Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A true classic

Note: This is an assignment I did for my opinion writing class. Normally I wouldn't just take that work and post it on here, but I really like this piece and also need a new post. It's also a bit lengthy, so be warned. Hope you enjoy.

This isn’t your normal review, not even close. It’s not an “I think this is good/bad and you should/shouldn’t listen to it” review. In fact, this isn’t even a review of something new; rather, it’s a review of an album that came out in 1971.

What I’m talking about is Led Zeppelin’s immortal fourth album, which is officially untitled but commonly referred to as IV, 4 Symbols or Zoso. You’d be hard pressed to find a rock fan that will debate the album’s legendary status; so to simply sit here and tell you that it’s a great listen is pointless.

Instead, I’d like to tell a story about my first experience with the album. Because I feel that it is in this story that the true majesty of Led Zeppelin, and rock music in general, is revealed.

Without further ado, let’s a trip back in time…

To tell the truth, I didn’t like the kid at first sight. To me, he just seemed like another preppy, pretty boy type… in other words, not anyone I wanted to associate with. A harsh sentiment indeed, but you find me a 7th grader who actually gets to know people before judging them and I’ll be impressed.

But, as it turns out, I did end up getting to know him – much in the way I got to know everyone else: through sports. Turned out he was a hockey player the same as I; and his favorite NHL team just happened to be the arch-rival of my favorite team. So a friendship was born out of common interest, and what once was just TD, Tim and Elliot became TD, Tim, Elliot and Ben (a group our parents would come to label as the Fantastic 4, a moniker that has stuck through the years).

Anyway, we found out we had plenty of things in common with each other. We all loved and played hockey, and ended up forming our own roller hockey team in time for the summer session (Ben had arrived in January from New Jersey). We also found a common love of video games; and after that many, many nights were spent playing each other until the wee hours of the morning.

Then one afternoon, Ben came over my place to hang out. As I cut the radio on, I realized we had never talked music, and thus I had no clue if he would like the country station I tuned into (turned out to be a big no).

He said he was a fan of classic rock, and asked if I ever listened to it. I told him that my mom always had it on the classic rock station in the car, but beyond my Lynyrd Skynyrd greatest hits CD I really didn’t diverge too far from the country music I was raised on by my father.

Almost taken back by this, he asked if I had ever heard of Led Zeppelin. I responded, “Who is he?” much to Ben’s dismay. Shocked by this revelation, Ben set out to introduce me to his favorite band, and promised that they would blow my mind.

The next day he returned with a CD with an odd cover: an old man carrying a bundle of sticks on his back. No band name, no CD title, just the old man. Needless to say, I was skeptical. But never the one to shy away from new things, I popped the CD in my player and turned up the volume.

From there, my life was changed.

In just the first 15 seconds of the opening track, “Black Dog,” I was stunned. I had never heard any sound like the opening echo of Jimmy Page’s guitar. And I had certainly never heard the lines “Hey, hey mama, said the way you move / Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove” in any country song (I should mention I had yet to discover country’s more “scandalous” artists like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr. and David Allen Coe). And the range of Robert Plant’s voice was… well it was – and still is – indescribable.

I didn’t want to say anything or even make a sound that would cause me to miss a second of this new wonder. Ben understood this, as he just sat back and fell into the music himself.

The second track, “Rock and Roll,” was just so fast. It was beyond me that somebody could keep that pace and yet still has such rhythm. Plant again displayed so much range and power in his voice. He had such command, it’s as if he was telling the world that “these are my words, nobody else but me can touch them.”

I sat. I listened. I wondered how I never discovered this music before.

I marveled at the acoustic arrangements of “The Battle of Evermore,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Going to California.”

I was entranced at the uniqueness of “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Four Sticks.”

Lastly, I was plain dumbfounded and hypnotized by the last track, “When the Levee Breaks.” It had such heavy drums, such a driving rhythm, just a bluesy sound that I had never come across before.

Ben – finally ending almost an hour of silence – asked me how I liked it. The only words I could mutter were “I want to hear it again.” And so we listened again.

And though after the second listen I could only mutter that it was “awesome” and that I was going to invest more time in classic rock, I had no earthly idea what impact that one CD would have on me.

Quite literally, it changed my life. Not just in any musical fashion, either. Although, it did open many a musical door to me. Not only do I now own every single Led Zeppelin recording ever released, but I religiously listen to rock music from the 60s and 70s. I went from a single-genre fan to an “I’ll give any band at least one try” man. Robert Plant made me want to be a songwriter. Jimmy Page is the reason I bought a guitar. They are the reason I tried to form two bands in high school.

But beyond music, I became a new person – almost a silly prospect for a 13-year-old, but it was true. No longer did I try to fit in with anyone, if people didn’t like me for me I simply didn’t give them the time of day. I discovered myself at a younger age than most. That meant I never had a personal crisis in high school when I tried to find my true self. It meant by the time I got to college I was already a grown man in my eyes, I knew who I was and didn’t need to waste time going through any phases.

It means I now no longer just accept things the way they already appear. I question authority if it doesn’t seem right – because Jim Morrison did, because Jimi Hendrix did, because Rage Against the Machine did.

It made me want to be writer, to want to create the poetry they did. That single album started a chain of events that changed the way I talked – I don’t fall into any one dialect, but I, in an almost cocky manner befitting of a rock star, have created my own vocabulary. It changed the way I held myself, it gave me more self-confidence. Hell, it even changed the way I dressed: I went from sweaters and khakis to t-shirts, torn jeans and flip-flops.

I honestly credit the way I am to that one afternoon and that one album. Yet, I can't quite figure out exactly why. Was it because it was just so different it made me want to explore more new things? Sure. Was it because it led me to discover other great artists who expanded my way of thinking? Of course. Was it because it turned me from a mathematical, shy, only think of things in a concrete manner person into a creative, logical but still idealistic, outgoing person. Yes. It was all of those things and more; and I’m sure there’s a reason I have yet to think of.

All I know is that it did, and I am.

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