Everywhere in the older Chinese writers he encountered praise of music as one of the primal sources of all order, morality, beauty and health. — Hermann Hesse
One of the good things about being a baby boomer is that when you tell your boring old-folk stories about the musicians you’ve seen in concert, they aren’t boring, they’re cool.
My Dad used to tell me about seeing Frankie Lane at Blinstrub’s, a ritzy club in Boston where national performers appeared to do gigs, and he raved to us, many times, about how fantastic Lane was. I’m sure Frankie was great, but the impact of the tale was largely lost on me. My mom talked about seeing Glenn Miller, the thought of which would excite me today, but then it was strictly corny old folks stuff. That was the divide between generations back then… what did they call it? Oh yeah, gap, the generation gap, which has all but closed today, one of the great triumphs of the 60s.
Sure, there are lots of other areas where the gap continues, but as far as music, these days toddlers sit on their parents shoulders and hear Dylan sing… well, rasp, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Jack White and Dave Matthews sing onstage with Mick Jagger and the Stones. It’s all different now.
So when I tell younger people about how I saw Led Zeppelin on their first American tour, January 1969, at The Boston Tea Party, paying four bucks to get in, they listen with a kind of reverential awe and borderline disbelief. Ticket prices for the recent Zeppelin one-shot reunion gig for Ahmet Ertegun, with John Bonham’s son Jason on drums, were selling in the neighborhood of $10,000 a pair, so you can see why my first concert experience with Zep seems at the same time both terribly ancient and completely current.
The Tea Party held about a thousand people. It was a place where lots of hippie bands played during the 60s. They had a mirror ball and strobes and those oil and colored-water projectors, first created by the Joshua Light Show, making trippy liquid designs on the wall next to the stage. The place itself used to be a synagogue, a big rectangular room with the stage at the end, huge high ceiling, no seats except a few folding chairs along the side and the bolted down seats in the balcony. It was like a hippie high school auditorium. On other nights I saw The J. Geils Band there, Jethro Tull, Sons of Champlain and some more obscure bands I can’t recall at the moment. But the Led Zep show was a big thing.
The first album was out and “Communication Breakdown” was an FM Radio hit. The music was so different than what we’d been hearing, so new and hard and driving, crunching guitars, pounding drums, high, screaming vocals. There’s wasn’t even a name for it back then, but soon it would come to be known as the future institution, hard rock. The record had only come out in stores the week before, nobody knew anything about the band, who looked so girlish on the back record cover, with their big heads of puffy hair and pale English skin, that it embarrassed me and most of the guys I knew – I was 17 and back then, anything ‘faggy’ was to be positively shunned, but the band was so good, we decided to let it slide. And they were singing about girls, in a way that raw and sexual, so we figured they were probably all right with us.
When Led Zeppelin went onto the stage that night, they walked through the crowd to get to it. Like kings, like conquering heroes parting the masses, it was a theatrical move and it worked. Jimmy Page and Plant were about two feet away from me as they made they royal way through. I’d never seen anyone that close who was so skinny and pale. And they had all that hair. And they also had that air, of knowing that they were about to be big. Very big. Nobody knew any details about the band but we knew the buzz was that they were going to be huge and the proof of it was there in the grooves, because the record sure as hell rocked.
They jumped up on stage and fiddled with their guitars and amps for a while. John Bonham thumped his drums, tested the foot pedal. That’s what bands did in those days, it wasn’t orchestrated down to the minute the way it is now. Bands would even stop to tune up onstage if they needed to and the audience didn’t seem to mind. It was all part of the thing. They didn’t play football stadiums then. Led Zeppelin would soon create that, ushering the rock world into arenas, giant money and legendary excesses. But this night, they were just four guys on a relatively small stage. Big Marshall amps. Bonham’s big Chinese cymbal. One guitar, one bass, drums, and a singer.
When they started playing, the sounds that came out of the amps and house speakers was deafening. Bands usually played loud, but not this loud. The vibrations hit your chest with physical force. It was… it felt… what’s the word? Heavy. They started with a song the Yardbird’s used to cover, “Train Kept a Rollin’” later claimed as a live signature song by Boston boys, Aerosmith. Zep had formed out of the ashes of the defunct Yardbirds. Their original name sounded like a Spinal Tap joke, “The New Yardbirds.” “Train” was the first song the band played together, when they first met and rehearsed in London.
"As soon as I heard John Bonham play,” John Paul Jones later said, “I knew this was going to be great. We locked together as a team immediately.” And the band was locked together that night as well, in an organic, often loosely spontaneous way, but it was like they could read each other’s minds. Page’s long solo on “Dazed and Confused” was appropriately jaw dropping, playing with a violin bow, getting sound and feedback that was as radical as anyone had heard since Hendrix. Page’s guitar playing was obviously rooted in the blues and was light years beyond most of the solo guitarists of the hippie type bands, who tended to be self-indulgent and noodled endlessly when they soloed.
This was different, his solos were as well constructed as a bluesman’s while at the same time full of room for improvisation and letting the spirit take over. Whatever spirit that happened to be. His guitar playing was rife with power that seemed to come from some elemental source, some ancient time of pre-history, drawing up volcanic turbulence, witches’ wails, storms from the mystic.
They did a stunning “You Shook Me,” showcasing the acrobatic, elastic voice of Plant. Here was another reason to absolutely love this band, the guy could hit notes that weren’t even written. They did “Communication Breakdown,” which was stunning, which we cheered for because we’d heard it on the radio already. The rhythm section of Jones and Bonham was crunching and fat, that metal sound of deep base and drums like thundering hooves.
The second set included the acoustic style guitar work of “White Summer” and the heavy metal meets folk “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Ending out on “How Many More Times,” leaving the audience gasping, wanting more but no encore, wondering what the hell we’d just seen, exactly. To repeat Jon Landau before he’d said it, we’d seen the future of rock and roll. Music got heavier, hundreds of bands tried but never came all that close to doing what Zep did.
The next records, Led Zepplin ll, Led Zepplin lll, Led Zepplin lV, came out one after the other in the following two years and created widespread popularity for the group, cementing Zep’s status as the biggest band in the world, with hits like “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” and the ubiquitous “Stairway to Heaven.” They toured the world in the Led Zeppelin jet, created ‘arena rock,’ became infamous for their excessive lifestyle. Jimmy Page became known as an advocate of the occult and philosophical disciple of Satanist Alestair Crowley, the band toured on, made more records, less influential records, eventually becoming so much of an institution that in recent years the song “Rock and Roll” was used in Cadillac commercials. And even there it sounded as fresh and raw and great as it did when it first same out. That’s what’s called classic.
In 1980, booze took John Bonham away and the band closed shop. Plant and Page did projects, but Zep were an organic unit, and they announced they wouldn’t go on without Bonzo. They did play again as Led Zeppelin once, for Live Aid, but it turned out to be a rather ramshackle affair. True to their word, other than that time, they didn’t play live again as Zeppelin until the recent gig, with John’s son Jason behind the kit.
Christmas, 1990, my Mother asked me what I wanted and I told her I wanted the new Led Zeppelin boxed set. So she got it for me, sent it and inside the card it read, “Have fun listening to Led. Love, Mom.” Some things about the generation gap hadn’t changed.
Led Zeppelin created the template for heavy metal music, pioneering riff rock and at the same time bringing a huge mixture of influences into their songs, Scottish and Celtic folk, Tolkien, reggae, middle-eastern music, all combining to make a completely unique melange, a potent, organic stew that tastes as good today as the day it was cooked up.
And the well-heeled lucky few got to pay thousands of dollars each for the chance to see a one time reunion of this band of elders who I got to see for four bucks as they were just emerging in all their thunder and glory. An unforgettable experience. I grew up in a good time for music and I consider myself blessed to have been able to have seen such a gigantic band as Led Zeppelin, live. They really were some kind of Gods.