Friday, August 07, 2009

Depths of Mordor: 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? 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, very very high.

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, probably because Zeppelin was the chosen boombox bus music of the imbecilic, bullying burnouts at my high school. But sophomore year of college, 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 in our attic to thunderous applause from keg-addled jonesers, 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 a teamster off the payroll. 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, trying to figure out how to ask me for a hit of the same thing that was making the walls twist and breathe. 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 (for I had refused to see the film dozens of time prior) and felt calm only while hanging onto her so I just bailed on my own party, to see a film I had no desire to see, on some freshman year dorm room TV, after I'd already moved off campus, like a boss. In my discombobulated state (I'd taken two when a half was more than enough), I was free of all the usual snobby dismissal that had blocked me from the Zep a thousand times before. 

The film itself,--watched while sitting on the floor with a small crowd of tripping Zepp fans--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 on drums (John Paul Jones being the perfect alchemical union of the two energies). 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 on tour (it was 1987). 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. Rocking out to my band or following the Honeydrippers, or watching SONG for whatever millionth time, she was alive and goddess-like. Chrissy's rock freedom was inspiring. 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.

Afterwards Chrissie took me home to her dorm, seeing plainly I was too high to ever make it across town by myself. But I was elated, forever changed, 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, all the walls, the entire ceiling. with Led Zeppelin pictures, postcards, posters, and paintings, I do not exaggerate.... every inch. 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. I was still vibrating. 

It's over fifteen 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 rose like a cherry red joint tip, me still tripping, hands shaky, the beautiful, pungent smell of tobacco, sex, (1) bodily oils, patchouli, cloves, dirt and hash swirled together noticeable on my fingers when I lifted my cigarette to my lips, enough LSD still in my system for that smell to conjure a thousand cosmic earthy associations. A few cars roared sleepily to life here and there. Syracuse's heavy snow crust was melting like early spring into swirling black tar eddies of amp cord icicle rivulets; I was feeling like the Prince of Swords in the Zeppelin tarot deck, the mirror opposite of my usual panicked, depressed, self-absorbed, sexually frustrated (super shy and innately chivalrous) myopically sleepy slacker state. I felt arrived. The house was a mess, I could smell the vomit turning the corner on Allen St. A car was parked in the center of the front yard, the car door open. The front door open- - that was my home all right. I clearly left at the right time. Luckily, my room was only mildly upturned (my stash was safe). I floated through the door, gliding over the carnage like some A-list Icarus.

Does the film live up to that pungent promise now, ten years gone x 2 and cold stoned sober? Of course it does, for me. Your mileage may vary especially on the four lengthy, indulgent fantasy excursions (each band member gets a vignette). We get the pastorale home life: Three of the bandmates 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. Now the kids are in charge of the cultural stimuli and parents dutifully learn "Tickle Me Elmo" songs and hide in their mancaves. but back then those kids ran wild in the woods, long-haired, underdressed for the weather, and fiery-eyed while their parents looked on with lordly bemusement. There was none of that mawkish 1980s Spielberg child worship we get in America, 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 Pre-Raphaelite painting, with all the full mythopoetic heft that implieth. 

Onstage at Madison Square Garden in SONG, Zeppelin is at the same gaudy golden pinnacle as that powerful godly Gandalf in the LOTR poster from 1978 (below), 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), Hendrix at Monterey, the Who in ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS, etc You watch and listen and you see manly godliness, performers 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, shirts opened, persona lit up with fire, speed, savage precision, sexy sweetness, fire and soul, stop-on-a-dime rock anarchy--a bundle of animal fury and godly humor, perfect pitch, roaring blistering brilliance.

For all that, SONG is far from 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 the Zep does must be taken as holy writ, and who are still finding their seats and rolling papers (the true fan is always late), but otherwise beware... or even fast forward.

There isalso, alas, the unfortunate matter of John Paul Jones' Prince Valiant hair. Is that a wig? (1) 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. (PS Note: a lot of the concert had to be reshot on a soundstage when the idiot director fucked up the image, and JPJ had gotten a haircut in the interim, so yes, it is a wig)

And while there's nothing in the light show effects of Page's fantasy sequence that one couldn't easily do today with Final Cut Express, it works. It may seem a bit silly sober but one must remember it's not meant for normies -- it's an alchemical magick working kind of a thing. 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 through Page's wizards and wandering.

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. 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 standing on an electric chair plugged into the ghost of 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, and from that wrought this accomplished, unique, and electric final product, something that's mega heavy yet 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--on all the songs it appears in, "Stairway" particularly.

And Plant's hair really is awesome. Even a straight boy like me can swoon unashamedly when Plant casually, languidly brushes back his huge tangle of curls in between lyrics, not because I'm attracted to him, per se, but because he is Arthur, my lord and King. It's way deeper than sexual attraction, it's archetypal.

The cool kids' Lord of the Rings - 1977

3) Remember: 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 a swath of American 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 (left), by way of illustration, was dark and violent; it was something older kids got high in packs to see at midnight shows. Fantasy of that sort wasn't for children, but purely for teenage stoners - the world of HEAVY METAL, HEAVY TRAFFIC, WIZARDS, THE WALL, FRITZ THE CAT, and FIRE AND ICE. Try to image that kind of stuff coming out today and you can't. Even then you couldn't unless you saw them at the theater at midnig ht. Those sort of movies never ran TV commercials (their soundtrack albums, scaring kids like me at the record store, were enough) and there were no videotape, no cable, nothing to watch at home for slumber parties. If you wanted to see LORD OF THE RINGS, 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. In that rarefied milieu (existing nowadays only at planetarium laser shows), SONG REMAINS was almost a Tolkien prequel.

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 (1968). Zeppelin's movie isn't a downer or an upper--its trip is between, it rides the balance between light and dark, good and evil, eloi (Page, Plant) and morlock (Bonham, Grant) and the man between (Jones). Zeppelin is not afraid to screw with the vibe by showing that hulk of a manager 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. This 'other' side keeps the genuine danger, the menace of anything could happen, that comes with having a violent thug for a manger. They've surrendered to the darkness and embraced the light. They have found the swagger within rather than just a compulsive insecure outer swaggering, with the result being that they become Swagger itself. They simultaneously give you the great and powerful OZ light show and also expose the man behind the curtain, whose even scarier.

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 in chakras accessible only to our unconscious minds. We, who first came to know God while watching TV with a Pittsburgh chick, or riding in an older friend's Trans-Am in high-school, eight-track blasting, pretending we already knew how to smoke...were lit up by the sparks, and finally... 


for real. 

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

1. It was, during many of the close-ups, which were re-shot in a studio when the original director's concert footage was revealed to suck. Filmed later with some effort to make it appear to match the concert stuff, Jones' hair had been cut short by then, so he had to wear a wig made to his original show length.
2. Don't lie Erich, you were way too high to bust any move,


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

  2. "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 over their hash pipes. 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 Pre-Raphaelite painting, with all the full mythopoetic heft that implieth." That paragraph there explains nearly everything about the 1970's that makes me wish I was alive then.


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