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Buckethead: Under the Bucket

What secret shame binds the heart of Buckethead? What private disgrace compelled guitar virtuoso Brian Carroll to forsake his Christian name and perform under a Michael Myers-esque kabuki mask and unused KFC bucket for these past 20 years? There is scant evidence that he has ever performed with his face revealed. His interviews are handled through a rubber, disembodied head that may or may not be named Herbie. His official backstory involves a childhood in a chicken coop. Is the story a psychological defense mechanism? A marketing ploy? At the least, his ability to stay on message could humble even the Bush administration. When Buckethead successfully auditioned for Ozzy Osbourne, his "fucking bucket" was the deal breaker.

Not that he doesn't have friends. His records are lousy with friends. Iggy Pop, Les Claypool, Bootsy Collins, actor Viggo Mortensen, System of a Down's Serj Tankian, and Man Is the Bastard's Eric Wood have all lent their talents to his recordings. The appeal to celebrity springs from one irreducible truth: He shreds. Buckethead's sweeping arpeggios and rumored 10-finger tapping system captivate guitar snoots worldwide, although there is far more humor and emotional weirdness in his compositions than in the songs of Yngwie Malmsteen or Steve Vai. Through his fingers, the gods of Frank Frazetta paintings and Guitar Center wankery are forced, by uncomfortable truce, into some greater synthesis.

But there is a sad quality to Buckethead's live performances. In between bouts of superhuman shredding, he is prone to expert nunchaku displays, moonwalking, popping and miming, as if the audience has to be cajoled into liking him. When he holds his latest toy robot out for the crowd's approval, the gesture seems somehow autistic. He performs with elbows slightly askew, and his hands, slender and feminine, resemble mannequin parts. A long mane obscures any hint of a head; one is left with the impression of a Miyazaki creation, a human impersonator, desperate for connection. The entire persona clashes with all norms of classic rock axman, and it's not hard to see how he could have spent the 1990s as a stereotype, the virtuoso rock star with little clout in the states but "big in Japan."

In 2000, though, Buckethead joined Guns N' Roses. Footage from those mega-concerts suggests a Twilight Zone irony — Buckethead winding up as a toy in Axl Rose's collection — but it is also obvious who got the better deal. GNR merely won a world-class guitarist. Buckethead won the grand jackpot of creative control. There he is onstage at Rock in Rio, allowed an uncensored guitar solo and robot dance in front of 1.3 million stunned fans. Bucket and mask are intact. You can only go one step further with the dream, and that's to walk away from it all. Buckethead did just that four years later. For the wild demographics he draws — heshers and baldies, hippies and guitar creeps — there can be no higher aspiration. Except, perhaps, to gaze upon his face.

This writer's brief meeting with that face raises more questions than answers. This was a year before superstardom, in Okayama's Pepperland nightclub, a venue the size of a tree fort. Brian Carroll and entourage arrived just as my friends and I were departing, and there was barely enough room for all of us to squeeze past each other. Several hours early for his sound check, Carroll hadn't yet bothered with costume. He appeared neither deformed nor shy, merely crestfallen at the size of the space (if he was big in Japan, it certainly wasn't that night). Yes, I got a good look at his face; no, I won't describe it for you. Yes, I feel comfortable calling us friends after this brief encounter. To reveal any more would be a betrayal.