In the spring of 1969, something called Scenic Sounds began promoting rock shows at one of the unlikeliest venues in Greater Los Angeles, a drafty barn-like affair in Pasadena heretofore known solely as where huge floral floats are prepared for the annual New Year’s Day morning Rose Parade. For their first shows in May, Scenic Sounds booked as headliners a bluesy new English four-piece that had apparently caused many a jaw to drop at their local debut at the Whisky a Go Go the second evening of the year, and whose first album was getting played a lot on local radio in spite of having been dismissed as self-indulgent crapola in Rolling Stone. To review the show, the Los Angeles Times dispatched the selfsame spotty young university student who’d written the Rolling Stone review.
He liked the performance even less than the record, the Led Zeppelin were ruined, and popular music was saved.
|I once owned a shirt just like that Plant wears in this photo!|
Yes, I was that spotty young student. I didn’t know much, but I knew what I liked, and there wasn’t much about the Led Zeppelin I didn’t hate. I liked songs, especially tuneful ones, with witty or poignant lyrics; I liked The Who (no, I didn’t: in those days, before the bloat and bombast, I worshipped The Who) and The Kinks and The Move. Zeppelin weren’t remotely about songs, but rather about showing off, much more about athleticism than self-expression. At the time, it was believed that no guitarist could play more than 200 notes per bar at 120 beats per minute without self-immolating. Well, Jimmy Page could play 217. A cat in heat could hit H above middle C? Robert Plant could hit J-flat. In the lower register in which he started nearly every song, he was completely undistinguished, tentative-sounding. Where the playing of Jeff Back, whose great success the year before had obviously emboldened Page to throw this mob together, was alternately droll, anarchic, and emotive, Page’s was unashamedly exhibitionistic. When I was able to make out any words, they seemed, in that bluesy way I loathed, to be about what an implacable bull stud the singer was, or how he blamed women for everything wrong with the world. Give me Townshend, via Daltrey, I thought, fretting about his sisters’ forcibly crossdressing him. Give me Ray Davies, raking leaves.
They didn’t even look right. The drummer’s moustache and stiff leather hat were so 1968. In the classic formulation, the instrumentalists to a singer’s sides dwarfed him, as Entwistle and Townshend dwarfed Daltrey, but here was Plant looking as though he could rest his chin atop the alarmingly emaciated Page’s head.
The result being that when we convened, I had five de facto bodyguards. Grunt had brought a couple of prolifically scarred roadies as well as Page and Plant, and we had to request a table for eleven. As everyone seated himself, the air was so thick with testosterone it was a wonder one of the place’s famously obstreperous, famously ancient waitresses didn’t take a career-ending fall, though no one could remember a Canter’s server’s career ending. There were waitresses in there as old as Judaism itself.
Grunt and my kung fu instructor, who I will have to admit sooner or later called himself Chuck, did lots of glaring at each other, as did Chuck’s former students and the two Zeppelin roadies. Page, Plant, and I just sort of smirked at each other warily, and then pretended to be preoccupied with our menus. I noticed a couple of waitresses looking our way with great concern, and inferred that they might be scandalized by Page’s emaciation. “Like a bird he must eat!” I could imagine them clucking at each other.
When the last of our menus had been relinquished, Plant started the ball rolling, observing, “You don’t seem to fancy our group, mate,” but in a tone that suggested amusement rather than umbrage. He actually winked at me. Who’d have imagined that he’d be a good egg? But with Chuck and his four protégés, and the Jewish Defense League, the numbers were on my side, and the vodka I’d guzzled out in the parking lot to steady my nerves was working its magic, so I, winking right back at him, said, “I think I’d sooner listen to cats being tortured, though, given my strong feelings about the rights of animals, that’s hardly to suggest that I ever hope to hear them being tortured.”
I think at that moment that Peter Grunt wished himself American, as he’d have had a pistol to reach for. But he had to content himself with scowling at me homicidally, clearing his throat, and wondering what it might take to get me to stop mauling his boys in print. The Internet wasn’t yet a tingling in Tim Berners-Lee’s loins.
“Well,” I said, allowing one of our three octogenarian waitresses to place before me a bowl of matzo ball soup that no self-respecting Jewish mother on earth would serve a Nazi, “I’d like to know that at some point soon the group will stop screeching and showing off every once in a while, and actually write something wry or touching.
“We don’t do wry, mate,” Plant said. “But I do fancy something touching.” My impression was that he was going to tell me about ideas he and the too-shy-to-speak Page had been kicking around, but there was a commotion at the restaurant’s entrance. Apparently word had already spread that the Led Zeppelin’s two more desirable stars were at Canter’s, and here came the groupies, as fast as they could stampede on their platform shoes with six-inch heels. I don’t think any of them was over 15. “Beat me, Jimmy!” squealed the most brazen, who’d seemingly saved her middle school lunch money to buy the handsome bullwhip she was trying to force on the embarrassed-looking Page. “I’ve read you like it, and I just love it!”
“Will you excuse me?” he murmured shyly as he got to his feet. The question was rhetorical. He put his arm, around the diameter of plastic drinking straw, around the waist of his new friend and headed eagerly for the exit. Half a dozen nymphets converged on Plant. One of them plopped uninvited on his lap, and unbuttoned her blouse, proudly showing herself not to have begun…developing yet. A couple of the shier girls settled for the roadies, uncouth, lavishly scarred, and reeking of sweat and alcohol though they were. “Shoo!” one of the ancient waitresses implored Plant’s new harem, as though they were flies, but none listened.
Peter Grunt sipped his water miserably and shook his head. “It ain’t that they ain’t fucking tried to write a couple of pretty songs per album,” he told me accusatorily. “It’s that they’re rubbish at it. If it’s pretty you want, why don’t you listen to fucking Crosby, Stills & Nash or something?”
Rather than responding, I sipped my own water. It felt that I had him just where I wanted him. “An occasional pretty, more expressive song,” I reiterated, “and they’ve got to stop pretending they wrote songs actually written by others.”
“What are you fucking on about?” he demanded, but in a tone that suggested his heart wasn’t in it.
“I’m on about ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,’ which they claim to have written, but which was actually composed by Anne Bredon, ‘Dazed and Confused,’ which was actually composed by Jakes Holmes, and ‘Black Mountain Side,’ which Bert Jansch composed, though he called his version ‘Blackwaterside.’ And there are those who believe that ‘How Many More Times’ bears a too-strong resemblance to Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘No Place to Go.’”
There are few things sadder than a big, powerful man who’s used to intimidating people looking beaten. Nor, of course, are there many things even half as wonderful. I turned away from Peter Grunt to smirk for a second, and then, sensing his weakness, did my best to exploit it.
“That’s part of what I want,” I said, “but not all of it.”
“I want a gal too,” I said. I was still dweebish in those days before my first contact lenses. I had a wispy moustache — and here I’d complained about John Bonham’s! — and what had come to be called John Lennon glasses, even though Lennon had been emboldened by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian. It would be a dozen more years before I learned to suppress my innate shyness. “Not a teenager of the sort in which Mr. Plant is covered,” I said, “nor the sort who tempted Mr. Page with her bullwhip. An adult, preferably with Raquel Welch hair, legs up to here, a sweet disposition, a wonderful sense of humor, and lovely firm breasts. They needn't be huge.”
“Now where am I fucking supposed to find someone like that?” he demanded petulantly.
“Not my problem, Pierre,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe the mom of one of the group’s 13-year-old fans. Oh, and a car. A 1962 Porsche 911 convertible. Red, preferably.”
He so wanted to get his huge, fleshy hands around my neck and to squeeze until I ceased to struggle — or, alternatively, to take a bite out of my trachea. “I suppose,” he mused miserably, “that I should fucking write everything down.”
“I suppose you should,” I agreed. “And a house in Laurel Canyon, preferably not next door to a folk singer. You should probably be able to get a two-bedroom house for $350/month, a figure that, when I recount it many years from now, will sound almost comical.”
Within two weeks, I was moving into new digs on Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon. There was a folk singer on neither side of me, but someone who listened to Carol King’s Tapestry album four times a day, loudly, right up the hill. I thought the red Porsche made me look less dweebish. Jean, the toothy, but attractively toothy, 24-year-old blonde Grunt had found for me in the Los Angeles office of Led Zeppelin’s American record company, didn’t get all my jokes, but got most of them, and we began what would be three very happy years together, followed by one godawful one.
I wrote nothing more about the Led Zeppelin, who consequently became gigantically popular through the 1970s. My ears continued to look like any other non-boxer’s. Every few years I’d receive a letter from someone asking if I didn’t feel foolish about having disliked their debut album. I didn’t feel foolish at all, and would commonly send back a postcard reading, “No more foolish than you do being an impudent little dickehead.” How to win friends ‘n’ influence people!
A speakers’ agency contacted me in 1981 to ask if I liked the idea of speaking about my and the Led Zeppelin’s contretemps, mostly at colleges, for as much as $3500 per talk. I hated the idea of continuing to be identified primarily in terms of my disdain for the Led Zeppelin, but the money was good, and I had my pick of starstruck coeds, one of whom became my first wife. I was frustrated about not being able to tell my audiences how I’d humbled Peter Grunt, but part of our deal was that I wouldn’t reveal the terms of our deal for 45 years.
And now I have.