It was a gorgeous day, sometime in the summer of 1997, and I was riding through the woods in a red convertible Jensen-Healey with my friend David. I said, “Hey, I really like this song. Who is this?” At which point he calmly pulled over, turned off the engine, and started lecturing (screaming) at me. Which I totally deserved. Because it was Stairway to Heaven.
I know, right?
I was fourteen! It was the 90s! I should’ve known Stairway. Or at least have heard it. Especially considering that my parents had every Led Zeppelin album on vinyl sitting in my living room. Guess I just hadn’t worked my way through the catalogue of awesome records yet. I got through Queen and Howlin’ Wolf and stopped, maybe? Anyway. David made me a mix tape (that’s right, I said tape!) with Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and a bunch of other classic stuff on it. He filled in the gaps in my rock canon knowledge, and I taught him about Nine Inch Nails, industrial, and electronica. And we talked music for the next sixteen years, among other things. I still have that tape somewhere, I just don’t have a tape player anymore. (Which is kind of a drag, isn’t it? How many mix tapes have been abandoned in the past decade or so? How much love is just sitting around in boxes collecting dust?)
So that tape started a kind of cascade, right? An avalanche of music stuff and life stuff. I firmly believe that some things are put on your path for a reason. (Even if they come along with, weirdly, a cute boy in a hot sports car. That doesn’t happen too often, let me tell you.) I became obsessed with classic rock, abruptly ending my goth phase and starting my pot-smoking/tie-dyed-shirt-wearing/Kerouac-reading phase. Maybe that all would’ve happened eventually on its own, but at least this way I had a badass soundtrack. The Doors, Hendrix, Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Who, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and, most importantly, Led motherfucking Zeppelin.
Oh, Led Zeppelin. How I adore them so. And it’s been forty-four years since the first album came out, so I’m not going to waste your time telling you how awesome they are. You live in the world. You know how awesome they are. I do not need to plug Led Zeppelin. But I’ve been listening to them a lot the past couple of weeks and they’ve been on my mind so I want to talk about them. So there. And I should probably go ahead and tell you that if you don’t share my stance on Led Zeppelin being the greatest rock band ever, I respect your opinion. But bringing extra special snark to the blog comments table (and/or just telling me that I’m wrong) does not strengthen your argument. You know who you are.
Led Zeppelin received the Kennedy Center Honor in December, along with David Letterman, Buddy Guy, and Dustin Hoffman. All greats in their fields, obviously. In tribute, a bunch of artists performed their songs. That’s got to be nerve-wracking. I’ll say the Lenny Kravitz was alright (no worse than any of his other songs), and Kid Rock just needed to sober up and sit down. But, luckily, Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart nailed it (nay – they fucking slaughtered it!) with their version of Stairway. And that gentleman on the drums? That’s Jason Bonham, son of John Bonham. He may never be as great as his dad, but no one else deserved to be playing that song on that stage. Amazing. It made Robert Plant cry, which, in turn, makes me cry every time I watch it. I’m such a sap.
Go ahead. Watch it again.
I always thought that song needed a gospel choir. Seriously, I did.
So after that show happened, I may have gotten sucked down a Led Zeppelin/YouTube rabbit hole. I think humans are hibernating mammals. This is not a widely accepted theory. However, I will submit as evidence that every winter I want to curl up with a book and a blankie and listen to the same five albums over and over and just eat chicken pot pie until spring comes. And this time I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin albums constantly. (In my nest. With my chicken pot pie. It’s like heaven, except it can’t be because snow exists.) Also watching old concert footage of them. And documentaries. And I might have ordered a couple of biographies about them that haven’t shown up in the mail yet.
Yes, this seems obsessive. It happens. But for good reason. Their music never fails to melt my face. There’s pure blues in there. There are notes that shouldn’t be possible. There’s mandolin right alongside blistering electric guitar. There’s drumming that makes you appreciate madness. There’s sex and drugs and hunger and loss and love and death. There’s even fucking Hobbit stuff in there. A lot of it. Somehow Robert Plant makes Hobbit references sound very British and literary and deeply poetic and just a touch sexy. Not nerdy at all. I’d call that a superpower. But it might be the accent.
(Later, with caveats and addendums)
I spent about a week trying to find a way to end this blog post. There’s really no good way to do it. And I finally figured out that, while the Kennedy Center Honors make the subject convenient and topical, it wasn’t Led Zeppelin that I was trying to write about at all. Basically everything above just amounts to me saying, “I’ve always tended to geek out over music. Led Zeppelin = good.” And that’s boring.
Is it okay that it’s boring? I don’t know. My goal here has been to tell you about new and exciting things that I’ve run across in my efforts to try to be more well-rounded in my newly-minted digital paradigm. It’s been a year and I can’t say that I’ve plumbed all those depths yet, but I definitely feel like my writing is suffering for trying to maintain a sense of wonder about it all. It’s getting a little disheartening, frankly.
And I realized that with writing even this boring nonsense, as with all art, once you get past the surface, past the shiny colors or the new medium, all that’s left is the artist. It’s been creeping in. I’ve talked about myself more lately than I ever did in the posts a year ago or even six months ago. That’s a little scary. But good scary, right? Can I talk about what makes me mad? Or sad? Or terrified? Is it safe? Is it good? Is it art? Does it matter? Does talking about the best rock band ever change anything? No. It’s a drop in a bucket, a ripple in a pond. Is it going to make you run out and buy a Led Zeppelin album? Probably not, if only because they’ve been around long enough that by now if you were going to like them at all you already would. They’re not new and exciting, but they’re important. And more than that, they’re important to me.
So I took a little while and stepped away from this post and when I came back I saw that what I really wanted to write about was that long-ago mix tape from my friend. That makes me cringe. It’s just a tape. But it isn’t. And writing about why it’s so important to me seems self-indulgent and silly. Something worthy of conversation, but not necessarily of expository ramblings. But then, who’s to decide what’s “worthy”? (The voice in my head is saying, “I am, motherfuckers.” I have to fight her because clearly that’s just crazy talk.) As much as I don’t like to go on and on about myself it seems inevitable. It seems right. It seems, oddly enough, relevant. How the hell did that happen?
I know it sounds stupid, but there’s no way for me to thank David enough for making me that tape. Because of the aftermath of the thing, more than for the actual thing. First of all, you have to understand that I grew up in a place that exists about ten years behind the rest of the normal human timeline. So when I received that tape, our town was about where the everyone else in America was in the mid-1980s, feathered hair and all. A mix tape was hard work. And it meant a lot. I may technically be too young to appreciate the “Love is a mix tape” philosophy á la High Fidelity, but I’m damn close in practice.
Because of that tape, I learned about classic rock in the obsessive way that I learn about anything. I just swam in it for as long as possible, making it a part of everything that I did or thought or was at the time. That’s a fucked up way to live a life. Doesn’t make it wrong, though. And becoming well-versed in Led Zeppelin changed me in two very important ways. (I can’t believe I’m about to write this, you guys. Bear with me.)
1 – The Husband is a drummer, and he learned to play the drums by wearing out many a Led Zeppelin cd. (You know when they skip that fucks them up, right? Try playing drums next to a mid-90s boombox.) One of the first conversations we had, that wasn’t about me getting bumped out of a Magic tournament, was about how awesome Led Zeppelin is. We bonded over it. We dated. We got married. Our favorite song to sing together is Fool in the Rain. We actually take walks in the rain because of it. How dear and how precious are those moments.
2 – I learned enough about classic rock to be able to talk about it with my father. In the last year of his life, we talked about music constantly. He was a blues guitarist. We’d stay up all night discussing who was the better drummer, Ginger Baker or Mitch Mitchell. We’d go through albums and talk about why this note was best at this key change or that register wrong for that singer. We bonded over it. He died. But I’ve got all those lengthy conversations. And they’re not going anywhere. How dear and precious were those moments, as well.
I wonder if David realizes what he did with that tape. I don’t know if I’ve ever told him. (Sorry, buddy. But at least I asked your permission before telling that opening story. Hugs!) He’s one of a very few friends who knew my dad before he died. They had the same birthday. And they talked about music, too. Funny, at the time I thought it was weird that my dad knew that much about Led Zeppelin. And The Husband was the best man in David’s wedding. Everything comes full circle, somehow, with that. Maybe it’s just in my head. Probably.
So, yeah. Now I’m feeling all raw in the nerves. Maybe we’re starting a new phase here on the blog. Maybe not. I really don’t know. But I’m sorry I got all squidgy on you without fair warning. I didn’t expect it, either. But you’ve gotta write what wants written or it’ll drive you crazy. That particular hamster wheel is a bitch.