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NEWS: San Francisco Chronicle Oct 19th 2007


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Mark Morford: Notes & Errata: Zep concert will test rock god status

Friday, October 19, 2007

There's a moment in "The Song Remains the Same," the often wildly cheesy yet still utterly groin-tingling epic 1976 Led Zeppelin concert film/fantasia where a reed-thin, black-clad, heavily sequined Jimmy Page is violating his Les Paul with a shredded violin bow so violently that it sounds like demons getting it on in a hurricane.

Robert Plant is swaggering in skin-tight bell-bottoms and stack-heel boots and a mane of blond curls with his spine arched so far back and his bulge so prominent that it surely inspired a million fertility rites. Meanwhile, Zep drummer John Bonham beats the meaning of life out of his kit and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones looks like Jesus rising from the dead, and pretty much the entire sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd is lost in some sort of deep mystical hard-rock trance the memory of which will certainly be burned deep into their very cells forevermore.

If you've seen this concert footage, you know. It is one of those images, one of those seminal moments in recorded music history where it does not matter what your gender or what your age or what level of teenage sexual neurosis you might've suffered back then.

If you claim to enjoy hard rock music in the slightest, you witness something like this and the divine forces of sex and God and fire and electricity all come together to stab you straight in the gut of your id, and suddenly it all makes some sort of perfect cosmic rock 'n' roll sense.

Call it the Rock God Moment, that epiphanic instant where you cannot help but recognize that what you are witnessing is not merely special, not merely unspeakably cool, not just fist-pumpingly righteous. It is downright otherworldly. It is beyond your ability to fully comprehend because it is not of this existence.

This all comes to mind as news slides down the wire that the remaining members of the mighty Zep have finally agreed to release their entire back catalog for digital download, and have also signed with Verizon to release the whole monster package as a big pile of ringtones. Yeah, I know, just what we need, a bunch of aging Boomers beeping out "Black Dog" on their Razrs at Whole Foods. Yeesh.

But wait, it gets better. Far more important, the remaining members of Zep have decided to reunite after 25 years for an epic one-off charity concert in honor of the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Zep's one and only label, Atlantic Records.

Do you hear that? That deep, bone-rattling roar? That's the sound of thunder, clapping.

But perhaps you are yawning and turning up your Maroon 5 or your Linkin Park or your tepid little Colbie Caillat and muttering, "Led what? Who cares?"

You are a child and an imp and a fool. But that's not me talking, its the sheer numbers. See, it seems the concert announcement sparked something of a stampede, with more than 1 million fans registering for a chance at one of 10,000 Zep concert tickets. But even more astonishing: The charity Web site promoting the concert itself logged a staggering 1 billion hits in a single week.

That's not just popular. That's not merely a wave of swell Boomer nostalgia. That's something else entirely.

I think it's this: We have no more true rock gods left. Sure, we have a few great rock bands, a precious handful of true rock stars, great gobs of rock mediocrity, lots and lots of rock fluff and piles of rock cheese and barrelfuls of barely edible rock candy.

But authentic rock gods are a unique category. They are born of a nearly indescribable chemical alchemy, a combo of deep mystique, raw sexuality, effortless power, the ability to transcend musical styles and generations and reach into your brain and your heart, and pull.

To put it mildly: Zep had it. Hell, Zep might've invented it.

Other bands had hints and licks. The Who dabbled but were always a bit of an acquired taste and never quite reached the same stratosphere as Zep. Sabbath came close, but were so muddy and murky they always made for a far better soundtrack to, you know, smoking pot. The Stones seem to have squandered any rock god mystique they might've had by becoming the world's greatest Vegas spectacle, walking time capsules who've reportedly pumped out something like 437 records in the past two decades, not a single one of which you can actually name.

And oh yes, the Beatles. Surely the Fab Four attained true rock godhood, levels of epic mythological cultural position unprecedented in this lifetime.

But then again, no. The Beatles veered far more toward catchy psychedelia and quirky instrumentation and funny multicolored marching band outfits and are, it must be said, the most overexposed human beings of all time. They are more true pop music deities than true rock gods, and are now, sadly, far more aligned with Starbucks and cute movie musicals that really want to be "Hair" but come off as a bit more like "High School Musical," albeit with better drugs and far better songs. Oh, stop whining. You know it's true.

Zep went no such route. They were into full-length furs and platform boots and exotic Middle Eastern musical motifs, Aleister Crowley and Norse mythology and references to Valhalla and Thor and "The Lord of the Rings." You know, just like Spinal Tap. Only better.

Zep never sold their songs for commercials (well, with one notable exception), never allowed their tunes in movie soundtracks (again, with a couple of great exceptions), never slogged through bloated, painful reunion tours (OK, again, minor allowances for the calm, seated Page-Plant shows of the '90s, but those weren't really concerts). Hence, the numinous Zep alchemy still has flavor. The mystique remains.

Now, the bad news: It is very possible that the Zep reunion concert will be awful. After all, Plant is nearly 60 and looks more like a hip, hoary mountain farmer than an incandescent sex god, and if his recent solo records are any indication, while his voice is still instantly recognizable, he's lost probably 70 percent of his once-ear-melting range and power. Jimmy Page hasn't wielded that demonic bow for years. And fill-in drummer Jason Bonham (son of John), was last seen rounding out a horrible VH1 reality show featuring, uh, Sebastian Bach. So the odds of Zep recapturing much of that omnipotent Madison Square Garden vibe are as slim as, say, Paul McCartney buying you a venti caramel mocha latte at the mall Starbucks.

Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. Because this concert feels as if it might just be the last gasp, the final time rock royalty of this caliber will come together and at least point to, wink at, the true dark, sexy, omnipotent rock god charisma of yore. It is an invaluable glimpse, a prized reminder, Achilles' last stand. After this, the chapter closes for good.

Or maybe with any luck, the new rock gods are just biding their time, perfecting their bulges, waiting for their opening. We can only hope.

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