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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

CAN'T [GASP] BREATHE . . . MUST LOWER [WHEEZE] BROW 

Matt Welch takes a trip down memory lane with Led Zeppelin, spurred by a Pieter K post concerning "the subtle studio genius of Jimmy Page." Welch asks, "Were you, like me, a Zep fanatic for most of your childhood, and then kind of stopped listening to them out of a mixture of mild embarrassment and sort of moving on with your life . . . ?"

Yep.

Several weeks back I too had a Led Zep nostalgia experience. I was making an earnest but futile attempt to cull through all the crap we had moved out of the house and into the garage when we redid our basement last year, and I came across a TDK SA-90 cassette I had made at least 20 years ago of someone or other's LP copy of Physical Graffiti. Since the garage garbage also included one of those rudimentary AM/FM/tape deck thingies, I popped in the cassette and pressed Play.

Culling ceased; rocking commenced.

Like almost every double album ever made, Physical Graffiti is too long by half, but its good songs outnumber its bad ones. One I had almost completely forgotten is "In My Time Of Dying." Based mainly on Blind Willie Johnson's "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed," it features some fantastic slide guitar work by Jimmy Page, the mammoth yet nimble percussion which John Bonham could pull off so uniquely when he was at his best (imagine Andre the Giant tapdancing), and Robert Plant vocals that approach but never quite reach the asymptote of hysteria (probably just a miscalculation on his part). Though it clocks in at well over ten minutes, it changes direction interestingly a couple of times and as a result never seems overdone. Well, OK, maybe a little; this is Led Zeppelin, after all. Still, it was well worth hearing after all these years.

If cock-rocking bombast and elfin-hippie twaddle were Zep's Scylla and Charybdis, some of their surest sailing was on their later blues covers. Almost all of their earlier ones were elephantine disasters, and they'd better hope they don't end up on the same side of the afterlife as Sonny Boy Williamson or they'll get one serious ass-whuppin' for what they did to "Bring it On Home" on Led Zeppelin II, but with their fourth album's take on Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" (aptly described by Billy Altman in The Rolling Stone Record Guide as "the first Zep blues rework that didn't sound like a bizarre parody"), they found their groove. "In My Time of Dying" kept it going, as did "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (another Blind Willie Johnson tune) from Presence.

You'll never mistake their versions of these songs for the originals, but if you could what would be the point? Like the Rolling Stones before them and PJ Harvey and the Black Keys after them, they found a distinctive way to translate the blues, and in the end that's a lot more authentic than studied attempts at note-perfect reproduction are.

"Stairway to Heaven" still sucks, though.

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