The first time I heard Led Zeppelin, I was riding in my uncle’s 4Runner as we traveled through the foothills of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. It was summer 1993. I had just turned 14, just graduated from middle school—no longer a boy, not yet a man. When my cousin popped “Led Zeppelin IV” into the CD player and I heard Robert Plant’s opening howl on “Black Dog,” followed by that unmistakable guitar explosion, my life changed forever.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course. Looking back, though, more than 14 years later I understand how hearing Zeppelin for the first time was a personal watershed. I’m sure I brought some music with me on that two-week trip across the country, but I have absolutely no recollection of what it may have been. It must have been total crap, because that’s all I listened to at that time. I had no older sibling to tell me to listen to The Who’s “Tommy” with the lights off, so I was subjected to whatever my stupid friends thought was cool at the time—most likely some awful pop/hip-hop. Whatever it was, Zeppelin obliterated it with a double-neck guitar assault, and I never looked back.
When I returned home, I immediately bought three Zeppelin tapes (yes, tapes!): “Led Zeppelin I,” “Physical Graffiti,” and “Led Zeppelin IV.” Not a bad way to be baptized in rock and roll.
I listened to those cassettes incessantly that summer and fall, but it wasn’t until the night before Thanksgiving that I took my next leap. As was tradition, I was staying at another cousin’s house in preparation for Turkey Day; after everyone else had gone to bed, I went downstairs and found next to her CD player the original Led Zeppelin four-disc box set.
It was like opening a treasure chest.
I stayed up into the wee hours that night (morning, actually) exploring those four glorious CDs, freaking myself out as I read the insert booklet’s hints of pagan blood rituals and other devilish deeds. At that time, growing up under the artistically, intellectually, and spiritually stunted auspices of what would eventually become a corrupt church, I was in the process of being indoctrinated with the worst kind of pop-culture paranoia. I worried that listening to this music would literally condemn me to hell … or at least make God real, real mad at me.
But I couldn’t tear my ears away from it. Thinking back, “In My Time of Dying” stands out most from that Thanksgiving Eve night. It was an 11-minute epic of such power, ferocity, and beauty the likes of which I’d never heard before.
Other than my very first CD player, that box set was the only other thing I really wanted for Christmas that year. My cousin came through, and my full-flight journey into rock and roll was officially under way—if a bit late.
I still have those original four CDs, and I cannot believe they still work. I played them almost incessantly, even as Zeppelin led me to other bands in those early days of exploration, most notably Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, and Aerosmith. Zeppelin faded to the background over the years as I discovered more and more bands, but their music never truly left me. When I popped Disc 2 of that box set in my car just today, I could still sing along to every single word on all 15 tracks. And my goodness those songs are still so glorious.
Given that history, it might come as a surprise that I felt little excitement over the band’s reunion show last night in London. Don’t get me wrong: If someone had given me tickets and airfare, I’d have been there without question. But the reviewers can pant and genuflect all they want—that wasn’t Led Zeppelin that took the stage. It was simply Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonham, son of drummer John Bonham. No, Zeppelin died in 1980 with John in a puddle of his own vomit.
I won’t deny it was cool to see the three original members onstage together (via clips on YouTube), even if Page’s ghostly white hair is a bit unsettling. It’s just nearly not the same. I wasn’t even alive for Zeppelin’s heyday, but from everything I’ve seen and heard and read, there’s just no way it could be duplicated, no matter how many millions of fans and journalists would like to think such a thing possible.
This was certainly a special event, though, and I hope it stays that way. I don’t want a “reunion tour,” even though I’d probably break down and buy tickets anyway. They’ve resisted that juicy, money-laden red apple for nearly three decades, and it would be a pity to succumb to it now. It’s amazing that a group of such hedonistic, almost unthinkably indulgent men could hold themselves to such artistic integrity upon the death of their friend and bandmate—to immediately shut Led Zeppelin down for good and mean it—but they’ve conducted themselves quite well in these intervening years.
I much prefer what Plant and Page did in the 1990s with their re-imagining of the Zeppelin catalog through sitars and hurdy-gurdies. That was something fresh, something new, something that said “screw it” to people clamoring for cheap imitation and instead went in a completely different direction in a way that probably disappointed a good portion of Zep fans.
By going so far out, the duo’s return to more traditional, straightforward rock and roll with 1998’s “Walking to Clarksdale” was a natural next step. The album was just OK, but I saw them perform during that tour and it was fabulous. Most of the songs were culled from the old days, but it wasn’t forced or underwhelming because they weren’t trying to tour as the monster that is “LED ZEPPELIN”; instead, it just felt like two old friends who wanted to reconnect through a common bond. They played together for a summer, then went their separate ways. It was great.
Last night was great, too, for what it was: A fitting and special way for them to honor a former friend and mentor. Here’s hoping they can ignore the clamor—and the untold millions of potential dollars—and let their decades-long song of silence remain the same.
Here’s the setlist from London:
Good Times Bad Times
In My Time of Dying
For Your Life (first time played live—ever)
Trampled Under Foot
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway to Heaven
The Song Remains the Same
Misty Mountain Hop
Whole Lotta Love
Rock and Roll
A few thoughts on the selection:
I can’t argue with a single choice here, but I’m a bit surprised that “Ramble On” appeared so early. Seems a bit of a momentum killer to me—too quiet of a song for that point in the set, with the crowd in what I can only imagine was a fever pitch.
Very cool that they pulled out “For Your Life”—adventurous right to the end, these guys.
The only thing more I could have hoped for was maybe a mini-acoustic set somewhere in the middle, like Page and Plant did in ’98. Something like “Going to California” into “That’s the Way” into “The Rain Song,” with “Ramble On” to follow and warm things back up.
On the other hand, it’s clear from this set they were in a mood to go out and just melt faces all over the place for two straight hours. I keep looking for a spot to jump in and say, “Wow, from [this song] to [this song] must have just been amazing,” but there’s really no good place to start such a sentence except at the beginning of the show.
So, “Wow, from ‘Good Times Bad Times’ to ‘Rock and Roll’ must have just been amazing.”
I just wonder if that amazement would wear out over the course of a grueling worldwide tour.