Sunday, December 16, 2007

Led Zeppelin

For white guys my age who grew up in the suburbs (although where I lived in Atlanta would now be considered "in town") and logged some serious time on plaid cloth couches in basements decorated with black light posters featuring running water, green ecology peace signs and not-drawn-to-scale depictions of the constellations, including the planets, Led Zeppelin was a crucial part of our teen-age curriculum. Within my circle of friends who were serious about music, I was the least inclined towards hard rock, or what later became known as heavy metal. Like everyone, I started with the Beatles, gravitated to Motown, then discovered English progressive bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where I remained anchored until I got into jazz towards the end of high school and the beginning of college. Friends of mine with older brothers tried to get me into Jimi Hendrix. I found his approach to guitar playing too raw and blues drenched for me. Guitar players I liked were much closer to jazz, such as Steve Howe of Yes. Naturally, I didn't realize any of this at the time, and later came to appreciate Hendrix for the earth-shattering influence he had on musicians from every corner of the musical world. My own preferences were for lyricism and melody in music, coupled with harmonic variation. That's what pulled me to the lavish, experimental approaches of Yes and early Genesis, and later to jazz.

The exception were Led Zeppelin and later the Who. I think the first Zep song I ever heard was "Living Loving Maid." It was definitely harder and more earthier than any of the music I was listening to then; but there was something different about it that just sounded really great. Robert Plant's voice and Jimmy Page's guitar playing are the immediate stand outs for any newcomer to Zep. But John Bonham had the coolest drum sound of any rock drummer since Ringo -- a great groove, full, complex yet simple and absolutely dead-on. Zeppelin became my venture into hard rock. I was never interested in any of the other hard rock musicians of the era -- no Kiss, Ted Nugent, Robin Trower, Mahogany Rush, Black Sabbath or Aerosmith for me. None of those bands could have ever made a record like Led Zeppelin IV or Physical Graffiti because they didn't have the talent, the musicianship or sense of sophistication that Zeppelin did.

I got to see Led Zeppelin in its prime, the 1977 tour that produced the live recording, "The Song Remains the Same." A movie would later be released by the same name, and I cannot even begin to count the number of times my friends and I did a midnight double feature of that movie and "Yessongs," a shortened version of Yes's triple-live album of the same name. Naturally, we "prepared" for the movies by hanging out in my friend Paul D'Englere's basement, which was also equipped with a pool table. In the event that any of us felt like getting up, the pool table was there for some light gambling. I even still have my Zep concert t-shirt from that tour, a shirt that you can now buy at Target for $12. It's the black one with the swan on the front.

Last week, Zeppelin reunited for its first proper concert since John Bonham died in 1980. They had gotten together a few times before, and Plant and Page had toured together briefly during the 90s. But this tour added John Paul Jones, the original bassist and keyboard player, and Jason Bonham, "Bonzo's" son, who has been a studious guardian of his father's legacy. I have to admit there was something jarring about picking up the New York Times Arts and Culture section and seeing a full, above-the-fold story on the Zeppelin show. The review was positively glowing, and it appears from all the reviews I've read that the band hasn't lost much. The musicianship is still very much intact, and when you are dealing with a catalog like that the songs will still sound great provided you can play them. Certain bands like Journey and Styx strike a chord of dread in me every time I hear that they are still performing. Who would admit to seeing those bands then, much less now? In high school, I threatened to drop one of my best friends because he bought "The Grand Illusion" by Styx until he reminded me that he had a car and if I wanted to go anywhere I'd have to find another friend who might possibly have an America or Jackson Browne album in their collection. Zeppelin, though, was another matter entirely. Page, Plant, Jones and the departed John Bonham deserve all the accolades written about them, proving that it's not always a bad idea for the song to remain the same.

1 comment:

ilana said...

whats the deal? checked ticketmaster---no tours. are they hitting our area? just as we were talking about, it would be a fabulous thing to see a band like zeppelin still touring and still rocking out.