The Song Remains the Same

Led ZeppelinThere have been a few comebacks recently. Of course there was Sly Stone a few weeks ago playing a gig in New York, and the rumor is the big music festival set for Vineland, N.J. (it was originally going to be held in Philly, but red tape, government and local agency interference, etc., etc., etc. ruined that idea) is that the newly reunited Rage Against the Machine[1] (and corporate shills Sony recording artists) will headline.

That’s cool, I guess. People seem to like Sony’s Rage Against the Machine.

But the biggest and most anticipated comeback was Monday night’s big Led Zeppelin reunion gig in London. Mythologized and held at an otherworldly status for four decades, Led Zeppelin had not played as a so-called full unit since drummer John Bonham drank himself to death in 1980. Sure, there have been half-hearted attempts at a “reunion,” such as the 1985 Live Aid show at JFK Stadium, which was largely panned by critics. Then, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page teamed up for a tour in the mid-1990s (I think) that people generally seemed to enjoy. I missed the mid-90s thing (I guess I was too busy to notice), but I remember watching the Live Aid performance and being very underwhelmed. As I recall, Queen stole the show. But that’s just what Queen always did.

I also remember that it was hot in Philadelphia that day.

But as far as a full group show with the original three members (Plant, Page and John Paul Jones) and Bonham’s son, Jason, playing the drums, well, people have been waiting for a long, long time.

At least that’s the way it seemed from reading the breathless dispatches from London. And it’s all so damned interesting.

Perhaps the fact that I find a Led Zeppelin reunion interesting is the interesting part. Because frankly I always consciously went out of my way to ignore Led Zeppelin and believe that (in nine times out of 10) all self-respecting rock bands that break up should stay broken up. To me, that’s the rock and roll thing to do. Just break up and leave people asking for more. After all, most bands (in nine times out of 10) will never be able to duplicate the urgency or majesty of the first go through.

But then again it’s that way with a lot of things.

Besides, there just seems to be nothing worthwhile appealing or “Rock and Roll” about those highly corporatized and overwrought reunion tours that groups like the Rolling Stones, The Eagles and the Police insist on staging. In this day and age those tours seem so bloated, impractical and non-spontaneous and that’s exactly what they don’t want to be.

Look, I’m all for doing what it is one does for as long as possible. In fact, I hope I can still run marathons when I’m 60 and 70. I also hope that I give a rat’s ass about new ideas and trends and whatever else at that age, too. I hope it never gets to the point where I’m told I should go hang ‘em up, though I don’t have any delusions. Frankly, I’ll probably rust rather than burn out.

I don’t suspect I’ll be smart enough to know when to stop, which is just the way it is sometimes. People always want to reach back to see if they can recapture the magic from their youth. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that – to paraphrase a Lou Reed quote from 1989 – when someone is doing teenaged party music when they are 60 it’s stupid.

For instance, take the ongoing tour by the Police – according to most open-minded observers and even Stewart Copeland, the band just doesn’t have it any more. Sure, they’re all still playing well as individual musicians and still get excited about playing music. It’s just that nearly 30 years after the fact; “Message in a Bottle” just doesn’t mean the same thing.

The thing about that is the Police can tour around the world and charge $250 for one ticket. That’s good work if you can get it, but it seems to me that it might be like watching a losing team play out the string during the final month of the season. I also suspect that the money was the reason why the Police decided to get back together after all those years apart, which makes the whole act so unseemly, completely uninspiring and totally not worth the money.

In art, perception is everything. OK, maybe it’s not everything, but it’s a lot of it. Look at Britney Spears (how can you not… she gets more coverage on the TV news than Iraq), though her once fledgling musical career was always regarded as… well… crap, how are we to know that she isn’t the one playing her public like a pre-recorded vocal track? Are we to categorize her a certain way just because we have pre-conceived ideas about her audience and the machinations in place to put her in the public forum to begin with? Yeah, Britney is probably a bad example, but you get the point. In the case of Led Zeppelin I looked at them as a certain product based on the machinery and the audience. I’m sure some of it had to do with the fact that I was in the third grade when Bonham died and the group disbanded, but the real reason was much more superficial.

Led Zeppelin was the establishment. They were the mainstream. They were Plant was singing lyrics to songs that made imagery from Henry Miller look deep. Page was the template for every wannabe, big-haired guitar god and Bonham (with Keith Moon) was exhibit A of what happens when Rock and Roll goes along unchecked.

Plus, when I was beginning to find my identity and follow my own artistic path, Led Zeppelin just didn’t seem to fit. After all, this was the 1980s and even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was worried about Ronald Reagan. What was he going to do to the middle class in America? Was he just crazy enough to “start the bombing in five minutes…” Certainly Robert Plant wasn’t singing about this world and the guys in the Zeppelin midriffs smoking Marlboros while blasting “Kashmir” from their Firebird weren’t too concerned about any of those questions either.

Ian MacKayeBut Joe Strummer and The Clash were concerned. So too were The Ramones and that gang in D.C. with Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins. Led Zeppelin, by that point, was ubiquitous. It was elevator music and I had heard it crackling through the cheap plastic speakers of the family station wagon way too many times. Led Zeppelin, I rationalized, was what they wanted us to hear.

Better yet, think of how much money and waste went into the production of those records and tours. Think of the budget that went into the photography for the album covers for something like Physical Graffiti. Meanwhile, just around the corner from where that photo was taken on New York’s lower east side, the Bad Brains were recording the famed ROIR cassette in a broom closet. It may have cost $50 to make and no one can tell me that the opening bars of “Attitude” don’t kick ass and aren’t as strong as anything the scores of production techs tweaked and tuned out of Page’s guitar. Give the Bad Brains $50 more and they could have melted the tape.

Based on that thinking the choice was easy. I went with Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone and Ian and Hank. Actually, it really wasn’t much of a decision at all.

As time passes and people get older, they notice certain things. Like why aren’t Led Zeppelin songs in movies or commercials? When every other one of their contemporaries has staged those saccharine sweet trips down amnesia lane tours, Led Zeppelin remained on the sidelines. Plant joined the Honeydrippers and sang “Sea of Love.” He has also released 15 albums with various projects, which is nearly double the output of Led Zeppelin.

Page has been equally as prolific, while Jones has worked with more modern groups like R.E.M., the Foo Fighters and Ben Harper.

None of them, to their credit, have sold out. In interviews, when pressed about the band’s reluctance to cash in on a tour or licensing their songs to movies or commercials, Plant just scoffs. “What do we need more money for? Why should we destroy a piece of art” is the essence of his answer.

Now, after playing the show in London, the clamor is for more. Is Led Zeppelin going to tour again? What kind of box-office records would they set if that happens?

The answer to all of that is, “Who knows?” Personally, I like the idea of one-and-done. It makes the show mean that much more. Besides, I don’t want to have to go and see Led Zeppelin and have my image of the band ruined. I don’t want to see 60-year old men shimmying all over a ridiculously large stage with laser-light shows and smoke and fire that befits the Norse mythology of some of the songs. Other people can go, but after all this time I’d like to think that Zeppelin will stick to their ethics.

Besides, at 59 there’s no way Plant can climb to the roof of a hotel and announce, “I am a golden God.” He might slip off and break a hip.

Anyway, here’s the set list from the return:

Good Times Bad Times
Ramble On
(live debut)
Black Dog
In My Time of Dying
For Your Life
(live debut)
Trampled Under Foot
Nobody’s Fault but Mine
No Quarter
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway to Heaven
The Song Remains the Same
Misty Mountain Hop

Whole Lotta Love
Rock and Roll

What? No “Immigrant Song?” How can that be? If it were me I’d come out firing with “Immigrant Song” right out of the gate. We’re at war, after all, and the folks need to know that the band is playing for keeps. Just come out swinging from the jump…

[1] Thanks for sitting out during Bush, guys. Very revolutionary.

Buying or selling?

As we enter the last week of June, thoughts typically turn to things like training for a fall marathon, the summer road racing circuit and the Tour de France (me); or the big Fourth of July picnic, the family vacation and which players from the local team will make the All-Star Game (normal people).

But the start of July also means selling and buying in the chic parlance for certain baseball clubs. In that regard, are the Phillies selling, buying or both? Even though they enter the homestand against the Reds and the hated New York Mets just three games off the pace in the NL East, it seems like a fair question.

Clearly the Phillies need pitching help and that fact has nothing to do with the statistics or anything else. It has to do with other types of numbers, such as the Phillies only have three starting pitchers with any real Major League experience and that glut in the rotation that once saw Jon Lieber and Brett Myers moved to the bullpen is gone.

It’s funny how that happens.

Nevertheless, the Phillies are facing a crucial portion of their schedule with Cole Hamels, Adam Eaton, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick holding down spots in the rotation. With 13 games in 13 days and just one day off between now and the All-Star Break, the Phillies can probably get by with one of their arms in the minors, but chances are that won’t get them to the playoffs.

That means if the Phillies are serious about breaking the streak of Octobers spent at home, a trade should be in the offing.

But there are a lot of other teams looking for the same type of pitching as the Phillies, too. The Mets, for instance, are said to be looking to add an arm or two and will spend what it takes to do so – after all, simply making the playoffs is not an accomplishment for the Mets.

The Red Sox and Yankees will probably be foraging for some pitching as well, which means that if the Phillies want someone, say, like Mark Buehrle, it will cost them.

Maybe it will cost them something like Aaron Rowand.

Trading Rowand for pitching help didn’t seem like that huge of a deal at the beginning of the season, but now things have changed. For one thing it’s hard to say what type of pitcher Rowand could get for the Phillies, and for another thing, the centerfielder is the only right-handed hitting threat the team has.

If only they could trade Pat Burrell for something like reimbursement on the transportation to get him out of town…

While Rowand has rated at the top of the list amongst National League outfielders in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS, Burrell has been simply horrible. In 71 games Burrell is hitting .205 and is on pace to hit just 18 homers with 69 RBIs and to strike out 111 times. Since the start of May, Burrell is 21-for-133 (.158) with 13 extra-base hits and 31 strikeouts.

Worse, against lefties the right-handed Burrell is hitting just .155, so why Charlie Manuel continues to put him in the lineup is simply foolhardy.

Aside from the $13.25 million salary for this season, Burrell’s nearly non-existent production could end up costing the Phillies someone valuable like Aaron Rowand.

If you’re looking for the Phillies to go after Rangers’ reliever Eric Gagne to shore up the bullpen, stop right now. According to published reports, the Phillies are one a handful of teams on Gagne’s do-not-trade list.

Our current obsession, Floyd Landis, kicks off his book tour tomorrow with an appearance on the CBS Morning Show and Late Night with David Letterman. From there Floyd stays in Manhattan for a reading/signing at the Bryant Park Reading Room along with one-time columnist John Eustice on June 27.

Also on the 27th, Floyd hits Ridgewood, N.J. before going to Huntington, N.Y. on the 28th.

Then comes the big stop… Lancaster!

There is a reason Led Zeppelin never came to Lancaster and it has nothing to do with the fact there wasn’t a venue big enough to accommodate them…

Speaking of the Tour, if I was pressed right now I’d predict Alexandre Vinokourov will win, but don’t sleep on Montana’s Levi Leipheimer.