Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Thirty Six Years Gone – Celebrating Celebration Day

I had to see it. It didn’t matter that it took my last $15, but I had to go. I missed the premiere yesterday. Two days ago, I didn’t have the $34.50 needed to see Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. Even though the movie would be available for purchase in a month – yes, I had to go. I had a reputation to maintain. I had a loyalty to my favorite band. I was compelled to see Celebration Day, the concert footage of the 2007 reunion of the remaining members of Led Zeppelin, with Jason Bonham on drums.

I put on my white Jimmy Page tee shirt, and my black Led Zeppelin hoodie, and stuffed my wallet in my black leather Led Zeppelin handbag. I got to the theater early. The room was empty, except for two guys seating in the back talking loudly about Jimi Hendrix. As time passed, more people, mostly middle-aged guys, trickled in. As I sat there, my mind wandered back to another time, another city, and another movie.

On November 19, 1976, I sat in the crowded Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, anxiously awaiting the start of The Song Remains the Same, the Led Zeppelin concert film. In 1976, Led Zeppelin wasn’t a defunct rock band of extinct dinosaurs, but they were a living, breathing force of nature, the baddest mofos on the planet. If they were dinosaurs, they were like Godzilla, destroying everything in their path and taking no prisoners. We all knew that Plant’s car accident in Morocco was just a temporary setback. In 1977, the mighty blimp would be touring again. This movie was just a snack, just an appetizer for the hard rock buffet that was to come in a few months. It wouldn’t matter that I was the only African American girl on the University of Pittsburgh campus wearing a Jimmy Page tee shirt to class. Nothing would matter when the band hit the stage, filling the Houses of the Holy with their incomparable sound.

That was thirty-six years ago. In fact, this concert footage would be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 19, an apt homage to the first Zeppelin film. But what exactly was I here to see tonight? Was it nostalgia, curiosity, or something else that brought me here?
The movie started. The small audience stopped talking. The lights went up in London’s O2 Arena in 2007 and there they were – four men, three sexagenarians and one a generation younger, but older than his father had the chance to become. Jimmy Page, with a head of thin white hair, but with the same sparkle in his eyes and the low-strung Les Paul on his hips. Robert Plant, he of the long curly hair, now tinged with gray, with dark pants and a dark shirt, suitably loose and buttoned, respectively. John Paul Jones, the enigmatic one, with his short hair, jeans and cowboy boots, as befitting a Crooked Vulture. And there was Jason Bonham, proudly bald, carrying on the legacy of loud that he learned at his father’s knee. The concert started out in grand style, but both the audience and the band were a little hesitant – could they pull this off one last time?

As they went from one classic to the next, Led Zeppelin showed the audience why they were the biggest and the best. Once I heard the opening strains of “In My Time of Dying,” I knew why I was here. I was here to celebrate – the life of the late Ahmet Ertegun, the life of the late John Bonham, the life and times of Led Zeppelin, and the love that has sustained me for over three decades. For the first time, Robert Plant acknowledged some of the American blues artists who they had “borrowed” from over their career, blues artists who took legal action against the band when no acknowledgements or royalties were coming their way. Those instances somewhat tarnished the band’s reputation in my eyes over the years, but I could never stop loving them. When they went into “Kashmir,” the reason was obvious. The light, the sound, the hypnotic, mesmerizing beat showed why Led Zeppelin was second to one. “Stairway to Heaven” may get all of the accolades, but “Kashmir” is the true Zeppelin anthem. The song still has the ability to transform, to convert sound into spiritual energy, to take memories of a Moroccan sunset and create an aural landscape. It doesn’t really matter where the real Kashmir is – the song takes each listener to a private special place. And that was the magic of Led Zeppelin.

They could still bring it. I had forgotten what a brilliant bassist John Paul Jones was. Robert Plant still had the voice that had turned the heads, hearts, and loins of generations of women. And Jimmy was still Jimmy, playing his Gibson with joy and feeling. Jason laid down the beat, supporting his father’s mates with masterful drumming that would have made the old man proud. Of course, Jimmy used the bow on “Dazed and Confused.” When he played the double neck solo on “Stairway to Heaven,” the video screen showed split images of his guitar, another homage to the first Zeppelin film. The concert ended with “Rock and Roll,” which was the first song of The Song Remains the Same. At the end, we all applauded. When I was leaving, I heard one young man tell his friend that he had never seen Led Zeppelin “live” before. I remembered holding my Led Zeppelin tickets in my hand in 1977, a concert that was never meant to be.

Of course, the release of the film has reignited talk of a reformation of the remaining members of Led Zeppelin. But as much as I love them, and will love them until my grave, I’m not sure that I want to see it happen. Maybe it is apt that this “Celebration Day” is the end – to go out on a blaze of glory, to celebrate all that was magnificent about Led Zeppelin, and call it a day. But whatever the future holds, I will always be proud that I remember when Led Zeppelin was a band – a band of beauty, power, and seduction that conquered the world.

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It All Started at Pitt

This weekend is Homecoming at the University of Pittsburgh. I sent in this essay to commemorate the 225th Anniversary of Pitt’s establishment, but it wasn’t used. Go Pitt!

The first time I stayed away from home by myself was when I went to the freshman orientation in Oakland in 1974.  Even though Pitt was only about twenty-five miles from my coal-mining hometown in Washington County, it seemed light-years away to me. I was a sheltered seventeen-year-old, living alone with my illiterate seventy-five-year-old adopted father, who couldn’t understand why a girl needed an education.

Pitt was like a dream to me, a dream of liberation. Even though I was a voracious reader, I had never had a library card before. I would spend hours browsing the stacks at Hillman Library, marveling at the thousands of books available to me. My father would shake his head in bewilderment when I would come home laden with notebooks and textbooks and spend the evenings typing out term papers on my trusty Royal typewriter or reading with a highlighter attached to one hand. There was nothing better than being a student.

During the winter break of 1975, my father died of black lung disease, leaving me orphaned a week before my nineteenth birthday. But it never crossed my mind not to return to Pitt. I carried on, filling the lonely hours with more books and papers. In 1976, I was accepted into the School of Social Work. As a junior, I found that I liked to write even if it wasn’t for a class. Some of my poems were published in the Black Action Society newspaper. Most of my final term was spent doing Independent Study, writing papers about social problems and issues that interested and intrigued me. One day, Dr. Anne Jones asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a writer. Such an idea had never crossed my mind. Writers were those esteemed individuals who filled the stacks at Hillman Library or the impassioned professors that conducted my elective literature classes. As a freshman, one of my Black Studies literature teachers had told me that I could not write about my “black experience” because I grew in an integrated coal mining camp of 500 people. What would I write about?

But I never forgot her comment. I spent almost twenty years working in social services, even after moving to Northern California ten years after graduation. In California, I started to write book and concert reviews and op-ed pieces, even getting some of them published.  I liked seeing my byline, which even appeared in Astronomy. For four years I was the Communications Coordinator for the National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter, combining my loves of writing and social work. In 2004, I received a MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. My final manuscript was a 150-page collection of essays about growing up in a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania, embracing the heritage that was deemed to be “not black enough” in 1974.

In April 2011, Dr. Jones died at the age of 89. Even though I only saw her once after my 1978 graduation, her words have stayed with me for over thirty years. I often wonder if I would have become a writer if she had never asked me that question. In August 2012, my first novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook. In the final chapter, one of the characters donates a large sum of money to the University of Pittsburgh, doing fictionally what I will never be able to do in real life. I still proudly wear my Pitt class ring, which has been on my finger since I received it in 1977. I will never be able to repay what Pitt gave to me – the chance to learn, to dream, and the confidence to write it all down.

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