I wasn’t around for Led Zeppelin’s heyday. The were done before I was old enough to really know what rock and roll was. Heck, my parents only got married a few months before Led Zeppelin 4 came out. Despite missing their prime, they were an indelible part of the musical landscape I came of age.
A lot of the radio stations where I grew up featured classic rock. This was classic rock as defined at the time and pretty well laid out in Steve Hyden’s book ‘Twilight of the Gods’ (I know I keep bringing this book up, but it’s essential). There was a lot of Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, the Doors, and so on. As much as we were walking like Egyptians and eating Vegemite sandwiches, we were still working for the weekend and not fearing the reaper. It felt like MTV was everything new and the radio was everything that had been around a while.
Despite the clashing soundscapes, there was one band everyone paid fealty to, and that was Led Zeppelin. We used to joke that ‘everyone has a Led Zeppelin phase’, but looking back it was basically true. No matter what music my friends listened to, everyone knew ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and owned a copy of Led Zeppelin 4. When people went through their ‘Zeppelin Phase’ they would get the first three and maybe Houses of the Holy.
I would occasionally win bets when radio stations would do their countdowns of things like ‘the top 500 greatest rock and roll songs’ or however they phrased it for whatever holiday weekend it was. The #1 song was always ‘Stairway to Heaven’ but somehow friends would still convince themselves it would be The Beatles, Rolling Stones, or the Who maybe. All good choices, but ‘Stairway’ reigned supreme.
My older brother got to them first. I don’t remember exactly when he became a fan, but when he did he fell for them hard. There were a lot of years where ‘what’s your favorite band?’ was an easy question for him. He never had a patch on his denim jacket, but he had posters and a fancy box set.
It took me a little longer to come around. I always associated them with him and as a younger brother you always find yourself in a weird place of wanting to set your own path, but also seeking approval of the person who’s opinion most matters to you. This generally means that I was wary of bands he liked, but usually ended up on the bandwagon.
The first song I truly loved from them was ‘The Immigrant Song’. For the longest time I didn’t have it on tape or CD or anything, so I was relegated to turning up the radio when it came on. My brother, and that song, got pretty intertwined for me the weekend he left for college.
He started at UMass Amherst the fall I became a Junior in high school. We spent a lot of time together and shared a lot of friends despite fighting all the time (he’ll always be the one person who can get my goat without actually trying). Despite that his going away to college was a pretty big shift in our lives, and I remember going through a lot of emotions about it. I was a teenager, so all of those emotions were magnified. I don’t think I cried when my Mom, Dad, and I drove off leaving him on his own, but I was sad as hell. Somehow on the long ride home I got to thinking about the Immigrants song and wanting to hear it. I futzed around with the radio stations as we drove through Connecticut in the dark, trying to find a station that might play it. Somewhere around Hartford and heading South it came on, then it played again a bit later around Bridgeport. There are thousands of songs that radio stations play, but that night I needed to hear specific one and the radio gods heard my prayers. The song is about Vikings traveling westward to conquer distant shores and it felt to me on that night that that is what lay ahead for both my brother and I, driving our ships to new lands.
I don’t find myself near Amherst, or Hartford, or Bridgeport much these days, but that song is imprinted on them for me. That was the kind of impact that Zeppelin had on people. Critics panned their albums, but it didn’t matter. They were bigger than everyone.
My Zeppelin phase really started that night and continued for a while. I would never have classified them as my favorite band, but they were part of the concrete that my favorite bands used for their foundation.
Not too long after that trip in the house that felt emptier, I called into one of those radio stations late at night to request ‘Kashmir’. It was late on a hot summer night and I was up playing video games with no work or school the next day. The DJ played it after an hour or so, and mentioned I had requested it. I had zero money for cds or tapes and my brother had taken all his music with him, so this was the only way I was gonna hear it. The next night I called up and requested it again. The DJ played it after a while and mentioned again it was by my request. When I called up a third night the DJ laughed and told me he wasn’t gonna play it because people might think he was repeating his shows. We settled on ‘When The Levee Breaks’, which, honestly, is the better song.
I never really got much past owning Led Zeppelin 4 as a teenager. I made mix tapes from my brothers collection, and only in recent years realized most of the songs I loved that weren’t on 4 were on Led Zeppelin 3, including ‘The Immigrants Song’. In very typical fashion, 3 is my brother’s least favorite of their records. He thinks Zombieland is better than Shaun of the Dead too, so there’s no accounting for taste.
Only in recent years with the series of remastered editions they put out did I pick up their rest of their catalogue. Despite the long years between being a kid and now, I still love their music. It still sounds fresh and exciting. That impression of them as ‘the gods’ of rock and roll I had as a kid has never really left me. They are in that category of bands like The Who, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones where they’re just a level above everyone else in the pantheon. More than that, they were the cool kids. They were the kids smoking behind the school while the Beatles were in the marching band. They were mysterious, and dangerous, and otherworldly, and no one will ever quite compare.
Last year a friend suggested I should submit something for an upcoming anthology of pulp fiction stories set in the Delaware beach areas. I thought it would be fun and set out to come up with a story to send in.
With most short stories I get the germ of an idea and just start writing. It’s pretty rare that I know where I’m going when I set out. I like writing about music so I wanted to see if I could incorporate that into this exercise. I decided on a coming of age story and a magical record store.
I started to write and as I wrote I began to understand the it was about how music can help us learn who we are, and what better band for that then Led Zeppelin?
Beach Pulp from Cat and Mouse Press is out today, and features my story about coming of age, Led Zeppelin, and the very real magic of music in our lives. The story isn’t in autobiographical in any fashion, except that sometimes coming home with a record and putting it on for the first time can change your whole life.
I’d love to hear your Zeppelin stories and maybe argue about their best songs!