#73: Led Zeppelin, "Physical Graffiti" (1975)

73 Physical Graffiti.jpg

Led Zeppelin was inescapable. The endless Block Party Weekend that was (and is) New England FM radio became anesthesia, the clutch of songs playing on an endless loop, transitioning music into wallpaper.

At camp, the director who hung a brightly colored band poster on an otherwise unremarkable office wall.

So many brown paper bags converted to book covers. So many cheap repros of concert T-shirts. The odd tattoo, the lanternman.

***

You knew the house. You’d visited your girlfriend there for more than a year before you moved north from the city for grad school, scanning for flags on every visit, something resembling punk. A record store downtown, a college radio station, but that was pretty much it. Shows two hours south, or, if you wanted to visit your friends, who felt more distant every day, four.

The house had a basement and a garage, luxuries the city did not provide.

A gifted drumset later and you were in business.

***

Your friend with the same last name showed you a David Bowie DVD collection which contained the “Dancing in the Streets” video with Mick Jagger. You remembered seeing this on the local video channel—but until the moment she showed it to you, you’d forgotten it existed. Maybe you blocked it out of your mind because it was so awful.

You bought your own copy and one weekend you watched all the videos on the multi-disc set with friends. Bowie was dazzling.

***

By the time you made the transition from camper to staff member, you were already listening to punk and hardcore. And some of the guys in the CIT cabin turned you on to Run-DMC and Public Enemy.

The staff were firmly classic rock dudes. Lots of Rush. Lots of Triumph. Lots of Styx. Lots of Zeppelin.

Down at the waterfront, the director woke the staff every morning by playing “Dazed and Confused.” Every. Morning.

Over time, you worked up the ranks and became Ecology director, and delighted in blasting “Kerosene” or Ministry or Minor Threat and doing your best to negate the classic rock dinosaur.

***

You remember a record-buying trip to Harvard Square before high school graduation. You and your friend were in the usual pizza spot in the Garage, sitting with slices listening to the pop music channel they funneled in, kinda snickering at the inanity of the top 40. Sandwiched between two innocuous songs, Bell Biv Devoe and MC Hammer, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” You were shocked to hear the song in this context.

***

Maine, you discovered, wasn’t picked over the same way Boston was, where you had to be there at the right place and time to find gems. The pined landscape was littered with them—and cheap. Money was tight as you whacked away at city debt and squeaked by on a stipend, but the usual media scavenge was reasonable—even affordable.

“Physical Graffiti” was eight-fifty at the little basement record store downtown.

***

Every summer you go back up to Boy Scout camp to help out with the staff banquet—a chance for the guys who worked to spend a final evening together as a group before the demands of school or work pull everyone back into their previously established orbits. It’s a deeply sentimental affair, one that inevitably makes you think of all the years you spent working Ecology, blasting Avail and Sinkhole, hanging out with your friends.

While you were still a staff member, the banquet was strictly a steak-and-potatoes affair. Then a bunch of your contemporaries went to culinary school and got restaurant gigs. They assembled a volunteer team to serve up multi-course dinners which, over the course of fifteen-plus years, evolved into themed affairs with multiple choices and vegan options.

Ten years of waiting tables landed you in the front of the house, clearing and resetting. But somehow a title got stuck on you and you’re managing.

***

You were the oldest regular student at grad school, so people assumed you knew what you were doing, even though you felt like this was far from the case. And it made you feel guilty, and dumb.

All this talk of texts. Textual analysis. Student papers as texts. Textual comments.

***

Before you moved, your friends came over every Monday for five years and you’d drink and carry on and hatch schemes so you started writing down details in notebooks which were sometimes hilariously indecipherable depending on the evening and how fuzzy things got around the edges.

One Friday, a poster tube with your name on it appeared at the door.

You opened it and found a repro 1980 Led Zeppelin tour poster.

Then you checked your bank account. You’d ordered this, after Monday was made Tuesday.

***

There’s “Custard Pie” and “Kashmir,” of course, the lovely “Bron-Yr-Aur,” but “In the Light” is your favorite.

Part of this was never hearing it on the radio, or at camp.

The song is vulnerable, lacks the swagger of so much of the band’s catalogue.

It sounds broken, almost an afterthought. The weird ascending/descending guitar figure during the song’s outro leaves a window for John Paul Jones’s odd keyboard figure; Bonham, of course, is filling all over the place and a second Jimmy Page emerges to duel with himself.

Like they haven’t quite figured out how the song should go yet.

Like they might return to it later to figure it out.

Like they were unsure.

***

After the drumset arrived, you started leaving the house early enough to walk to school, headphones on, puzzling out drumbeats on your favorite songs. Or trying to. Much of it was way over your head, too skilled or too fast or both. There was no way you’d ever be able to get your right hand going as fast as Jeff Nelson’s, as Tommy Ramone’s. An advanced degree would be required to decipher the single flag semaphore of Amy Farina’s beats on the Warmers record.

But it was fun going back through and listening to everything through a different lens.  Previously, the drums hadn’t been your focus. You’d spent a little time on the guitar, mostly sliding a power chord shape up and down the neck to play hardcore songs, though the initial pull of lyrics had coincided with your early writing days.

***

You stay at your parents’ house when you work the banquet, a half hour away.

This distance felt so substantial when you first started driving, half the time it took to get to Boston for record shopping trips. Now you’ve driven more. Last summer you and your wife went from Cape Cod to Alabama, then up to Detroit and back again; this summer you and a buddy did a book tour out to Milwaukee; there was the year and a half of driving an hour and a half into the sun each way to your first post-grad gig.

***

Grad school gave you the idea of the new literacy: ways in which texts could be interpreted that the author might not have intended.

***

Early takes of “In The Light” are available online, and portray a wildly different song than the final draft. There’s still Bonham bombast to be found, but the keyboard figure sounds rinky-dink—an adjective seldom applied to Led Zeppelin. It’s as if they didn’t know what to do, so they mic’d a kid’s music box and left the room.

***

Some of the guys who return to camp year after year for the banquet are your contemporaries, dudes you worked with for years. Of course, for much of your time on staff you were trying way too hard: to live up to the idea of punk you always carried around, to look official, whatever. So you didn’t always get along. This was totally your fault – but you realize, too, that some of these guys were simultaneously trying to live up to whatever ideals were in their heads. You were all doing this.

And you didn’t know some of the guys who returned every year at all—at first. But they’ve returned and you’ve returned, and the distinctions between timelines have fallen away and you’re all the same.

***

Those fills on “In The Light” slay you, every time, segues from the otherworldly keyboard parts into the more standard rock bits.

Part of the fills’ appeal is their simplicity: in the basement, on the kit, you could puzzle these out, unlike so many of Bonham’s beats.

Another part is imagining the band in the room together: we need a fill here.

Well, how about this?

And it’s perfect.

***

Just a few months back now. You drove to camp and worked the banquet, surprised and pleased to see a bunch of old friends who didn’t usually make the trek.

Not everyone knew each other, which you thought was weird—dudes you palled around with hadn’t worked with some of the long-tenured banquet attendees. Of course, with introduction they became part of the larger whole, the greater good.

On the way back to your parents’ house, you slid Physical Graffiti into the CD player. If you timed it right, “In The Light” would end just as you pulled into the driveway.

You didn’t time it right.

So you drove past your parents’ driveway. Listening to the seemingly broken pieces, stapled together by simple fills, the fadeout as Bonham strung together monster runs, dueling Pages.

You drove through Concord, now into Loudon, as “Bron-Yr-Aur” started. The plan had been to pull into the driveway and kill the ignition, but what was a plan? Instead, you stayed in the moment and cruised the familiar roads, letting the disc and the night stretch on beyond plan. You’d read the night as it came.

—Michael T. Fournier