Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ZEPPELIN WEEK: Your Father's Led Zeppelin

Day Two of Zeppelin Week kicks off with a trademark Erik Lilleby (@ErikLittleBee) rant on trying to remember Zeppelin as they were in 1968.

There is a Led Zeppelin we know and a Led Zeppelin created by our fathers. There is a Led Zeppelin we’ve absorbed and a Led Zeppelin created by radio.  If you’ve never heard who Led Zeppelin is, go away. You’re a crazy person.  However, these days many people my age hate Led Zeppelin because they’ve been played on the radio constantly since the 70’s; oh, and also because Plant is repeatedly saying, “baby.”

I’ve always had a great love for Led Zeppelin, but recently I haven’t been able to listen to them when their songs are played on the radio—or by the cover band that plays in Babylon, Syosset, Hempstead or some other Long Island town every night of the week.  The same eight Led Zeppelin songs have been on repeat for thirty years; or at least since someone invented “classic rock” radio. 

When does something become classic?  Ten years of constant play?  Regardless, Led Zeppelin is the archetype of “classic rock.”  More specifically, they helped create the genre “hard rock.”  More people are listening to satellite radio now and Zeppelin has an entire station there. The Cadillac car commercials are a good reference of the prolificacy of the music; 15 seconds of one of their songs is worth millions. They are an American institution. 

So, as many people will tell you, for the most part I’m tired of hearing Led Zeppelin. The music doesn’t hold the same excitement for me because of some kind of musical inoculation— the music is over-played and I feel jaded.

However, that wasn’t always the case.


I grew up on Led Zeppelin. My mother was constantly disturbed when my dad played their records too loud in order to properly to appreciate their music on his new amp and speakers. There was a divide between “dad’s albums” and “your mother’s music.”  Led Zep v. Carly Simon.  I think we know who won.

If you were lucky enough to have a Dad who loved Led Zeppelin I, you know what this means: Hard drums, wailing vocals and screaming guitar telling you about good times and bad times; watching a speaker thump along to the bass and feeling dazed and confused for so long it’s not true; sitting back among a swelling organ while listening to Plant tell a lying woman that her time is gonna come; and begging for mercy during the earthquake of a song that is “How Many More Times.” You know, the kind of thing that made you jealous of your dad because he was driving across the country, through the Rocky Mountains when he first heard “Communication Breakdown” and had to pull over because he thought he would just drive right off a cliff he felt so invincible.

And I suppose I can relate to that kind of visceral feeling in my own way. When I was a bit older, and I recognized the band on my own terms of adolescence, Led Zeppelin became “The Best Band Ever!” For me, that happened somewhere around sixth or seventh grade; that time when you’re just getting old enough to think more deeply, and a band like Led Zeppelin could change your world.  Everything’s new when you’re young and that band, for me, filled up a good deal of my new, empty brain.  If you were lucky enough to have a portable listening device, a Walkman or Discman, you could keep your hormones at bay by listening to powerful “dick rock”; or maybe a tender ballad or two.  Either way, school was more fun with your eyes closed, listening to Led Zeppelin. With a Walkman, you could listen between classes and on the bus, in the cafeteria, homeroom—not in class of course…but maybe sometimes.

Still, there is our Dad’s understanding of Led Zeppelin and our understanding. Our fathers saw the phenomenon first hand and have been exposed to forty plus years of this music being played ad infinitum, so they are actually entitled to hate it more.  Except it seems everyone either really likes them or really hates them.  Each person is entitled to hate whatever they want, but Led Zeppelin is still a band that existed as one of the greatest bands of their time.  Go look up their tour dates. From 1968 to about 1973, they were touring nearly nonstop.  They earned their spot.


Recently, in order to write this piece, I decided to watch video and listen to audio of Led Zeppelin playing live in Spokane, Washington in 1968. It was their fourth concert in the states and they skipped over the East coast to play Denver as the first gig. Then Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and finally…Gonzaga University?  Why? I don’t know. They had just gotten a deal with Atlantic earlier that year that rivaled any in history. Plant and Bonham were country guys who joined established session musicians and Londoners, Jones and Page. Though Page and Jones had already been in the rock n’ roll scene for a few years and had seen Jeff Beck, the Stones, Eric Clapton and the Beatles firsthand, I bet their balls dropped when they first heard Bonham play.
At the Spokane show, they play “Dazed and Confused,” and the opening snare drum hits sound nothing short of terrifying. The microphones were not ready for that kind of sonic bombardment.  Everything is buzzed and lo-fi, but the performance is there. It’s some of the best loud, experimental blues I’ve ever heard. A FUCKING BOW ON THE GUITAR?  Come on!  The distortion is like an acid trip. I wish I could have seen the faces of the audience when Zeppelin double-up the tempo after Page’s improv.  Fucking great!  Listening again, it still gets me. Right in the sweet spot…my dick.  (My “ear dick” maybe.)

If we can just take a second to appreciate what it was like to hear Led Zeppelin for the first time—in a small gymnasium in Spokane, Washington in 1968—it might be better for us. That first time seeing them play was most likely the coolest thing ever. That’s because they were young, pure, powerful and more or less unprecedented.  (Although, to be fair, I bet there were a few guys after the Spokane show who didn’t like Plant’s voice or his dick-prominent crotch thrusts.)

And I suppose maybe I’ll choose to remember them like that, like they were in their primitive and furious days of late ‘60’s; instead of in the “Getting the Led Out!” on 99.1 WPLR sort of way that they were force fed to me.

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