tell their story. I haven't seen the film yet but I'm going to imagine I will enjoy it more than the book. This isn't to say I disliked the book. I enjoyed it, for the most part. I admire and respect the fact that these guys took the time to sit down and pen their version of their career but the book lacked precision and coherence in places. It lacked the elements that a professional writer could have cleaned up. There's a reason these guys are Heavy Metal legends and not literary giants. A few points in this book, their writing style became insanely grating. Like... wow!

But the fact that these guys stuck it out through some of the most humiliating experiences a band can endure, stayed positive and watched their dreams of stardom come true 25 years later than expected; The fact that they never gave up even when faced with pressure from friends and family to grow up and get real jobs is so admirable and inspiring, you can't help but love these guys and the book.

Anvil rocks!


Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Thanks for posting this! I love metal, and books on metal are especially endearing to me.

Though you are right--ghost writers exist for a reason.

Ryan said...

If you really like books about metal, I highly recommend The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band about Motley Crue. Absolutely awesome.

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