Throwback Thursday: Getting the Led Out – Untangling A High School Love Triangle of Joni Mitchell, The Beastie Boys, and Led Zeppelin

horns 'n' hails, y'all
horns ‘n’ hails, y’all

Looking at this photo for the first time, does the young high schooler on the far left strike you as being a hardcore Led Zeppelin fan? There’s definitely a particular look and attitude associated with the sort of person that loves a given genre of music. All I have to do is say a word like Punk, Hip Hop, or Metal, and right away you get an idea of what a typical fan of that genre looks like. 

No, no, no, you say, not you: you’re not the judge-y, puts-people-into-categories-and-boxes type, you say. People don’t conform to social roles and norms, and this kid is fully entitled to like whatever music he wants, you say.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But come on. Really. Look at the photo: does this scrawny, beanpole of a kid with the Tin Tin cowlick and pointy elbows fit the bill of a typical Zeppelin fan? Led Zeppelin, one of the most groundbreaking and influential bands of the 20th century, known for their epic shows crazy antics on tour, and often credited as the forbears of the heavy metal?

No, of course he doesn’t. Where’s the long, flowing hair, the patent leather jacket, the optional leather biker gloves, or, at the very least, the devil-may-care, I-know-I’m-cool-but-whatever tight-lipped smile or smirk? Naw, man, this kid couldn’t have been that huge a fan– he’s not anywhere near “metal” enough.

And for the most part that’s true (indeed the most metal thing about this boy’s life was the track of orthodontic braces that protruded out over that toothy grin of his). Nevertheless there I was: a band shirt on my torso, a poster in my room, their tunes in my walkman, and, just as I would any high school crush, thoughts of their music running through my head and scribbles of their lyrics appearing in the margins of my school notes from the beginning of freshman year through into the fall of my sophomore year.

I was obsessed, but how could you not be? How could you not be impressed by the persistent, never faltering, ever towering wail of Robert Plant; the driving, commanding arpeggios and masterful solos of Jimmy Page; the subtle yet keen architectural eye of John Paul Jones’s supporting soundscapes built on bass, keys, and countless other instruments; or the endlessly superlative, percussive tour de force of John Bonham? Each member of the band was a certifiable master of his craft and a constellation unto himself of seemingly limitless talent. When their forces combined they created a sound universe that was undeniably supreme.

But what precipitated the obsession?

It definitely wasn’t the result of fomenting teenage rebellion. At my most rebellious I might have not studied for a math test, or left a huge English assignment until the week it was due, but nothing on the scale of some of my peers. (A now recurring dream nightmare of mine takes place in a senior year English class where it’s the last week of class, and I haven’t even begun working on the final paper needed to pass. Terrifying.)

There was a healthy dose of peer influence that could explain the origin of the t-shirt however. We were of the age where it’d become cool to wear shirts promoting your favorite bands, and since lots of my friends were proudly displaying the names and iconography of bands like Blink 182, Weezer, Soulive, and Green Day on their chests, I wanted to as well. I liked music, I liked T-shirts, but there really wasn’t any band I liked in that take-it-to-the-next-level-wear-my-name-on-your-chest kind of way. Led Zeppelin became that band.

Up to that point though, my music taste had been influenced by my parents. They were my single greatest gateway to music discovery. I listened to the radio an awful lot and sometimes heard a song I liked on TV, but my parents were the ones I trusted most. They were my music informants. 

It didn’t hurt that my parents had great taste in music (still do). The Beatles, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, were all familiar names to me, along with more contemporary names like U2 and The Cranberries, and each artist moved freely about the house from their residency in our living room stereo speakers.

There was one other music informant though: my older cousin Bennett. Although he and his family lived on the other side of the country, he was nonetheless in my mind a music savant, a position he solidified by introducing me to the Beastie Boys and, in particular, their classic 1986 LP Licensed to Ill.

It was love at first listen. Sufficiently hooked, I picked up their other records and learned their story. I  read about sampling, how it was a quintessential part of the hip hop scene, and how the Beastie Boys were famous– and sometimes infamous– for the sampling they used in their work. Licensed to Ill was excellent, and I wanted to know more about the sources they covered and sampled.

It all came together when I learned that the drum beat used from the downbeat on “Rhymin’ and Stealin'” was a direct sample of the final track of an album by this little band named Led Zeppelin. The track: “When The Levee Breaks.” The album: Led Zeppelin IV.

I knew I had to check them out.

From there Led Zeppelin became my first full-on, truly multimedia-diverse obsession. And why not? The skill– the precision– the desire to do it better than what came before it in a tireless pursuit of perfection dripping from every bar of every song. This band did it all, and it stunned my little 14 year-old brain into moments of endless awe and wonderment.

If nothing else, Led Zeppelin was a band of guys as well versed in the heady lyric traditions of the ancient epic poets and classic playwrights as they were in the more grounded sonic traditions of the blues and folk musicians of the early 20th century, and their work, especially that of their first four albums, really spoke to that point.

“When The Levee Breaks” is a prime example, borrowing as it does from an old folk-blues song written in the 1920s. “You Shook Me” from Led Zeppelin I is of course another, this time an updated, edgy cover of the old Muddy Waters tune. It turned out that Zeppelin, like the Beastie Boys who followed and the blues and folk greats who came before, continued the musical tradition of borrowing and reshaping old story lines into something new and miraculous.

Like any true high school crush, however, it did not last long in the scheme of things. Once it was over, I rarely thought of them during the day, rarely played their music, and therefore always felt awkward when flipping by their albums in my CD case on my way to a different selection. I don’t think I was ashamed that I’d ever been so in to them, quite the contrary: I was grateful for our time together. By spring of my sophomore year, new musical interests were taking shape, and it was just time to move on.

The effects of that year-long swoon linger even now though, notably in the way in which I take to new artists I like, latching on to them and immersing myself in their story. But more importantly, getting into Zeppelin marked the first time I had a music interest that I had cultivated on my own. It was an interest that was really mine. It wasn’t based on familial recommendations or on the suggestions or influences of friends and others– it was born of the trajectory of my own meandering curiosity.

I also realized that I could love Led Zeppelin– or any musical group or genre for that matter– and still just be me, that same goofy kid from the photograph, without any need to compromise or defend it. I didn’t have to dress a particular part to prove my love of theirs and other similarly sensationally talented classic rock favorites (Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Heart, among others). I could love all sorts of sounds and styles. All that mattered was the feeling of being connected to that experience.

Like what you like, be who you like, and believe in what you’re like and you’ll never go wrong. Times change, tastes change, and music may change, but that one mantra remains the same.

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