There was a time in high school during which I insisted that Def Leppard trumped all comers. Sitting on the brick tree-planters spread around my high school’s courtyard, my friends and I would debate all matters of great concern: cars, girls, and, of course, music. And, as far as I was concerned, cars were nothing compared to trucks, girls were a complete, unsolvable mystery, and Def Leppard was it.
This is not entirely true, at least the part about girls: Jamie and I had declared Virginia, who we frequently saw passing the same spot during our lunch period, to be deemed worthy of the nickname of “The Virgin.” This was not based on any evidence that would support this nickname – neither of us were lucky and/or cool enough to know her in any capacity, let alone one which would have earned us the privilege of learning this first hand, so to speak. No, it was based entirely on the fact that she was a rather unfriendly girl, cold, even, seemingly delicate like porcelain with a skin tone to match, and hung out with a small, but decidedly odd crowd of dysfunctional looking outcasts. The latter part of this pretty much summed up my crowd, too, but “The Virgin” had the benefit of being extremely hot. We, as can easily be assumed, were not. Regardless, somehow we came to the conclusion that, due to being named Virginia and all of the other factors added in, including that we were complete dorks with unrestrained imaginations, she must obviously be that mythical creature found only in movies: the entirely ignored yet extremely hot young lass who, being entirely ignored, was obviously as pure as fresh snow, and equally obviously saving herself for one of us. Perhaps it made us feel better to think that someone else, far more attractive than we were, was in the same predicament, too.
Music was not just a topic of discussion but of deep, often prickly debates. A frequent point of contention was that topic that still fuels many a musical argument: who was the best guitarist? The names tossed around back in those days were so casually used as to suggest they’d already reached the plateau at which it was unquestioned that they would always remain among the greats – George Lynch, Steve Stevens, Jake E. Lee, Kirk Hammett, etc. And I would always offer my pick – Steve Clark from Def Leppard, not based on any particular knowledge of guitar playing. I simply based my criteria on the fact that I loved Def Leppard and therefore Clark had to be the best. This insistence often led to many an argument, with the others tossing names out to challenge his position at the top of the guitar pile.
“What about Randy Rhodes?” one would ask, and I would dismiss him.
“Yngwie (Malmsteen),” another would toss out, and I would shoot it down. “Come on, Yngwie is without a doubt the best. Who else can play that fast?”
One of the guys leaned in and whispered something to John, who threw out what surely must have been a joke with a bit of a laugh: “David Gilmour.”
“Come on, the Pink Floyd guy?” I asked incredulously. And then, with a dismissive shake of the head and a simple, insulting “no,” I laughed off the suggestion all together. Def Leppard was my band. I defended them where need be, and there was no trumping them. And that was that.
However misguided I may have been at the time, Maybe I was on to something that I wouldn’t truly understand for many years. I mean, I realize now that I was brushing off musicians who were obviously the cream of the crop when it came to technique and speed, but I might have been listening for something that wasn’t such an important aspect in late 80s hard rock and metal: being the right musician playing the right things in the right context. I can’t think of a single solo in Def Leppard’s music that stands out as particularly emotionally moving or technical, but I can’t think of many other guitarists who suited the situation as well as Steve Clark did. With his death a few years later, it became even more obvious just how important he was to the sound and style of the band’s music. Vivian Campbell made a suitable replacement, at least in being able to replicate Clark’s parts, but the new music made with Campbell lacked what Clark brought to the band. There is a charismatic swagger missing in post-Clark Def Leppard, which is what made the band so vital in the 80s. That the musical climate was changing when Campbell jumped on board is beside the point. Def Leppard died when Steve Clark, and returned to life as a new band with Vivian Campbell.
It wasn’t until long after I’d gotten heavily into jazz that I really began to grasp what was driving my appreciation for guys like Steve Clark. Jazz, to me at first anyway, simply felt like an equation consisting of a bunch of solos held together by the parenthetical statements of the head of a song. The answer was always dependent upon who made up the band in question, but early on, it was an answer that took higher math than I was prepared for. After years of listening to it – and a music appreciation class in college focused solely on jazz – I really began to hear what jazz was really about: supportive musicians doing exactly the right things at the right times, the end result being a circle of trust between everyone involved. The musicians trusted each other to not only not step on each other’s toes but to also egg each other on, and we listeners trust that the musicians are going to keep up their halves of the equation. The success of projects hung on the need to make sure the delicate balance of that equation was maintained. So while jazz, on the outside at least, is all about musicians soloing, it really is more about collaboration and trust.
I can see now that, while I may have been wrong about Steve Clark as a shoe-in candidate for “best guitarist,” he formed a part of an equation in Def Leppard that was easily overlooked by those seeking the best, fastest, craziest guitar solos. I started back then learning to listen for what truly mattered to me – good chemistry – in the music I surround myself with. Def Leppard were certainly no jazz band, and are about as far removed from jazz as you can get, but their simple formula equated to something that would drive me deeper into music as time went on.
I quickly learned how wrong I was to dismiss David Gilmour and many of the others who were paired up with my choice of Steve Clark. While I can’t say that the same can be said of many of the others we discussed, I can say that I still feel pretty good about backing Clark for so long and against the ridicule of my friends. The music of Def Leppard, from that era at least, has ascended to “classic” status in my mind, and I still find myself frequently cuing up Hysteria and Pyromania. The band lives on, of course, but it’s the music they made back then, and with Clark as a vital part of a driving force, that seems to only grow in fondness for me. I doubt I’m alone.
Great guitarists continue to be talked about today as a typical topic of discussion all over the internet where often angry battles flare up. I never see Steve Clark mentioned.
Oh, and as for my friend Jamie and I, we drifted apart in the latter couple of years of high school. I saw him one day on my way to class, appearing from around the lockers. I caught his eye and he smiled a quick, odd smirk, and when I passed, who did I see by his side but “The Virgin.” I can only guess what the smirk meant, and, at the time, it was easy to dismiss as simply a sly smile about our shared joke. I have my suspicion now, however, that he may have found out whether the nickname was fitting or not.