Led Zeppelin IV by Erik Davis
Despite my high regard for its subject, I was skeptical before delving into this one, in part because I was still smarting from my encounter with the series's slight offering on The Notorious Byrd Brothers (an album that is anything but slight). I took no solace in observing that Led Zeppelin IV author Erik Davis is an expert in "the occult," which per se did not seem to hold promise for an engrossing read. Especially when the uninitiated reader envisions this occult expertise applied to Led Zeppelin, a band whose mystique is (still! despite the severe beating it suffered at the hands of Page/Plant Unledded) inseparable from its music.
After all, it is this very inseparability of myth from artifact that enabled Led Zeppelin to do such a great job of distracting me from the hellishness of my adolescence, or at least that aided in my quest to devise for myself an inner distance from adolescence at its worst. So potent is this stew of booglarized blues riffs and fey, Tolkien-pilfered bardisms that it seduced me and thousands like me a full decade and a half after the band had broken up.
Anyone whose life was preserved in a comparable way by Led Zeppelin knows what an act of disrespect it would be to set about methodically to demystify the elaborate symbologies represented in the band's album covers, or to expose as apocryphal the numerous tales of the band's on-the-road high jinks. (As kids, we knew that The Hammer of the Gods was basically bullshit, anyway, glorious -- or, rather, vainglorious -- though it may have been.) Remember the scene in the film version of The Song Remains The Same in which Jimmy Page is depicted picnicking by himself in the countryside of Sussex, England and -- of course -- performing an eerie drone on his hurdy gurdy? *
And when Pagey turns to face the camera, his eyes are glowing pink, or whatever?
Please: nobody had better ever explain that one to me.Fortunately, Erik Davis understands. He's not interested in exposing or explaining 'what really happened'. He's probably the first person to write about Led Zeppelin who's smart enough to comprehend that the Led Zeppelin experience is all about the very relationship between the music and the mythology; between an image and its connotations and penumbrae; between a shrewdly-marketed product and a fetish object endowed with genuine powers.
I'm not arguing that, were the sources of the band's musical and lyrical vocabulary to be exposed, my adolescence would somehow be ruined. Rather, I'm arguing that, in approaching so hazy a topic as Led Zeppelin, the under- or overambitious commentator fails inevitably to accord sufficient attention to that very haze, and the haze's curious relation to every discrete detail of the whole. To ignore this haze is to miss the point.
What do I mean when I say that many commentators ignore the 'haze'? I refer, I guess, to the reductionism of devoting oneself exclusively to the task of unmasking the influences, techniques and methods behind Zeppelin's music, lyrics and imagery. For example, it doesn't take most teenaged Zeppelin-heads long to figure out that many of Page's riffs were nicked from old bluesmen. This debt to the blues is clearer still in Plant's lyrics. And the Tolkien references are just...well, they announce themselves fairly unambiguously. It's cool to know that one or another of the infamous Led Zeppelin IV 'sigils' comes from a book on Icelandic mythology, but this information won't elucidate the role of the 'Zoso' symbol in making the cover seem so mysterious.
Led Zeppelin cannot be approached successfully through the unearthing -- as in an archeological dig -- of these materials. What's always going to be hazy, and what analyses of Zeppelin must always treat speculatively, is the means by which the ingredients -- some of them appropriated from elsewhere, some of them improvised, some of them crafted behind the scenes by means of trial and error -- interact. The point is and has always been the precise alchemical processes -- both musical and extramusical -- that implant, as it were, Led Zeppelin in the consciousness.
Davis reminds us that this inherently hazy process does not begin with the musicians and end with their instructions to the marketing staff of Atlantic Records. To Davis, part and parcel of Led Zeppelin's craft was (/is) that it grasped in an unprecedented way the possibilities of the marketplace and excelled singularly at realizing these possibilities. In contradistinction to the modus operandi of the kind of cheesy exposé I had feared his book would turn out to be, Davis's investigation never preoccupies itself with a particular 'aspect' of what made the band and its most famous album so successful.
There's no: 'Leaving sheer technical mastery to the likes of Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor, Jimmy Page -- a self-described "feel guitarist" -- applied seemingly limitless creativity and lateral thinking to much-plied terrain of the minor-pentatonic scale.' Nor is there: 'Peter Grant, a former professional wrestler and industry maverick who refused to play by "the rules," secured remuneration on behalf of his outlaw clients on a scale heretofore unseen in the rock world.' Nor is there: 'Like a thunderbolt from the heavens, John Bonham's savage snare drum attack inspired humility in the hearts of his competitors -- and nausea in the stomachs of parents.'
(Sorry, I got a little bit carried away there.)
Instead, Davis -- whose previous book Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism I'll confess to never having read (but what a title...) -- is not so enamored of his accumulated knowledge of the historical minutia of spells and witches, etc., as to reduce the band or its album to terms that exist within the scope of his expertise. His interest is in the totality of the phenomena of Led Zeppelin and of Led Zeppelin IV, the seeming infinitude of relationships among elements. For example, the intoxicating interplay among:
- inspiration and craft in lyrical and especially musical composition;
- Page's architectural approach to composing, recording, mixing and producing; the images and infamous four symbols (or, 'runes', or 'sigils') that adorn the album's cover;
- the band's apparent association with the occult, and especially Page's much-discussed fascination with turn of the century 'occultist' Aleister Crowley; and
- the relationship between deft coordination and dumb luck that conspired to confer upon an ordinary, mass-marketed piece of plastic the status of fetish object in the perceptions of masses of teenagers: an underground cause célèbre.
Much of what makes it entertaining is the author's sheer enthusiasm. While Davis's knowledge of all-things-occult provides his study a unique and engrossing vantage point, the real engine driving Led Zeppelin IV is its author's insights into his own adolescent love-affair with the band. His prose oozes with respect for -- which is the antithesis of nostalgia for -- his adolescent self. This respect means that the book is imbued with a perhaps unwitting sense of brotherhood uniting all of us who went through the same thing. (And 'brotherhood' is probably mostly the correct term, something that probably no one is proud to recognize...)
In refusing to pander to the adolescent inside him, Davis simultaneously refuses to pander to the adolescent that is still inside of his reader. Davis's attitude toward the marketplace, mechanical reproduction and mass-consumption is smart and realistic. Best of all -- for a potential reader who, like me, rolls her eyes when she hears the phrase 'occult expert' -- Davis's attitude toward magic and mystery is an ironized one. Or -- better -- a cosmopolitan one. He's interested in the whys and hows of magic's function in relation to the perceptions of an industrial and/or post-industrial consuming class. He interrogates modes of cultural signification, reception and meaning-creation that occur on an unconscious or subliminal level, never committing the fatal error of launching into an earnest discussion as to whether or not the magic is "really real." There's nothing mystical or quasi-religious in his outlook, and that's a good thing, because I just really wouldn't have had the patience for that...
For my money, Davis's most dazzling discoveries (or, most resonant interpretations) are to be found in his several exegeses of Led Zeppelin's most (in)famous recording, "Stairway To Heaven." Here are a couple of bits that make sense when removed from the context of the book:
"Stairway to Heaven" isn't the greatest rock song of the 1970s, it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all very sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it, everyone -- from Dolly Parton to Frank Zappa to Pat Boone to Jimmy Castor -- has covered it, and everyone with a guitar knows how to play those notorious opening bars. As far as rock radio goes, "Stairway" is generally considered to be the most-requested and most-played song of all time, despite the fact that it runs eight minutes and was never released as a single. In 1991, Esquire magazine did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and figured that the total time that "Stairway" had been on the air was about 44 years -- and that was over a decade ago. Somewhere a Clear Channel robot is probably broadcasting it as you read these words.
Mythology is more than an abstract story or a universal code [...] Mythology is also deeply embedded into human practice. Traditionally, myths are acted out; even their verbal transmission is a highly charged performance. Even more important is the relationship between myth and ritual. Rituals, like taking communion or dancing around a maypole, perform and sustain the transforming fictions of mythology just as much as mythology explains or demands ritual. So if "Stairway to Heaven" is a successful myth, then what rituals support it? What practice sustains the song that Lester Bangs memorably described as being "lush as a kleenex forest"? The song itself hints at the answer when [Robert Plant's narrator] suggests that great things will happen if we "listen very hard" and all "call the tune." The central rite of "Stairway to Heaven" was and continues to be this: hearing the damn thing over and over again. [...] "Stairway" makes its peculiar magic known through the brute force of all ritual: repetition. Even those of us who have no desire to sustain the mystery, who can't wait for this number to be swept into the dustbin of history, continue to feel its presence in sonic memory.In the course of developing his often-fascinating arguments, Davis explores, among other topics: the inseparability of record label marketing campaigns, album cover imagery, and intra-industry minutia from the experience of the music listener; the chemistry among the members of Led Zeppelin, especially the Plant/Page relationship; Page's methods of songwriting, arranging and recording; art and particularly music as alchemy; and self-referentiality and performativity.
I conclude with the following, underdeveloped line of thinking:
I often find myself trying to parse things, to categorize them in a way that cuts them off from one another. Maybe lots of us do. I sense this tendency in much of the middling stuff that appears on the Internet; take as an example the current state of Internet "music journalism," the sophomoric and hopelessly impenetrable 'writing' midwifed by Pitchfork dot com.
Think, for instance, of the architecture and function of hyperlinks. Think about the legacy of commercially recorded music -- and the influence of parasitic industries like music journalism and radio -- and the longtime dependence of all of these entities upon things like 'genre distinctions' that often referred more to marketing to different populations than to anything musical.
Think of how, at the moment, the ways of thinking about the Internet that currently predominate are unmooring (if I may use this as a transitive verb) artists from the monetary apparatus of the old record industry model, but how the continued obsession with genre, subgenre, minutia of presentation, nomenclature and imagery serves the function of replicating the very worst of the characteristics of the old model. The resultant fragmentation and atomization is unprecedented in its scale. And worst of all, it occurs now as a result of a kind of naïve quest for self-identification among artists and would-be cultural commentators, with NONE of the push-back against insipid industry norms that was once inspired by the monolithic, rationalized, automated shysterism of the now all-but-defunct music industry.
Surmise: The new punk rock, whether it takes the form of music or video games or whatever, is going to be something that identifies/creates modes of sameness rather than modes of differentness. We're subdividing ourselves out of existence.
Final, for real, conclusion: Davis's book, by virtue of its assiduousness in formulating the relation of every ostensibly atomized part to a larger whole, helps map out some possibilities for getting out of this mess.
* These photographs are used for educational purposes. They have been obtained from the blog Peromyscus, whose talented author Lyle Hopwood discusses the film The Song Remains The Same, including the scene in question, and other Led Zeppelin phenomena.