Lately, I've been mentally collecting such anecdotes, asking myself versions of the question the horrid singer John Hiatt asked in one of his horrid songs: "Just who do they think they are/ Smashing perfectly good guitars?" I used to think of the will to smash as just a boy thing, and I'm not alone. Dave Barry, in a column earlier this year, commented, "The simple truth is that guys have this overpowering urge to watch stuff fall and crash. If you ever see an inappropriate object, such as a piano, hurtling toward the Earth from a great height, you can be virtually certain that guys are responsible." But word has it that (female) composer and performance artist Annea Lockwood has hired helicopters to do just that -- drop pianos from the air to watch 'em explode like so many water balloons on the ground. And I haven't even mentioned Courtney Love, who could lay waste to a Rickenbacker warehouse with her bare hands if properly enraged.
In the last few months, the reclusive father of all this havoc has resurfaced. Artist and anti-nuclear activist Gustav Metzger, a 70-year-old Polish Jew who has lived mostly in Great Britain since he fled Hitler in 1939, has published a book of his manifestos and theoretical writings titled Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art (Coracle). In it, a 1965 lecture to the Architectural Association, London, envisions the 20th century as a smash palace: "If you look at the literature on some of the major art movements of the century, one theme runs through them -- and that is destruction: Cubism, Futurism, Dada. These movements contained tremendous explosive, destructive, force. The artists were not only concerned to destroy, deform and transform previous styles, they wanted to destroy and bend to their wills entire social systems." And he's right: All the way back in 1916, dadaist Tristan Tzara commanded in a jampacked manifesto, "Musicians, smash your instruments!"
Metzger's book is bathed in the unsubtle didactics of tract thinking ("You stinking fucking cigar smoking bastards and you scented fashionable cows who deal in works of art," spews a '62 manifesto). Even his biographical chronology (compiled by art librarian Clive Phillpot) reads like a Maoist mimeograph; under 1944, it says, "(Summer) Decides to become a sculptor instead of a professional revolutionary." But buried in the chronology's list of things Metzger did -- and didn't -- do, is a watershed moment in rock 'n' roll: a lecture-demonstration at London's Ealing School of Art in 1962.
A young art student in the Ealing audience drinks down Metzger's call for art violence like a magic potion. He will spend the next several years bankrupting his increasingly successful rock band with his famous guitar-smashing sacrifices. In so doing, Peter Townshend seized upon Metzger's theme of the cathartic value of destruction. "Dada was the purge that heals," Metzger wrote of the earlier art movement, which railed against the insanities and genocide of World War I. And if Metzger himself sought to use his art to protest the bigger insanity and genocidal possibilities of the nuclear age and its military-industrial complex, then a Mod like Townshend sunk his teeth into the part of the equation closest to his own fashion-conscious home, namely, the thrills and entrapments of postwar capitalism.
Townshend's guitar-smash antics were paradoxical rituals messing with consumer culture. They were contradictory exercises; by demolishing his economic means of support (his instrument), he simultaneously lashed out at the desire for stuff and condemned himself to buying more of it. He once told writer Dave Marsh, "Some fool in the Bee Gees said, 'You wouldn't break a Stradivarius, would you?' The answer is, 'Of course, I wouldn't break a Stradivarius, but a Gibson guitar that came off the production line -- fuck it!' "
In 1966, the year of "My Generation," the Situationists across the Channel were hip to the commodification (and, therefore, taming) of young rebels. In their pamphlet "On the Poverty of Student Life" they wrote about "the delinquent": "[A] whole sector of production is devoted specifically to his recuperation as a consumer (motorcycles, electric guitars, clothes, records, etc.) -- or else he is forced to attack the laws of the commodity ... in a conscious manner by advancing toward a revolutionary critique of the world of the commodity." And that last part, I think, is encoded (and exploded) in every shattered splinter of Townshend's guitar. And Metzger's lifetime of writings or the verbose insistence of Situationists can be boiled down to the rock 'n' roll splendor of Townshend's two little words -- "fuck it!"
By Sarah Vowell