Sunday, June 22, 2008

Led Zeppelin and the Celtic Twilight

I recently paid a visit to writer/director Cameron Crowe’s website and read his 1975 Rolling Stone interview with Led Zeppelin – the real-life basis for the 2000 film “Almost Famous.” Crowe is such an enthusiastic writer that I immediately dug out my Led Zeppelin box set and started listening again. In the interview and in the film, Crowe makes a distinction between the “little things” that make music memorable and the “industry of cool” that suffocates it. For him, Led Zeppelin was (at least in its heyday) the epitome of rock and roll, and I’m inclined to agree - though I prefer Led Zeppelin for its epic moments, rather than for the “little things." The band has always had a loyal fan following, but by contrast most rock journalists of the 1970s regarded the band members as irresponsible, self-important windbags. By the time that Led Zeppelin had become the most popular band in the world (with the release of their untitled fourth album), they had pretty much sworn off the press. To get his interview, Crowe had to convince them that he was, first and foremost, a fan… which was made a little easier by the fact that he looked young enough to be in high school.

I became a fan of Led Zeppelin when I was in high school, despite the fact that they hadn’t released a studio album since before I was born. It started when my friend Ben made me a copy of Led Zeppelin II, affectionately known as the “Brown Bomber” album. Some people (including Ben, I think) would argue this album represents Led Zeppelin at their finest – a straightforward, hard-driving, blues-drenched aural assault. Simple and unpretentious. The band followed up that album with a grueling tour of the States, then went into retreat in the Welsh countryside. When they resurfaced, their music was suddenly more restrained and more enigmatic. This is the Led Zeppelin that I eventually fell in love with.

On the first song of the third album, the band adopts the guise of Viking conquerors come to ravage the British Isles. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones were eagerly embracing their public image as corruptors of the youth, and the mythic imagery became part of their schtick. Sure, it was silly… but the music was searing. They also embraced the folk sounds and stories of their British homeland on songs like “Gallows Pole,” based on a centuries-old tale about a maiden begging the executioner for her life. The folk song, reminiscent of Welsh Arthurian legend, goes something like this:

Hangman, hangman, hangman / slack your rope awhile
I think I see my father / ridin’ many a mile
Father did you bring any silver / father did you bring any gold
Or did you come to see me / hangin' from the gallows pole
No, I didn’t bring any silver / no I didn’t bring any gold
I just come to see you / hangin’ from the gallows pole

The song evokes the Hangman of the tarot deck, an ancient system of magic symbols that Jimmy Page was fascinated with. Page, the band’s lead guitarist and its most consummate musician, was said to dabble in black magic – not unlike a certain infamous bluesman of the American South who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in return for musical talent. Whatever the cause, the guitarist was at the height of his powers as a musician. Around the same time, singer/songwriter Robert Plant was coming into his own. Shortly after the birth of his first child, he wrote “That’s the Way” – a somber reflection on the loneliness of life on the road. “I don’t know how I’m gonna tell you,” he sings, “that I can’t play with you no more.”

The band’s sessions in the Welsh countryside produced a significant instrumental piece called “Bron-Yr-Aur” (later included on the “Physical Graffiti” album). The difficult-to-pronounce title is a Welsh phrase used to describe the winter sunlight in the northern part of the country. The phrase effectively sums up the change in the band’s sound: they were taking on a more reflective, somber mood. Now that I live in Los Angeles, I can’t listen to this album without thinking of the way dusk falls here – that melancholy glow, created by smog, at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because, in “Almost Famous,” Crowe used “That’s the Way” over an image of sunset on the western horizon. Or maybe it’s because I've read that the band experienced a sublime mix of excitement and homesickness while visiting the far edge of the western world. In the book “Hammer of the Gods,” band biographer Steven Davis explains how the music reflected the lives of the traveling band: “Led Zeppelin lived in two worlds, one a secure green England of family and tradition, the other a lurid Hollywood movie of fantasy and excess.” With the third album, we begin to see the emotional struggle between the two – the conflicting perspectives of protector and destroyer, as if the musicians were trying to create a bridge between the “death of rock” and the afterlife. Their sound became, in a word, autumnal.

The band’s nameless fourth album (sometimes called “ZOSO”) has long been hailed as their greatest achievement, and the lyrics prompted fans and critics to speculate even more on the secret alchemy that created the music. The title of the first track, “Black Dog,” suggested to some that they had embraced black magic as a way of life, and were beginning to feel cursed. In British folklore, a black dog is often a portent of death. The song, of course, was not about a dog but about a soulless woman with “eyes that shine / burning red.” Clearly something out of Romantic literature (maybe Coleridge or Byron?). Robert Plant has maintained that the title was a reference to a real dog that wandered in and out of the studio during recording. Maybe he was telling the truth, or maybe he was secretly trying to build the band’s dark mystique.

Two of the most memorable tracks on the fourth album, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven,” wax poetic about a time of kings and queens, destroyed by a Dark Lord. It’s hard not to read a bit of the history of the British Isles into these tunes, especially since Plant has said that the songs were inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. What Tolkien was trying to do was to build a genuine mythology for a people whose myths had been shattered by many centuries of invasion and conquest (first the Normans, then the Saxons). Tolkien, like his peer W.B. Yeats, was intrigued by the Celtic Twilight – a nearly-forgotten time when the British Isles worshiped the Old Gods of the Earth instead of the Christian God. In the early 1970s, the members of Led Zeppelin were torn between the magic and mystery of these ancient stories and the magic and mystery of the California dream. Though the song “Going to California” insists that they left their home land with an aching in their hearts, the band members were nevertheless captivated by the grandeur of their home-away-from-home: “The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake / as the children of the sun began to awake.”

The lyric makes me think of the image on the cover of the band’s next album, “Houses of the Holy.” The image is a group of naked children climbing up an ominous rock formation at land’s end in Northern Ireland, striving to reach the sun. According to the ancients, the formation was the handiwork of a race of giants who ruled the British Isles before men. The juxtaposition of giants and children might be interpreted in a number of ways – perhaps the sun is meant to visually represent the band’s music, summoning young listeners like a pagan Pied Piper. All that really matters is that the image is evocative and awe-inspiring. And so is the music.

From the moment Robert Plant sings the first line of “The Song Remains the Same” (“I had a dream. / Crazy dream”), we’re transported to another – larger – world. “The Rain Song” follows up with melancholy reflection: “These are the seasons of emotion / And like the wind they rise and fall.” (I can think of no better expression of the impact this music had on me when I was a teenager.) “Over the Hills and Far Away” continued the Piper’s journey, though unfortunately it led into a group of experimental songs (“The Crunge” – a nod to funk; “D’yer Maker” – a nod to reggae; “Dancing Days” – a step toward pop music). Presumably, these songs were the band’s way of insisting that they weren’t taking themselves too seriously – reassurances that all that pretentious mythologizing was offset by occasional playfulness. Still, there was a logical progression. “No Quarter” is the flip side of “The Rain Song” – as dark and ominous as any song the band ever produced. “The Ocean” rounds out the album, offering Plant’s perspective on the ocean of Zeppelin fans and offering a glimpse of the Viking warriors as family men: “Now I'm singing all my songs to the girl who won my heart / She is only three years old and it's a real fine way to start.” Once again, the lyrics were written for Plant’s daughter, who was three years old at the time.

By the time “Houses of the Holy” hit record stores, Led Zeppelin was an industry unto itself. They had climbed the impossible mountain, and now there was nothing left to do but fall. Perhaps aware of this, the band named its new label Swan Song, and chose an image of the suffering Icarus (the boy who flew too close to the sun) as their icon. Although the double album “Physical Graffiti” is very uneven – as perhaps it should be, since the recurring theme on the album is the struggle between sin and salvation – I love it because it’s passionate. The band was determined to go down in flames, playing bombastic but nevertheless powerful tunes like “In My Time of Dying,” “Trampled Underfoot,” “Ten Years Gone,” and of course “Kashmir.” The first of these has a particularly dark legacy – Plant has suggested that the lyrics to this traditional blues number (“Meet me, Jesus, meet me… so I can die easy”) are a self-imposed curse, responsible for a near-fatal car accident that he suffered in 1975. More recently, Page & Plant have professed a particular liking for “In the Light,” which is (like the more popular “Kashmir”) an epic composition with an eastern flair. I like to think of it as rock and roll’s answer to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I remember being captivated the first time I heard Plant urge listeners to “sit with elders of the gentle race this world has seldom scene / and talk of days for which they sit and wait when all will be revealed.”

In general, I think that the less said about the subsequent albums (“Presence,” “In Through the Out Door,” and the posthumous “Coda”), the better… with one major exception. “Achilles Last Stand” is exactly what it purports to be – the final hurrah of a group of wild Englishmen who went into concert the way a Greek soldier would go into battle, without the least hesitation, and eventually crashed and burned with all the flare of the Hindenburg. Sifting through the ruins, we may not find poetic genius, but I submit that we do find the impetus for epic poetry…

“Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid to sleep.”

- W.B. Yeats

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6/24/2008

    Robert Plant is currently touring the US with Alison Krauss & T Bone Burnett. Their collabarative CD 'Raising Sand'doesn't disappoint- a generalisation would be passion personified with musical colors and words.