Category: II


Crystal Moments

When my parents gave me my first electric guitar (a used Hohner Les Paul) for Christmas, it was a turning point in my life. I started hearing music for not just a song or a melody, but for the individual instruments; the way the guitar plays off the bass, the way the drums vary in tonal quality, how a singer’s voice modulates to fit the emotional color of a particular song. But most of all, I noticed the vast number of sounds the electric guitar could make, the subtle differences between them, and how every single guitarist had the ability to create a sound all his own through combinations of different effects. It seemed limitless to me.

Before I started playing guitar, I didn’t really take Jimmy Page or Led Zeppelin seriously. Even then, I was only aware of Jimmy as a distant icon until I met Mike in college. But there was a moment of glorious realization when I was about 15, and I heard “Heartbreaker” on the radio in a friend’s car. I call instances like that “crystal moments”: times when you are truly listening to music, and something just clicks and you “get it.” When I first heard the guitar solo in “Heartbreaker,” that was a crystal moment. It was when I realized that I had only taken one bite of the first appetizer in an infinitely huge buffet of guitar delights.

For whatever reason God has divined, I no longer have access to those delights. The stroke I had when I was 21 left me with limited use of my right arm, making guitar-playing impossible. I could have gotten the arm back, but it just wasn’t in me; at the time, I had bigger things on my mind (like plowing through 2 bone marrow transplants to deal with the leukemia that my stroke tipped the doctors off to). But it remains that I used to play guitar, but now I don’t. And I still hear music in terms of the separate sounds coming together to make the soup of a song. Disparate parts making a unified whole; sound familiar?

John “Bonzo” Bonham

Back to II. “Moby Dick,” besides being a simple 12 bar blues, is a showcase for drummer John Bonham to let it fly. Maybe it’s just me, but the drum solos from the 60s and 70s seem rather unimpressive. When I look at drummers from the modern age, like Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater or Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, they seem so much more proficient than some drummers from earlier years. The godlike bands from the rock renaissance of the 70s had mostly mediocre drummers. At the very least, the recorded drum solos from that era were very unimpressive even if the drummers themselves aren’t. The exception to the rule is Ginger Baker from Cream; he was awesome.

John Bonham is a whole lot better than “Moby Dick” makes it seem. With juggernauts like Plant and Page in the same band, it’s easy to overlook the massive contributions Bonham made. I think Led Zep’s overall sound is as much a result of Bonham’s inspired drumming and Page’s guitar work or Plant’s vocal histrionics. It’s a shame that the only drum solo in Led Zep’s catalogue is sub-par.

At the cap, there is “Bring It On Home.” It starts as a soft, bluesy stomp powered by nothing but a simple guitar and a harmonica. The vocals sound like they’re underwater. Then a roaring to life, and the band pulls out the stops for the most aggressive and charging song on the album. The guitar takes a 180 from soothing and smooth to distorted and crackling. And the main riff encapsulates the entire quest of Led Zeppelin: blues music shifted into a heavy and aggressive form, turning it on its head.

With the arrival of Led Zeppelin, the landscape of the music world changed. That type of thing tends to happen around the turning of a decade. It happened in 1980 when punk music ceased being a revolution and became a corporate brand. It happened in 1991 when Nirvana made us all rediscover that rock and roll comes from our guts, not our wallets. It happened just before the new millennium when the boy bands took over the airwaves. And it’s happening even now with the meteoric rise of alternative folk bands like the Decemberists, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars. But the difference is this: all those other shifts at the decades existed on a pendulum – Led Zeppelin broke the pendulum. When they changed things, they stayed changed.

Tomorrow: the descent and demise of Brian Jones, a rolling stone.

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Mystique

Led Zeppelin had mystique. They rarely gave interviews, released no radio singles, and had almost no direct media presence. The way it goes today, famous people need to get out in front of an issue to spin it the way they want it spun, before someone spins it for them. Led Zeppelin didn’t do any of that. People were (and are) fascinated with them because they weren’t told how to think about them. While that allowed people to think about them in whatever way they wanted (as they will anyhow), it also forced them to say that they didn’t really know.

There were stories, though. When concrete information on a band is so scant, the public is bound to fill in the holes themselves. Most often, this will constitute just making stuff up. The stories about Led Zep, true or not, have been around long enough that they’re now legend, like Santa Claus. Some said they were Satanists. Some claim there are hidden back-masked messages in their songs. There is even a hotel tale about an incident in Florida involving a groupie, chocolate syrup, and a giant marlin (hint: they didn’t cook and eat it).

The one I want to focus on is their preoccupation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. While this is mostly in their later albums (“Battle of Evermore” is said to have at least 6 references to the book in its lyrics), the only time it’s completely confirmed is in the song “Ramble On” from II.

For the most part, “Ramble On” walks a well-travelled path of a guy who loves his woman but loves the road more. He inevitably leaves one lover for another, reveling in the glory of going from place to place.

Then the third verse. What’s this talk of “the darkest depths of Mordor,” and “Gollum?” It appears that a blues band is combining a very common, people-oriented form of music with scholarly and erudite literature.

You might think it’s not so scholarly; who doesn’t know about Return of the King and the boatload of Oscars it won? But the fact is II was released in 1969, which is 32 years before the Peter Jackson-directed epic movies first started coming out. Led Zeppelin thought it was cool waaaay before everyone and their brother in this generation liked it. We in our American temporality often forget this, but Lord of the Rings was popular long before digital filming even existed. Indeed, they were a hit on first being published. J.R.R. Tolkien, despite that he was a stuffy Oxford professor, was kind of a rock star.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Led Zep’s combining of those two apparent opposites (high literature and fantasy with down-and-out blues music) creates something new. They brought an English sensibility to an American form of music, also creating something new. The presence of Middle-earth language signals that delta blues and Oxford higher learning are opposites only in our own minds, and the rift between them is smaller than imagined.

Machismo

I went to Dictionary.com and looked up machismo and this is what I found:

ma∙chis∙mo (noun) – a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity.

I was wondering how that differed from chauvinism, and discovered that chauvinism doesn’t actually involve maleness as part of its definition; it’s merely devotion to any group, particularly one’s country or military. I think what nearly everyone calls chauvinism (or male chauvinism) could much more accurately be called machismo.

I’m not a very macho guy. I think a lot of bluster and posturing very often hides insecurity or fear, and guys who are preoccupied with their power and dominance fall harder when they can’t have it. It reveals their true nature, that they’re not men but boys, crying over a toy being taken away from them. True manhood comes from the releasing of power, from recognizing that certain things have priority over even the self; things like your spouse, your kids, your family, and the things all those people love. True manhood comes from love.

At first glance, Led Zeppelin seems to be all about the machismo. The opening song on II is a charged-up burst of sexual inevitability, a dominating force that insists upon a submissive party. But after that, it takes a subtle turn. “The Lemon Song,” which probably still wouldn’t be approved by the PMRC, actually involves a guy having his manhood trampled on by his woman. Not only is she cheating on him, but he is entirely sexually beholden to her. In that scenario, she has all the power. Not so much machismo here.

But if “The Lemon Song” is machismo on the run, “Thank You” is the complete absence of it. Instead of posturing and puffed-out chests, “Thank You” has gratitude and selfless love as its centerpieces. Not only is this the opposite of machismo, but I think it’s one of the manliest songs of the entire 70s. The singer of “Thank You” is man enough to admit and be proud of the fact that he loves, and that he relies on the person he loves.

You’ll notice in the definition of machismo that it not only doesn’t mention love, but that it doesn’t have anything to do with love in any form. In fact, were the transcendent and divine power of love to take hold of us, we would find that machismo (and the female equivalent) becomes meaningless and inconsequential. Jesus talked about it; Martin Luther King Jr. talked about it. Love, in its most grand and perfect form, is not about power; it’s about oneness. When we are one, there is no power to be had.

Tomorrow: J.R.R. Tolkien the rock star, and Jimmy Page the literary scholar.

Every Inch

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin’s first album carved out a name for them and let the world know that things would be different from here on out. Led Zeppelin was about taking blues music and giving it a hard, modern edge. Nearly every song takes a standard blues formula and spins it to a different angle so it’s almost unrecognizable. “Dazed and Confused” is a good example. It was technically released long before the Altamont Free Concert, largely agreed upon to be “the death of the 60s.” But it heralded changes in the sound, stability, and mindset of rock and roll. It was getting nastier, darker, and more sexual. Led Zeppelin and Beggars Banquet prepared people for it; II made it a reality.

I’ve heard II described as the template for heavy metal. Most metal artists at the birth of the genre looked at II and thought, “we’ll just do that.” In that way, all metal artists from Stryper to Mayhem, Twisted Sister to Slipknot, owe Led Zeppelin big time. Without them, there would be no heavy metal, and that’s just the truth.

Led Zeppelin - II - 10/22/1969

The opening guitar strain of “Whole Lotta Love” is, without a doubt, the heaviest thing the world had heard thus far. Every time I hear this track, it only takes a few seconds before it captures my attention and I think, “wow; this is some serious business.” As plodding and unmerciful as the guitar part is, the vocals are serpentine and smooth, a feat Robert Plant was the first to pull off in this setting. But beware, Plant isn’t a wilting flower or a lovesick puppy – he’s dangerous. Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I once heard Robert Plant say in an interview something to the effect of this song letting the world know that Led Zeppelin “possessed sex.” Each time I listen to this song, I get it. The music is very sexual, but not like a horny teenager. No, it’s more like an experienced womanizer, a lion who hunts prey. The lyrics appear innocent enough, but have an undercurrent of male libido that is almost overwhelming. “I’m gonna give you my love” could be taken at face value, but I think the listener is intended to take it one step further.

Let’s be blunt: every instance of the word “love” in this song could be replaced with “penis.” Near the end, Plant even modifies the lyric to “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love!” It would take football fields full of naivety to miss that meaning. I could do without Plant having an orgasm into the microphone half way into the song, though; it’s not very manly to finish early.

After that burst of aggressive male sexuality, things slow down for a moment with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The song has soft-on-the-verse, hard-on-the-chorus cycle; this is just one piece of II’s influence on not just heavy metal, but rock and roll in general. I think the concept is supposed to be the contrast between the extremes of hard and soft, like sleeping and waking. The verses are almost dreamlike, while the chorus is hard-driving and intense. Despite that, the melody in the chorus isn’t very compelling, and the verses aren’t formed enough. I understand that that’s the point of the song, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

“The Lemon Song,” on the other hand, really does. This song is full of sexual innuendo; Robert Plant saying “the way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right outta bed” is more deliciously bawdy than all the modern sitcoms, rap songs and stand-up comedians combined. Sexual humor is always funnier when it’s presented with a wink. “If you know what I mean…”

“The Lemon Song” is arguably Led Zep’s most blues-influenced song; that’s saying a lot for a band that makes its name on updating the blues for the changing times. It borrows from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, and John Paul Jones’ bass track has funkiness that simply defies his age. Best of all is Robert Plant’s splendid and perfectly timed delivery. I feel I would have a lot of people on my side if I said that Plant is the greatest lead singer of all time.

On Monday: Being a man is more than what’s between your legs.