Steve Kudlow, known affectionately as “Lips” to the faithful, has reached the half-century mark of his otherwise unremarkable life, spending most of his time working for a catering company in the suburbs of Toronto. Despite his age, he maintains the defiantly unkempt hairstyle of youth, and during every waking moment, he is a slave to neither despair nor quiet resignation, but rather a near mystical level of vigor and optimism. Clinging to the sounds of a parade that has long since passed by (and never was that big to begin with), Lips has not yet put to bed the belief that his band, Anvil, a project he started at age 14 with lifelong friend (and drummer) Robb Reiner, will once again reach the pinnacle of the heavy metal world. Back in the heyday of the early 1980’s, Anvil toured the globe with the likes of the Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi, only to disappear without a trace for no conceivable reason. Other, less talented bands continued to curry favor with America’s youth, so why did Anvil die an all-too-typical musical death? How, then, did the teeming stadiums of yore become the sad, lonely bars of today? That is, when the bars are even returning phone calls.
Perhaps the world didn’t really need yet another documentary about pathetic dreams, dying hopes, and deluded rock stars who can’t give up the ghost, but in the case of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the expected laughs and eye-rolls yield to genuine empathy, as we quickly dismiss all forced connections to Spinal Tap and the like (an actual “11” in a recording studio, as well as a trip to the real Stonehenge) and focus instead on the nature of true friendship. What other link, after all, should two people have than the fulfillment of a dream? So many flirtations of youth, bound by the trivia of shared loneliness, die violently upon reaching adulthood, as the light of new responsibilities diminishes the carefree contentment of having nowhere in particular to go. For Lips and Robb, the bonds of affection are maintained with almost effortless abandon, as neither one has ever really grown up. Sure, there are homes, wives, children, and yes, even jobs, but all appear to be mere distractions; roadblocks and irritants to be dispatched at a moment’s notice whenever the allure of the road beckons from afar. We never see a lick of evidence to suggest that these two men are anything but committed husbands and fathers (even if they could be better providers), but the moment they get that call, it’s a glow that not even badminton with the kids can replicate.
The central thrust of Anvil! is the resurrection of the band as they begin what amounts to a world tour, though these guys are traveling decidedly second class. They miss trains, get lost, and by all accounts, the tour “manager” (some odd chick they appeared to find in a chat room or something) is cutting her teeth on Anvil’s time. There’s a decent rock show here and there (Sweden is usually kind to heavy metal), but the standard gathering of fewer than a hundred all but defines this journey abroad. And when the band reaches Prague, the crowd is practically non-existent, an insult compounded by the fact that the club owner refuses to cough up payment. Not a dime, he says, citing their lateness as an explanation, even though he made no effort to keep them from hitting the stage. Lips’ confrontation with the visibly terrified deadbeat is tense and fascinating, until of course we understand that this is more the rule than the exception. As Lips kindly informs us upon reaching the States, the band mates are as broke now as they were before embarking on this trip, making it little more than a vacation from their actual jobs back home.
Still, did they really expect the red carpet treatment? Anvil, while pioneers in their own way (we hear from Lemmy, Slash, and Lars Ulrich testifying to their early influence), never resonated beyond a select few (“Metal on Metal” is damn catchy, but it ain’t “Peace Sells”). In fact, they just might own the distinction of having released the most albums without a single breakthrough. Still, someone was listening. I never cared for their music myself (I bought a single album, Pound for Pound, and quickly sold it to a used music store), and even here, they sound more like a ludicrous marriage of Savatage and Manowar, but as always, that’s not the point. We marvel at the grizzly, sagging visages that pepper the ever-dwindling crowds, but they’re true believers nonetheless; human beings who are moved, never mind the source. If it gets us through the day, should it matter? Men approaching Social Security still retaining their jean jackets, faded leather, and fist-pumping ways can invite ridicule, but when so many move through life with bitter, glassy-eyed indifference, it’s damn near inspiring to witness the power of music. Yes, even bad music.
Much of the real drama concerns the release of Anvil’s “long-awaited” album This is Thirteen. Unlike most recordings, though, the band has to front a UK rep 15,000 pounds to see it through, and not even then will a single sale appear on the horizon. Lips tries his hand at telemarketing to raise the cash, though he lasts but eight painful hours at the sort of place even Ricky Roma would dismiss as too depressing. Additionally, they must press the album themselves, bringing forth a shipment of boxes that, one expects, will be thrown into a crawl space at some point in the near future. Copies are mailed to various record companies, but only EMI Canada shows any real interest, and even then it’s likely a ploy just to get their logo in a film. The A&R man is polite to a fault, but no one in the room expects the conversation to go anywhere. The second the music starts, we all but hear the withering balloon sag in the corner. Lips and Robb might wish it were 1983, but tastes have moved on. It’s arguable whether or not they’ve progressed, but these are businesses in search of profit, not arbiters of artistic worth. At least the band has the internet to reach the previously unreachable fan base. Those boxes had better empty fast, however, given the money floated by Lips’ sister, as well as the tensions that resulted from the stressful recording sessions. Tears, outbursts, and threats emerged, but they never outshined the music.
At last, when Lips plays at a music festival and is more excited to meet his fellow metalheads-in-arms than anything he does on stage, we don’t mock his child-like enthusiasm; instead, we ask if we ourselves have ever expressed so basic an emotional release. Far from the sick fantasies of a lonely autograph hound, this is a man still pushed to the brink by the only thing he’s ever given two shits about. And if they are still playing at their age, why fade away into that good night? In the past, I’ve been the first to criticize the jock who won’t hang up the strap, or the rock god who insists on that one, final tour, but here, more than ever, I’ve come to realize that I’m in no position to judge. Simply put, I’ve never been so good at anything — so dedicated and immersed in a craft — that I’d ever have the opportunity to “move on.” Whatever it is I’d stop doing would hardly cause a disturbance, even in my own small world. Anvil! is that kind of movie: the half-cocked, demented old farts you thought you despised are actually the dudes you wished you could be. What Lips and Robb settle for — the average life — is the best most of us will ever attain, and we don’t even have the luxury of needing a reason to go shirtless at middle age while screeching drunks ask for more.
Appropriately, the whole thing ends up in Japan, where a capacity crowd welcomes the band back from an inappropriate oblivion. You can always count on the unhinged youth of Japan to set your career back on track, though this frenzied group could easily be the last for our metal gods. There’s talk of yet another album, Juggernauts of Justice, but I doubt sis will contribute a crumb until she sees her first nickel from the previous installment. No matter, as Anvil plays on. Just another band, roaming from job to job, without a single guarantee of another day to come. Here’s hoping they die at their post, hair flying about, with that ever-present vibrator sliding down that well-traveled guitar. Though only the cruelest universe would take them both at once. Leave one man standing, comes our plea, if only to allow the funeral to serve as that much-needed gig; that expected springboard to the bigger and the better just around the corner.