I sit at my desk at work. My heart hurts – dull pain settles deep in my chest. It is heard to breathe. Emptiness envelops me like a shroud. So this is what a broken heart feel like.
Christopher Russell Edward Squire, a British man who I have never met, has left this mortal coil. Unless you are a progressive music fanatic like me, that name probably means nothing to you. But for over forty years, the booming bass guitar and ethereal voice of Mr. Squire has defined a generation of music fans and an orchestra of musicians throughout the world. In 2009, I started an essay about how Yes music has helped me get through sadness and hard times, giving me hope and inspiration in a world that sometimes seemed bereft of those qualities. To say that I loved Chris would be silly; but to declare that his talent changed my life would be an understatement. And now he is gone. It is hard to imagine a world without Chris Squire.
I was lucky enough to see Chris with Yes four times, in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland, and Sacramento. Each time, being surrounded by other like minded-fans gave me a sense of belonging. No one ever judged me at a Yes show due to my appearance or acted as if I didn’t belong there due to the color of my skin. Yes meant acceptance. To non-fans, progressive rock is considered the plodding, overbearing, overindulgent product of rock musicians with inflated notions of their self-worth. But to fans, Yes music was the music of the Universe, our own classical music that lifted us up and gifted us with transcendence.
In the mid-1980s, I had two friends, Mary and Stephanie, who would come over to my house on a regular basis. Music was our connection, and most of that music was progressive rock. We would spend hours, and sometimes days, listening to Yes. “Tales from Topographic Oceans,” “Relayer,” and “Fragile,” was the soundtrack to our lives. With a pizza, Chambord, champagne, or maybe just rum and coke, we would become astral travelers, with Chris’ trusty Rickenbacker leading the way to enlightenment. When Mary and I went to London, exactly thirty years ago today, July 4, 1985, we played “Starship Trooper” on our mutual cassette players as the plane descended from the sky. It was the first international trip for both of us and we couldn’t have made it without bringing Yes along. As we walked across the Westminster Bridge the next day, we hummed the music to “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” as the video featured a shot of the Bridge. A year later, I had a chance to meet him, but I ran away, afraid to meet one of my idols. In the mid-1990s, Mary and I saw Yes at Blossom, an outdoor venue outside of Cleveland. We started crying when we heard the opening notes to one of our favorite songs, “Awaken.” Even though I always felt acceptance at Yes shows, some of the obviously more recent fans seated near us stared when we started screaming and applauding as the band played that opus from “Going For the One.” But we didn’t care. That’s what being a Yes fan was all about. You didn’t care what others felt or thought. The music was all that mattered – the music and the brave creators of the sound that never let us down.
I had been crying ever since I heard about Chris’ demise from leukemia on Saturday, June 27, 2015. I spent all day Sunday looking at photos and reading the tributes from fans, friends, and other musicians, relating how much Chris had meant to their lives and careers. On Wednesday, July 1, his widow Scotty posted on Chris’ Facebook page that he would be cremated that day at 2 PM MST. She asked fans to play music and/or think of him at that time. I was in a training class at work, but I didn’t let that stop me. I sat at my desk and thought about another of my favorite songs, “Onward.” I fought back the tears that were forming. I said a prayer, discreetly made the sign of the Cross and whispered, “Thank you, Chris.” The physical body of the master of the Rickenbacker 4001, the first rock bassist that I fell in love with, the larger-than-life six-foot-five musical giant may be gone, but his substantial body of work, the beautiful music of almost 50 years will stay alive.
The Ox and the Loon? When I heard that drummer Brian Tichy was organizing a tribute to John Entwistle and Keith Moon in April 2014, I knew I wanted to go. I wasn’t a huge Who fan, but they were one of my favorite British rock bands. I never had the opportunity to see them live, but I purchased “Who’s Next,” “Live At Leeds” and “Tommy,” and had read the Pete Townshend memoir and several Who biographies. I was glad that bassist Entwistle and drummer Moon were finally getting their tributes. In 1988, I made a pilgrimage to The Bass Centre in East London. One room of the store was devoted to instruments owned by John Entwistle, “The Ox.” As a bass fanatic, I walked through the room as if it was a shrine. Entwistle may not have been the flashiest bassist, but he was the heart of the Who, and one of the finest on four strings. But “flash” was a word that could easily describe “Moon the Loon,” the soul of the Who and an amazing musician who inspired legions of men and women to pick up sticks.
But there was no way that I could make it to the Sunset Strip House of Blues on April 24, a Thursday evening, as I had to work on Friday. I admired the photos and watched the videos that were posted of the event. Maybe someday it would be repeated.
Brian Tichy and Joe Sutton decided to hold another show, this time in Santa Ana during the NAMM weekend in January 2015. The NAMM Show, the annual trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants, is held at the Anaheim Convention Center each January. Besides people who sell music-related products, the show also attracts many professional musicians, who come to check out the newest gear and hang out with their colleagues. The Ox and the Loon Show would be the third night of music at the Observatory in Santa Ana, following Bonzo Bash, a tribute to Led Zeppelin’s great John “Bonzo” Bonham and Randy Rhoads Remembered, a tribute to guitar phenomenon Randy Rhoads.
But how was I going to get there? Somehow, things fell into place and I was able to sample a little of the NAMM experience as well as attend the show on Saturday, January 24, 2015. The flyer promised “A Night of Rhythmic Lunacy in Honor of the Mightiest Rhythm Section in Rock and Roll,” and the show did not disappoint. Drummers and bassists held the spotlight all night. Some of the bassists, such as Tony Franklin, Robbie Crane, Sean McNabb, and Eric Brittingham, I had seen perform with bands over the years. Others were familiar from liner notes, videos, and concert reviews – musicians including Phil Chen, James LoMenzo, Billy Sheehan, Phil Soussan, Chris Wyse and Michel Devin. Besides Brian Tichy, the only other drummer I had seen perform previously was Dave Lombardo, but their names were also well known in the rock and roll community – Matt Starr, Corky Laing, Mike Portnoy, Stephen Perkins, Ricki Rockett, Lee Warner, Veronica Bellino, Kenny Aronoff, Todd Vinny Vinciguerra and Roy Mayorga. Even though the rhythm sections were generating most of the love, there were some great guitarists and vocalists accompanying them. Gilby Clarke, Paul Gilbert, Rowan Robertson, Tracii Guns, Steve Morse, and Mitch Perry were some of the six-stringers cranking out their interpretations of the sounds made famous by Townshend. Michael Devin, who doubled on bass on some songs, Chas West, Jeff Scott Soto, Oni Logan, Jeff Scott Soto, Joe Retta and others, handled vocals.
There were some performances and moments that stood out for me. Todd Vinny Vinciguerra and Tony Franklin, the “V” and “F” of the band VHF, joined Gilby Clarke and Joe Retta for “Substitute,” with Michael Devin on lead vocals. Legendary Mountain drummer and master of the cowbell Corky Laing, told the audience about his first encounter with Keith Moon – when he stole his jacket. Laing gave the jacket back to the raging Moon and the two became close friends. He sat in on several songs to honor his lifelong friend, including “Summertime Blues.” There was a rocking eleven-minute version of “Young Man Blues,” with Brian Tichy on guitar, Stephen Perkins on drums, and Michael Devin on bass and lead vocals. Phil Chen, who has a long history with the Who and many legendary musicians, was given the John Entwistle Legend Award. The Keith Moon Legend Award went to Mike Portnoy. Clad in a white jumpsuit, Paul Gilbert displayed and played Townshend’s moves and music in a medley of “My Generation” and “Amazing Journey” with Mike Portnoy, and Billy Sheehan. Current and former members of Lynch Mob, Oni Logan, Robert Mason, Robbie Crane, and Sean McNabb displayed their talents on several songs. The audience howled and applauded the efforts of the performers throughout the over four hours of “rhythmic lunacy.” The night ended with the destruction of several drum kits, in classic Moon fashion.
There were other musicians there that I haven’t mentioned and I tried to keep track of who played or sang what, but it wasn’t easy. Musicians were taking and leaving the stage constantly, contributing to the controlled chaos. I even obtained an official set list a few days after the show, but it didn’t match my recollections or my notes. There were several versions of well known Who songs, such as “I Can’t Explain,” “Summertime Blues,” and “Substitute.” Loving renditions of other Who classics, including “Join Together,” “The Kids Are All Right,” Pinball Wizard,” “Going Mobile,” “Who Are You,” “Love Reign O’er Me,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Magic Bus,” “Long Live Rock,” “Bellboy,” “Squeeze Box,” “Young Man Blues,” and of course, “Boris the Spider,” were also part of the evening. Everyone looked like they were having a good time. I’m sure there were dueling egos backstage, but the players seemed to leave them behind the velvet rope. A few lesser known Who songs were performed, and I would have liked to have heard a few more, the tunes that musicians practiced behind closed doors back in the day to impress their friends. “I Can’t Explain” is a good song, but did we really need three versions of it? And what was the deal with the fish in the drumhead? But as the basses and drums rang through the night air, I was already anticipating next year’s show.
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.
On July 30, 1971, I went to my first concert – the Jackson 5 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. My mother had died the previous July, and I think my father wanted to do something special for me. It was the most exciting thing that had happened in my 14-year-old life. When I got home, I wanted to capture it so I would always remember. I got out my notebook and wrote about the show. It never occurred to me to try to get it published; newspapers didn’t publish articles by teenage girls from coal-mining towns. I had no idea that people got paid for writing concert reviews. Even though Michael and the Civic Arena are no more, 43 years later, I’m publishing this piece. (I did do some minor edits. I thought the opening act was “The Pomadors” This was a few years before “Brick House” and no one outside of Tuskegee had ever heard of “The Commodores.” But besides spelling and punctuation errors and breaking text into paragraphs, there are no other changes.) Sure, it’s long, but don’t judge, I was 14 and these were my Teen Dream Guys!
On July 30, the Jackson Five came to the Civic Arena. The master of ceremonies was Matthew Ledbetter, better known as Brother Matt, from station WAMO. Al Brisbane and Hal Brown (H.B.), also from WAMO, were on hand also. It was a sellout crowd. The show, which was supposed to start at eight o’clock, started at about eight-fifteen. Clyde Jackson, from the United Black Front, told about the show, which was sponsored by the United Black Front. The audience was predominantly black. The show was started by the Commodores, a black group from Tuskegee, Alabama. The Commodores all wore red jumpsuits. Their selections included, “Liar,” “Love the One You’re With,” “Gonna Take You Higher” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” Then a young woman, in a black jumpsuit, came out. Her songs included, “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Don’t Knock My Love,” “Proud Mary” and “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart.”
Then there was a fifteen-minute intermission. After the intermission, the people wouldn’t go back to their seats. Brother Matt told them that they had better sit down or the show wouldn’t continue. He told everyone not to try to get to the stage. The people just wouldn’t sit down and the show was held up about fifteen minutes. Then a man came up with an award that was for the Jackson 5. The Jackson Five’s father, Joe Jackson, came to receive the award. Mr. Jackson, a very handsome man, wore a medium blue bell-bottom suit. Then after about ten more minutes, Johnny Jackson, the Jackson Five drummer, and Ronnie Rancifier, the Jackson Five organist, came out. A roar went up from the crowd of more than 13,000. Johnny and Ronnie then warmed up their instruments. In a few minutes the Jackson 5 came out. Their first number was “Stand,” to which Marlon, Jackie and Michael danced up a storm. They were lined up, reading like a book: Tito wearing a brown and white printed shirt, brown and white knickers, a yellowish vest, and brown boots; Marlon, wearing a flowered shirt, reddish pants with a pleat on each side in orange and an orange print bolero vest; Jackie, wearing a print shirt, a multi-colored bolero vest and green bell-bottoms with a long turquoise sash; Michael, wearing a multi-colored bolero vest suit with a red and black stripe on each side of the pants and red and black trimming the vest and a yellow shirt; and Jermaine, wearing a red ruffled shirt, red and blue bells and a yellow shirt. Jermaine welcomed everyone to the show.
The Jackson 5 sang about fifteen songs. Almost every song had something that was extremely interesting about it. Michael told a story, with his brothers listening intently, about meeting a girl in school at the sand pile. Marlon made a remark to Michael annoyingly. Michael ran over to him and shouted, “Well, I gave her my cookies!” Everyone in the audience laughed. Michael told Marlon not to bother him while he was talking to “his people.” Michael then started to sing “Who’s Loving You.” When Michael got to the high part of the song, the crowd started shouting enthusiastically. Jackie and Marlon each got a tambourine and started hitting them enthusiastically. Jermaine sang, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and “I Found That Girl.” Jackie then stepped up front, grabbed a microphone and went over to Jermaine. “You say you found that girl, Jermaine?” asked Jackie. Jackie asked Jermaine if he had looked over the girls in Pittsburgh yet. He told Jermaine to “take his pick.” Jermaine and Jackie walked around the stage with Jackie pointing out girls to Jermaine. One girl in the second row threw up her hands and a few in the first row jumped up. Jermaine then started singing “Please take me with you.” He then sang, “She’s Good.”
The Jackson 5 also sang, “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There,” “I Want You Back,” “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Mama’s Pearl.” Michael asked, “How y’all doin’ out there?” The audience roared. Marlon pointed to different sections and asked the people in each section how they were doing. Jackie told the audience that the Jackson 5 would have their first special on September 19. He then went on to describe it. Marlon told the audience that the Jackson Five’s new cartoon show would be called “ABC.” Jackie said that Michael had said something backstage about the special and he wanted him to tell the audience. Michael didn’t want to. Jackie told Michael that all his fans wanted to hear it and Jackie got the audience to shout to Michael that they wanted to hear it. Michael walked up to the microphone and said, “Can’t dig it,” and walked back. Jackie finally persuaded Michael to tell it and Michael shouted, “Goin’ Back to Indiana!” When the song was over, Jermaine shouted, “One more time,” and they did their “Roosevelt High” cheer again.
Then they sang “How Funky is Your Chicken.” Marlon, Jackie, and Michael took off their vests, threw them behind them and started doing “The Funky Chicken”! The crowd started shouting. Then Jackie stepped up to the microphone. He said that a lot of people in the audience think that they can do the “Funky Chicken” real well and that they were going to have a showdown on stage. He then went over to Tito and asked him to dance. Tito didn’t want to. Jackie told Tito that Marlon would hold his guitar. Tito then started to take off his guitar and the crowd shouted. He handed his guitar to Marlon and went to the front of the stage. Tito started doing a real hip dance and kept putting his arms behind his head as if he were trying very hard to “fight the feeling.” (The feeling won!) Tito then put his guitar back on and Michael went to call on “Snake,” namely Ronnie Rancifer. Ronnie, who had on a pink suit, came to the front of the stage and started doing one of the wildest dances ever! The audience started shouting. Ronnie went back to his organ, but not without doing a jump first. Jermaine sang Sly and the Family Stone’s hit “Thank You.”
Michael then started to introduce everyone. First, he introduced his cousin Johnny Jackson, who was on drums, wearing a red suit with white fringe. Michael kept shouting to the audience, “Are you ready for Johnny?” Johnny then played a solo on his drums. Next Michael introduced his other cousin Ronnie Rancifier. “Are you ready for Ronnie?” Ronnie then played a solo on his organ. Then Michael started to introduce his brothers. “Are you ready for Jermaine?” Jermaine played a solo on his guitar. “Are you ready for Jackie?” Michael then shouted. Jackie went to the front of the stage and did a very soulful “Funky Chicken.” After the audience calmed down, Michael then shouted, “Are you ready for Tito?” Tito played a solo on his guitar. Then, “Are you ready for Marlon?” Marlon went to the front of the stage and kicked his legs left and right and shook his body. After a few minutes, Michael tried to tell Marlon to quit but Marlon kept dancing. Michael gave up on calling Marlon and said, “Jackie, get him!” Jackie walked up to Marlon and in a minute Marlon got the message and stopped. Jackie then wanted Michael to solo but Michael said that he would rather sing with the group. They sang, “Never Can Say Goodbye” and at the end of it they all harmonized together and sang “thank you” to the audience. Last, but not least, they all danced to “Walk On By.” Michael pushed Jackie and Jackie cracked up.
The Jackson 5 really poured on the soul July 30 and the Civic Arena will never get over the phenomenal Jackson 5 until they come back again. (Real soon, I hope!)
And then, and then…thanks for taking this trip down Memory Lane with me!
In the early eighties, when I was a young adult wasting my life away in Western Pennsylvania, Dokken gave me a glimpse of the Sunset Strip. Who can forget the “It’s Not Love” video, with the band on the back of a truck, rolling down the LA streets and ending up on the Strip? For me, the band and the Strip represented everything that was fun and cool about Los Angeles. I bought the tee shirts, records and cassettes, dreaming of one day seeing the fabled Sunset Strip with my own eyes. Even though the band was lumped together with all of the bands that favored spandex and teased hair in the eighties, Dokken wasn’t just a “hair band.” With Don Dokken’s melodic, majestic voice, George Lynch’s amazing riffs, Jeff Pilson’s steady bass and “Wild” Mick Brown’s thundering drums, Dokken was always about the sound and the song. Many of their songs are legendary reminders of what hard rock was about in the eighties. They didn’t have a “bad boy” reputation like some of the bands of the era, but fans knew that they could always count on a good time when “rockin’ with Dokken.” The members of Dokken are part of the history of the Strip. Check out the YouTube video of Xciter, playing at the Starwood in 1979. From 1978 to the present, Dokken has been connected to the Strip. In 2012, the band played at the 40th Anniversary Party of the Rainbow Bar and Grill.
It’s about time that Dokken had their very own party on the Strip. A celebration of Dokken would be a salute to all of the hard rock bands of the eighties. Honoring Dokken in August 2014 would bring thousands of fans to the clubs and establishments of the Strip, generating revenue and bringing back the positive vibe that made the Strip the place to be in the eighties. Besides current Dokken members Don Dokken, Sean McNabb, Jon Levin and Mick Brown (when not touring with Ted Nugent), honoring Dokken could also honor Jeff Pilson, George Lynch, Reb Beach, Juan Croucier and other former members of the band, maybe featuring them and their current projects during the week long celebration, as well featuring other bands from the era. And that is part of the longevity of Dokken – the fact that they are still playing, still inspiring fans and other musicians, and still carrying the torch that was lit on the Sunset Strip so many years ago.
As soon as I heard about this book, I wanted to read it. Progressive rock has been much maligned over the years, but that has never deterred my love of the genre. Some of my happiest musical moments over the years have been created by the sounds from bands such as Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, and Genesis. Just saying the titles of the songs makes me smile – “The Revealing Science of God,” “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Gates of Delirium” – there is nothing quite like progressive rock. Back in the eighties, I used to listen to “For Headphones Only,” a weekly show devoted to Prog Rock on Pittsburgh’s main rock radio station.
I really wanted to like this book, but many of the mostly male contributors made this hard for me to do. Most of them seemed to be saying, “I liked/loved Prog Rock once, but now I’m too cool, too old, or too normal to like it. This means that I’m better than you, Dear Reader.” I don’t mind a few guffaws or criticisms about the genre – I’ve even done it myself with an essay called, “Sailing the Topographic Oceans to the Gates of Delirium” – but a whole book of it didn’t work for me. I expected the essays to be a celebration of Prog Rock, but most of them seemed to be apologies. Seth Greenland says in his essay, “When Punk came along and beat Prog to death with a club, I was not among the mourners.” As a woman who became a big fan of Prog Rock through other female fans, I take issue with Matthew Specktor’s statement, “In fact, I’d say that most Prog, while short of being misogynistic, is generally afraid of women, hence its exclusion of them lyrically, its limited appeal to them musically…” And since I didn’t get heavily into the genre until I was in my twenties and I’ve never done drugs, I didn’t grow up Prog like Tom Junod, “stoned and semi-smart, sensitive and without any real prospects for getting laid.”
But I did enjoy the book, in spite of my disappointment. Most contributors had good things to say about their favorite Prog bands, even though most of the comments were in past tense. Peter Case says, “Form followed content, so, wherever you dropped the needle on the record, you’d be lost for a time. Like Progressive groups Pink Floyd or King Crimson, you had no choice but to follow the melodic breadcrumb train out of the enchanted sound forest. And it was wonderful.” The book has several essays on Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, and essays on other bands, including Bebop Deluxe and the Incredible String Band. Styx and Rush are given no love, and one contributor insults my favorite band, but I didn’t let those negative remarks ruin my interest in the anthology. Any catalyst to reopening a dialogue about Prog Rock, its fans and practitioners, means that the music will continue to be explored and enjoyed. We old, nerdy, (and even female) freaks are still out there “On the Silent Wings of Freedom.” Even though these former nerds/writers/musicians would look down their accomplished noses at me, a poor black woman who actually liked GTR, I would still attend a book signing and I do support this book. I even shed a tear when I heard about Peter Banks’ recent death. And I still support those Prog practitioners still out on the road. Anyone got an extra ticket for Rush?
I believe that all best friends have secret code words. For my best friend Mary and me, there are two words guaranteed to send us into convulsions of laughter —“Sex Boat.”
Mary and I met in July 1984, at Classic Rock Night at a nightclub east of Pittsburgh, PA. We had a lot in common. Even though Mary was 20, pale and blonde, with teased hair and heavy makeup and I was 27, dark-skinned with a Jheri curl and no makeup, we were sisters under the skin. We were both from working class families; her father had been a steelworker and mine had been a coal miner. We were both lapsed Catholic girls who grew up with low self-esteem. But together, we were invincible.
We started to go on adventures together. In March 1986, we planned a weeklong musical road trip. We were driving from Pittsburgh to Largo, Maryland to see The Firm at the Capitol Centre and then going to Cleveland, Ohio to see Black Sabbath at Public Hall. Days before leaving, we talked about the trip. Wouldn’t it be exciting if we could meet Jimmy Page, the legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist who was co-founder of The Firm, or even Tony Franklin, the cute young bassist? What if we ran into Glenn Hughes, the Voice of Rock, who was debuting as the new lead singer of Black Sabbath, in the elevator of the Bond Court Hotel? We giggled and imagined meeting rock stars. Music and musicians made life worth living.
We left Pittsburgh early on the morning of March 19, taking scenic Route 40 instead of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We spent the five-hour drive listening to music and talking about our lives. I could talk to Mary about anything and everything, and she felt the same. We stayed at a motel near the venue, so we got to the Capitol Centre early. As usual before a show, we were giddy with anticipation. We saw The Firm on their first tour the year before, and we wondered if this year’s show would be even better. The band lived up to their new album; it was obvious that the four musicians “Mean Business.”
We spent the next day touring Washington, DC, visiting the Air and Space Museum, Arlington Cemetery, the National Gallery and the Vietnam Memorial. The Air and Space Museum had a makeshift memorial to the recent tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The eternal flame at the Kennedy gravesite made us sad and pensive.
But we had another concert to go to tomorrow! On our way back to the motel from Washington, we passed the marquee for a drive-in movie. The marquee announced that night’s feature, Sex Boat. We deduced that it was an X-rated movie, a pornographic take-off of Love Boat. But the only thing I could think about was the lunchtime sandwich I usually got from the deli across the street from my job — a tuna boat. We spent most of the trip to Cleveland making jokes about sailing with rock stars and lunch menus.
At the Bond Court, we were on the lookout for Glenn Hughes. We saw the Black Sabbath drummer in the lobby and knew immediately we were at the right place. Unfortunately, the concert was not. The acoustics were so poor in the hall that we left before the end of the concert. We were so disappointed not to be able to clearly hear Glenn, who is one of the best vocalists in rock. We spent the rest of the evening in our room, ordering room service, listening to music, and making more “Sex Boat” jokes. Around midnight, we decided to go downstairs to the hotel bar.
We got on the elevator and pushed the button to the lobby. After a few floors, the elevator stopped and several men got on. One of them was tall, with long brown hair, wearing a long black leather coat. It was Glenn Hughes. We jumped off the elevator at the lobby, but the bar was one floor below. We screamed and grinned at each other. “Sex Boat!” we yelled in unison. Mary ran down the stairs to the bar, almost knocking Glenn over.
But after the initial shock, we played it cool. We sat with the band and ordered drinks. Mary went back to our room to get an album she had brought and Glenn graciously signed the copy of his first solo record. He was polite and friendly, while the other band members glared at us. After sitting for about 30 minutes, we left. We weren’t interested in anything beyond meeting musicians in public places. But we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Our dream had come true! Anything was possible! On the way back to Pittsburgh, we talked about the upcoming Pittsburgh show. Maybe we would see Glenn again. He treated us like friends, not fans. Not only was he a great singer, he was a great guy.
A few days later, Glenn left the group. We sold our tickets for the Pittsburgh show. There was no reason to go if Glenn wouldn’t be there. We never saw him again. But we did see two more Firm shows during that tour. The band broke up before making a third album. But we continued to use our new phrase as a secret term to denote a good-looking guy.
Mary is now in her mid-forties and I am in my mid-fifties. Her hair is shorter and she wears less make-up. My hair is naturally curly now and sprinkled with grey. She lives in Pittsburgh and I have lived in California for twenty-five years. But deep down inside, we are still the same star struck best friends who took road trips to rock concerts. We are still invincible when we are together. Mary and I have never forgotten the excitement we felt when those elevator doors opened in 1986 and our fantasy became reality. All I have to do is mention those magical words and the years melt away. ‘Sex Boat” will always represent rock and roll, handsome musicians, and the belief that dreams can come true.
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.
On July 30, 1980, I got fired from my job at Misc., a small clothing store in downtown Pittsburgh. Since then, I had been sitting at home, listening to the radio and collecting unemployment. Once a week or so, I would put in a job application, just so my benefits wouldn’t be cut off. I knew that in a few weeks I would hear from the Washington County Board of Assistance and get a good paying state government job.
Each day, I would write down in my day planner the names of the Led Zeppelin songs played on WDVE. Each song brought me closer to November 6, the day when I would finally see Led Zeppelin live and on stage. I considered it a good day when the local rock station played ten songs during the daytime hours, my prime listening time.
On September 25, 1980, I was listening to the radio and straightening up the house. WDVE played one Zeppelin song, then another. The second song was followed by even another song. How strange, I thought. Usually, the most songs that they ever played by one artist were two. What was going on? After the third song, the deejay broke in and announced that John Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin, had died in his sleep at Jimmy Page’s house in England.
I froze. Dead? Bonzo was dead? My head started to hurt. It couldn’t be true! I felt a sense of loss, almost as intense as when my father had died five years earlier. After all, I felt like Led Zeppelin were members of my family. They were the big brothers who had helped me make it through college, who woke me up each morning with a song, who put a smile on my face when things went wrong. So how could one of my brothers be dead?
I had to talk. I had to talk to someone who would understand. There was only one person that I could call, my friend Kathy. Kathy and I had become friends when we discovered that we shared a love of Led Zeppelin. Kathy still worked at Misc., but I had to talk to her, even if it meant talking to the bitch that had fired me. Sometimes, they played WDVE in the store, so maybe she already knew.
I dialed the number and Kathy picked up the phone.
“Kathy, have you heard?”
“No. What about Bonzo?” I could hear the dread in her voice.
“He is dead. He died last night at Jimmy’s house.” My voice was starting to crack.
“Call me at home when I get off of work.” Kathy’s voice was getting shaky too. I remembered that the manager eavesdropped on employee phone calls.
When I got off of the phone, I started to cry. I knew instinctively that my dream of seeing Led Zeppelin live had died with him. I thought back to 1977, when I had held my Led Zep concert tickets in my hand. I cried when I mailed them back to get a refund after Robert Plant’s beloved son Karac had died. Now it was over. I would never get the chance to see the band that I had fallen in love with in 1974. Watching “The Song Remains the Same’ would be the closest that I would ever get to Led Zeppelin.
When Kathy got home from work, I called her and we cried together. We had been ecstatic a few months earlier when the Pittsburgh tour date had been announced. We had been at work that day, and we had hugged each other and jumped up and down for joy in the middle of the store.
“I wonder if they will break up?” Kathy pondered
“I’m sure that they will. They won’t be like the Who and just replace him with another drummer. Can you imagine Zep with another drummer?”
“I feel so bad for his family,” Kathy said.
We talked about the “Moby Dick” segment of “The Song Remains the Same,” with Bonzo dancing around with his wife and little Jason playing the drums.
Kathy and I had both lost our fathers, so we knew what it was like.
After I hung up with Kathy, I listened to the radio again. WDVE had been playing nothing but Led Zeppelin since the announcement had been made. Listeners had been calling the station all day, talking about the band and offering condolences. It seemed like the whole world was mourning.
That night, I cried again for the brother that I would never meet. A few days later, my Aunt Elizabeth gave me an obituary she had cut out of the local paper, the Washington Observer-Reporter. She shook her head sadly. “I’m so sorry that Led died,” she said. “I know you really liked him.” I had to smile. Even though none of my relatives understood my love of rock and roll, Aunt Elizabeth’s comments touched me deeply. On October 21, I was offered the job that I had been waiting for. On December 4, it was announced that my band was no more.
Thirty-two years have passed since the fateful day of John Bonham’s death. Bonzo’s son Jason is now a successful drummer in his own right. I am so proud of him, as if he were a member of my own family. In October 2012, I hope to see him perform in “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience,” his tribute to his father. I still have the Led Zeppelin scrapbook I started in 1980, filled with the articles I had cut out of Creem, Circus, and Melody Maker, and many more during the 70s. Led Zeppelin is now just a memory, but the music will always be alive, powered by the beat of Bonzo’s drums. And I will never forget the rock and roll band that stole my heart and lifted my spirits during my darkest days.
(Portions of this essay were featured on the website “On This Day in Led Zeppelin History” on September 21, 2001, Vol. 4 No. 55)