Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Thursday, July 21, 2011

“LZ-75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour” by Stephen Davis (Gotham)

First off, a few words about the author. Stephen Davis (whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met) and I became music journalists just about the same time, 1970. He’s famous, I’m not.

Partly this was because Davis aspired from the beginning to write for “Rolling Stone”, whereas I was more interested in writing for those rock rags that Davis specifically says he did NOT want to write for - “Creem”, “Crawdaddy”. (I also wrote for such long, long forgotten newsstand zines as “Fusion” and “Zoo World”, which hardly anyone seems to remember, and for a few dozen fanzines, before my music-critic career peaked in general-interest magazines such as “Stereo” and “Audio”.) Partly this was a matter of geography - he spent his time in New York and Boston, I liked living in Small Town USA, and would have been uncomfortable in big cities, even though that’s where the editors and the choice assignments were. Partly it’s because he was aggressive enough to go out and GET those assignments. He also decided to move on to writing books, something I’ve never had any desire to do; haven’t; never will. So here I am in academia and in radio, having a wonderful life, perfectly content to be doing what I’m doing, whether anyone outside my immediate circle has heard of me or not. And Stephen Davis continues to write books.

Most importantly, though. Stephen Davis is more famous than me because he’s a far, far better writer than I could ever hope to be. Whereas I’m the king of the conversational run-on sentence, hyphenated phrase, and only-partially-relevant parenthetical digression, Davis is concise, controlled, imaginative, witty, self-effacing when it serves his purpose - darn it, he’s entertaining! When he does bend the writing rules, there is a context in place for it. A Stephen Davis book would be interesting to read even if the topic were of little interest, because he’s fun to read. But since he generally writes about reggae and famous rock stars, his topics are interesting as well. (Personally, I prefer to write about obscure topics and unknown people, which may be another reason hardly anyone bothers to read my stuff.)

Case in point - “LZ-75”, a book so breezy, so absorbing, so downright agreeable that you will want to read it all in one sitting, and at 215 pages, that’s entirely possible. Davis has already given us the definitive Led Zeppelin bio, “Hammer Of The Gods”, so there’s no need for him to revisit the subject in a comprehensive manner. What this book is, then, is a supplement to the Big Work, a look at the band’s American tour during the first half of 1975, a crucial part of the story not fully covered in the first Zep book, for the simple reason that Davis misplaced his notebook about the tour. Not long ago, he finally relocated the notes, marked “LZ-75”, which serves as the title for this book. True, it may have been better had he had all the information and reminiscences available when he wrote “Hammer”, but now he can look back and evaluate the tour from a totally mature, less harried vantage point, fully aware of what has transpired over the course of 3-1/2 decades..

The book opens with some important background on Led Zeppelin, parts of the band’s history which may not be familiar to younger readers. (I am always amazed by the fact that so many of my students consider Led Zep to be their favorite band, even though most were born in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. But they rarely have any grounding on WHY the band was crucial to subsequent developments in rock. I’m convinced some of them think Led Zeppelin invented rock’n’roll.) He traces their rise from the ashes of the Yardbirds through their early LP’s, reminding us old-timers how fiercely this band was hated by the critical fraternity. (Another reason, perhaps, why I didn’t fit in with the mainstream of rock criticism during the 1970’s - I absolutely ADORED Led Zeppelin from the first moment I heard them in 1969. I didn’t start writing till the next year, though, not that I would have made much difference.) We watch them sell trillions of albums, perform in front of ever-huger audiences, and begin to indulge in extravagant lifestyles that have served as models for rock-star excess ever since.

Indeed, that extravagance is one of the major themes of the book. Davis witnessed some of it firsthand, having found his way onto their rented rock-star private-jet to cover several stops on the aforementioned 1975 tour on an ill-fated assignment from a famous magazine not known for covering rock stars, extravagant or otherwise. (The story of how he got the assignment is a hoot in itself.) We get to meet a variety of characters, including the band’s relentlessly conniving manager, Peter Grant; the band’s persevering label manager, Danny Goldberg - actually, I HAVE met him, and found him to be as agreeable a record-industry executive as you could hope to find; William Burroughs (whom Davis treated less than honorably, and he realizes it), and a would-be groupie schoolteacher, just to pick out a few of the most memorable people in these pages.

And we get to meet the members of Led Zeppelin as they actually were, seen through the eyes of someone who had a degree of access to them, albeit with definite limits. Well, we get to meet three of them. John Paul Jones tended to disappear once he got offstage, and seemingly no one got to know him during this stage of his life. Despite his fondness for certain substances, Robert Plant comes off as the most average-guy-sort in the bunch, which may be whyl all these years later he remains close to the spotlight. Alas, a cold and subsequent throat problems during the tour dragged down Plant’s performance level for an extended period. (Jones is still active, too, of course, but not as prominently as Plant. Jimmy Page still pops up on occasion as well.) Davis found John Bonham to be downright scary, and preferred NOT to get particularly close to him. Bonham’s over-indulgences were many and rabid, and it’s no surprise he died at age 32. Jimmy Page, however, comes across as the real tragic figure of the band. A guitarist so skilled that he could create wonders in public night after night despite being strung out on heroin, we find him sitting in his hotel room virtually unresponsive, seemingly incapable of getting any true pleasure from his status as one of the music world’s biggest superstars.

Later in 1975, Robert Plant would be in a car accident that set into motion the band’s eventual downward slide. But to most fans of so-called “classic rock”, they’ve never really gone away. Perhaps those fans may find this book a bit disillusioning, though I think most people have a pretty good inkling of what the band’s lifestyle was like in their heyday. But fan or not, this book is a great read, particularly if you’re looking for light summer reading on a rock’n’roll topic, by someone who truly knows how to write. Don’t miss it.

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