The first time I met my friend Mike, I was standing in line at the Dugout, the fast food joint run by my college that was in the Student Center. In line in front of me was my friend Colin, and he was engaged in conversation with a short, thick-bodied guy with a Fonzie hairstyle and a bomber jacket. I don’t remember any of the details of their conversation, save one: at some point, Mike said, “Tom Waits is a fucking genius!” Colin then noticed my presence and said, “Hey Neal. This is Mike.” We exchanged nods and heys.

Friendship is a strange thing. Some friendships are like popcorn chicken; you gobble them up quick as a flash and don’t expect to get much out of them. Others are like cigarettes; they give you a high, but are ultimately really bad for you. Still others are like breathing; you take them for granted about 95% of the time, but you have a few moments when you realize if you didn’t have them, even for a short time, you would die. When they’re not there, something is definitely wrong.

You could probably tell already, but my friendship with Mike is like breathing.

I imagine every music enthusiast (or film buff, or television expert, or literary scholar) has a friend like Mike: someone who, no matter your amazing depth of knowledge about a particular subject, makes you look like a blathering idiot. Seriously, when Mike starts talking about the socio-economic context of Black Sabbath or the sexuality inherent in Judas Priest, I feel like my entire musical scholarship amounts to “duuuuuh, I like Jimmy Eat World.” And I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t trade him for 600 kajillion dollars.

L to R: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones

It was under Mike’s tutelage that I first got the Led out. Sure, I’d heard of Led Zeppelin since I was little, but they, like so many other bands, were nothing more than a historical fact. When I first heard “Stairway to Heaven” when I was 7, I thought it was pretty boring. But Mike opened my eyes soon after we met. This is just one of the things he did for me, showed me, and brought to the forefront of my mind. I owe him the biggest debt of anyone for my musical education.

A lot has been said about Led Zeppelin over the years. They’re almost mythical figures, untouchable and ineffable to mere mortals. Even so, they have rather humble beginnings. Their roots are in another group called the Yardbirds, which saw a literal host of great British guitarists go through it. Strangely and perfectly enough, the Yardbirds saw those guitarists when they were young and green, just beginning to do great things, and they would do even greater things once they left that band. Jeff Beck would go on to create the Jeff Beck Group, which in turn launched the careers of Rod Stewart as well as Ronnie Wood, later of the Rolling Stones. Eric Clapton went on to fame and godhood with Cream, then Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, then solo. But perhaps even greater was a bass player turned lead guitarist, a young hotshot named Jimmy Page.

Jimmy was known from the beginning of his stint in the Yardbirds for his showy and lacy dress, but more for his guitar antics. They included playing his Telecaster with the bow of a violin. Alas, Jimmy was a member of the Yardbirds in their last configuration. Their disintegration left Jimmy without a job, so he started thinking about a supergroup; the likes of Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, Ansley Dunbar and The Who’s rhythm section were considered for it, but in the end he recruited session bass player John Paul Jones and near-unknown drummer John Bonham. The suggestion of Bonham had come from Page’s chosen singer, a 20 year-old swaggering peacock named Robert Plant. Jimmy Page said this about Plant:

“When I auditioned him and heard him sing, I immediately thought there must be something wrong with him personality-wise or that he had to be impossible to work with because I just could not understand why, after he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet.”

Jimmy’s amazement was warranted, and Plant was just as pleasant and polite as a guy can be. All that remained was the name.

The most popular story about the name is also unconfirmed. Keith Moon and John Entwistle of the Who once said that a supergroup including them and Jimmy Page would go down like a lead balloon. Jimmy was amused, and dubbed his new group Led Zeppelin. “Lead” was purposely misspelled, at the suggestion of Led Zep manager Peter Grant, to prevent stupid Americans from saying “Leed Zeppelin.”

And thusly, one of the most important and influential bands in the history of rock and roll was born.

Tomorrow: Mothers, lock up your daughters.

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