Do we know how to achieve mastery?
This morning I heard “Unforgiven” by Metallica on the local modern rock station, and I was struck by how much Metallica were at their best at the time they recorded that song. We all had our feelings about “The Black Album” and how we yearned to be rid of Bob Rock at the time, but as a much better informed, more mature listener, I must say that the quality of the recording and the arrangement is superb. The thought occurred to me that there are different ways to be at your best, and that Metallica in 1991 was at their best because they knew they were good. Metallica in 1989 was at their best precisely because they did not realize how good they had gotten.
Metallica in 1989 had recovered from the loss of one of their original members in a tragic accident, had hired a new, really good bass player, and had finally made the leap into what might be called mainstream visibility. One of the nice things about Metallica pre-1989 (and yes, I remember but I was only 10) was that although everybody knew they were the biggest speed metal band in the world — and often credited with single-handedly inventing the style — they did not do interviews, they did not do videos and they did not pander to anyone. Remember that this was a day in which every show on MTV was required to have music videos in it. This was what was so ironic and obviously contrived about Metallica being named an “MTV Icon.” Yeah, right!
Out of the pressure of watching one of their friends (and a critical element of the band’s sound) die in front of their eyes, and struggling to keep going, Metallica produced what will always be my favorite album …And Justice for All . This album was a huge success, again on Metallica’s terms, and then on top of their normal success, they made a video, something people thought they would never do. It was, of course like everything else they did, a magnificent work of art over ten minutes long. “One” was the biggest song of the year, at least in my fifth-grade world, and notoriously passed over for a Grammy, which instead went to Jethro Tull: a great band, but nobody remembers that song, do they? The important thing is to listen to the whole album and hear how the mostly-genius material on the album is laid out: the title track is basically a jam, executed in characteristic tight Metallica fashion; something that Metallica excelled at were songs that sounded totally fluid and totally rigid at the same time. Above all the quality of the recording was impeccable, at a time when all of us were listening on cassettes: you could hear the beater on the bass drum head precisely when Lars wanted you to hear it. Absolute genius all around. Pressure produced a jewel.
“The Black Album” in contrast, was a shock to us Metallica fans since it contained mostly one riff per song. What the fuck? Where was the complexity that led us to believe Metallica were above every other band in popular music, and liken them more often to Wagner and Verdi? Where was their devotion to speed metal ideals? Nevertheless, something that we all agreed on was that the music was still good: really, really good.
Consider that both these albums are masterpieces but they mark a turning point in the careers of this group of artists. For …And Justice for All Metallica was mostly concerned with doing well in a situation that they would not have chosen and despite all that they produced a masterpiece. They knew what they were doing to some extent, no doubt; however I believe that they weren’t fully conscious of their capability to produce a masterpiece. It was intentional, but at the same time it just happened. It was a retroactive masterpiece. In contrast The Black Album was a fully consciously designed, well-done piece.
If you think about it, this sort of thing is fairly common in artists, particularly musicians, who come to achieve mastery in some way. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has stated that “we were really crap when we started” probably referring, not to before Syd Barrett left the band, when they were definitely crap, but right after: between A Saucerfull of Secrets and Atom Heart Mother. They weren’t terrible, but they did their best and produced some really great music despite learning along their way. By the time Meddle came out, I believe Pink Floyd were fully aware of their own capabilities. There are notable exceptions: Kate Bush has widely been regarded as a masterpiece of her own since before she released her first album, despite her style changing radically a few times. Then there are the people who record critics automatically regard as masters, who produce masterful works once in a while, like Bruce Springsteen. Then, of course, there are groups who never have a chance to do anything else, like The Sex Pistols.
Hearing “Unforgiven” brought up all these thoughts mostly because right now I feel like scientists can go through the same thing. Right now I feel like a total failure as a scientist. However, I feel like we can never know really what a particular time will produce and the best we can do is our best, and hope that the future will produce some reward for that. Jerry Garcia described an experience in The Grateful Dead Movie where he was playing on a particular night where he felt like “everything was a struggle.” He described getting really pissed off from feeling like a terrible guitar player and throwing Phil Lesh down a small flight of stairs. Then he listened to tapes of that night a few weeks later and was astonished to find that the band was on fire! In his words “the music was crackling with energy.” I thought it was interesting at the time, but much more interesting after I experienced the same thing, with the exception of throwing the bass player down a flight of stairs. I have had many performances where I felt like the worst banjo player in the world, like I should just give up and I was embarrassing myself; then I listen to a recording and think “Wow, these guys are really good!”
Basically I’m saying I don’t know what my scientific career will say about my time in grad school. Perhaps I will always view it as a colossal waste of time where I spent more time on clever, philosophical blog postings than in working on my research. However, it could be the opposite: I don’t know. The best I can do is keep at it and go through the motions when I’m finished. Who can know what reward the future holds for the work we’re doing right now? Who the hell knows going in to graduate school what he’ll have accomplished at the the end?
I just hope that after working hard in graduate school, working hard after mastering something at a postdoc, that I won’t put out the scientific equivalent of Load as a young assistant professor.
Postscript: I originally peopled this post exclusively with Wikipedia links just as a product of laziness, then in the spirit of the post realized how masterful it was, since Metallica and particularly Lars Ulrich have totally screwed their fans and declared themselves enemies of freedom.