Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Zeppelin still matters

The final months of 2012 turned out to be a boon for Led Zeppelin, despite not recording any new material. In October, Brad Tolinski, editor of Guitar World, released Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, which featured a series of interviews with the famously reclusive guitarist conducted over the past two decades that cover the guitarist's monumental career. While most Led Zeppelin bios tend to simply focus on the (admittedly decadent) rock and roll lifestyle of the 1970s' premier hard rock band, these interviews focus on Jimmy Page the artist.

The book opens with Tolinski profiling the days of Page's youth where he was told what meant to be a man of the ax. Chronicling his formative years miming the style of the latest Elvis Presley and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup records to be shipped into England, his stint at art school and jamming as a skiffle guitarist, his tenure as one of England's most sought-after session guitarist and his time in the prolific British blues band the Yardbirds, readers are allowed to put the pieces together and see that Page's eventual machinations were not ahead of their time as much as they were an amalgamation of varying influences. His time in art school forced him to think unconventionally about presentation, while his time in the studio playing guitar for the Kinks and the Who granted him a reservoir of knowledge about studio production, and his tenure as the lead guitarist for the Yardbirds, a band rooted in the blues but willing to expand the dimensions beyond the traditional twelve-bar format, gave him the breathing room for experimentation that he would eventually push to the outer limits.

What's more those are just the first three chapters before the formation of Led Zeppelin. Ever the student of Aleister Crowley, the Occult and mysticism, it is clear reading these interviews that while Page was not the frontman or the "leader" of Zeppelin, he was the alchemist blending together the four elements that were himself, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, to create a fifth element, as he would say, in his own form of magick. Except Page's brand was not conducted with a caldron in black robes but rather in Headley Grange, where the band recorded IV and Physical Graffiti. Their invocations were not in the forests but on the stages of Madison Square Garden, the Forum Arena and Earl's Court. Page pores over every anecdote of how he properly miked Bonham's drums for the thunderous intro to "When the Levee Breaks" and how he mastered his own guitar tracks at separate studios. In fact, the amount of scrounging and scouring for the right mix makes one wonder how Page found time for the antics Zeppelin became famous for on the road.

This is not to say there are not tantalizing tidbits for the casual reader. He mentions how at one point he was sitting outside of a window on an air conditioning system, having flight attendants stealing the band's hundred dollar bills they snorted cocaine with and ending their shows in Los Angeles so they could party earlier. One of the more jarring aspects is Page not sleeping for five days while filming The Song Remains the Same, which has become the Citizen Kane of hard rock concert films.

The chapters following Zeppelin's demise are admittedly lull. The next two chapters cram in all of Page's experiments in the 1980s and 1990s, even down to their most absurd like his collaboration with P. Diddy on a remix of "Kashmir." In addition, Page goes in depth on how he transferred the Zeppelin catalog onto CD and his trailblazing marketing of his work with the Black Crowes online long before iTunes. Nevertheless the book is a must for Led Zeppelin fans who want to know how Page forged the musical magick with his Hammer of the gods, as well for guitarists who want an inside look into the mind of one of rock's greatest and producers who want to learn more about doing more with less in the studio.

However, the last chapter does cover Zeppelin's momentous reunion show at London's O2 arena in December of 2007, which was finally released in DVD format in November of 2012. Entitled Celebration Day, the reunion show, which served as a tribute to the late impresario of Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegun, the show serves just as that: a jubilant retrospective of Zeppelin's entire catalog. With Bonham's son Jason on the skins, the band powers through a veritable fan's paradise of Zeppelin's staples, from the straight-ahead slammers like "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" to epics like "Kashmir" and "In My Time of Dying" and the extended jam versions of "No Quarter," "Dazed and Confused" and "Whole Lotta Love" in the ways that the band would perform them in their heyday. What's more, for the first time, Page plays the solo to "Stairway to Heaven," often considered the Model T of hard rock guitar solos, note-for-note (albeit a whole step down to facilitate the aging Plant).

While there are clearly times where the band's timing falters slightly and Plant can no longer evoke the genuine raw sexuality of the 70s, it is still a worthwhile venture and will leave fans scratching their heads as to why Plant prefers to continue in his bluegrass ventures. Particularly, it will have fans in the states wondering as they were often more willing to embrace Zeppelin than their English counterparts. Zeppelin's notoriety across  the pond was so profound that this past December, they were honored by the Kennedy Center for their contribution to the arts in the United States, leading to an invitation to the White House by President Barack Obama,  who stated, "when the Brits initially kept their distance, Led Zeppelin grabbed America from the opening chord." Even more rewarding must have been the fact that they were honored the same night as Buddy Guy, the Chicago Blues guitar titan who served as an archetype for Page, and his contemporaries in England, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.

Later in the evening, as broadcast on CBS on December 26th, Zeppelin sat in the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center's theater beside the President and First Lady, where they were treated to younger artists performing renditions of their staples. While some versions were a little shaky, namely Kid Rock's version of "Ramble On," two of the most moving moments of the night cam during Lenny Kravitz's cover of "Whole Lotta Love," where the camera panned to the President, laid back and singing the lyrics to the rock anthem, and Heart's rendition of "Stairway to Heaven," featuring a choir, strings and Jason Bonham on drums. By the end, Plant was moved to tears.

Despite calling it a day with the passing of John Bonham, Zeppelin's still remains relevant to this day. Walk into any Guitar Center and inevitably some kid in a black t-shirt is trying (miserably) to mime the intro to Stairway. Whizzing down the Autobahn of Germany or the heartland of America in a Cadillac, the Shuffle on Steroids that is "Rock and Roll" is blaring out of a sound system. In an era where many artists try to live up to Zeppelin's decadence or knack for anthems, they often forget the most crucial elements: the desire to commune with the audience in a meaningful manner; the chemistry that comes with making music with equal parts to the extent that no member overshadows the other; and the desire to be authentic, even when talking about the depths of Mordor and Mayqueens. Zeppelin's legacy continues because of the dedication of its bandmates, both during their time together and in preserving the canon.