By Erik Huey
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
LONDON -- Everyone has a Led Zeppelin story. This is mine.
The lights in the O2 Arena have just gone down. And Led Zeppelin -- a little blues-rock combo from the 1960s and '70s that went on to sell more than 300 million albums and rival the Beatles in terms of influence -- is about to to take the stage for its first full concert in 27 years. I am on the floor a mere 15 yards from the stage at Monday night's benefit show for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund (in honor of the co-founder of Atlantic Records, Zeppelin's record label, who died last year).
Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones stride onstage, joined by Jason Bonham, son of their original drummer, John Bonham, whose death in 1980 caused the band's breakup. As they pick up their instruments, I'm consumed by one overwhelming sentiment: Can they pull it off? Can a trio of 59-to-63-year-old men recapture the raw thunder and sexually charged intensity of their youth?
For that matter, can we?
I'm an attorney now, staring down the barrel of 40. But think of the person you were decades ago -- adolescent, unshackled by cynicism and Weltschmerz, full of youthful abandon and an unblinking belief in the sheer possibility of things. And if you grew up in the '60s, '70s and '80s, Zeppelin may well have been the soundtrack to your adolescence.
As they launch into the opening chords of "Good Times Bad Times," the band seems to acknowledge the limitations brought on by the passage of time. "In the days of my youth/I was told what it means to be a man,/Now I've reached that age/I've tried to do all those things the best I can." Indeed, they're doing pretty well, for old guys.
By the time they finish their second and third songs -- "Ramble On" and "Black Dog" -- it is becoming clear that, even if they are not gods who walk the Earth as men, these are no mere mortals before us. And this is going to be no mere rock show. We are witnessing history.
An unlikely sequence of events led me to this arena tonight. Along with more than 20 million other Led Zeppelin fans, Mike Smith -- my college roommate, who now lives in London -- entered an online lottery to win the chance to buy one of only 8,000 pairs of tickets to the show. The concert Web site received more than 1 billion individual page views in a single day, causing it to crash. Then, a couple of weeks later, like Charlie of Chocolate Factory fame, Mike won the golden ticket, which granted him the right to pay 250 pounds (more than $500) for a pair. Since his wife is not a huge fan, he invited me to fly to London from D.C. to see Zeppelin.
Before I know it, I'm standing in front of a young customs agent at Heathrow who asks, "What is the purpose of your visit?" "To see Led Zeppelin," I emphatically reply. She nods politely and says "Oh, Led Zeppelin, is it? When is he playing?"
Now the self-described sons of thunder are launching into their fourth song of the night, the swamp-blues grind of "In My Time of Dying." Clearly used to playing only in a rehearsal space, they crowd around the drum set for the first four songs, never more than five or six feet away from one another.
They're dressed entirely in black, except for Page, who is wearing a white tux shirt that quickly becomes soaked in sweat and plastered to his gyrating torso. Page is the maestro, alternating thick, crunching riffs with piercing, scalpel-sharp solos. Plant, looking lionlike with his thick mane of curly hair and gray whiskers, bellows with soulful yearning (albeit sometimes an octave lower than he did in the '70s) and regains more of his trademark swagger with each passing song. The progenitor of every sexually charged rock frontman cliche is not the poster boy he once was, but he still exudes a confident sensuality that has the women in the crowd swooning.
Jones, looking a decade younger than the other two original members, is sure and steady on the bass and keyboards, providing a solid rhythmic foundation for the others' extravagances. In any other band, he would be the most talented musician onstage. Jason Bonham perhaps has the most to prove, and he is up to the task -- he pounds the skins with fury and urgency, each crushing snare-hit a tribute to his father. He is clearly a devout student not only of his father's complex and (until now) inimitable drumming technique, but of the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue and ethos.
With every note, as the night goes on, the weight of the years melts away and we are transported closer to our adolescent rock-and-roll selves. Every member of the band, especially Page, is smiling.
The crowd is jubilant, too, but also reverent. It is a graying, overwhelmingly white demographic, though the fans on the floor are about 10 years younger on average than the ones in the stands (in the online application, contestants could specify seating or standing). The randomness of the lottery system guaranteed that nearly all the tickets went to true fans, not a bunch of corporate stiffs, and the crowd has a democratic feel uncharacteristic of most large stadium shows.
There is a palpable sense of community: Two Italian students to my left have improbably smuggled in bottles of wine, which they are sharing with everyone around them. It appears that all the tickets to this concert went to couples who cared about each other deeply: Fathers and sons. Mothers and daughters. Lifelong friends who bonded all those years ago to the music of the men onstage.
With Plant's introduction of "this is one of the songs we have to play," the band cranks out the sacred chords of "Dazed and Confused." It is not long before the violin bow comes out, which Page proceeds to use for his trademark assault on his Les Paul. All notions of rock idolatry aside, it has now become obvious that Page is simply not human. He is some kind of formless shape-shifter, channeling darker forces as he languidly glides across the stage, his visage made all the more eerie by the shock of white hair that flows to his shoulders.
They follow "Dazed" with "Stairway to Heaven." Sure, by now the song verges on a Spinal Tap-like cliche, but by the end of this earnest version, even the most jaded among us begin chanting the lyrics like we're back in junior high. As the song ends, Plant looks to the heavens and exclaims, "Ahmet, we did it!"
The hits keep coming -- "The Song Remains the Same," "Misty Mountain Hop," and a shimmering "Kashmir" to close the set. The band bows and exits, then comes back after a few minutes to greet the screaming crowd with the bone-crunching riff of "Whole Lotta Love." The second encore is a loose, galloping version of "Rock and Roll." "It's been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time . . . ."
Yes, it has. As the house lights rise and silence descends, we file into the chill of the London night, younger and wiser -- buoyed by our reclaimed adolescent faith in the redemptive power of rock-and-roll. A few bars of the cage have melted. Led Zeppelin had pulled it off. And so had we.