Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On grief and Led Zeppelin

In January, I alluded to the fact that we were in the middle of a period of grief. The fact is, in late December, our unborn baby, due this Spring, died. Forgive me for the bluntness of this statement. Some of you know this already, most of you do not. I'd not wanted to write about it here, primarily because anything I could write felt inadequate, inappropriate. And though this blog has not shied away from personal matters, it just seemed too much. I'm not going to write about it here, either, beyond what I've just said. But I felt I needed to say it in order to make this post make any sense.

At any rate, in the aftermath, I found, amid the resumption of everyday life, the day-to-day practical stuff, including getting things take care of related to our loss, that when I was by myself, I wanted to listen to music. It was music that helped me deal with the down time. Not unusual - I often want to listen to music, and people often turn to music for comfort and consolation. Sometimes it was too much and I'd be stopped short by a song coming on randomly (this happened with Sinead O'Connor's unbelievable "Three Babies", which I don't think I can listen to again without crying), but even these have helped. I mostly wanted to hear familiar voices.

First it was Fleetwood Mac - an old favorite from childhood - but instead of reaching for the records I knew very well (the obvious ones, Fleetwood Mac and Rumours), I instead reached for Tusk, which I'd never given a proper listen. Though really it was primarily "Sara" and "Storms" I wanted to hear: sad songs, but not too on the nose. I'd always loved "Storms" ("And I did not deal with you I know. . .": this line gets me every time), but "Sara" had always been just a pleasant song I knew only hazily. But I now found I wanted to hear "Sara" constantly; I played it over and over again. Then I started listening to the album in full, reading more about Tusk, realized/remembered that since I only had it on the original cd pressing, that I had the "edit" version of "Sara", which is roughly two minutes shorter than the original (i.e., an abomination, I later understood). . . that I'd never sought to remedy this situation suggests my overall lack of engagement with the album and even the song, though I'd always "liked" it. But in my newfound obsession with the song, I needed the full version, so I downloaded it, inserted it back into its rightful place, obsessed over it further. . .

Enter Marcello Carlin and his blog, Then Play Long. Recall that at TPL, Carlin has been, over the last five years, writing about each album to reach #1 on the UK charts since the beginning, in 1956, "so that you might want to hear it". I'd been reading the blog regularly, and he's not only made me want to hear records I never gave a second (or first) thought to, but also managed to somehow say something new and interesting about records that have been written about to death, many of which I'd have told you I knew about as well as it was possible to know a record. I wrote about some of these previously (here and here). But my own life got complicated and busy, his publishing slowed down (in part due to health issues, as I understand it), so I'd gotten out of the habit of reading; then it was recently brought to my attention that he was contemplating pulling the plug on the project (happily, he has since reconsidered). . . I clicked over to find out what was up, realized I'd missed roughly five years worth of number one albums, blog posts going back a couple of years. I happened to notice his entry on Tusk. I was floored, reminded: this is great music writing! I went back and re-read the great piece on Rumours.

But I was thinking - Tusk - 1979 - hm - 'hey, Led Zeppelin's last album, In Through the Out Door came out in 1979, I wonder what he'd had to say about that'. I'd recalled that he'd been, compared to his writeups of the first five Zep albums, relatively lukewarm on Physical Graffiti. . . so I looked up In Through the Out Door, noticed his entry on Presence, and even the soundtrack to the concert film, The Song Remains the Same . . . and reading these entries, I quickly realized that there were things I'd once known about Led Zeppelin that I'd long since forgotten, and several things that I'd never properly processed about the band in my youthful enthusiasm. And I realized that, though they had been my favorite band, and I'd never stopped loving them, never stopped repping for them, or defending them where necessary, I'd also long since accepted certain aspects of the case against them. Not wanting to spend much time rehearsing those charges here (but: sexism, plagiarism, the idea "that they represented some kind of unwelcome decadence and opulence in rock, getting further and further away from the things which originally powered them", among others), I'll simply mention the idea that they were a band that had little to say, which I expanded, it seems, to not noticing any evidence of lived pain or anguish in the music, in Robert Plant's vocals in particular. And in part this is because of the things I'd forgotten, or not really processed, or been able to process in my youth. 

I'd forgotten that Plant and his family had been in a horrible car accident and that this resulted in the cancellation of a Zeppelin tour and led to the band recording a new album instead, which ended up being Presence. I'd forgotten that the recording of this album was beset by all kinds of problems. I'd forgotten worse things than that. I'd never really processed that these things might have had some effect on how Presence sounds - which to my often distracted ears was always dense, monochromatic, impenetrable, even if I officially "liked" it. Given all that was going on, Carlin describes the record as "a reaction against everything surrounding them", as "a case of Zeppelin versus the world", reminds us that it "baffled and annoyed reviewers", doubts that it's "ever been completely understood". All this is fine, but it's when he gets to the actual music that Carlin really surprises me, right from the beginning when he says, "It’s very rare that I come across a number one album that was made because it absolutely needed to be made, but Presence is one of those..." I don't think it ever would have occurred to me to describe Presence as an album that needed to be made.

Already this post is getting longer than I wanted it to be, because it wasn't supposed to be about Presence (though I've been listening to the album a lot lately, and am especially grateful to Carlin for bringing my attention to the great "Tea for One", and I feel I'm finally able to appreciate "Achilles Last Stand") nor is it supposed to be about stuff about Led Zeppelin I'd forgotten. Except for one thing: I'd forgotten that Plant's five year-old son had died in 1977 from a mysterious stomach ailment while Plant himself was out on tour. In all the years I've listened to Led Zeppelin, it never once occurred to me to think of how this might have affected the music. But right there, at the end of In Through the Out Door, are two songs I'd not much cared about:
Before pondering on whether the group are attempting to give birth to Asia or Bon Jovi, the album suddenly takes a sideways, then downward, step into two rather astonishing closing songs. “All My Love” begins exactly like Abba – one can easily imagine Agnetha singing the song (plus it is in the opposing key to “The Name Of The Game”; A minor to Abba’s A major) – and Plant’s voice lends the song and lyric an emotional candour which evidently counts for rather more than a girl who just done walked out on him; he puts an unusual emphasis on the line “He is a feather in the wind.” Meanwhile, Page in his solo is still channelling Hank Marvin, and as the song slowly disappears Plant’s hurt is superseded by a slowly coruscating grief; in its fading moments he appears to cry, again and again, “Stop dying!” (to which Bonham immediately responds with a cocked head tom-tom breakout). His parting call is a searing, extended “to YOU” – there is no doubt whom he is really singing about.

And, finally, there is “I’m Gonna Crawl,” the last word from Zeppelin – not that in 1979 anyone knew that; Page was already planning to follow it up with a return to The Rock Formula – and one of the greatest things they ever did.
Hm. . . Presence is an album that had to be made, and "I'm Gonna Crawl" - a song, Carlin says, is "so peaceful, so disturbing in its deceiving amble" and he surprisingly compares to Tricky - is one of the greatest things Led Zeppelin ever did? Where have I been?

I'd read Hammer of the Gods twice ages ago, consumed all I could about Led Zeppelin as a teenager and young adult, yet I'd never processed that "All My Love" is 'about' his late son. But I was young and stupid and life had yet to  happen to me. Now, years later, being reminded of his tragedy, and reading Marcello Carlin's post on the song, in the wake of our own grief, was a disquieting experience. I got home that day, re-added "All My Love" to my iPod, and when not attending to the various errands and other practical matters I took care of that weekend, all I wanted to do was listen to this song; I communed with it, and with its follow-up, quietly devastated. Where Carlin reports that Plant appears to cry "Stop dying!", I'd formerly always heard "Sometimes, sometimes!" At first I still heard it; internet searches had "sometimes" too. I tried like hell to hear "Stop dying!", eventually sometimes it seemed to be there, blurred in with "sometimes!" I couldn't decide which made more sense, which was better (worse) . . . then one day I was listening to a Zeppelin playlist while washing the dishes, and "All My Love" came on - I wasn't paying close attention - and "Stop dying!" came through as clear as could be, as though of course that's what he was singing. And a singer I'd always loved, in a band I'd always loved, I now felt somehow more love and respect for, and felt now in some way protective of.

In winding up his remarks on In Through the Out Door, in particular on "I'm Gonna Crawl" - another song full of anguish and pain, which I listened to over and over again, paired with "All My Love" - Carlin writes these words, which I will end with:
All hope appears to have been eviscerated; Plant’s voice is as despairing and despondent as I have ever heard him, passing by ominous lyrical signposts – [...] – but the pain is too much, and the whole thing culminates in some terrifying primal screams that outdo even the Lennon of “Mother.” At last, when attending to and singing about things and people he really cares about, Plant reveals himself; the song, like its predecessor, is really about his departed son. The closing moments sound like a dozen years of hurt compacted into one apotheosis, or nadir, of betrayed emotion.

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