In my opinion, Physical Graffiti is THE greatest rock album. It saved my life. I bought Physical Graffiti on January 19, 1976, less than three weeks from the day I became an orphan, and two weeks after my nineteenth birthday. I was alone, adrift, and in mourning. But that double album from four British musicians became my lifeline. It still is.
It all began in 1975 with the sound of a guitar riff at 4 AM. When my alarm would go off each weekday morning, my ears would be greeted to the same song. The vibe was Middle Eastern, with a hypnotic effect. Why did WDVE play this song every morning? Who played it? After a few weeks of hearing the song before I got ready for school, I found out that it was called “Kashmir,” a cut from the new Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti. From that moment on, I devoured everything I could read or hear about or from Led Zeppelin.
I was a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, living alone with my father in an eight-room house. Momma had died five years earlier and Daddy and I were forced together, even though we had almost nothing in common but our grief and confusion. I was eighteen and Daddy was seventy-five, generations apart in our worldviews and outlooks. We lived in Lawrence, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining suburb twenty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, while Daddy was raised in rural eastern Kentucky, near Hazard. I liked to read, shop and listen to hard rock. Daddy was illiterate, miserly and loved B.B. King. I felt trapped by his plethora of rules and restrictions. He was trapped by an old mining injury that confined him to a wheelchair. I was frustrated because I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere with my friends, at a time when friends were of the utmost importance. Neither one of us had signed up for this. I’m sure that when Daddy and Momma adopted me as a baby in 1957, they never imagined I would end up alone with Daddy as I struggled through puberty.
Over the years, many people have asked me why I fell in love with rock and roll while everyone around me was into R&B. Maybe years of listening to Daddy’s old 78s and reel to reel tapes of blues riffs affected me in the same way they affected hundreds of young British musicians who sought out those sounds in the late fifties and early sixties. As I got older, I embraced loud crunching guitars over smooth bluesy ballads. While Daddy watched television in the living room, I stayed in my room with my radio and plastic phonograph. When the music was playing, it didn’t matter that I was uncoordinated, unpopular and unconventional. As Daddy’s health continued to deteriorate, music became even more necessary, as necessary as oxygen and nourishment.
After class, I went to National Record Mart to purchase the album. It was a cold winter’s day, the day of the victory celebration for the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. I clutched the bag tightly as I walked in the opposite direction, away from the enthusiastic sports fans. The anticipation mounted as I rode the bus home. I was still getting used to coming home to an empty house. Even though Daddy had been in the hospital for several weeks before his death, the house felt different now. Now the emptiness was pervasive and permanent.
As soon as I got home, I tore off the shrink-wrap and looked at the strange pictures peeking out of the little windows on the cover of the double album. The main cover featured an apartment building with cutout windows and the inner sleeves showed pictures of the band and other things displayed on the structure. I spent a few minutes flipping the cover and sleeves before putting the first disc on the hi-fi Daddy had bought from Brody’s Furniture Store. It had been his stereo, but now it was all mine. I cranked up the volume and succumbed to the guitar riffs of “Custard Pie.”
I spent the rest of the evening, and practically every spare moment in the next few days, listening to the album. I memorized the names of the songs and their order. The rocking sounds of “Custard Pie” and “The Rover.” The hypnotic, bluesy, but disturbing “In My Time of Dying.” I wondered why “Houses of the Holy” was in this album, instead of the previous one, which shared its title. The bouncy “Trampled Under Foot” led into “Kashmir,” the song that started my sojourn into the land of the big blimp. The second disc started with “In the Light,’ with its long lead in. “Bron-Yr-Aur” was an instrumental. “Down By the Seaside” was an upbeat pleasant song. But it did not prepare me for the sonic assault that was “Ten Years Gone.” That song quickly became my favorite. The guitar solo in the middle of the song is still my favorite solo of all time. I imagine it is what Heaven must sound like. The fourth side started with “Night Flight,” another electric guitar fueled fantasy, as was the next song, “The Wanton Song.” “Boogie with Stu” and “Black Country Woman” featured acoustic guitars and loud percussion from Bonzo. The crunchy guitar chords at the end of “Sick Again,” resembled the sound of my brain matter scrambling. For the first time in my young life, I was in Love. After sitting and listening to the album for days, I started to dance. Yes, I danced to Led Zeppelin. I can still feel the sensation of the stereo turned up to the maximum volume, loud enough to disturb my never complaining neighbors. I moved to the sound and the rhythm in my soul. a sensuous, spiritual experience.
Today is January 19, 2015 – exactly thirty-nine years after Physical Graffiti entered my life. It was the first CD I bought when I got my first CD player back in the late eighties. My original album is encased in a frame. And I still dance to Physical Graffiti. Unfortunately, I can’t dance straight through the whole album any more, but I always dance to “In My Time of Dying,” all eleven minutes and eight seconds of it. And I still cry every time I play “Ten Years Gone.” This September, John Bonham will be gone for thirty-five years. Next month, a remastered version of the album will be released on February 24, forty years after the original album was unleashed upon the world.
I will never be able to repay those four musicians for the magic they bestowed onto the life of an African American orphan girl, giving my lonely life meaning. Without Bonzo’s rapid-fire drumming, Jonesey’s hard and heavy bass, Page’s crunching and melodic guitar riffs and Robert’s post-Janis bluesy vocals, my life would have been a silent abyss. On that January day, Physical Graffiti gave me the solace I needed. Led Zeppelin rocked my world and turned it upside down. Twenty-three days after my father’s death, I found a reason to live.