Monday, January 24, 2011

The Song Remains the Same - It's the audience that's changed!

Robert Plant in concert January 21st in Ann Arbor. "Does anyone remember the laughter? ... Does anyone remember anything?" (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I was born in the middle of the British invasion (not the one with Red Coats and muskets, but the second one with guitars and drums). After growing up during what many may argue was the best musical period in history, I was lucky enough to exit my adolescence long before the horrors of Hip Hop, boy bands, or overproduced diva crap hit the scene.

I also was lucky enough to grow up with extremely young parents. My mom and dad were barely out of their teens when their fourth kid, my youngest brother, arrived in the winter of 1970. I can only imagine how tough it must have been for them, both financially, and emotionally, to raise my two brothers, my sister, and me, but as hard as it was, I have to believe rock and roll helped them a great deal with this chore because in every memory from my youth there’s always a record playing at high levels of volume in the background

Our family lived in a very modest house, but we did have a fairly impressive stereo for the day. There was no question that at that time stereos were miles ahead of television technologically speaking. With only three networks to choose from, no remote controls, and color quality that was still in its infancy, televisions were stone-aged compared to the hi-fi stereo equipment of the day.

Our stereo was a very expensive Philco model which we could afford only because of the huge discount my dad got by working at Ford. The stereo was housed in a beautiful mahogany cabinet roughly the size of a compact car (it was so big, I often wondered if Ford rolled the cabinets off the assembly line just like the cars at my dad’s plant). The front of the stereo cabinet was decorated with about 20 little square panels covered in some sort of red, velvety cloth that helped soften the sound coming out of the powerful speakers mounted behind them.

The turntable, all the control knobs, and a fairly God-awful AM/FM radio were located under the massive hood of the cabinet that somehow stayed in place by a very small metal hinge when it was lifted. (At least when it was new, years later, when the hinge was worn-out and worthless, the 200-pound lid became nothing more than a crude, wooden guillotine that would slam down on the back of your head and knock you senseless if you forgot to hold it open with your free arm while trying to change records with the other).

It was a great stereo in many ways. For the first several years, the sound quality was unmatched, but I liked it even more when it was older and the speakers began to fail. It gave me a much better appreciation for music when all I could hear were the background vocals, or the bass and drums of any given track. It was sort of like having my own 4-track recording studio.

Of course, having a great stereo would have been useless had it been wasted on lousy music, but my parents were true to their generation, so I was raised on heavy doses of late 60’s and early 70’s rock n’ roll.

My mother belonged to the Columbia Record Club back then, which meant we’d be getting anywhere from one, to as many as eight record albums mailed to our house in protective cardboard boxes every single week. It was like Christmas every Monday for us kids who couldn’t wait to see what was inside those cardboard boxes: The Beatles? The Stones? The Guess Who (literally)?

The problem was once the box was opened, it was ours whether we wanted it or not, and usually it was one of Columbia’s crappy selections of the week like “Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits” or “All of Andy Williams Best” - albums my mother certainly didn’t want but was forced to keep and pay for thanks to four overanxious kids who always beat her to the mail before she could send back the unopened box.

Before long, her collection of albums grew like a cancer from the corner of the living room floor until we had more LP’s than most radio stations. By the time I graduated from high school, three long vertical rows of records nearly reached the middle of the floor with 250-300 albums in each row. At times my mother would try to alphabetize them, but that would last only a while before a month’s worth of new shipments would make the task unbearable, thus forcing her to shift her tactic to put the albums into a “most played” rotation near the front of each stack.

A handful of classic LP's from my childhood. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

The rotation would vary, but most often included albums by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Three Dog Night, Elton John, and for some strange reason Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Diamond. In later years, my older sister would add in her own mix of Alice Cooper, Kiss, Queen, and for some strange reason Rex Smith. (Later, my younger brothers would toss in the likes of Motorhead, Rush, Triumph, AC-DC, and The Sex Pistols. I never added much to the mix, nor did my father, who only seemed to like Sha Na Na and Elvis.)

It was good music to be weaned on; a great variety of classic rock (only then it was still contemporary). I learned more from music in those days than school or church. When I couldn’t grasp the story of the passion of Christ in catechism, my mom would throw on “Jesus Christ Superstar” and suddenly it all made sense. When I asked my mom what the Vietnam War was all about, she’d play the album “Hair” and I’d kind of get it. But it wasn’t just the music that was so great, the actual album itself was an amazing visual experience too – from the cover art, to the inserts inside, to the actual disc(s) – there was as just as much to look at as there was to listen to.

Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” album, for example, not only had killer tracks, but also came with an album cover that both looked and opened like an actual school desk, and inside the cover was a lacey pair of women’s panties that doubled as a record sleeve. It was my first real introduction to rebellion and sex, all wrapped up in a nice, neat, 12” x 12” package. What more could 9-year-old boy want?

The Beatles’ aptly named “White Album” was another one of my favorites (although it really should have been called “White Albums” since there were two). The “White Album” featured nothing more than a white cover embossed with the words “The Beatles” in the lower right hand corner, but inside the album jacket came not only a poster of the band and four individual 8 x 10 photos suitable for framing, but two LP records pressed on vinyl as white as virgin snow - I’d never seen anything like it

I spent hours poring over every inch of an album’s cover because it contained so much information – song lyrics, notes from the band, killer photography – I didn’t know it at the time, but the music, combined with artistic album covers, opened up a creative channel in me that contributed to my future occupation. (I’m a professional photographer, in case you were wondering). The same could be said for my younger brother Lance (he of the heavy metal taste) who now makes his living as both a musician and a sound technician.

Most of our albums were played so much we had to buy stereo needles in bulk. Eventually, many of the records wore out or developed scratches so deep they inevitably would skip (something that became so deeply ingrained in my psyche that to this day I’m still surprised to hear one of our “scratched” songs on the radio without the skip) but we cherished them for their music nonetheless.

I was much too young back then to go to concerts, but my parents saw plenty. I can’t say for sure how many concerts they actually attended, but I do remember my mother going on and on about how great Neil Young was live. I also remember her being really pissed off at the crowd behavior when she went with my dad to see Cat Stevens in Cleveland (they were setting fire to their concert programs and then throwing on stage like Molotov cocktails). Stevens, too, apparently was quite peeved, so much so he called the crowd a “bunch of assholes” and then marched off the stage less than 20 minutes into his set.

Bad crowd behavior was a staple of rock and roll crowds (and bands) in the 70’s – maybe it was leftover angst from the Vietnam era, hard to say since I was only a kid. But I do remember going to my very first professional basketball game (Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Bullets) at the Richfield Coliseum in 1976 with my cousin, my uncle and my dad, and when we got there, it looked like a war zone. There were broken beer bottles strewn all over the parking lot, yellow crime scene tape and police blockades were everywhere, and the giant windows of the coliseum were either shattered or boarded up with plywood.

I knew the Cavs were pretty bad, but I had no idea they could bring out so much hatred in their fans that they actually would riot. My dad told me it had nothing to do with bad basketball, Led Zeppelin had been there the night before on their “Song Remains the Same” tour and things apparently got a little out of hand. I asked him what happened and he told me, “Nothing that doesn’t normally happen when Led Zeppelin goes on tour.”

When we got inside, several rows of seats were marked off with the same yellow police tape. They’d been deemed unsafe until the fire-damaged upholstery could be repaired. The place also stunk of beer, vomit, and the haze of some strange smelling smoke which still hung in the air.

“Don’t people come to concerts to hear the music?” I asked my dad.

“No.” My dad replied, “They come so they can get drunk and stoned and act like complete assholes!”

That left a real impression on me and my view of Led Zeppelin. Four years later when Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit after a drinking binge, thousands of Zeppelin fans openly mourned, not so much his passing, I think, but more the fact that Zeppelin as a band was probably done. I didn’t mourn so much (not like the day John Lennon died later that year) but I did think back to that day at the Richfield Coliseum and it made me wonder if maybe Zeppelin fans were mourning the fact they no longer had a reason to get drunk and stoned and smash the hell out of beautiful arenas?

Maybe it really was the music they were mourning. Maybe they were starting to mature as an audience and maybe the remaining members of Zeppelin were starting to mature as well. Perhaps the tragedy in Cincinnati the year before, where 11 fans were trampled to death trying to get into a Who concert, had sobered up much of the rock and roll world. After all, by the end of 1980, the list of dead rock legends was a long one: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Bon Scott, and John Lennon, to name but a few. Maybe baby boomers decided it was finally time to grow up?

After Bonham's death, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin would go their separate ways. Once in a while they would reunite for some global cause like Live Aid, but the music was never quite the same, nor was the audience. The pot smoking may have remained, but only as a token act from a bygone era. Gone were the Molotov cocktails, no more seats were set on fire and no more beer bottles were hurtled through arena windows.

Robert Plant, Zeppelin’s lead singer, would change as well. No longer attached to the band and its “heavy-metal-hotel-destroying” stigma, Plant’s solo career became an interesting one. The rock and roll certainly remained, but Plant reinvented himself over the years, dabbling in things like folk, and, God forbid, even country.

Plant still tours to this day, I know because I saw him in concert the other night. He's 62 now, and at times it was hard to believe I was watching the same guy who once strutted up and down 70’s concert stages, bare-chested and golden locks a flowing like some Greek God dressed in skin-tight bellbottoms, belting out primal screams from somewhere deep behind his heavy blonde mane.

But it was.

Plant, still spry and sounding quite good at age 62. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

His pants weren’t quite as skintight, but he still showed a little bare chest through his open shirt, and his heavy blonde mane was as long and curly as ever (not even a touch of gray, although these days it frames a much older looking face). Plant also still moved about on stage much the same as he did as a young man – a graceful sort of glide that is uniquely his.

His voice, however, wasn't quite the same, not worse, mind you, but nothing like the howling-wolf style that once was his trademark. I guess his vocal chords could sustain only so much abuse, but truth is, Plant always could sing, and he still can. In many ways, nothing about Plant, except the band around him, has changed all that much.

The audience, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.

I wasn’t ready for, nor expecting a group quite so mellow. These were, I assumed, many of the same assholic drunks who were tossing beer bottles through plate glass windows and screwing each other in arena parking lots 35-years ago. Now here they were, older and gentler, strolling gingerly into a concert hall dressed to the nines drinking not beer or hard liquor, but bottled water. Still others, like the ones where I was stationed near the back of the hall, were being pushed to their seats in wheelchairs - some hooked up to oxygen!

This was hard for me to fathom, although it did dawn on me that my own mother, the same woman who introduced me to Led Zeppelin so many years ago and was the same age as Robert Plant, was now dead. And my father, he of the “they’re all a bunch of drunken assholes” days in the parking lot of the Richfield Coliseum, is rapidly approaching 70 and can barely walk.

"What happened to rock and roll and its once young and rebellious crowd?" I wondered to myself. "How could they all have gotten so old, except, apparently, for Plant?"

It seems like only yesterday I was peeling the cellophane wrapper off another new album to add to my mother’s collection on our living room floor. Now those albums are long gone, replaced by cassettes, and then CD’s and now MP3’s. Our stereo is long gone too, a victim of boom boxes and CD players (which now are on the endangered list themselves thanks to iPods and other modern-day methods of shutting ourselves off from the world).

Things change, I get that. We all get older (if we’re lucky) and as we age, we try our best to hang on to the things that helped define us in our youth. It's the basis of every good, full-blown middle-age crisis. But I must openly admit, seeing a 62-year-old rock legend strutting his stuff in front of a crowd of well-dressed-bottled-water-sipping-semi-geriatrics left me feeling a little bit ... well, as Robert Plant would put it -- dazed and confused!

(For the record, my favorite Led Zeppelin album has always been Led Zeppelin I, but my favorite Zeppelin tune is "When the Levee Breaks" ... killer harmonica!)


  1. and for some strange reason Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Diamond

    Aw c'mon Lon... Gordon's song about the Edmund Fitzgerald should have been good enough to grant him status to be in ANY kind of collection... and I still think of ND's turn in 'The Jazz Singer' (or is it his 'Heartlight' song I remember more?).

    Never was a Zep fan... ever. But I share memories of the time that they were popular and I have much respect for Robert Plant, who has not given in to a money grab and did reboot tours with what is left of the band...

  2. Fantastic read Lon. Thanks for sharing. We were at the RP concert too and my fiance kept standing to dance, much to the chagrin of the crusty Boomers all around us. Even with the eye-daggers protruding from every part of our bodies, we had a great time.

  3. Big Mark,

    I'm actually a huge Gordon Lightfoot fan, thanks to my mom. I always dug "Sundown" and "Carefree Highway." Give Zeppelin another listen (their early stuff) they really were just a good blues band who then got labeled "heavy metal."