Better dead than Led

My 12-year-old daughter is about to become a teenager and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own adolescence. As a parent, naturally, you want to share some of the things you enjoyed when you were young. But not everything.

The other day, I asked her what she thought about the music of Led Zeppelin. She could tell by my tone that it was a loaded question, but she couldn’t figure out the angle. She thought carefully for a moment before cautiously replying: “Is he the one who did Dark Side of the Moon?”

I was relieved she got it so wrong. It was a milestone. Something to celebrate.

Led Zeppelin are one of the most famous bands ever. I know everything there is to know about them. I’ve listened to all of their records more times than I could possibly count. I loved Led Zeppelin. I didn’t know what it was like to not love Led Zeppelin.

But I would be very happy to never hear any of their music again, and I would be even more glad if my daughter never hears them at all.

Hearing my child confuse their work with Pink Floyd’s meant that I had finally broken free of something that has hung over me for years. I had won. My daughter was never going to become a small town Led Zeppelin dirtbag.

Not like I was.

—-

March 1984: 

I am a tall, dorky 15-year-old kid with a mullet haircut, growing up in the rural community of Catskill, New York, which is two hours drive from New York City, but a lifetime away when it comes to culture, diversity and just having things to do. Mostly me and my friends sit around, drink beer and listen to Led Zeppelin. Or we drive around looking for places to buy more beer, while listening to Led Zeppelin. 

There are really only two genres of music in my town: “Led Zeppelin” and “Not Led Zeppelin.” The “Led Zeppelin” category encompasses all the important stuff: Led Zeppelin I, II, III, IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, Presence and In Through the Out Door. “Not Led Zeppelin” includes everything else. People ’round here don’t listen to a lot of “Not Led Zeppelin.” 

It’s a typical Saturday night. My best friend Kurt pulls up to my house on Spring Street in his tricked-out red Dodge Dart. He rolls down the windows and starts blasting “Black Dog” to announce his arrival. My mom hears and starts to complain about the racket coming from the driveway, but I’m out the door before she gets too worked up.

Kurt does a neutral-drop, revving the engine up while it’s out of gear and then popping it suddenly into drive. This makes the tires spin wildly and they screech against the pavement as we peel out loudly. We’re on the road heading to our friend Mike’s house. We’re excited because his parents are away and this means we’ve got a warm place to drink beer. Last week we wound up having to drink in a clearing in the woods after we couldn’t get into any bars with our cheap fake IDs. There’s a 15-minute drive ahead of us, so we try to get in as much Zeppelin as possible on the way, playing it so loudly that we can’t hear ourselves badly singing along. 

At Mike’s, we rush from the car to the house. It’s freezing outside but we’re only sporting t-shirts, jeans and jean jackets. Double denim isn’t a faux pas in upstate New York, it’s a uniform. As we wait, we stamp our feet and blow into our hands to try to keep warm. 

Going in, we pony up 10 bucks each. This time around, someone has managed to score a beer ball – a round, small plastic mini keg filled with Genesee Cream Ale, the local swill everyone in the area drinks because it’s so cheap. A beer ball is like a portable party – it holds more than enough alcohol to get five or six teenagers very drunk. The goal is to kick it in one sitting, so we can drive over tomorrow and get the $15 deposit back, which is nearly half what we need for another beer ball next week. 

As we walk in, we can hear that Mike’s already up to Zeppelin II on the turntable. “The Lemon Song” is cranking out so loudly that it’s hard to hear anything, so we greet each other with high-fives. Nick is there, John and Stan. Pat and Kevin couldn’t make it. There are no girls. There are almost never girls around when we hang out. Why would they want to be there? 

Squeeze me baby, ’till the juice runs down my leg
Squeeze me baby, ’till the juice runs down my leg
The way you squeeze my lemon,
I’m gonna fall right out of bed, bed, bed, bed, yeah

After the Lemon Song, Mike insists everyone shut up, so he can concentrate on listening and singing along to “Thank You,” the Zeppelin ballad that allows you to show your sensitive side:

And so today, my world it smiles
Your hand in mine, we walk the miles
Happiness, no more be sad

Happiness – I’m glad

Once Zeppelin II ends, it’s on to Zeppelin III, then IV etc.. You drink and you listen to every album, played in the order they were released. No skipping allowed. Those are the rules. By the time the second half of Physical Graffiti comes on, someone will be puking their guts out in the bathroom. 

—-

This was pretty much how every weekend played out, singing along to idiotic Zeppelin lyrics while getting very drunk. On our better nights, we would organize our partying around an activity, like quarters: the game where you bounce a coin off a tabletop into a glass of beer. If you miss, you drink, but if you get it in, you choose someone else to drink. In Catskill, learning to be good at quarters was an essential life skill. Without some proficiency in it, you risked weekend after weekend of vomiting and humiliation.

Looking back, I can still see myself alone in my room practicing for the coming Friday night. Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days” plays loudly in the background. I try holding the quarter at various angles, moving the glass closer or further away, trying to find the optimal technique. I vary the amount of force each time as I flick coin after coin off the top of my desk into an empty jam jar. I curse if I miss and I feel a huge sense of relief if it goes in. “This is important,” I tell myself. “This matters. I’ve got to get this right. I’ve got to get better.”

It’s not a memory I look back on with pride.

Page and Plant

You probably like Led Zeppelin. Maybe you think they’re one of the greatest bands ever. I get it. I really do. When a song like “Communication Breakdown” comes on, you probably rock out to John Paul Jones and John Bonham’s driving rhythms and thrill to Robert Plant’s bluesy wailing. But when I hear that song, all I think about is that time Nick, Mike, Kurt and I spent an evening putting each other in sleeper holds to see how long it would take for each of us to lose consciousness.

Yeah, “Heartbreaker” is a classic, and Jimmy Page’s guitar solo totally shreds, but hearing it only reminds me of the time Stan and I decided to throw darts at each other’s feet, in order to ‘test our reflexes’. I still have scars from that.

All my Zeppelin memories are tainted by similar stupidity.

Immigrant Song – makes me remember going punch for punch with my friends; taking turns hitting each other in the arm as hard as we could until you couldn’t take it anymore.

Good Times, Bad Times – doing neutral drops in front of the homes of kids we didn’t like, trying to wake up their parents.

Kashmir – eating dog biscuits, because one of us got dared to do it and nobody wanted to be the one who chickened out.

Whole Lotta Love – getting caught by the police breaking into the school.

Gallows Pole – hanging out the car window, driving around smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat.

What is and Should Never Be – crushing beer cans against my forehead. Also something I practiced until I got good at it.

Bring It On Home – doing beer funnels, then vomiting.

Misty Mountain Hop – more vomiting.

You get the idea.

And if this all sounds very lame to you, it does to me too. Now. But I didn’t know any better then. It was just normal. It was what we saw the older kids do and it never occurred to me that there was more. There was only Zeppelin. 

Eventually, I grew up a little.

Trips to New York City to visit my older brother and his music-loving friends at college broadened my horizons and allowed me to discover plenty of “Not Led Zeppelin” bands that I actually liked. It was liberating to delve into music that was different than what everyone I knew listened to.

When I went on to college, I found myself inspired by some of the people I met: fellow students, from all over the world, who had never played quarters and who had never heard of neutral drops, but had instead spent their teen years playing in bands, painting, traveling or learning to speak other languages. Drinking was part of their world too, but they were more ambitious and had lived with so much more diversity and stimulation than I had. They were putting on plays or making short films with their friends, while I was eating dog food with mine.

I realized that I was a barbarian. And I wanted to change.

And that’s more or less where I’m still at today. 

Over the years, my reverence for Led Zeppelin – the patron saints of my youthful dirtbag hijinks – has turned into embarrassment.

I guess it’s not fair to blame them. As the song goes, it’s ‘Nobody’s fault but mine.’ And I certainly think you can listen to Led Zeppelin without worrying about whether doing so will turn you into an unsophisticated townie. But I can’t. The associations are too strong.

If you were raised in France, you wouldn’t think too much about camembert, you would just enjoy it. In Catskill, Zeppelin coupled with small-town stupidity was our French cheese. And it was fine. Until one day, having suddenly discovered how stinky it was, I could never go back to eating it. I couldn’t even tolerate being around it. 

I don’t want to bore you with details of my life journey since then. It’s been a self-conscious affair, filled with deliberate and sometimes desperate efforts to counter and overcompensate for my early barbarism. There will always be a part of me that worries that deep-down, I’m still the same small-time, small-town teenager.

It doesn’t matter how many foreign films I watch, how many trendy cocktails I drink, how many museums I go to, or how many sardonic blog posts I write, I can never get my youthful mullet to fully grow out. When I look in the mirror, it’ll always still be there.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for my daughter. I want her to use her head for thinking. She doesn’t even need to know it can be used as a surface to crush beer cans against.

One time – back in the day – my friend Kevin was driving me around, showing off how fast his new T-top blue Trans Am could go, when we were pulled over by the police. We had, of course, just been listening to Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and as the officer walked up to Kevin’s window to give him a ticket, in a panic he turned to me and barked: “Quick, hide the Led Zeppelin tape! I don’t want him thinking we’re scumbags.”

I’m still hiding that tape.

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5 thoughts on “Better dead than Led

  1. Hey Bill! I thought this was a Great read! Mostly. I can’t say I liked seeing myself in the lead pic, posing like a poster-child for your main point. Ouch! But what’s in the past cannot be changed. It really made me think hard about how much I’m Not that person anymore. We are all so much different now. And I can’t believe we haven’t communicated for decades. Bad on me for that one, and on you too – life just seems to move on and on and we all get so busy doing our own things that we just lose touch. I truly hope life has been and continues to be great for you and your family! This read made me reflect on all those crazy/stupid/juvenile/fun/shameful things we did together. Different time indeed! Can’t say I’m proud of everything we did, but all those things had to happen that way to get us to where we are now, through all the good and all the bad. Take care Billy – I am going to read some more of your blog!

    1. Amazing to hear from you – send me an email if you can, so we can take our chat out of the public domain. I have so few pictures from that time – that was one of the few and it really seemed to fit the bill. Do you have my email? If not, it’s my first name (but billy not bill) plus my last name at gmail.com – no dots, no hyphens.

      You were the least ‘dirtbag-ish’ of all of us, to be honest. The most sensible.

      My wife thinks the overall tone of this is too self-critical, but I think you’re right that we had to be the dumbasses we were, in order to become the people we would eventually evolve into.

  2. Weird that Zeppelin still had so much pull among teenagers in 1984. I was pretty much in your shoes 4 years earlier and LZ was considered old news. The release of the terrible, awful In Through the Out Door didn’t help their cause. Our bands were Skynard, the Doors and Van Halen. The Doors had this weird resurgence in the late 70s-early 80s that seems comical today.

  3. Love the article. I’m in the hospital, 4th time in 3 months. Had 2 emergency knee surgeries, first in July and a few days ago due to a MRSA infection so I’ll have some time to listen straight to all the Led Zeppelin albums in order sans beer. Funny because as a high schooler, we also had to find places to drink and that party ball and deposit brings back memories.

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