I hated Led Zeppelin for a long time. Part of it was the presence of those interminable songs about Gollum and Valhalla at every stonerfest, and earnest stoned mystics proclaiming the utter heaviosity of it all. Part of it was my aggrieved sense of injustice, knowing that Page and Plant had ripped off deserving blues musicians wholesale and credited their non-creations to, you guessed it, Page and Plant. And part of it was pure and simple jealousy. Okay, it irritated me that these Viking hippies could have their pick of an unending line of groupies and still have enough testosterone left over to casually toss heavy furniture from hotel windows. It wasn’t fair.
So what did I do? I followed my inner elf. I studiously ingored the Led Zeppelin siren song, proclaimed my independence of stonerfest groupthink, and snatched up all the British Trad rock I could find. Okay, they weren’t exactly equivalent – Fairport Convention’s and Steeleye Span’s songs about woodland nymphs and faerie queens and Led Zeppelin’s thunderous blues anthems. But impossibly the two converged, and my life has never been the same.
The occasion was a song on the Led Zeppelin IV album called “The Battle of Evermore.” The day the album came out, one of my friends, knowing my fondness for all things Fairport Convention, brought over the album. “Listen to this,” he said. And there it was – the exquisite voice of Sandy Denny, lead singer for Fairport Convention, entwined with Robert Plant’s banshee wail, proclaiming yet another Tolkienesque tale of dark lords and ring wraiths and epic warfare. But this time it sounded great.
I didn’t rush out and buy the Led Zeppelin back catalogue. That took almost another 30 years. But I did cautiously explore some of the earlier music, and backed off some of my intractable positions. “Gallows Pole,” a folk song on Led Zeppelin III, had actually been credited (correctly) to “Trad.” I recognized it from a much earlier Leadbelly album, but at least Plant and Page hadn’t claimed it as their own. “Tangerine,” from the same album, actually sounded pretty, a quality I never expected from the Barons of Bombast. I grudgingly admitted my admiration for this music.
And I suppose I just mellowed. Robert Plant was involved in a serious car accident in the mid-‘70s, and lost his young son not long after that. Whatever petty jealousies I might have harbored seemed just that – petty – and not worth holding on to. In spite of that impossibly great mane of hair and outsized ego, he was just a guy, prone to screw ups and inexplicable tragedies, just like me.
Five or six years ago a certain breed of layabout stoner/slacker started hanging out at my house, one generation down the line. They were the friends, and sometime boyfriends, of my daughters. Stuffing down my inner urge to grill them about career goals, I asked them instead about their musical tastes. And it turned out that most of them liked, God help me, Led Zeppelin. “Jimmy Page is godlike,” one of them told me. “’Black Dog’” is the greatest song ever written,” another solemnly intoned. “Nah,” I countered. “’Communication Breakdown,’ that’s the essence of balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n roll.” Touché, dude. It struck me as odd that I was using the phrase “balls-to-the-wall” when discussing music with an acne- ravaged sixteen-year-old-kid, but maybe Led Zeppelin does that to you. I felt like wearing a Viking helmet and throwing furniture.
So I bought the back catalogue. Every studio album, the two live multi-disc albums, the set of outtakes and in-studio appearances from the BBC. I still don’t understand why Robert Plant, he of the fantastic mane and the Viking countenance, was worried about Gollum stealing away with his girl. Relax, man. Toss a couch. But now, finally, I can hear what was there all along. Sure, the band ripped off some of the greatest American music ever made. But they set fire to it and pummeled it and sent it soaring. They might be the greatest rock ‘n roll band, ever.
They just got back together, the three surviving original members, and Jason Bonham, a slacker/stoner one generation down the line, and played an incendiary set in London. Sixty-year-old men aren’t supposed to act like this. But these guys spent their formative years pillaging and plundering, and if they’re older and a bit wizened, they’re still bound for Valhalla. By all accounts they were great. I missed them the first time around, and couldn’t have cared less. Now I’d like to see them, hear that banshee wail before it fades.