The female rock duo Heart starts off “Stairway to Heaven” light, but it doesn’t stay that way. Before long, the son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and a choir wearing bowler hats joins them on stage. The three remaining members of Led Zeppelin watch from the balcony wearing the rainbow Kennedy Center awards they’re being given tonight. There’s a lot going on in this moment. The camera moves between the old rock musicians, Heart and the band, people in the crowd in tuxedos and evening gowns, and the Obamas. But what always blows me away watching this are the faces of the three band members. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, consummate musicians that they are, smile and bob their heads along to the song and laugh at each new part of the song. Lead singer Robert Plant, though, tries to duplicate this and can’t. Instead, fighting back tears, he holds his hand over his mouth as if to keep the words in and stop himself from singing along. He shifts, uncomfortable for how much he feels and yet can’t express, watching the legacy of his work on display in one of the more well known high culture ceremonies in the U.S.
I’m not here to talk about the Kennedy Center awards, Led Zeppelin IV, or even “Stairway to Heaven,” but I did want to start here at the end because I think it’s always crucial to remember what music feels like. Not just listening to it but also making it. As someone with lifelong depression, emotion can be both rare and common in a weird mixture. Plateaus of general numbness combine with seasons of wanting to cry at every Hallmark commercial like my mother. Watching Plant hold back tears as he is overwhelmed hits me hard every time, but so does watching Jones bob his head as he feels it move through him in ways that Plant can’t.
The emotion of Led Zeppelin often gets lost in the technical prowess they unfurl over and over across their albums. Songs like “Stairway to Heaven” are so iconicly “impressive” to play that the music shop in Wayne’s World banned playing the song. Burgeoning musicians looking for something technical for an impressive showpiece turn to a lot of different outlets. When I was 15 and picking up a guitar and bass for the first time, I quickly got swept away in the various genres of metal, prog rock, alternative, funk, and even folk. You know the story. Show up at a party and wait the bare minimum amount of time before you take over the family piano or steal the acoustic guitar tucked away in the corner of every house and start playing something. Inflict your skill on the room or entice people to come sit at your elbow in some corner of the house to listen to you play. It never works that well and you’re usually just being a jackass to everyone in the process, but you keep doing it because an aesthetic is an aesthetic.
The guys in the room eventually start competing for the only guitar, itching to show up or get their moment in the sun. Usually the most tenacious and stubborn musician will win that fight, even if they’re not the best one in the room. You win, you get and keep the guitar and the room empties as Kevin and Lane leave and go back to everyone doing karaoke in the den. You play versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and that part from “Immigrant Song” you know until you realize it’s been almost half an hour since you saw someone. The bass from Avril Lavigne’s “I’m with You” thrums through the floor and you get an inkling of how much you’ve missed.
I’m not saying the mechanical and craft side of Zeppelin’s work isn’t important, though. After all, even Led Zeppelin’s I has some breathtaking moments. The folksy rock of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” bears the earmarks of what will later become songs like “Stairway,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “Ramble On,” and others. Plant’s vocal iterates around a lyrical theme of “I’m gonna leave you babe” with no real explanation of why. At times it feels like he’s just improvising the lyrics on the spot, since they seem to have no real direction but move in obsessive circles around the need to ramble. This need will thread through their work like the themes of infidelity and sex.
There’s an axiom in storytelling circles that there are only really two stories, stranger comes to town and the hero goes on a journey, and that those are really the same story from different angles. In a similar sense, Zeppelin songs seem to follow a reductive pattern, with “Good Times Bad Times” following the woman rambling away from the man and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” following the man rambling away from the woman. A life of transience, never feeling settled even when you stay somewhere for a while. You’re still a transplant and outsider, someone who never quite puts down the roots that you always wanted. Maybe that’s part of moving to a small school in a small town, the natural exclusion of a close-knit community. The times when you act like you’ve got more friends than you do as a way of creating an imaginary community. You say “I had a friend do [this]” or “My friend said [that]” until everyone gets sick of it. It’s almost always the same person or two, and you’re not fooling anyone in the process. Making your own blues is never as easy as Plant makes it look.
Because, if we get down to it, that’s really what gets lost in all these new musicians like myself or bands that want to sing about mythology or high fantasy: the feeling. Perfect arpeggios and strange chords weren’t what made Zeppelin fly, what made them an icon. No, it was the blues, the feeling that undergirded everything. When Plant groans his way through losing his woman or being “Dazed and Confused,” he does it like a man sitting on his front porch. Maybe this front porch is huge and surrounded by thousands of people, but it creaks and groans under the weight of sound roaring out of it nonetheless. When Jones rumbles up and down his bass or keeps pace just fine with Page, he does it with the structure and iterations of the blues. Jimmy Page attacks his guitars with a pick or a violin bow with feeling, just like Bonham does with the drums. When Page solos and makes something new each time through the song, he follows a guitar line running back through the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I never so much listen to them as feel them.
This is probably true of most good music in some way, but Zeppelin embraces the pain of the blues, appropriates it, with all the trappings that come with that practice. White boys singing black blues with loud guitars. Even if they never intended it, their popularity erases these musical roots but takes the feeling up for itself. Maybe the erasure wasn’t as strong when they made the songs so they never had to say, “Hey, you all remember Muddy Water? This is kind of like that.” But now, in the wake of a white audience taking up their sound, taking up that feeling, the connection is more of surprise than a given. Maybe that’s why they sang about Lord of the Rings and vikings, because they had no experience or history to tie themselves back to the spirituals belted out in the fields. And maybe they knew that, which was why they denied requests for their songs to be used in most films and TV shows until Jack Black in School of Rock managed to convince them by calling them the “gods of rock.” Even the film Dazed and Confused didn’t feature the song it likely borrowed its title from. What do we make of this? I don’t know.
The blues are tricky that way. I learned the twelve bar blues before almost anything else on the guitar and the bass. I played blues solos on the pentatonic scale, riffed across my guitar and bass’s necks in my room on the edge of the house and felt like it spoke something about me but I didn’t know what. Some deep yearning or loss pouring from the sound that kept me coming back to it so that even now, over a decade later, I still remember the two part blues song I wrote but never got anyone to play with me. What does it mean for me to play the blues? I don’t know that either.
So we come back to the start, the first moment they rang out on a record. It starts with the drums and guitar. Two hits. Rest. Two hits. Sprinkle in a some light cymbal like the ticking of a clock. Build to the vocals jumping in with the bass and open up the drums. Drive the rest of the song with the beat as your woman left home with a brown-eyed man but you still don’t seem to care. And away we go.