A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.

The Poetic Nature of Led Zeppelin

We often think of Led Zeppelin as hard rock and roll, the Gods of Rock, Robert Plant with his golden bravado and Jimmy Page with his cocky virtuosity, and the understatedly brilliant John Paul Jones and his effortless basslines. Their antics were as famous as their music, though John Paul Jones remarkably managed to stay free of trouble. The death of powerful drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham cemented their place as legends, legends who, like in any Greek tragedy, live a heroic life but face tragic mortality, paying a price for their hubris. But there was more to Zeppelin than outrageousness; their music speaks volumes even today, and is truly legendary. These late 60s-early 80s bards could be incredibly tender when they wanted to be and elegant, poets in their flowered shirts and flowing hair. Even under their thundering rhythms and powerful guitars, there is a lot of beauty in their music that we can still appreciate today.

It would almost be too cliché to talk about Stairway to Heaven, but it does beg a brief mention in that the beginning opens like an old English ballad, arpeggiated with a guitar and then a flute. Plant’s plea, “There’s a lady who’s sure…” at the beginning could be from a roaming minstrel during Shakespeare’s time. The equally-well-known “Immigrant Song” with its delightfully discordant, violent opening recounts history, the Viking invasions of Iceland, and there is memorable rhyme in the forceful opening lyrics: “We come from the land of the ice and snow/ from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…” Plant then croons the next lines softly, in that line from which she derives his nickname, “The hammer of the gods/Will drive our ships to new lands.”

One of the most tender and beautiful songs by the band is “Ramble On,” inspired by Tolkien. The strumming guitar at the beginning, muted bass guitar, and rhythm that is beat on some still-unknown object (possibly but not certainly the drum) lead the way for Plant’s introduction in a tender, slightly scratchy voice, “Leaves are falling all around/Time I was on my way…” Perhaps he is Bilbo Baggins or another character about to embark on a hero’s journey through the English countryside. “Mine’s a tale that can’t be told,” Plant continues. “My freedom I hold dear.” This wandering narrator is the man by the roadside, the itinerant Traveller, the poetic vagabond.

But it is not just their lyrics that are poetic; their music is also particularly lyrical and complex. Think of the guitar lines in “Over the Hills and Far Away”: Robert Plant’s invitation to his lady intertwines with Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar, and when the song breaks into full out rock, there are two guitar lines and the bass doubles one of them. The piece diminishes into the air in an ethereal fashion, a graceful diminuendo of sound and emotion. On the tragic “All of My Love” (written for the death of Plant’s son Karac), bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones’s gets to showcase his prodigious talents with a fugal, almost Bach-like solo that is beyond the usual scope of a rock song. Even the animalistic Bonzo knew when to hold back and keep the beat in a quiet fashion, and when to let his drums speak as a whole symphony unto themselves as in “Bonzo’s Montreux.” (Bonham, some may be surprised to know, grew up listening to the great jazz drummers.)

A discussion of Led Zeppelin’s music is endless, and so we must conclude with the poetic nature of the musicians themselves. Long-haired and sometimes flower-shirted, the men of Led Zeppelin were in touch with their feminine and poetic sides, not afraid to be soft and emotional while still being brash, aggressive, and wild. They were at the tail end of the hippie era, yet they could also be blues musicians, proto-punk rockers, heavy-metal men, folk singers, and so much more. They loved the black culture of the American South’s Delta, the folk traditions of their own land, musics of the non-Western world (“Kashmir” was actually inspired by a trip to Morocco). Robert and Jimmy were the most poetic of them all, in terms of appearance: the former with his long flowing golden hair, like a flower child, and the latter with his dark, silent, Byronic personality and interest in the occult.

With rings on their fingers and bells on their toes, they screamed and riffed and captured the attention of audiences everywhere. Like the heroes of the Greek myth, they flew high and close to the sun, indulged in wine, women and song, these traveling troubadours who are immortalized in music history. However, the band ended up crashing and burning like Icarus when John Bonham was found dead, due to his drunken excesses. The other three musicians could not imagine continuing without him, and thus concluded Led Zeppelin. An unnecessarily heartbreaking, dreadful ending–but perhaps a grimly poetic one, as would happen in any great tragedy.