Iconic albums can become the soundtrack to our teenage years, but how do our experiences affect the way we hear music?
In the summer of 1979, the year my middle brother finished school, my two brothers and I sunbaked and listened to music like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English and Led Zeppelin’s final album, In Through the Out Door.
The last belonged to my eldest brother, who owned all of Led Zeppelin’s albums. Our mother’s house, the place where we lived that summer, was close to the sand and faced west across a bay in Cronulla, a suburb on the southern outskirts of Sydney that was not as well known then as it is now.
It was a backwater but the music made us worldly. We lay and listened and drummed along on the tiles damp with salt water and sweat and squinted into the blinding light the low sun made on the water.
It was the age of vinyl. The black disc started spinning when the needle of the younger brother’s turntable was moved across to the outer edge of the record. There was a lever that gently lowered the needle onto the disc. Depending on where the needle was placed, the record might complete a couple of revolutions before the song started and we could hear a lovely stereo-space hum and the crackle of dust – the sound of anticipation.
We always listened to the whole album from the beginning to the end, which meant getting up and turning the record over in the middle. If there were songs we didn’t like so much, they just made the songs we did like sound even better. We were familiar with the journey; it would wash us up in a place we had been before, and, while it lasted, create a great big space for our emotions to play in.
My favourite songs on In Through the Out Door were the last two: ‘All My Love’ and ‘I’m Gonna Crawl.’ I liked the former’s gentleness. ‘All My Love’ is sad and elegiac with orchestration that is both lush and restrained. It sounded classical to me. I didn’t know then that a synthesiser produced the orchestral sound.
‘I’m Gonna Crawl’ is not as pretty as ‘All My Love’. Early in the song the singer wails ‘down’ like a plane going overhead. The slow, waltz-like drum and guitar contrast with the singer’s anguish.
When this guy says he’s gonna crawl, he doesn’t care if he’s got to go back home, he doesn’t care if he’s got to start again, he’s not going to take a car or a plane or a train; he’s gonna crawl. Like he’s a baby again. He couldn’t keep that up, singing like that. It would destroy him.
It’s impossible for me to listen to these songs now without what happened afterwards colouring what I hear: the death of Led Zeppelin’s drummer, the break-up of the band, and what happened to my brothers.
My middle brother’s story does not belong here. He liked different music – especially in 1979: the Human League’s Reproduction, Village People singles like ‘Macho Man’, Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’, Billy Joel, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp. We all liked Lou Reed’s Transformer and David Bowie’s Changes One. But I can’t mention one brother without the other.
First one and then the other.
Now, information from the internet crowds my perceptions: I learn Led Zeppelin was breaking up before they actually broke up. I read online that during the recording of In Through the Out Door in the northern winter of 1978, in a Stockholm studio owned by ABBA, singer Robert Plant and keyboardist and bassist John Paul Jones recorded the vocals and the synthesiser during the day while guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham came into the studio at night time.
Now I hear the disjuncture between guitar and drums, and vocals and synthesiser; the lumbering of a band coming to its end. And I learn how Plant wrote ‘All My Love’ about the death of his five-year-old son in 1977. Now, I hear portent in the songs that my younger self heard and misheard in snatches: ‘feather on the wind’, ‘proud Arian, yours is the will’, ‘to chase the feather in her hair’, ‘I get a bit lonely, just a little, just a little.’
How could melody and rhythm contain that desolation?
Led Zeppelin’s albums were part of my life in the way that an older sibling’s music is part of anyone’s life. You don’t choose it but you know it. You assimilate it and pick your own path through it.
I didn’t know the names of the songs then, or what albums they were on. I just felt how a tune and a voice and guitars and rhythm joined to produce an effect and mouthed along with my favourite bits – the high, open-mouthed melodic vocal in the middle of ‘Going to California’; the caterwauling of ‘The Immigrant Song’ after the driving beat kicks in; the high-pitched, echoing vocal start of ‘Black Dog’ before the intricate guitar riff sews the voice to the rest of the song. The band postured; their music strutted the line between inchoate wailing and perfectly timed artifice. The world had moved on by the time Led Zeppelin’s last album was released but my brother was still a faithful fan.
When I was fifteen I described my eldest brother in my diary as ‘just a piddling twenty-three-year-old dope smoker he lives at home and is a carpenter and shits all over everybody with a load of stupid crap when he’s out of it.’
‘Our faults are not tragic, just pathetic,’ I wrote. ‘Just the drudgeries of alcoholism, drug addiction and dagism.’ I complained I couldn’t make a movie out of it. ‘People just wouldn’t believe this movie. It’s too pathetic, unfair, boring, real.’
Toward the end of the summer of 1979, with a solemnity worthy of late Led Zeppelin, I asked, ‘What holds the brittle, narrow plank between ecstasy and despair?/Who will fall off?/What is the difference between now and what will come?’
Now I wonder whether the songs we listened to wrote our future.
Led Zeppelin built their reputation on their live performances, touring North America over and over again. They were cavalier about adapting other artists’ songs, and adopted vigilante tactics in their treatment of bootleggers and on the security for their tours. Like any performers, in their concerts, they played the energy of the crowd to create something magic and, according to Robert Plant, sinister and elusive. His voice, that icon of the 1970s, complemented what he has called guitarist Jimmy Page’s ‘whirlwind contrasts’.
Or there were the nights Page describes, kind of endearingly, as ‘an honest sort of mediocre night’. By the mid 1970s criminal violence and what now seems to me to be psychosis had taken hold of some members of the band and their minders. As far as public repercussions went, they got away with it. When did their telepathy and empathy turn into paranoia?
My eldest brother didn’t dress like those rock stars, behave like them or idolise them. He was usually a reserved person, an observer, not an exhibitionist. The rock stars performed; my brother absorbed their music in ways I can only guess at.
Music was vital to him because he needed beauty. Led Zeppelin’s music probably resonated with his own pounding adolescent rhythms and expressed attitudes he did not have the audacity to articulate. Their music fed our obsessions with bodies and gender and sex in a physical, visceral way while it took us to another poetic, ethereal world.
But how did the mad excess of the 1970s, the way those musicians squandered their virtuosity, affect my brother? Would I be different if Led Zeppelin had been the biggest band in the world when I was eighteen? My generation had a different starting point – the nihilism of punk, no skill on display, just two chords and a force of will.
I read biographies of the band and notice coincidences. My eldest brother would have noticed others, because he came to live in a world where everything meant something, everything was connected. Many of his qualities – his good memory, especially for songs; his openness to the world; his trustingness; his sensitivity to aesthetics; his fastidiousness about civil behaviour; his loyalty and his prejudices in a family that tested both – enabled him to see, feel and create patterns and connections. These connections are, in all rationality, irrelevant, but it’s not the rational stuff I’m interested in here.
In 1966, Jimmy Page performed with the Yardbirds with a Telecaster guitar painted with psychedelic Day-Glo whirls. As a teenager my eldest brother painted his things, his school boater, his books and posters, our ping-pong bats, with bright yellow and pink and orange fluoro paint.
Around 1972, Jimmy Page, mastermind of the sound on most of Zeppelin’s studio albums, started seeing a fourteen-year-old girl called Lori Maddox. I was fourteen when In Through the Out Door came out. Recently someone, somewhere on the internet, made a comment, meant to be disparaging, that In Through the Out Door appeals to teenage girls. Jimmy Page ought to know.
I pored over the Houses of the Holy album cover after it was released in 1973. I was eight. The album folds out and the picture that covers the outer spread shows naked prepubescent girls with long white hair climbing up rocks that are spotted lurid green with lichen. The sky is Mercurochrome orange and glowing yellow on the horizon. It is a very bright cover.
There was something illicit and mesmerising about those girls’ hand-tinted pallid skin and naked bottoms, but after I got past that I was fascinated by how blonde and how long their hair was.
That was the first year I was allowed to grow my hair. In this age when the storage of music no longer takes up any physical space, I can still feel that album glowing in my hands.
Nevertheless, the coincidences are mere chatter. Because you know it all – like a fourteen-year-old, without necessarily being able to articulate it – when you listen to the songs. Not the chronology and the facts and the names: how many tours of North America; how much money; how they went their separate ways, that cocaine was band manager Peter Grant’s downfall and alcohol John Bonham’s and heroin Jimmy Page’s. But you can hear the story in the songs: the brokenness, the irreparable damage, the loss. And while a song cannot encapsulate a whole person, or a life, or even a summer – a song is just three or five or ten minutes – it is the closest form we have to conveying a particular kind of versatile, portable, adaptable truth. Because something that is basically the same can be different every time it is sung, every time it is listened to.
My eldest brother’s deterioration was slower than Led Zeppelin’s. He didn’t get away with it – in public or in private. He suffered many breakdowns, he was jailed twice and involuntarily committed to psychiatric care numerous times. He had various diagnoses (including schizophrenia and manic depression) and was prescribed many different medications (including Haldol, Stelazine and Zyprexia) after that time we sunbaked on the tiles at our mother’s house and before he died of heart failure, in 2004, on his forty-seventh birthday, twelve years after our other brother died of AIDS.
I cannot write about what happened to my eldest brother in a way that offers insight or enlightenment. A paragraph for each time he stayed up for weeks and acted outrageously: 1981, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994…2003? A litany of mania and melodrama. Breakdown, institution, medication. And again. My brother getting further and further away from the person he once was. The drugs disfiguring his face and his body. The soles of his feet thick and yellow and cracked; his hair long and greasy; his skin coming off. He never really recovered from his last breakdown; he died angry with me.
Some experiences are pleasantly memorable because they were unpleasant or scary at the time and remembering them brings a sense of relief because you survived without injury. But nothing happened when we sunbaked on the tiles at our mother’s house. It was a hiatus. Everything happened afterwards, or before. Maybe we were experiencing the world a new way. Already damaged but allowed to be ourselves, free from fear.
I’m going back to the good bit, a moment that as likely as not never existed as I remember it, but which I can hear now when I listen to those songs. What happened before and what happened after, what happened to the band and what happened to my brothers, telescopes into and out of that moment.
My brothers’ deaths are everywhere. They are in everything. They lie behind my thinking. I don’t know how to write about them except obliquely, by writing about everything else. I return to the music, as if those Led Zep songs can articulate something about my eldest brother that I cannot reach; as if they can render into language something about the way he perceived the world; as if they could make his experience publicly intelligible.
The songs are not the whole picture: the low sun reflecting on the water, the hot tiles, my brothers, together and separate from me in the way siblings are, with their own thoughts and stories, and our common base. I want to project innocence back on to that time, but that was the last thing I wanted then. The innocence is mine now, the fresh eyes I have to look back.
At fourteen I would have chosen death rather than innocence, but that’s what I hear, what I love now: a man, who is not innocent, looking for redemption, seeking atonement, singing about an innocent kind of love.