Sometime in the mid-nineties, when I first heard Led Zeppelin’s classic “No Quarter”, I thought that Robert Plant was fretting about having no quarter, as in no 25 cent coin. I thought he agonized about not being able to call someone. If you’re over 30, you will remember that there were times when one needed a quarter to use a payphone. A quarter was the price of one phone call. I had no money back then, collected quarters all week to do the weekend laundry, thus I could sympathize with someone not having enough change to make a phone call. I fully believed that it was a valid reason for such a haunting song.
My then boyfriend, after he was done laughing, explained to me another meaning of the word “quarter”. He said that Plant was lamenting the lack of a shelter, a place to stay. That makes sense, I thought. For years afterwards I lived with this thought in my mind.
Wikipedia offers yet another meaning behind the song. There’s a military term “no quarter” that is used to describe a situation where the victor takes no prisoners (thus no quarter), and vanquishes the defeated. It’s even darker than the previous two situations. But still not dark enough. The band Tool took it to a whole new level.
Tool is a progressive rock band from the 1990s that has never achieved mainstream status. Instead it has gained a cult following. Some call it a “thinking-man’s metal band.” Its members and especially its lead singer Maynard James Keenan (MJK) are known for their seclusion and disdain for public spotlight. Their music is not available on iTunes. Given my own disdain for commercialization of everything I can’t help by commend them, even though I had to go through some maneuvers to get my hands on their albums. During their live concerts Maynard, crowned with a Travis Bickle haircut, stands in the back of the stage, avoiding spotlight; his goal is to connect with the audience through lyrics and delivery, not through showmanship. He performs, convulsing in a half-bended posture, his own private catharsis in the dark corners of the stage, away from the public eye. Such delivery is meant to appeal to audiences’ own personal struggles, to invite thought and self-examination, to make one a participant rather than merely a spectator.
Tool ventures into areas where others are afraid to tread. Perhaps this is the reason it has never become mainstream: mainstream is all about helping us through a hard day’s grind, to cheer us up. It’s Paul McCartney and Beyonce, or Pearl Jam if you’re socially conscious. But Tool is merciless in its candor. Its music is too haunting, lyrics – penetrating, delivery – visceral; an extinct combination of mastery nowadays.
Tool’s trippy, melancholic rendition of the song, already dark and brooding to begin with, is a meditation on our own restlessness, our existential agony. It calls on our deepest, Kierkegaardian anxiety, our metaphysical blues, a kind of sadness that is impossible to nail and put into words. This restlessness is what you think about when you lay in bed unable to sleep, when you commute to and from work in a state of supine trance. When you look at the water or at the fire. When you’re suddenly alone and your phone is quiet. When you drive late at night on an empty highway listening to Pink Floyd. Or that one time you took acid in your twenties. Maynard lifts up the curtain and invites us to look into a scary black void, a “path where no one goes”, a “no quarter.” We peek into this abyss and, horrified, pull back, grateful to be distracted back into our normal busy, thoughtless state by a phone call or a twitter message.
Busyness is a welcome distraction, a mind-numbing drug. We seek to avoid thinking about our universal loneliness – the kind of loneliness that is in the back of our minds even when we are surrounded by friends and relatives that love us. And how can one claim otherwise, how can one deny his loneliness today, in the age of a ubiquitous selfie and Instagram – tools designed primarily for the deliberate displays of staged fun, only to serve, ironically, as ultimate manifestations of loneliness? If it wasn’t for our busyness, then that nagging, baffling, suppressed despondence that we tuck behind the defiant cheer in public would drive us to religion or drinking or drugs.
This is the source of our melancholy. Maynard pierces our hard-built rationales to reveal their hollowness. He comes in and tells us there’s no Santa. He makes it difficult for us to keep pretending that we have made it work. He drags us, kicking and screaming, to come face to face with the question: “Why must it be like this?” But our entire lives we tip-toe around the answer. The answer is just too terrifying to contemplate. A search for answer would force us to examine our own state, our own actions, our accepted notions and customary ways, and we are ill-equipped and unprepared and unwilling to do so. We live the way we do because we have bills and responsibilities, but to think that we chose to have those bills and responsibilities is unfathomable. To think that such way of life wasn’t ordered upon us by some supernatural force, that it wasn’t predetermined would then prompt us to deal with it, but we have no tools and capacities to deal with it.
Sure, we’ve heard of Thoreau, living alone by his pond, and Bertrand Russell with his praise of idleness, we’ve read all the clever books. We are all educated and aware of the predicament. Like Davos attendees, who make sure to mock, with faux self-deprecating chuckle, their own attendance at a posh retreat as an unavoidable chore because of “business”, we, mere mortals, in a similar manner, have no willpower or genuine desire to get out of the routine. We can only softly mock our complacency, in quiet resignation. We’ve made adjustments and accommodations – physical and mental, we’ve learned to maneuver, excel at survival, we are resourceful and flexible. Why isn’t THAT a virtue, Maynard? Oh, Maynard, have mercy on our feeble minds! We are just fallible humans, for Chrissake. We just want to get through this with as little thinking as possible. We already have enough to worry about.
We are all homeless who pretend, real hard, to have found refuge. It is cruel to deny us our little illusions, our meager “quarters.” Maynard, you heartless bastard.