Monday, April 20, 2015

My Musical "Rosetta Stone"

The term "Rosetta Stone" (I'm omitting reference to the popular language learning software) has two meanings in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
  1. :  a black basalt stone found in 1799 that bears an inscription in hieroglyphics, demotic characters, and Greek and is celebrated for having given the first clue to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics
  2. :  one that gives a clue to understanding
The actual Rosetta Stone in the 1st definition gave birth to the 2nd definition as a common reference in a variety of topics. 

On a personal level, I often refer to the band Led Zeppelin as my musical "Rosetta Stone" because, aside from them being my all time favorite band in the world, they have directed me in directions of musical exploration that no other Rock band could do, thus giving me "clues to understanding" a much wider range of music than just "Rock and Roll". 

In my youth, my initial love affair was split between hard Rock/Metal (e.g. Kiss, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, UFO, Iron Maiden) and 70's electronic music (e.g. Tangerine Dream, Vangelis). A somewhat varied interest for a pre-teen American kid but nothing exotic. As I grew older and more rebellious, my taste gravitated toward heavier stuff like Metallica, Megadeth, and so on. Again, nothing out of the ordinary though I did think of myself as something of a Heavy Metal snob and purest. But that would change when I fell in love with Led Zeppelin. 

My initial exposure to Zeppelin was pretty typical of kids of my generation. It was via FM radio and the ubiquitous presence of "Stairway to Heaven". It was a song I liked but, at the same time, I viewed Zeppelin as the previous generations music. My early high school years was the early 1980's. Led Zeppelin had already disbanded following the tragic death of John Bonham. I did buy the album "Led Zeppelin IV/Untitled" and must admit that it was not the "soul grabber" it would become, mainly because it wasn't as heavy as the stuff I was immersed in at the time. In hindsight, it had way more depth in the songwriting, musicianship, and production than I could appreciate at the time. I was a full on testosterone-fueled, Metalhead at this point and subtlety was being lost on my immature ears. But that would quickly change, thanks to another aspect of my misspent youth. 

The town I lived in during my high school years, Petaluma, CA, had an old movie theater called The Plaza (now The Mystic theater which is presently a great live venue). They would specialize in playing old movies throughout the week. Weekdays would be "art house" type movies with an occasional classic porn movie. Weekends usually catered to the younger crowd with showings of "Rocky Horror Picture Show", "Monty Python", and Rock movies from the 70's and 80's. A regular feature a couple of times a year was "The Song Remain's the Same", the 1976 concert/concept movie featuring Led Zeppelin. 

One Friday night, my friends and I went to such a pairing of "The Wall" and "The Song...". The movie was preceded by some teenage "partying" so that our mental state was suited for the experience (I'm not kidding when I say I had a misspent youth). I remember being in awe of The Wall on the big screen but the life-altering moment was seeing "Song Remains the Same". 

The movie was crafted to be a "mind blowing" experience anyways but I just remember seeing Jimmy Page on the big screen doing what Jimmy Page does: being the coolest, most bad-ass Rock god on the planet and being completely blown away. The band as a whole was so much cooler than anything I've seen before or since. But it was the depth of the music that hooked me. Everything from the howling minor blues of "Since I've Been Loving You" to the bombast of "Rock and Roll" to the beautiful "Rain Song". It was dynamics galore delivered with such power, competence, and attitude. Two pivotal moments in that movie was "Dazed and Confused" (major improve jamming that seemed to go on a terrific way) and "Whole Lotta Love". In both songs, Page did things musically that transcended typical Rock forms, using a bow and a Theremin to literally transport the listener to someplace far, far, away. Just epic soundscapes that were not what I would expect from a Rock band.  

Following that experience, I went back to my copy of LZ IV with renewed interest and listened very intently and fell in love. Then I bought "Physical Graffiti", then LZ I, then "Houses of the Holy", and so so and so forth, digesting the entire Zeppelin catalog. 

What blew me away the most (and continues to amaze me to this day) is the stylistic variation these guys delivered while still maintaining the "context" of a Rock and Roll band. The acoustic, folk influences, the Arabic flavors, the ethereal elements in the production, the use of drones and ambiance, and, of course, the Blues.  All these elements started me on a path of musical exploration that continues to this day. 

Through Zeppelin, I became fascinated with Moroccan, Celtic, American Folk, Country, Indian, and Blues music. Just glancing at my iPod right now, I have music by Bachir Attar (Moroccan), Ravi Shankar (Indian), Robert Johnson (Blues), Townes Van Zandt (Country) and so on and I can recall the exact sequence of discovery that led me to fall in love with these and so many other artists that all goes, quite literally, back to Led Zeppelin. And, of course, not forsaking my love of hard Rock, Zeppelin does a pretty decent job at satisfying that craving too. 

I can truly say that the majority of the nearly 1000 titles of music I possess in my record/CD/tape/digital collection I have is either directly or in directly due to Led Zeppelin. In that regard, they are truly my musical "Rosetta Stone". 

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