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.

In the Spirit of NPR’s 50 Great Voices

NPR did a brilliant series on 50 great voices they chose from among some of the greatest artists in the world.  Naturally, there were many omissions, much to the chagrin of some listeners.  Being a singer myself, this inspired me to simply riff on the NPR program, to simply comment on, in an unscientific, completely random way, what it is we might find appealing or unique about a particular singer or artist, what makes each artist so unique?  Each type of voice conveys something, each style of performance (and very often it is just that, a performance or a stage persona) evokes certain emotions in the audience, and it just might be fun to talk about it in detail! 

Here is a list—-purely for fun—-of some well-known, well-loved performers, in no particular order:

 

-Mick Jagger.  That unmistakably guttural voice, leering, taunting, daring the listener to accept the lure to go to bed!  Jagger is unabashedly uninhibited, sexual, unhinged both as a vocalist and as a performer.  The famous strut, like a proud rooster, is all bravado and confidence.  And yet one never feels a dark or hard edge to Jagger’s sexuality—-he always seems to do it with a wink and a smile, a modern-day Don Giovanni with a warmly remorseless “Oh, baby, just had to do it, and I ain’t got no regrets” demeanor that has made him a legendary ladies man well into his 6th decade.

-Bjork.  Like a force of nature, like the wind.  Her voice comes from deep in her soul, and there is a particularly primal quality to it at its core, something she is expressing for us that we all feel at the very depths of our being.  It can be caressing as well, sweet, tender, and soothing, but it never loses its deeply affecting quality.

-Robert Plant.  Indeed the Golden God from the days of Zeppelin who has aged into an ever-evolving artist.  In his Led Zeppelin heyday, Plant whined, moaned, screeched and lamented with such passion that numerous people speculated that his (and his band members’) talent was not human, but unearthly, even demonic.  Plant is music itself, and whatever form his musicianship takes—-hard rock, ballads, rockabilly, Celtic, ethnically-influenced—-this musical chameleon is nothing but convincing.  He is a gifted musician who is (if you have seen him live) also very graceful, a hard-core musician who also happens to be a brilliant performer.  There are those who feel his tenure with Led Zeppelin was his best work, but Plant refuses to stagnate and always moves forward.

-Madonna.  To be eponymous signifies a lot—-that one stands on the trade of one’s given name.  Madonna is not sexy but sexual.  The distinction comes in that she is too aggressive to be desired.  Have no doubt that she is in control; she calls the shots.  But let her.  Has any artist ever captured your imagination so well?  Has any artist gone through as many incarnations (the exception being, perhaps, David Bowie)?  Is anyone a better chameleon?  Madonna is not about music: she is about pushing boundaries and getting you to think/see/feel in different ways.  Not to mention that she is a gifted dancer, a woman of boundless physical energy.  Madonna is an extremely clever businesswoman too; again, this boils down to her being in control, for she knows how to get things done.  There is indeed a vulnerable side to her, but what we love best is her strength.

-Pavarotti.  A voice like melted butter, a voice that never broke but simply flowed, flawlessly, with no chinks in his technique.  It was a warm voice, effusive and throbbing, expansive, just as the man himself became vastly more expansive in his later years.  The classic Italianate tenor sound, an expressive sound that always moved the listener.  He had you in the palm of his hand, he had you there.

-Sinatra versus Tony Bennett.  Is it fair to compare the two?  Both are (well, were, in Sinatra’s case) unique artists who have contributed greatly to jazz and popular music.  But a comparison is warranted simply for examining the differences between the two.  Sinatra is cool; there is a slight aloofness that lets you know he is the star, and he has his people.  Crisp, clean diction, a smooth voice, and a legendary personality that is associated with iconic people and places:  New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Kennedys, the Rat Pack, et cetera.  Sinatra was the consummate performer, equally famed for his acting, and was also known for his unsavory connections to the Mafia and other shady dealings.  But one cannot dispute his iconic status, culled from his involvement in so many facets of American life.

            Tony Bennett is, by contrast, associated with warmth.  He left his heart in San Francisco, and you truly believe him when he sings it.  He is known primarily for his singing (though he is a very accomplished painter), a sense of welcoming the listener and embracing you:  we don’t quite sense the aloofness from the audience in the way we do Sinatra.  There is always a smile, and a lack of a sense of the sinister, no matter his transgressions (like drug addiction).  After a lull in his career, Bennett was able to reinvent himself, so to speak, by embracing the younger generation of listeners and musicians.  His willingness to change and grow has always served him well, and though approaching 90, Bennett’s has proven that he will keep on singing and delighting generations of fans.

-Sinead O’Connor.  One of the most gorgeous voices ever to grace popular music.  That ethereal sound, the purity of her instrument, a voice that can by turns howl with rage or coo with sensuality.  Her stunning beauty as a young woman complemented her stunning voice, but equally important were her strong opinions and convictions.  Unfortunately, these overshadowed and sabotaged—-quite unfairly—-her artistic career.  Her “outspokenness” against the abuses in the Catholic Church caused her a huge backlash of hatred, and yet she was decades ahead of her time.  Her music is full of religious and symbolic references that are so integral to her work, and yet she is strikingly singular and unique.  As an artist, we admire her not only for her musical talents that make her famous, but also for her social consciousness and her willingness to speak her mind, come hell or high water.