|Hubble image: Omega/Swan Nebula (M17)|
It’s hard enough to forge a new path in the physical world, but when you are creating something that is more new than derivative and it is on non-physical levels, when you are exploring spiritual realms that have no boundaries and no words to describe them, when you must invent a way of describing where you are going at the same time you are going there, the challenges are more than compounded – they can be simply overwhelming. Sometimes a Mage simply needs help.
Apprentices provide assistance to masters of all arts and crafts. That help ranges from the most basic levels (fetch and carry) through to the most advanced levels where the apprentice is an actual partner of equivalent skill who can help the Mage achieve what cannot be achieved alone. The master Mage is the one who directs the Work; the apprentices or partners provide directed support for the master Mage’s vision.
Jimmy Page has been a seeker of musical solutions since he first started experimenting with riffs that were not dictated by song arrangements created by others. He began his explorations even in his session years; he began seriously pushing the envelope during his time with The Yardbirds; and in Led Zeppelin he was, it seems for the first time, freed to let his magic explode.
“When people talk about how good other guitarists are, they're talking about how they play within the accepted structures of contemporary guitar playing, which Pagey plays miles outside of. I like to think of it as...a little left of heaven.” Robert Plant, from forward by Cameron Crowe to Led Zeppelin, Volume I (Two Volume Songbook Set).
Mr. Page made careful choices in the musicians he chose to share his vision. What made Led Zeppelin work was that Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham each were no mere apprentices but extraordinarily gifted musicians themselves. What made Led Zeppelin different was that that they separately and jointly understood the power of music to convey meaning and emotion, and were willing to explore musical pathways outside of the accepted musical structures of their time.
Balance is magic is balance
Unlike classical symphonic music, almost all today’s popular music focuses on lyrics, with the lead singer almost always considered to be the band’s leader. In a way this links back to the days when music was used to support story-telling and oral histories. Lyrics are so important in modern music that the musical instruments have been relegated to mostly support for the vocals.
Where there are lyrics in music the human mind tends to focus on the words and to use the words to bring meaning to the song. If there are words present, no matter how vague, humans use “pattern recognition” to provide context and meaning. Pattern recognition is an ability humans share with animals; it is so strong in humans, however, that patterns will be found even when they don’t exist (images in clouds, for example).
It is significant, then, that although Robert Plant’s vocal presence is huge within the music of Led Zeppelin, lyrics are not always the focus of a song. Mr. Plant’s voice often is not used to tell the story of the songs, but rather to suggest an approach to concepts just as strongly put forth by the instruments. Mr. Plant wields his voice as an instrument rather than a conveyance of human language, and pure vocal sound intertwines with the guitar of Jimmy Page in a balanced manner that is a signature sound of Led Zeppelin. Yet for all that the lyrics are not the story, the songs do not lack in meaning – human pattern recognition ensures that although people might not agree on what that meaning is, all are drawn to the powerfully meaningfulness of the music.
This approach – the subsuming of vocals to the musical experience of four instruments rather than a human voice with three supporting instruments - is extraordinary; it is so rare as to exist virtually nowhere within the equivalent realm of modern popular music. A classical symphonic concept applied to contemporary music, it is a key factor - mostly overlooked and under-appreciated - that secures Led Zeppelin’s place in musical history. Perhaps more importantly, it also provides us with hope when faced with a musical future where there is no more Led Zeppelin. For those who are open to this kind of larger-than-life concept of music, the desire to receive the grace and enlightenment of the vision, the need for connection to the Universe that was made present in our human world through that music still remains.
Thankfully, although there is no Led Zeppelin today there is still Jimmy Page.
Beyond Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page was, by all accounts, devastated by John Bonham’s death, and did not pick up a guitar for some time. His partners in Led Zeppelin, meanwhile, moved on to pursue their own musical goals and the results are as good as anyone would expect from musicians the caliber of Robert Plant and John Paul Jones. As exceptional as their music is, though - it isn’t Led Zeppelin. It can’t be.
“We arrived at songs like 'Kashmir' because we kept moving forward and didn't try to recreate the past." Jimmy Page, as told to Make Blake in Guitar World, May 2005.
More than a decade of working and living in intense partnership with friends and co-magicians of Led Zeppelin cannot be so easily replicated by any one of the remaining members of that band by himself. It took the alchemy of the four to move forward as they did: Growing up together, physically and musically traveling the same path, working towards a goal they shared. They each had an intimate knowledge of the minds and souls of the others and frequented the same musical spheres.
In the time that has passed, each of the three has continued to evolve musically, but not together. They have each kept moving forward, but not on the same path. They may somehow arrive in the same place, but their musical stories will not sound the same.
Today, only one of them retains the pure vision that drove Led Zeppelin, because it was his vision all along. The question is, how can he now bring forth that vision to the world?
[To be continued]