Full disclosure, my darlings! Not only am I reading Stephen Davis' SHOCKINGLY RAD Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga for the very first time (at the behest/demand of the dissipated-yet-charming Alex Balk), but my initial Led Zeppelin knowledge base was as follows: they are not the same people as Def Leppard, whose music was featured in the recent art film Balls of Fury. (I also have "Kashmir" and "Whole Lotta Love" on my iPod, and, although I would have been unwilling to swear to it in a court of law prior to reading this book, I could probably have identified them as the "Stairway To Heaven" guys.) I'm not bragging about this kind of profound ignorance; I'm just saying that if Stephen Davis had written a book about Graham Nash sticking a dead shark into Joni Mitchell at a picnic in Laurel Canyon, I would have been better equipped to take it on.
BUT HERE WE ARE, you're stuck with me, and I did go ahead and buy a tremendous amount of Led Zeppelin to listen to while reading. Who loves you, baby? (I mean, if you're a woman, and you look kind of trashy, probably the members of Led Zeppelin.) I also called my dad, noted audiophile and retired-druggie, to ask HIS thoughts on Led Zeppelin, which were as follows: "Oh, women really, really love that stuff. [awkward pause] And Page was a very serviceable musician from a technical point of view." This is extremely high praise from my father, who, when someone references the Beatles, tends to say, "Well, at least George Harrison did eventually learn to play the guitar, more or less."
My very first reaction to the book, other than, oh, this should be super entertaining for all of us, arose from Davis's luuuuurid account of the wilder rumors that started to circulate after the band's 1969 tour of America, most particularly: "… about how Led Zeppelin sustained itself on the road by drinking vaginal secretions direct from the source." Because, you know, my immediate thought was, um, well, doesn't everyone do that? It would actually be a MUCH better rumor if people claimed they were drinking vaginal secretions that had first been, like, delicately piped into a beaker of some kind, or stirred into a roux. I NEED MORE DIRT. But, happily, basically the next phrase involves "tumescent girls immersed in tubs of warm baked beans before coitus," to which my response was, okay, now we're talking.
Because this book is only strictly trashy by virtue of being a) way too much fun, and b) full of strung-out groupies, you do find yourself reading An Actual Rock Biography, which means the interminable (although obviously edifying) mandatory stock opening chapters on "the blues were born a verrrrrry long time ago in the Mississippi Delta, blah blah, and all of these people were in different bands/had Jew-ier names/shorter hair before they became awesome and famous." But it also involves fun asides with Moon and Entwistle complaining about how much they hated Townsend and Daltrey, and that sort of "the Yardbirds were paid one hundred and eighteen pounds apiece to do a five-week American tour" thing where you say, oh, right, this is why Robert Plant has to make random albums with Alison Krauss now… because no one ever has anyone decent in charge of their money in the music industry. (That's not really fair, it sounds like they managed to really gouge the American tour promoters by the early 1970s. But, you know, you buy enough castles with moats, you're gonna need to make some serious bank.)
They Sold Their Souls To The Devil!
Isn't that cute? No, I mean, really, it's a little cute. Davis describes this as the most "sinister" of the various legends surrounding Led Zeppelin, which is perhaps true from an etymological point of view, but, really? That's worse than fucking a drunk girl with a dead shark? So retro! I mean, I guess if you're the West Memphis Three, you're all, "yeah, that's what we've been saying," but that's Satanic paranoia for you. Honestly, you know, Led Zeppelin did rock prettttty hard; they may not have needed the help. If someone came to me and said, "Hey, did you hear that the Jonas Brothers sold their souls to the Devil in exchange for success and fame?" I would say, oh, okay, that makes total sense to me.
The Devil-y stuff is made even funnier by Davis' forays into Jimmy Page's obsession with Aleister Crowley and the occult; which will somehow get mixed up in your head with the adorably lame faux-medieval lyrics that wind up plastered all over "Stairway to Heaven" and the tarot cards and the inexplicable covers of Scottish battle songs and the Viking anthems and all the other completely rando rockstar obsessions that will eventually lead us to Spinal Tap and "Stonehenge." But we digress! This isn't about serious musical criticism!
They Fucked A Girl With A Shark!
So, obviously, this is the big one. And I have no interest in harshing anyone's mellow with "it was apparently just a red snapper, and it was actually their road manager Richard Cole, and it was, you know, 'just the tip,' and the chick seemed pretty into it." It's on Snopes—whatever, be lame and cynical on your own time. Let's just leave this as written: Led Zeppelin fucked a girl with a shark!
Usually at this point I ask, "Well, is it any good?" But it may be more fruitful, with Hammer of the Gods, which is so OBVIOUSLY good, to instead ask, "Is it true?" To which the answer appears to be, uhhhhh, not so much? At least, people seem to feel like Richard Cole, who provided Davis with the vast majority of his information, was an unreliable junkie-type who tended to put an unnecessarily gloomy spin on the more standard "let's all do drugs and have a lot of consequence-free sex with ladies who think we're deities" sort of rock narrative. But, you know, Page was certainly a serious heroin addict, and Bonham didn't exactly die of old age, and Jones is pretty open about his substance abuse, and Plant claims to have just used pot and Quaaludes, which reminds you, whatever happened to Quaaludes? Like, when was the last time someone offered you a Quaalude? Think about it. (Apparently, they're still pretty big in South Africa, so if someone in South Africa says they have "smarties," go for it!)
Context-Free Excerpts From Hammer of the Gods
• "….the boys were particularly attracted to an institution for young girls with sexual problems, such as compulsive masturbation. One day Jimmy and his friends showed up and tried to pull a couple of girls our of the place, to great merriment but to no avail."
• "On one visit to Birmingham he set fire to his hotel room when he tried to stew a rabbit in a coffee percolator."
• "Mother hen, field pimp, hit man, Richard Cole was dearly loved by every band he worked for. Cole was the ultimate sergeant – big, nasty, a natural leader, an Anglo-Irish pirate who would have been at home with the notorious White Companies, looting France during the Hundred Years War."
• "When the band got back to London, the a was taken out of lead so the thick Americans wouldn't mispronounce it leed."
• "Still the dog wouldn't go for it."
• "It expressed an ineffable yearning for spiritual transformation deep in the hearts of the generation for which it was intended."
• "I always thought that Jimmy liked me because I happened to say 'Rimbaud' at the right time."
• "They were concerned because somebody warned them that if Jimmy was discovered with a fourteen-year-old girl, he'd be deported immediately. Both Peter Grant and Richard Cole insisted that I be kept locked up."
Okay, now it's your turn! Some discussion questions to get us started:
• Why are rock bands so lame now?
• Do you have fond memories of Quaaludes?
• Can drinking vaginal secretions directly from the source be held responsible for your power and charisma?
• Why did everyone in the Yardbirds become so awesome?
• How many attempted rapes did you count in Hammer of the Gods? More than three?
Let's do this! And, afterwards, let's meet back here in two weeks to discuss the now SUPER-RELEVANT I'm With The Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres. Foreword by Dave Navarro! Love you.
Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.