The Songs Remain the Same

“Hey, are you the drummer?” I said to Clementine, whose name I had forgotten. “Yes,” she replied, busy looking over the guest list, talking to the woman at the merch table, doing her double duty as drummer and founder of the all-woman Led Zeppelin tribute band, Zepparella. “You guys are so great,” I told her, for lack of anything cooler to say.  “Well, I hope we are tonight.” Clementine doesn’t assume every show is going to be stellar. Musicians who perform a lot know when they’re on and when they’re off. Fans don’t always notice though. “You will be, you always are!” I encouraged, not wanting to hold her captive any longer, knowing she was busy with the business end of things while at the same time preparing to pound on her drum kit for two hours.

I am too young to have really seen Led Zeppelin live. Theoretically I could have seen them in the summer of 1977 when I was seven years old, if I had known who they were, cared, and someone would have taken me. I eventually saw Robert Plant play solo, the first time he toured the U.S. after Zeppelin’s breakup, and much later I saw a Plant and Page show, but neither of those seemed like I was seeing Led Zeppelin. Although Jimmy Page and Robert Plant put on a great show, playing so many Led Zeppelin crowd pleasers, it was during a time in my life I was a little more reserved, anxious, and not completely able to let loose at a live gig and lose myself in the music. By far, the best live Led Zeppelin experience I’ve ever had was seeing Clementine’s Zepparella at Harlow’s in Sacramento, a venue that holds three hundred people at most.

My first Led Zeppelin memory is from sixth grade in 1981, when our teacher had us all write Mothers Day cards the week before the holiday. My best friend Tony, a talented artist even at that young age, showed me his card. On the front it said, “Hey, Mom!” and on the inside he drew a picture of some guys in a rock band and wrote above it, “Thanks for letting me listen to LED ZEP!” Led Zep, not Zeppelin. Although we were only eleven, “Zep” was the cool-guy nickname for this hard rocking band. Sadly, I did not give my mom a Led Zeppelin-themed Mothers Day card, but a regular card. Honestly, I can’t remember what kind of card I gave my mom, but thirty-six years later I remember Tony’s card very well. I wasn’t really versed in Zeppelin’s music yet. I’d heard some here and there, but Tony made the statement right on his Mothers Day card. He planted his flag in the ground, proclaiming to the class, and his mom, that Led Zep was truly his favorite band. I had some catching up to do.

Led Zeppelin had broken up just a few months before Mothers Day, 1981, upon the death of drummer John Bonham the previous September, but I have no memory of that event. Sometime in sixth grade I began listening to hard rock in earnest, and no band encapsulated my love of loud guitars, thumping drums, devilish bass, and screaming vocals than Led Zeppelin. Getting into a band immediately after their run – Led Zeppelin made eight studio albums and one live album during their active years, 1968 to 1980 – means you can approach the discography a number of different ways. These days, I try to figure out what a band’s signature album is, eschewing greatest hits compilations as cheating. If I like that “best” album enough, I’ll dig deeper into their catalog, maybe even starting from the beginning and working my way all the way through chronologically. That’s rare though, honestly. It is great to follow and love a band in real-time, where each album is hotly anticipated, and you listen as the offerings are released. But that wasn’t possible for me with Led Zeppelin in 1981. All nine of their albums (Coda had not yet been released) were out there available to be discovered by then.

I went to the record store one day – Auditory Odyssey on Laurel Canyon Blvd in North Hollywood – a ten-dollar bill in hand, which would have been two weeks worth of allowance and plenty enough to buy a single vinyl LP, which would cost about $6.99 at that time. I ignored the pipes and bongs section to the rear of the store (I would not ignore this part of the store for much longer), and cut right into the record room and found the “L” section. I didn’t know which Led Zeppelin album to buy. I didn’t know the names of the songs, and not all of Zeppelin’s albums had the songs listed on the back. I wasn’t necessarily looking for “Stairway to Heaven,” I just knew I needed a Led Zeppelin album. Even by that young age, I had already begun my journey as a rock music fan, having some records from the Beatles by now, also KISS, Devo, Gary Numan, The Beach Boys, the Grease soundtrack, and I might have had a couple of records by The Who and The Doors by then, but I knew I was missing a vital piece of the puzzle: Zeppelin. It’s like building a house without a foundation, amassing a rock record collection without Zep.

But which album to buy? I settled on In Through The Out Door for the sole reason that it was sold with a brown paper wrapper over the album cover, but under the shrink wrap. I wanted to know what was under there. Naked people, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins? No, I found out when I got home and ripped off the shrink wrap and carefully pulled the album out of the paper sleeve. It was a scene of a man at a bar, burning a letter, presumably a Dear John letter, while the bartender and other patrons looked on. I learned later it was one of several possible album covers, each shot from the perspective of a different patron of the bar.f-sleeve-back.png

In Through The Out Door is not considered one of Led Zeppelin’s best albums, but it was nevertheless the first I owned by the band, and I’ve always loved it. “All Of My Love,” “Fool In The Rain,” “In The Evening,” these were great songs, so I was not disappointed. Imagine how my head exploded when I eventually found Led Zeppelin II, IV, Houses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti. (Not to spite I, III, or Presence. Well, to be fair, despite the great “Achilles’ Last Stand” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” I never listened to Presence  too much.)

Within a year or so, I had purchased all nine Led Zeppelin albums, including the brilliant – to me –  live album, The Song Remains The Same, and I was a confirmed obsessive. To this day, I can recite the titles and tracks on these nine albums like I can the nine planets orbiting the sun. They are like my nine brothers and sisters, or my nine children, if I had so many siblings or kids. They each have their brilliance and idiosyncracies, from the bluesy, hard-rocking I, to the bluesier and harder-rocking II (probably my favorite, closely followed by IV or Houses Of The Holy) to the acoustically-flavored III, the iconic IV, chock full of hits, to the poppier – but still incredibly rocky –  Houses, the insanely bombastic Physical Graffiti, the seldom-listened (by me) Presence, to the double live Song, and finally, to my inaugural – but their final – album, In Through the Out Door. I listened to these albums so much, at one time I thought to myself that although I liked a lot of different music, it wouldn’t be so bad to listen to ONLY these nine Led Zeppelin albums for the rest of my life. I’d miss The Doors, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath, but with my nine little babies I’d be just fine.

But the band was gone. Disbanded upon the alcohol-related death of their thunderous, unparalleled drummer, John Bonham. Finally, in 1983, the year I turned fourteen, Robert Plant toured the U.S. for his second solo album, The Principle of Moments. Besides Tony, my other best friend was Chad, and he and I went to that concert together, my first big rock and roll show. We smoked some weed before the show, but Chad became paranoid that his little metal pot pipe would be discovered by security at the door, although this was long before the era of metal detectors at big public events. So he threw it in a giant patch of ivy that ringed The Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, home of the L.A. Lakers and a million great concerts over the years. I thought he was nuts, but I also didn’t offer to hold the pipe for him. He threw it about forty feet into the ivy patch, and said “I heard it hit a can or something! We can find it after the show!” I thought the pipe was a goner, but that was a problem for later.

Robert Plant put on a great show. Phil Collins played drums for him, as I recall, and we saw David Coverdale of Deep Purple and Whitesnake fame walk past our floor seats at the Forum. Plant didn’t sing any Zeppelin songs on those early tours, but we were proud to see his very first show in California since the Zeppelin breakup. There’s something about being fourteen at your first big rock and roll concert that stays with you for the rest of your life. All those fans, all those musicians, bigger than us, older than us, way more rocking than us, but we were a part of it. Rock and roll welcomes all, even us little scrubs.

After the concert, Chad and I went out front with seventeen thousand other concertgoers to wait for our ride. While we waited, Chad jumped in the ivy, rooted around the spot where he threw his pipe for about fifteen minutes, and right as we saw his sister roll up to the pickup area he proudly hoisted the pipe aloft, grinning from ear to ear.

We were obsessed with Led Zeppelin during those teenage years. Our rooms were plastered with their posters, we played Stairway to Heaven backwards on our vinyl turntables to hear the Satanic messages (which were iffy at best), and we delighted in losing ourselves in Page’s incredible licks, Plant’s wailing, John Paul Jones’s thundering bass and mystical keyboards, and Bonham’s savage drumming. I don’t think I ever met a rock and roll loving teenager in North Hollywood, where I grew up, who didn’t love Led Zeppelin best of all. They were it, the Alpha and the Omega, the Oracle, the top of the mountain. We all loved Black Sabbath – before and after Ozzy – and of course Ozzy on his own, and we were variously enamoured of certain British and European heavy metal bands of the era, like Judas Priest, Scorpions, or Iron Maiden. Many of us liked rock bands with a different vibe, not quite as hard, but terrific all the same: The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Who, The Rolling Stones. Harder heavy metal, speed metal, thrash metal was around the corner, but hadn’t quite arrived yet, like Metallica and Megadeth. But nothing touched Zeppelin, and everyone agreed.

Eventually I branched out, and found an incredible new world of music with bands that bore almost no resemblance to Zeppelin: Talking Heads, The Cure, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Love and Rockets, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Pixies. But that came a little later, at sixteen or seventeen. For the previous five years or so, it was only Zeppelin. Everything else was just extra flavor.

Thirty years later, I had heard about this all-woman Led Zeppelin tribute band called Zepparella. I watched their videos online, and decided I had to check them out sometime. They sounded incredible in those videos, clearly endlessly-talented and obviously even more obsessed with Zeppelin than me. I got my friends Chris and Mark to join me at Harlow’s earlier this year, and we caught these incredible ladies up close and personal.

I was stunned! It felt like a Led Zeppelin show, but I was front row center, and there were only a few hundred people in the room. The band was beautiful as well as talented, and I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. When you find a band you love, and can see them in a club setting, up close and personal, that’s gold. I’ve seen the Stones, The Who, Scorpions, Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, Paul Simon, U2, and Pink Floyd headline giant arenas, but I’ve always prefered the smaller venues. Urge Overkill at The Cattle Club, Pixies at Ace of Spades, White Stripes at The Warfield, Kristen Hersh at The Palms, The Jesus and Mary Chain at The Crest, these have been my favorite shows. And then Zepparrela came to Harlow’s, and then they returned a few months later.

I decided I had to see them again. I couldn’t find anyone to come with me, so I figured, fuck it, I’ll go by myself if I have to. These women absolutely ownLed Zeppelin, and it’s the closest a fan like me can get in 2017. Although I’ve seen Robert Plant both with and without Jimmy Page, it didn’t compare to Zepparella, as weird as that sounds. I was having drinks with work friends at Pizza Rock earlier in the evening, and my buddy Arty and his girlfriend Ann-Margaret decided to come with. They weren’t Zeppelin fans, but they were looking for something different to do on a Friday night, so I was happy to have company. (Before that I had only been to two concerts alone: White Stripes at The Warfield, and They Might Be Giants at The Crest. I had a great time at both, but of course you’d rather go with friends.)

Then my friend Michael texted and said he’d join me. I had talked up Zepparella to him the night before, when I ran into him at The Crest where my wife Amy and I saw an incredible Billy Bragg concert. He was on his second concert in two nights, his fourth in ten days (he had taken his fourteen year old son to Imagine Dragons at Golden 1 Center the night before). I said “Go for the trifecta!” and by God, he did! Finally, my old buddy Dylan showed up and I was enjoying Zepparella in the company of four great friends. I bought a biker a shot of vodka to smooth over his perception that I was not being a gracious floor-sharer with his woman (I was), but it was all good. I drank too much, screamed too loud, danced too hard, and absolutely let myself go at the altar of the great ones. The crowd didn’t seem to mind; they were doing the same. The band didn’t seem to mind – why be in a rock band but to watch fans lose their shit at your every move?

The band recruited their former lead singer, Anna Kristina, to fill in for their current lead singer: a female Robert Plant lookalike with amazing pipes named Noelle Doughty. Anna was great, while fans wished Noelle a speedy recovery from a sudden illness. (Anna’s the one singing in the Levee video, above.) There are supposedly amazing male Led Zeppelin tribute bands out there, but I’m almost completely uninterested in that. I know what four guys playing Led Zeppelin sounds like: that’s Led Zeppelin! Zepparella is a completely different deal, although they play the timeless music faithfully, earnestly, and joyously.

The band was heavy on Physical Graffiti and II, which I was 100% great with. The closest things to Zeppelin “hits” the women played were “Whole Lotta Love” and “Immigrant Song,” which are pretty solid Zeppelin staples. But no “Stairway to Heaven,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” some of Zep’s supposed hits, and nothing from the first album, sadly, and only one apiece from III, IV, and Houses. You wouldn’t expect to hear anything from Presence or In Through the Out Door, but the thing is this: Zeppelin never recorded a bad song. Some you may like more than others. And if you stripped the four best songs off every one of their albums, would you have heard of the band? Maybe not, but they still never made a bad song. “The Crunge,” “Four Sticks,” “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” “Hot Dog.” If these were Zeppelin’s best songs, you and I would not be having this conversation. Without “Stairway” and “Ramble On,” and “No Quarter” to prop them up, Zeppelin never would have made it out of the Miscellaneous L section of the used record bin. But those former are still great songs.

I can’t lie, when I don’t have Led Zeppelin the brain, like I do when Zepparella rolls through my town, I don’t listen to them too much anymore. I’m listening to Fantastic Negrito and Josh Ritter and Spoon and Lafayette Gilchrist. I often travel back to bands of yesteryear, like The Grateful Dead and Santana and Leonard Cohen and Sonic Youth. And sometimes Led Zeppelin, too…sometimes.

Standing there at Harlow’s, front of the stage, leaning on Angeline Saris’s monitor, losing my mind to those songs that I listened to for thousands of hours as a young teenager, I was very happy to have my new Northern California friends with me. I didn’t end up going to the show by myself. But if Tony of the Mothers Day card, and Chad of the ivy pot pipe had been there with me, instead of four hundred miles away in Southern California, well, that would have been a sublime experience. Thirty-five years since I discovered Led Zeppelin in Auditory Odyssey, and all new players – women players – later, The Songs Remain the Same.

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