Rediscovering my love affair with Led Zeppelin

I was a Led Zeppelin fan in middle school all the way through high school. That was probably my dad’s influence. He didn’t have any of Zep’s vinyl LPs in his collection, which I loved thumbing through on occasion (mostly, probably, to see a certain Blind Faith album cover) but he introduced me to Zeppelin through the magic of compact discs.

The first real rock concert I ever attended was Aerosmith at Lakewood Amphitheater in 1994, but the first concert I was supposed to attend was an ill-fated Coverdale-Page show that was cancelled, apparently because of slow ticket sales. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the announcement on 96 Rock that the show would not go on, that I would not see Jimmy Page play with David Coverdale, and I’m sure my wailing that echoed through the two rooms of my parent’s basement could have competed with any of Robert Plant’s bluesy screaming on Led Zeppelin I.

I loved Led Zeppelin in my teenage year, more than I loved Pink Floyd, more than I loved Def Leppard, more than I loved most any other band that had ever existed.

But as many romances do, that infatuation faded after high school. In college, I listened to other genres – harder and faster music. Mike Patton and Ben Harper and the Pietasters and System of a Down and Sevendust. I owned all the Zeppelin albums, but they received less and less play as I got older. In fact, I only recently added the entire Zeppelin catalog to my iPod, and those songs only pop up randomly now and again when I’m on shuffle (curiously, I seem to get more songs from Coda than any other Zeppelin album).

I seem to recall the three surviving members of Zeppelin reuniting for one last show in London in 2007, but I barely put in the effort to find clips from the show on YouTube. I had moved on.

Recently, though, I found myself watching a Zeppelin press conference online to drum up publicity for the band releasing that live performance from ’07 on a DVD/CD called “Celebration Day.”

I sat transfixed for 45 minutes watching Robert Plant and Jimmy Page ignore questions about why they won’t reunite for a proper tour, and after Zeppelin was honored at the Kennedy Center Awards in December, I DVR’d the band’s appearance on the Letterman show.

Then, I was tooling around on YouTube a couple weeks ago, and I found this – probably the best version of Stairway to Heaven I’ve ever heard. Heart’s Ann Wilson wails on that song the way Plant used to sing it (but can’t anymore), Jason Bonham plays with the power and intensity of his late father, and the choir … my god, that choir. It’s brought a tear to my eye every time I watch it (not unlike Plant in the audience that night).

Since then, I’ve been on a Zeppelin kick. I downloaded “Celebration Day,” and I discovered it rocks hard enough to knock me back to high school. I’ve watched the Heart version of Stairway probably 10 times. And I thought back to Feb. 28, 1995, when some buddies and I saw Page and Plant play at the Omni in Atlanta when they toured to support their first faux Zeppelin album (John Paul Jones wasn’t involved in this project, leading him to joke later that Page and Plant must have misplaced his phone number).

That concert experience isn’t on my top-10 best list, but there’s one moment at that show that I’ll never forget. In fact, it might be the best song I’ve ever heard performed live.

Page/Plant were 10 songs through their 21-song set list, and up until that point, they sounded like so many of the Zeppelin bootlegs I had heard. Solid, but gritty. Decent, but rough. Powerful, but a little bit fuzzy. If you’ve ever heard the soundtrack to The Song Remains the Same, you’ll know what I mean. Zeppelin sounds kick-ass, but the band doesn’t sound great either. If that makes sense.

On that winter night in 1995, though, the band kicked into “Achilles Last Stand,” and everything changed. The night, which had been mediocre so far, was saved by this 10 minute-piece of music. We were in this 15,000-seat arena, and until that point, it hadn’t felt intimate. But Page started on that slow, meandering guitar lick and Plant started on those vocals, and suddenly, a rock concert morphed into magic. I’d experienced that at a show once before (during “One of These Days” at a 1994 Pink Floyd concert when that bass line and my pounding heart melded into one), and since then, it’s happened maybe one other time (Faith No More playing “Caffeine” at the Masquerade in Atlanta in 1998).

An experience that can never be recreated, but one that never leaves your system. An experience that’s transcendental and ephemeral and utterly unforgettable.

A couple nights ago, I found that moment on YouTube.

You, of course, won’t feel what I experienced that night in Atlanta 17 years ago (if I had to pick the exact second that everything changed, it’s at the 1:57 mark). When I watched the video, I didn’t feel it either*. But I could see the moment was there. I couldn’t feel it the same way I did when I was 16, but I knew it existed in a past life. That has to be good enough for the present.

*Though I’d never seen any video from this show, I did have a bootleg recording of Page-Plant’s performance that night, so I’ve heard this version of the song, maybe, two dozen times. I’ve never had the same reaction that I had that night, though watching the video for the first time was pretty freakin’ awesome.

Now, the question Zeppelin receives in every media session in which they participate is why they won’t get back together and do one last tour. Sometimes, Jimmy Page is elusive and mystical. Sometimes, Robert Plant looks pissed that he’s even being asked the question. Sometimes, it seems like John Paul Jones can’t answer because he’s day-dreaming.

Apparently, it’s Plant that doesn’t want the reunion, and the rest of the band is at his mercy.

You know what? It’s kind of perfect that they’re probably done as Led Zeppelin. It preserves that night in 2007 when Zeppelin, 27 years after it had broken up following the death of John Bonham, returned for two hours of triumph to be rock gods one last time. It preserves that 10 minutes of “Achilles Last Stand” on Feb. 28, 1995. Zeppelin doesn’t need to be The Rolling Stones or The Who and tour on old songs and faded memories into their AARP years.

One perfect YouTube video will have to be good enough for me; it will have to be good enough for all of us.

And it’s comforting to know that I can see that moment whenever I want. When I can think about my dad and I listening to Zeppelin in his Mazda RX7, when Zeppelin was the best band in the world, when I screamed about a cancelled concert, when Plant’s voice sent chills up my back.

Rock gods don’t ever die. But sometimes, they realize that their time together is gone, that there are other aspects of life to explore. Sometimes, rock gods just want to move on while the love and everything you ever felt about them remains forever the same. But only in the past.

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