An old Stairway story

LakePark

This morning I was driving my daughter to a skating lesson, as I usually do on a Saturday morning. I complain about the early hours sometimes, but I know that I’ll miss these days when they’re over and my services are no longer needed. Such is life.

We got into our minivan, the little one and I, and I turned the radio on. I told her she could pick the music, and then the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” came on. And the offer to my daughter was immediately rescinded.

As the song played, and the music built toward its climax, I told my little one a story about the song. I’ve told several of them before in this space, but this one I had held onto for awhile.

Back in the late 1990s, I taught at a public high school in Chicago. My daily commute involved driving down Lake Shore Drive, and getting off at an exit named Oakenwald. And once I did this, the daily ritual began.

Cars still had tape decks in those days, and my Mazda 626 was so equipped. I pulled out a Led Zeppelin tape, put it into the player, and off I went.

The tape was always cued up to the final notes before Jimmy Page’s guitar solo began. Luckily, the roads between the exit and the school were sparsely traveled, and so as the solo unfolded, I was able to drive pretty fast, and let the soaring parts of the solo help to get me ready for the day ahead. I considered it to be an essential part of my day, and I never considered using another song for this purpose. No other song would do, really.

The final lyrics that Robert Plant sings, beginning with “and as we wind on down the road” were sung, or more accurately howled, by me as the school came into view. And the final lyric, coming after the last musical crescendo, was the part that brought it all home and got me ready to go out and be Mr. Harris for the day.

As that line played out on the radio this morning, I realized how long ago, and how far away, those days now seem. But the song lives on, and this allows me to share the story of its meaning with a ten year-old who wasn’t alive back then. And then she got to put on the music that she wanted, instead. Life goes on, just as it always has.

It really makes me wonder

Martin

There’s no doubt in my mind that Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is the song of my lifetime. I’ve written about the song before, and it always seems to be able to lift my spirits up. And today, as I was contemplating the senseless attacks at the Boston marathon, the song worked its magic once again.

I had seen a picture of one of the fatalities on Facebook earlier in the day. His name is Martin Richard, and he was eight years old. It hit me hard, because eight years old is such a great age. Kids haven’t yet become jaded and cynical, and they haven’t learned that constant stimulation is necessary, lest they become “bored.” And the look on Martin’s face is enough to suggest that this was a good kid, the kind that anyone would want to have for a son.

So where does Led Zeppelin come in? The repeated lyrics about “it makes me wonder” came into play for me.

I wondered who would do such a terrible act, taking the life away from a good kid like this.

I wondered if other people will get any sinister ideas from this attack, and if so whether they will be able to be thwarted before other innocent kids are hurt.

I wondered if the person who made these bombs and detonated them had any remorse for the damage they did.

Whatever the answers to these might be, I hope that we, as a people, can learn something from Martin Richard’s senseless death. Let’s all hold the children around us a little bit tighter, and realize how precious they really are.

Hearing “Stairway” for first time

Upon hearing Ann and Nancy Wilson, Jason Bonham, and a cast of hundreds whose names I don’t know present Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven as a gift to us all at the Kennedy Center, I wanted to offer a few words about the first time I ever heard the song. My hope is that young kids will see the performance, and feel the power of that song–and of rock and roll itself–and dedicate their lives to making music even better than that. “Better than Led Zeppelin” sounds like an impossible task, but the pursuit of that goal would be a worthy quest.

I heard the song performed live in the gym of my elementary school, back in either 1978 or 1979. Disco was all the rage on the airwaves, as played on WCVS in Springfield, Illinois. It was an AM station, and FM radio was somewhere off in the future for me. But it was all disco, all the time in those days, at least on the radio.

Hearing a guitarist, and a drummer, and a song that I had never heard before was something of a shock. All I remember of it, really, was the final line “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven” being sung. As someone who was educated in Catholic schools, I knew about the idea of Heaven, but the idea of trying to buy your way into it, or that a path to it even existed to begin with, struck my still-forming mind as being weird and disturbing. I guess the abstract meaning of the song was beyond my mental capacities at that stage of my life.

I’d love to say that I heard that song and went out and purchased a guitar. But it didn’t happen like that. I already had a little red acoustic guitar, but I couldn’t tune it, or get anything to happen when I tried to play a chord. So the song was something of a glancing blow for me. I went on listening to the disco junk that was on the radio, until rock and roll came storming into my life with the Knack and “My Sharona” late in the Summer of 1979.

Perhaps the “Stairway” performance at my school was in early 1979, before school let out for the year. That would make sense. But I really didn’t get into Led Zeppelin until I bought a cassette of their fourth album, specifically because it had Stairway to Heaven on it, a few years later. But this time the song took root, and my admiration for it, and for Led Zeppelin generally, has grown ever since.

I wrote about “Stairway” a month ago, for the first time, and am happy to revisit it here. Maybe I’ll write about it again one day in the future, when a young kid who’s just picked up his or her first guitar has succeeded in making music that sounds even better. That’s one piece I’d be happy to write.

And as we wind on down the road

I can’t think of a song that I’ve heard more often–or that I have more memories about–than Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s almost a rock-n-roll cliche, because it’s been played and played and played again in the forty years since it was released. But it is the epic rock song by the greatest rock band there’s ever been, so maybe it deserves all the attention it gets.

I bring this up because this afternoon, I drove into downtown Chicago. I had a teenager and two younger kids in the car with me, and they wanted to listen to the hit music stations as we drove. And yet, after about ten minutes in the car, we reached the northernmost reaches of Lake Shore Drive.

The hit stations all had commercials on, so I tuned the radio in to the Loop, which I’ve listened to for decades now. And they’ve probably played the song as many times over the years as any other station has, and more than   most.

I remember a radio station in Albuquerque a few years ago that celebrated a change in its format by playing “Stairway to Heaven” repeatedly, over and over again, for 24 hours straight. At about eight minutes a play, that’s about 7 plays per hour, or more than 150 plays over the course of a single day. But if the Loop plays the song just once a day–which seems reasonable enough to me–it’s been played well over 10,000 times over the years. And it will be played 10,000 more times in the decades to come. It’s a song that I’m sure will always find an audience.

As I got onto Lake Shore Drive, the song progressed through the verses, and none of the children in the car wanted the song to be changed. Perhaps they weren’t paying attention to it, and perhaps they liked the song. But whatever the reason was, I didn’t get any resistance to it.

By the time the drums came in, just before the “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow” line, we we’re starting to get closer to downtown, and the skyline was coming into view. The first time that I saw the Chicago skyline from Lake Shore Drive was back in the late 1980s, and I’ll never forget I was in a car with U2’s “Bad” playing on the radio. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen, in the purplish glow of an early evening. I told myself I had to live in Chicago someday, and I have done that for more than twenty years now.

As we approached the overpass at North Avenue, Jimmy Page’s guitar solo took flight. I’ve often though that the music soars, however briefly. There are certainly longer guitar solos, and possibly flashier guitar solos, but if there’s a better one at bringing a song to its fullest potential, I’ve never heard it. And after 30+ years of listening, that’s saying something.

The song came to its conclusion, as Robert Plant crooned the final few notes, just as we had crossed the Chicago River. I couldn’t say how many times I had heard the song before, but the visual treat of hearing it on my way into downtown Chicago made it just that much better.

The kids didn’t need to ask for the radio station to be changed when the song was over. I changed it myself, knowing that whatever the Loop played next was going to pale in comparison. Some things just can’t be improved upon.

Make it last as long as you can

The suicide of guitarist Ronnie Montrose over the weekend is another sign that life does go on. It’s been almost forty years since the debut of his eponymous band on vinyl (maybe you could have owned it on 8-track or reel-to-reel, too), and the music still holds up well. Songs like Bad Motor Scooter and Rock Candy will always have a place in the canon of songs that a rock band can play onstage, or that teenagers can learn the riffs to when they’re picking up the electric guitar. Those songs are his legacy, and they will live on forever, even if he did not.

I have some vivid memories of listening to the first Montrose album, down in the basement of my parents’ house. I could put on the tape, play some air guitar, and imagine for a brief moment that I was anything other than the awkward teenager that I actually was. It was an escape into a different place, and I embraced it for everything it was worth.

And I also have a particular Montrose memory related to high school, so of course I have to share it here. If I don’t put this into a medium like this, the memory will die when I do, and I don’t want that to happen. By putting it onto the internet, though, I can make it last beyond my lifetime, so here goes:

One of my best friends in high school was my buddy Mark. His last name doesn’t matter to the story, and I debated whether or not to even include his first name here. But using his name helps me to picture him a little bit better. If he wants to track me down and tell me to stop, I’ll gladly honor that request.

Mark and I went to school together from the ages of five through eighteen. In high school we would throw a frisbee around on the street in front of his house by day, and go out carousing together by night. I also ate with him in the lunchroom for the four years we were in high school, and there was no higher form of friendship than that, in those days.

I wrote a profile of Mark and the car he used to drive for our high school paper, back when we were seventeen and life was out there waiting for us somewhere. I wish I had saved that story, or had a picture or two of him, because I haven’t seen or heard from Mark since the late 80s. He went one way after graduation, and I went another. He could be living the good life somewhere, surrounded by people who care about him, or he could be buried in the ground somewhere, and I’d never know the difference. My inconsistent memory is all I have to remember him by, and that’s unfortunate. If I were a computer, I would forever be in need of a serious memory upgrade, despite what some of my posts here make it sound like.

When I was a sophomore in high school, way back in 1984, my English teacher–I’ll call him Doc Brown here–gave us an assignment called the “Poetry of Rock.” The idea was to pick out a song that we liked, bring it in to the class, and look for instances of similes, metaphors, and the like in the song’s lyrics. I brought in Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter, because I was into their music as much as a non-burnout could be. But that song probably only makes sense when you’re stoned, and thus it made no sense at all in high school English class.

My buddy Mark, no doubt through the influence of his older brothers, brought in the first Montrose album, and the song he chose was “Make it Last,” the final song on the album. In my 15 or 16 year-old’s rush to learn about anything in the Led Zeppelin school of sound, I hadn’t yet been acquainted with Montrose. My lack of older siblings surely didn’t help. I was quite a fan of Sammy Hagar’s solo work, so I probably was aware that Montrose had existed, but I hadn’t ever heard their music before.

When the song was over, and the class was doing whatever form of explication of the lyrics that a room full of adolescent boys was capable of, I remember thinking that I had to check this record out more carefully. It probably was that I borrowed Mark’s copy of the album and taped it, if not that day then soon afterward. And this led to an appreciation of the album that’s stayed with me through all of the intervening decades. Wherever you are, Mark, thanks. And that goes for Doc Brown, too.

Even though I haven’t got a lick of musical ability, I can still appreciate the work of those who do. Whether it’s writing songs, or singing them, or producing music that can take you back to high school english class, music is a powerful thing. I have no doubt that Ronnie Montrose, and those in his band and a thousand others whose names you’ve never heard of, know all about this. So while we mourn his passing, we can appreciate the music he created and the lasting effect it can have on all of us. And I can recall passing time with a friend who I might not ever see again. That’s what the power of music really is.

Appreciating vinyl once again

I rarely read the Wall Street Journal, but when it’s available in the hotel it’s hard not to at least pick one up. The USA Today is probably more common in hotels, but that wasn’t an option for me today. It was the WSJ or no way, so I went with what was in front of me.

So buried deep in section 4, or whatever that weekend section is called, was an article about the vinyl record. Vinyl was the way I learned how to listen to music, back in the mid-1970s when I discovered my parents’ old version of Beatles ’65. They had other records too, but that’s the only one that I remember anymore. Not Abbey Road or the White Album, but Beatles ’65. Better than nothing, I suppose.

The first vinyl record I ever bought myself was the Grease soundtrack in 1978. I liked the gatefold in between the two albums, with scenes from the movie splattered all over. You know, the things that a ten-year old looks for. I played the first record–the one that had all of the hit songs on it–and pretty much ignored the second record altogether. I wasn’t yet old enough to appreciate how the record label had packaged it all up into a double LP (that’s what we called them, and it stands for Long-Playing, if you’re wondering) to make me fork over more money than a single LP would have cost.

I actually used the Grease soundtrack to get myself into trouble once in grade school. It was my music teacher’s idea to teach us about what different musical instruments sounded like, so she told us to bring in a song and we could listen to the songs and pick out what the different instuments were. I brought in the Grease soundtrack–which was the only record I owned at the time–and wanted the class to hear Greased Lightnin’ with me.

When the teacher asked if there were any objectionable words in the song (since I wouldn’t yet know what lyrics were), I didn’t pause a moment before telling her that there weren’t. So when John Travolta sang out “You know it ain’t no shit, we’ll be getting lots of tit, Greased Lightnin’” I had been exposed, and the needle was unceremoniously pulled from off the record. There was some laughter from the kids, of course, but the teacher moved on to the next song to be played. It goes without saying that there was no discussion of the instruments played on the record.

The article I read today took me back to my own experiences with vinyl, which lasted through the middle of the 1980s. By 1986 or so it was all casettes, and by 1990, I donated all of my old LPs to Salvation Army because I didn’t own a turntable anymore and wanted everything to be on CDs instead. All the old vinyl, from Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog to Led Zeppelin II to the Eagles’ Hotel California to Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil to Boston’s first two albums to…I could go on for quite awhile, but I’m sure the point has been made by now.

Digital life and the cloud has made owning physical manifestations of music, whether it’s casettes, or 8-tracks, or vinyl, a relic of another time. But apparently it still lives on, and I’m happy about that. I won’t go out and buy a turntable, and I won’t be acquiring vinyl records again, but I’m glad to have the memories that I do. And I’m even happier to have a forum for sharing these memories with you. Thanks for reading.

Any comments about your own vinyl memories will be much appreciated.

Rock’s greatest band

If I had just one album to take to the proverbial desert island with me, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album wouldn’t be it. But if I was able to just take a couple more, it would be find its way into my terribly limited collection. It came out forty years ago today, so technically it’s in my lifetime, but it doesn’t really feel like it. Every music group out there today wishes they could make something that people would still care enough to think about forty years later.

Over the course of my life, I’ve owned this album on at least three different formats: I first bought it on cassette when I got a cheap Walkman imitation back in about 1982, and I would listen to it (with the volume turned up all the way, of course) as I delivered papers on my paper route. I didn’t like having to occasionally flip the tape over, but those were the dark days as far as portable music was concerned.

I also bought the album on vinyl at my used record shop in Springfield, Illinois which, to my great surprise, is still in business. I remember trekking there in high school, buying all of the classic rock albums that I would eventually give away when the CD took over in the 1990s. I also remember looking at the eclectic, esoteric album cover and wondering what it actually meant. The gatefold in the middle, which Zeppelin also used on a number of their other albums, also creeped me out in some way. It just made me think about dark times and troubled lands, but the lantern at the top was there to bring hope. And I wasn’t even smoking anything in those days, either.

In high school, I was very proud of the fact that I could draw each of the four “runes” that made up the official title of the album. I even knew what they meant, once upon a time. They made for interesting doodles when I stopped listening to my English teacher. I even taught myself how to write “Led Zeppelin” in the font that they used, but I think that came with their next album, Houses of the Holy.

I remember reading “Hammer of the Gods” while listening to Zeppelin’s music, when I should have been reading Hemingway or Steinbeck instead. My loss, I suppose. But reading it was an extension of my interest in their music. Or, as I liked to think of it, I was “getting to the source,” whatever that meant.

When a Led Zeppelin retrospective named “Mothership” made its big splash on iTunes a few years ago, of course I had to buy it in that format too. Once a Zeppelin fan, always a Zeppelin fan, I suppose. It isn’t like there’s anything half as good being made today.

Three of the four members of the band are alive today, and it’s still surprising to me that a reunion tour hasn’t come to pass. None of them need the money, I’m sure, but there would be loads of it to go around if they wanted it. Their body of recorded work isn’t as vast as the Stones or the Beatles, but I would argue, largely on the basis of their albums from the self-titled debut up through Physical Graffiti (which is the only one of theirs I’ve never owned in any format), that no rock band has a more important body of work than Led Zeppelin.

Disagree? Feel free. (I stole that one from Eminem, just to show that I still listen to new music from time to time.) But leave a comment and tell me who you think is better.

Takin’ care of business is his name

I heard an interesting combination of songs on the radio yesterday. Songs, in and of themselves, can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Either they’re played in sequence on an album, and if you’ve listened to the album enough, you know what to expect when that song is over. On the first Van Halen album, for instance, Eruption and You Really Got Me are two different songs, technically, but if Eruption ended and anything else came on, I’d be all out of sorts.

The second way is as part of a playlist, as in a mixtape. The person who puts it together tries to pick songs that are part of an overall theme, blending the work of many artists into one continuous strand of music. Or hitting “shuffle” on an iPod can have the same effect, only is possible to have very random songs juxtaposed next to each other. I think a Wiggles song followed up by Led Zeppelin is about the weirdest one I’ve experienced. May it never get any stranger than that.

Or a song can be played on the radio, where the disk jockey or the program director decides what songs will be played, and people can listen along to hear what they decide (with a few commercials thrown in, of course). And this can be interesting, when you’re out driving around and don’t have the inclination to select a CD of your own, or the CD player doesn’t work (as in my case).

The first song in the combination I heard yesterday was ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The song has lots of nasty blues guitar, which I can always appreciate, and the fact that they sing about my hometown makes it all the more special. “Jesus Just left Tampa” or “Jesus just left Omaha” wouldn’t sound nearly as good, would it? This song is up there with the Doors’ “Peace Frog” (“Blood in the streets in town of Chicago, blood on the rise it’s following me”) and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” (“Going to Chicago”) as my favorite Chicago song references. There are others, but maybe that’s a post for another day.

At the end of the ZZ Top jam, the song “Blue Collar Man” came on. “Long nights, impossible odds, keeping my eye on the keyhole…” Of all Styx’ songs, this might be the one I like the best. The guitar solo is just explosive, and just as when I was 17, a guitar solo grabs my attention like nothing else can.

So where’s the Chicago connection to this song? It’s actually the home of Styx, which goes all the way back to 1961 on the South side of Chicago. They’re all from Chicago, except for Tommy Shaw, the guitarist who plays the solo on that song. But the Chicago link to Tommy Shaw is also there, because Styx saw him play at a club gig in Chicago in the 1970s, and remembered him when they needed a replacement for their original guitarist. So he’s still Chicago, in my book, even if he doesn’t originally come from here. Neither did I, come to think of it.

As I was driving through the city I call home, on a beautiful fall day, my Chicago radio station gave me a song by some Texas dudes about my city, followed up by a great rock song by guys who hail from my city. Can’t do much better than that.

A Sure Shot for the Rock Hall

To me, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a fraud. Rock and roll began as an expression of rebellion, and that gleaming building on the waterfront in Cleveland is anything but rebellion. Some of the bluesmen who helped to create rock and roll are enshrined there, but too many of them have been lost to history, unrecognized for their contributions.

Rock and roll was born when white folks began dabbling in “colored” music during the 1950s. The best Broadway show I’ve ever seen, Memphis, tells a fictionalized story about this time and place. It’s still playing in New York, and there’s also a touring company out there somewhere, but it’s well worth spending some time and money on if you have the chance.

But back to the hall of fame for a moment. The continued exclusion of KISS from the hall makes no sense at all. If there’s any better expression of the rock ethos than “Rock and Roll all nite,” please tell me what it is. But beyond that song, there’s a whole Army (literally) of fans out there who go to the concerts (with or without face paint on), buy the merchandise that has made Gene Simmons and the others rich, and keep the band going so that they’re more than an REO Speedwagon-type nostalgia act.

The first concert I went to as a 13-year old was KISS and the Plasmatics, and the clothes I wore that night probably still reek of pot. And the most recent concert I’ve seen was also KISS, at the United Center in Chicago. That might change when the Wall comes to Wrigley next summer, though. I’ve seen a lot of shows in between, but KISS brings it to the stage as well as anybody, and better than most. Why that’s not hall-worthy is beyond me.

But with this year’s nominees, there’s one I feel strongly about in a good way, and one I feel strongly about in a bad way. The good way goes first. With my non-existent vote for the Rock hall, I would put the Beastie Boys in, without a doubt.

A rock purist might disagree with me on this, because they aren’t a band in the Led Zeppelin mode of drums, guitars, and bass. That’s true, but they sampled Led Zeppelin repeatedly on their first album (which was my introduction to the group, even if I can’t listen to it anymore, since catchy and goofy isn’t a good mix). They clearly appreciate Zeppelin, and I can appreciate that.

They’ve also sampled the Beatles, Bob Marley, AC/DC, the Ramones, and many others. Their song “High Plains Drifter” is essentially the Eagles’ “Those Shoes” with a story told over it. They’re brilliant at what they do, and they couldn’t do it without rock records to draw from. Grandmaster Flash is already in, and Bono has given his blessing to Public Enemy, so there’s no reason why the B-E-A-S-T-I-Es shouldn’t be there, as well.

The one I feel strongly against is Guns n’ Roses. If you could just put one album in, I’d be fine with Appetite for Destruction being enshrined. Start to finish, it’s as good as anything that’s ever been released when it comes to rock and roll. And if you could put one video in, I’d cast my vote for “November Rain.” It’s head and shoulders above any video that’s ever been made. But the band itself now seems to consist of Axl Rose (which is an anagram for “oral sex” by the way) and whoever he can find to play with him.

Slash, Duff MacKagan, Steven Adler/Matt Sorum, and Izzy Stradlin are the band’s so-called “classic lineup,” but I promise you that not one of them would show up for the induction ceremony. No, it would just be a vanity night for the cornrowed Axl Rose, and a night in the spotlight for guys who didn’t write or record any of their classic work. Can you name any of them? I sure can’t. It gives me no great joy to say this, but putting Axl and his traveling sideshow in the Rock hall would be a mistake.

I’m curious to know how it all turns out, though. Heart is also on the ballot, along with Donna Summer (a true WTF moment for me), Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and others I can’t think of right now. But there’s only two that matter to me this time around.