1/31/2009

Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains in the Past

On the evening of December 10, 2007, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones stood together onstage, after many years apart, and performed again as Led Zeppelin. They were joined on drums by Jason Bonham, the son of John Bonham, the drummer who had played with the band from its beginning in 1968 until September 25, 1980, when his life ended in a bout of extreme drunkenness. The concert at the O2 Arena in London was a tribute to the late Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and a longtime patron of Led Zeppelin. Demand for available tickets was feverish, with millions of people around the world seeking to attend, and the concert generally was regarded as the most momentous show of the year.

After the concert, rumors quickly spread that Led Zeppelin would record a new album and go out on tour again. It was reported that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (and Jason Bonham) were keen on reviving Led Zeppelin for the long term, but Robert Plant, a restless musician who always has preferred looking forward to looking backward, steadfastly refused to be included in any further undertakings with his former cohorts, thereby leaving no doubt that he was fully committed to the ongoing pursuit of his own aims. It seems that fans must abandon all hope of hearing or seeing new performances by Led Zeppelin, and will have to be satisfied with honoring the extraordinary legacy of the band.

Led Zeppelin began with the single-minded determination of Jimmy Page, a gifted and ambitious guitarist who had honed his inborn skills as a freelance player at a number of recording sessions in London before joining The Yardbirds in 1966. When The Yardbirds broke up in 1968, Jimmy Page resolved to form a band of his own, and set about finding other musicians who could share in achieving his musical goals. He wanted to create music that was stronger and broader than anything else being heard at that time, which required musicians of outstanding ability. Led Zeppelin, the first album by his new band, was released on Atlantic Records in 1969.

With the steady (and sometimes ruthless) guidance of Peter Grant, who was widely known as one of the shrewdest and most uncompromising managers in the business, Led Zeppelin quickly became a powerhouse of monstrous proportions, enjoying a long period of absolute rule in the domain of rock'n'roll. The four musicians used rock and blues to create an overwhelming sound that demanded to be heard, artfully blending together the heavy chords of Jimmy Page, the steadfast bass of John Paul Jones, the thunderous drums of John Bonham, and the howls, moans, and shrieks of Robert Plant. They were loud and they were bold, shaking the foundation of every venue in which they appeared, but they delivered their music with an honest feeling and a high degree of assured musicianship.

I was not at the concert in London in 2007, but I am grateful that I did have a chance to see Led Zeppelin perform on the afternoon of June 2, 1973, at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. The British band, having reached an unassailable height of fame around the world, was touring to promote the release of a new album, Houses of the Holy. Weeks before the concert, my friends and I had waited overnight on a sidewalk to be certain that we could get our tickets, and along with many others we arrived at the stadium on the day before the show. We were more than willing to do whatever was necessary to be there and to have a good view of the stage.

A concert by Led Zeppelin in the 1970s was akin to a tribal rite, providing a wide-open opportunity for thousands of young fans to revel in their own collective existence. Drugs and dissipation were, unfortunately, always in great and unwieldy abundance at such gatherings. My friends and I were totally sober and completely well-behaved, which divided us from most of those in the audience at Kezar Stadium. We wanted to be able to experience the show without any chemical distractions. By the end of an unusually long day we were tired and hungry, but at least our minds (and our memories of the music) were still intact.

During Led Zeppelin's extended performance that afternoon, which started much later than promised, the members of the band served as high priests of an unruly religion, with their sounds and their gestures being joyously received by 50,000 of their exuberant followers. Over the course of two and a half hours, many well-known songs filled the air, including "Rock and Roll," "Black Dog," "Celebration Day," "Over the Hills and Far Away," "Misty Mountain Hop," "Since I've Been Loving You," "No Quarter," "The Song Remains the Same," "Rain Song," "Dazed and Confused," "Stairway to Heaven," "Moby Dick," "Heartbreaker," "Whole Lotta Love," "Communication Breakdown," and "The Ocean." Because it was an outdoor concert, the boisterous music of Led Zeppelin could be heard many blocks away from the venue, much to the displeasure of residents in the neighborhood.

Many years have passed since that exciting, but distant, day in 1973. None of us who were in attendance at Kezar Stadium (including the musicians themselves) are getting any younger. Many things have changed during the subsequent decades. Indeed, many aspects of life are completely different now, particularly as regards the manner in which rock'n'roll currently is performed, and while it certainly is true that great music always deserves a hearing, it must also be acknowledged that the earsplitting splendor of Led Zeppelin is a treasure from another age. It can be remembered with awe and delight, and it can even be discovered anew by a younger generation, but it can never be fully restored.

The flow of time always moves relentlessly onward, even in the case of famous rockers and their faithful fans, and while unhappiness may result from knowing that the three members of Led Zeppelin who are still living are unlikely to come together again for the purpose of recording or touring, Robert Plant probably is wise in choosing not to trade on his former glories. He apparently believes that the triumphs of yesterday, no matter how bright and how impressive they might have been, cannot (or, perhaps, should not) be reclaimed. Although the song of Led Zeppelin remains the same in legend and in memory, it also remains in the past.