Friday, August 07, 2009

Great Acid Movies #5: THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976)


If there can be "J-Date" and "Christian Singles" why can't Led Zeppelin fans have their own dating site? Zepdate? Zeppelin Singles? Is that idea too drunken Viking Anglo-Nordic Imperialist swaggerific? Imperialist? The drug-addled, tall, emotionless Teutons of the North, the artistic, insane, and the mad killers never get their own religion officially, let alone a dating service, but the cult of Zep is just as valid and just as fervent and most importantly, most high, and most totally rock-sanctified.

In the TOP 100 at the back of an old late 1980s High Times issue, right between "Hash!" and "Harley Davidson," was: "Becoming an instant Led Zeppelin fan by watching Song Remains the Same on acid for the first time." AWESOME, I thought: its synchronistic black magic is still winking at me, reverse engineering the miracle because the week before reading it I had become a Led Zeppelin fan in that exact same way. I never liked them before because Zeppelin was the chosen boombox bus music of the imbecilic, bullying burnouts at my high school. The combination of a Zeppelin-worshipping girl named Chrissy, LSD, and a post-party screening of SONG REMAINS THE SAME freed me of all that, in a single night. 

My band just played and I was working through some post-performance lysergically "enhanced" paranoia so I could bust a move on Chrissy, with her long dark, wavy hair and great legs, her beauty and warmth marred only by a blue-collar Pittsburgh accent that would scare off a teamster. Man I just needed some time alone to think for a second, but there were twenty people in my bedroom all looking at me with needy, yearning eyes, their hands twitching and pulsing like writhing hydras. Seeing my predicament, Chrissy took me with her to see THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME at her friend's house. No goodbyes to the housemates. I didn't even bring my keys. I was way too high to offer my usual disparaging Zeppelin remarks, and felt calm only while hanging onto her so I just bailed on my own party.

The film itself, watched while sitting on the floor with a small crowd of tripping Zepp fans in a darkened apartment living room on a small TV, flowed like a dark/light fairy tale; the open-shirt beauty of Plant and Page tempered by the immense industrial thuggishness of their manager Grant and the ferocity of John Bonham proved a heavy combination: weird acid-soaked visuals and music that engaged the ears from four different directions, aided and accelerated the evolutionary state I was in; it was initiatory, transformative, impossibly beautiful because it never tried to shut out its darker side even as it reached for the light.



Perhaps I use the word groupie unfairly in talking of Chrissy, though not long after that night she drove off with some friends to follow Plant's then-band, The Honeydrippers. Before seeing the film I'd have thought she was just some Pittsburgh bimbo, but after this film I knew different. She was just a true believer-- when you've found your thing, nothing matters, even if the object of that sort of love is unworthy of it... who cares? You're already free. Just ask Squiggy Fromme. Rocking out to my band or following the Honeydrippers, or watching SONG for whatever millionth time, it was Chrissy's rock freedom. She was Marlene Dietrich, walking barefoot into the Sahara after Gary Cooper in MOROCCO, or Richard Burton and Jean Simmons marching towards their execution in THE ROBE.

I had no notion of God or spirituality before that night, myself. But when the movie was over,  Chrissie took me home to her dorm, seeing plainly I was too high to ever make it back to my house by myself. I was a new convert, adrip with lysergic fever sweat--and when she had signed me in, unlocked the door and turned on the light I gasped in amazement. Her room was completely covered with holy Led Zeppelin pictures, postcards, posters, and paintings.. all over every inch of wall and ceiling. We both knew my being there was no accident of chance, but a cosmic convergence. She had turned an ordinary dorm room into a Zepp temple.

Before I left her the next morning, she loaned me her dogeared paperback of Hammer of the Gods: the Led Zeppelin Story, with the just solemnity of a missionary giving a convert his first bible.


It's over 15 years later and still one thunderous note of Led Zeppelin's music brings me back with a heady reverence to those transcendental moments: walking home as the sun comes up like a cherry red joint tip, still tripping, hands shaky, the beautiful, pungent smell of sex, patchouli and hash on my fingers, cigarette to my lips, a few cars roaring sleepily to life here and there, and you the Prince of Swords in the Zeppelin tarot deck, the mirror opposite of your usual panicked, self-absorbed, sexually frustrated, myopically sleepy slacker state. (PS - never slept with Chrissie though, I was too rattled, and it might have dimmed the Zeppelin glow, the purity we shared in our LZ awe... or maybe I was just too insecure, despite being a local rock star. These days I find regrets for roads not traveled aren't as gut-wrenching as they used to be; sex often stains remembrances of this sort with guilt, and my memory of this night is as pure as the land of the ice and snow, so maybe my younger self knew what he was doing --though I kicked myself here and there over the years).

Does the film live up to that promise now, 17 years later and cold stoned sober? Of course it does, for me. Your mileage may vary on the fantasy excursions (each band member gets a vignette). Three of the band mates have young children at home and it's a sterling example of how cooler things were in the 1970s that living on rural England estates with wives and moppets in tow actually made you even more COOL. Nowadays no one is free like that, it seems. Now the kids are in charge of the cultural stimuli and parents dutifully learn Tickle Me Elmo songs and arrange play-dates; but back then, in the 1970s man, kids ran wild in the woods, grew up long haired and gonzo while their parents looked on with lordly bemusement as they packed another hash pipe.

There was none of that mawkish 1980s Spielberg child worship, nowhere the cornball CGI-repainted, "safe" sanitized azure wisps of stratus clouds from Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS adaptations. These guys lived the real deal, the grungy 1978 Ralph Bakshi adaptation, wherein fantasy, sword and sorcery as it was called then, still had a dangerous, sexy currency. This wasn't dumbed-down MTV faux angst but a living Edgar Burne Jones painting, with all the full mythopoetic heft that implieth.

Onstage at Madison Square Garden in SONG, the band is at the same gaudy golden pinnacle, the same level of Godly perfection of, say, Muhammad Ali in 1974 at the "Rumble in the Jungle", or Elvis Presley in THAT'S THE WAY IT IS (1970) -- at the peak of their powers, able to command the full engagement of a packed theater without betraying any effort; barely breaking a sweat, chests toned but not too ripped: persona, speed, savage precision, sexy sweetness, fire and soul, stop on a dime rock anarchy, a bundle of animal fury and godly humor.

Now, it's not a perfect film: Peter Grant's fantasy opener is rather dopey - a bunch of gangsters machine gunning Nazi werewolves in slow motion like American Werewolf's dream sequence in reverse. But at least it's fairly quiet. The whole first twenty minutes have no music at all, actually, bringing to mind the hushed reverence before a benediction... which is okay if you're with a roomful of worshipful groupies for whom anything Zepp does must be taken as holy writ, but otherwise beware... or even fast forward.

And while there's nothing in the light show effects one couldn't easily do today with final cut pro, it doesn't matter, because it works. It may seem a bit silly sober but one must remember it's not meant for sobriety. There's a deep kind of black magic at work in the editing, the ghost that guided Kenneth Anger's editing on Lucifer Rising works overtime.

There is, alas, the unfortunate matter of John Paul Jones' Prince Valiant hair. Is that a wig? He has no visible part or scalp line, it all seems to meet at a center point at the top of his head, like a Beatles moptop.


Then there's the music: so rooted in a mix of swaggering sex and Darkest Depths of Mordor-related mythic imagery that without a personal connection like I described above the film might be hard to take seriously until you notice three things:

1) The band themselves aren't taking it too seriously, nor too lightly. They are perfectly balanced between mythic resonance and playful cheek, and most of all, completely tuned to their music; the music controls their swagger, not the other way around. It's archetypo-magickal possession, not ego, so it never seems fake or a put-on, or pretentious. For an example, pay particular attention to Jimmy Page's arms during his third solo in "Dazed and Confused" -- notice how they bend and vibrate like rubber bands, like he's a standing electric chair plugged into Chuck Berry's amp. It made me realize just how "outside of the Platonic cave" Zeppelin is. They're the original version of themselves. They created this sound from Robert Johnson records, Tolkien, and their own ESP, but those were just building blocks; they are heavy but always in the light.

2) You can't blame Robert Plant for the hair metal 1980s, just because he's the unbleached root of that strain on the historia del rock tree. Don't laugh at Jimmy Page's double-necked guitar, either, because he's really using both necks--12 string and 6 string--all the songs, "Stairway" particularly. And Plant's hair really is awesome. The telling point in that is how a boy like me can swoon when Plant casually, languidly brushes back his huge tangle of curls in between lyrics, not because I'm attracted to him, but because he is Arthur, my lord and King.

The cool kids' Lord of the Rings - 1977

3) Don't laugh at their fantasy excursions, because as I said, at the time (mid 70's) all that Dungeons and Dragons / sword and sorcery stuff was still dangerous and sexy; it hadn't been overrun by nerds, Spielberg/Reagan conservatism, the Disneyfication of Times Square, the re-chastening of AIDS and the rise of Harry Potter. Don't forget - in the real LOTR and THE HOBBIT, everyone smokes!

In fact the Ralph Bakshi animated version of LORD OF THE RINGS movie in 1978 (above, left), by way of illustration, was dark and violent; it was something older kids got high and went to see at midnight shows. Fantasy of that sort wasn't for children, but for teenage stoners. There were no videotapes yet, no cable, nothing to watch at home for slumber parties. If you wanted to see LORD OF THE RINGS you didn't wait 30 years for DVDs to be invented, you snuck out when your parents were asleep, jumped in your friends' battered Mustang, got high on the way, and-- still in your pajamas and slippers--snuck in through the back door of the theater. SONG REMAINS was almost a prequel o it, even using similar 'rotoscope' animation techniques in some of the fantasy excursion moments.

In terms of rock music films, SONG REMAINS THE SAME bridges the gap between post-1980 downers like THE WALL (1982) and pre-1970 uppers like YELLOW SUBMARINE. Zeppelin's movie isn't a downer or an upper--its trip is the balance between light and dark, good and evil, eloi and morlock. Zeppelin is not afraid to screw with the vibe by showing Peter Grant belittling weak management or sullen cops in the soulless gray outer corridors of the stadium. In other words, the band's not scared of showing the nuts and bolts of their fantasy operation, and it's somehow perfectly aligned to being young, dosed, and willing to surrender to the source of swagger: i.e. they've surrendered to the swagger within rather than just swaggering, with the result being that they embody Swagger itself. They simultaneously give you the great and powerful OZ light show and also expose the man behind the curtain. They make it okay to be a straight man swooning at the sight of another straight man strutting around in tight, flared pants. It's way past sex, way past fantasy, it's the mythic chord we vibrate to, we who first came to know God while riding in an older friend's Trans-Am, eight track blasting, pretending we already knew how to smoke, and then smoking.

(P.S. The black magic synchronicity continues as the sublime Kim Morgan also shares SRTS memories over at Sunset Gun)

1 comment:

  1. "Doc, you said a mouthful". "Every one of [these] words rings true like it was written in my soul"

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