As Chuck Klosterman once said, "every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory phase in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed." This is the Led Zeppelin phase, and it is true and it is inevitable. For most of us, it happens right in that 14-16 year old range. As a right of passage, older siblings have left behind their vinyls, tapes, and CDs (or, hell, I guess playlists now) for the younger brother to find so that he may continue the cycle. If we don’t have older siblings, perhaps we have had our first beer or our first joint or bowl hit and have found the music that matches the feeling—young, high, languid, but restless. Or maybe there is that unceasing desire to wear headphones in your high school hallway, turn the volume on your Sony Discman all the way up and let the music transform your surroundings into a movie; make high school seem more cinematic, more orderly than it was ever meant to be.
Most likely, no piece in this Zeppelin week will be able to fully explain the universal Zeppelin phenomenon as well as Chuck Klosterman did in Killing Yourself to Live. Yet, the hope is that with each piece and each personal experience with the band, that we can try to attack their legacy through the different ways they effected us during our transitory Zeppelin years, whether they were in high school, college or mid-20’s.
We’ll look at the guitar riffs, the drumbeats, the black magic and the pure relentlessness of the music from the very beginning. There will be times of cogent analysis and then there will be times of meandering personal anecdotes. For instance, the background I am going to give you on my history with the band. I swear I’ll keep this brief.
I started actively smoking pot and drinking beer when I was fourteen. I was heading into high school, which was the tenth grade for our school district. I’d spent a fun summer pool hopping, listening to Phish and sneaking weed. That fall, my fifteenth birthday coincided with the start of school. So, one early morning my mom gave me a present at breakfast—the double disc set of Led Zeppelin Early Days and Led Zeppelin Latter Days.
I hadn’t listened to much Led Zeppelin. Up to that point, my music tastes had jumped around from Phish, to Billy Joel, to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, to Stone Temple Pilots, to WWF entrance music and to Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and whatever else I was downloading on Napster.
That morning, while my friends bull-shitted or slept at the back of the bus, I sat in my seat with my headphones on, listening to Led Zeppelin. With the first guitar riff and drum kick of “Good Times, Bad Times” I knew that something had chemically changed in me forever. There was just so much sound. There was just so much that had happened before.
Needless to say, the rest of that tenth grade year was devoted to Led Zeppelin. I fell in love with field hockey players and nice blonde girls from my substance free gym class, all while enveloping myself in a thick cloud of pot smoke in the woods during football games, which is all that I really wanted to do. Well, that and write bad love poetry that always came out in the exact rhythm of “No Quarter.”
I let all the strange people I went to school with float by to the tune of “Whole Lotta Love” or “What is and What Should Never Be”; I ate brown bag lunches to “Achilles’ Last Stand” and rushed out of math class to “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”; I pumped myself up for soccer games by listening to “When the Levee Breaks” and the end of “Stairway to Heaven” on repeat; and, for reasons I didn’t understand, I thought about privately weeping to “Ten Years Gone.” I was a fifteen year old who had discovered Led Zeppelin. I went to Sweet Sixteens and wore Birkenstocks with socks in the snow.
However, the most formative listening experience came during basketball season (naturally). I got home from one of our night practices and warmed up dinner. When I was done, exhausted, I sat down to read East of Eden for my honors English class. It was a long book and I was dreading the work, but I sat down in the dim light of my den—the way I used to when my house looked the way it did then—put “Rain Song” on repeat in my Discman and resumed the novel.
And I read Steinbeck’s simple and even prose while John Paul Jones played the mellotron and Jimmy Page strummed those pleasant and easy guitars, that, at that time and maybe even still today, so closely approximated the feeling of listening to rain that it shocked me. And in the novel, Lee explained the concept of timshel and how “thou mayest” and Adam struggled and Charles slowly died alone and “good” and “bad” seemed to make so much sense in all of the sepia tones that Steinbeck wrote in. All the while, “Rain Song” shimmered through its ten minutes, rising and falling, rising and finally subsiding with Page’s fluid guitars. Then the track started again, and I listened to Robert Plant sing about the springtime of his loving and I felt terribly romantic. But I realized that it was something about East of Eden that was truly striking a chord in me, that there was something far larger than this music that I had to figure out, something about the way seeing timshel written on the page made me feel; the way that the Trask family and their sadness filled me with some kind of energy that I couldn’t explain.
That was the middle of my “Zeppelin phase,” but even then I had an inkling that this music, music that I loved so much and thought was the best ever, wouldn’t save me or give me any kind of answer. That eventually, my intense love for the band would pass to make room for something else, something that would help me better understand what it was that truly made the world so simultaneously immediate and strange to me.
However, there were still plenty of stoned mornings, musical walks to and from girls’ houses and the time when my friend Jeff and I rode our bikes in the dark, each listening to “Night Flight” on our respective Discmans. But those are all my memories and I don’t need to bore you with reverie. Instead, you just need to read our pieces, listen to the songs and try to remember how the band fits into your life.
Whether it was the heaviness, the sex, the stoned quality, or just the pure youthful quality of the music, in the strangest way, Led Zeppelin is part of every American adolescence; and I don’t think that will ever change.