The communal bond that keeps fans of Led Zeppelin listening and hoping is strong, if not stronger, than it was when first forged by the hammer of the blues-loving gods in the late 1960s. It has withstood the death of one member, long absences by the other three and occasional cameo reminders of what is and what will never be.
When the three remaining members — Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones — reunited with drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late John, for a concert last December in London to honor the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, Ron Laffitte considered not attending, even though he obtained a ticket more precious than Willy Wonka’s gold ducats.
“I’ve been a fan since I was 11,” said Laffitte, a managing partner at Red Light Management, which handles acts like Alanis Morissette, The Decemberists and Band of Horses. “I bought ‘Physical Graffiti’ in 1976. I didn’t get to see them when they toured in ’77, when I was 12.
“I almost didn’t go to the show (in December) because I thought, ‘What if I fly all the way to London and they suck?’ All of my life, this band meant so much to me. If they suck, it will destroy the illusion.”
But naturally, he went.
Love or money?
Plant is 59, Page is 64 and Jones is 62. When they were about 27, 31 and 29, respectively, I saw them at Madison Square Garden, in 1975. (The exact ages are unclear because research reveals they played the Garden at three different times of that year on their North American tour, and I can’t find my ticket stub). It was about as spiritual an experience as a high school-aged kid could have while breathing hemp fumes from the blue seats and grooving to “Dazed and Confused” while being wonderfully dazed and confused. I’m not a religious man, but this scripture I could dig.
Roughly 32 years later, the band returned, with Jason being embraced by band members and fans alike for having his dad’s genes and his own wicked beat. The show at London’s O2 arena was a smash hit, fueling speculation that Led Zeppelin might just turn the one-night stand into a thing.
Obviously, when John Bonham died, something within the other three went with him. Yet with Jason such an accomplished and honorable replacement, there isn’t that obstacle anymore.
I understand the Led Zeppelin fan’s catch-22 as well as anyone: I want them to tour, but I want to remember them as they were. That’s what Laffitte experienced going in.
“It completely lived up to the hype,” he said. “The feeling in the room was incredible. The anticipation was incredible.”
‘Serve the fans, serve the music’
Cameron Crowe understands this better than most. He went looking for that confounded bridge like the rest of us, only he got there. Now an acclaimed writer-director, his experiences as the youngest-ever contributing journalist for Rolling Stone were chronicled in his film, “Almost Famous,” for which he won an Oscar for best original screenplay. Led Zeppelin was one of the famous groups he made even more famous in the ’70s.
“The credo was always: serve the fans, serve the music. If they were solely interested in a payday, they probably never would have broken up when John Bonham died. If Zeppelin tours, you can bet it’s because they felt it was right for the music and their legacy. Page, Plant and Jones are very careful about never ‘dragging the flag in the mud.’ Witness their reunion for Ahmet Ertegun last year. They picked the right time, took their time getting there, and it was a feast for fans.”
“My discussions with the band members before the show pretty much assured me they had taken the show seriously and really wanted to be as good as their legend,” Fricke said. “That’s why they did so much rehearsal and work on their set list beforehand. So when the lights went up and they came out, it was clear they had prepared and taken it seriously.”
But will they tour?
Those looking for clues as to whether they will indeed embark on a world reunion tour have some conflicting evidence. In Fricke’s pre-concert piece, he quoted Page as saying the first rehearsal by the band was “a delight.” Plant told Fricke it was “cathartic and therapeutic.”
Well after the show, Page told Reuters that there is a chance of a Zeppelin tour, but not until after September, after Plant finishes his mini-tour with Alison Krauss. Plant has given out contradictory info: In September, he was quoted as saying, “There’ll be one show and that’ll be it.” In January, after the O2 event, he said: “You never know what is around the corner. It’s just nice to play with those guys.”
Then came a story in England’s Sunday Mirror quoting a source close to Plant as saying that he turned down an offer of 100 million pounds — about $200 million U.S. — for a reunion tour because he wants to leave the December show as the band’s final word. But Plant is not quoted directly in that report.
A cockeyed optimist in his burning Zeppelin T-shirt might conclude that, because the boys had such a blast reliving the old dancing days recently, they might all want to prolong the feeling. That would be the only hope for Zep zealots: The group getting together again to have fun and make music.
“I don’t think they’ve changed all that much from the band that got together in a small room in London in 1968, played ‘Train Kept A Rollin’’ and knew that what they had was rarer than rare, once-in-a-lifetime chemistry,” Crowe said via e-mail. “More than any other band I’ve covered, the group is connected to what it is to be a fan … because they’re fans themselves. Talking to the band members is like talking to somebody who got the best seats in the house — and they did.”
Crowe added: “The success of the show last December sure shows that they can do it. From all indications, it felt right to them on stage. And with Zeppelin, it’s always been about feel.”
Contrary to the $300-per-ticket mercenaries who dominate the arena landscape these days, it was never about money. As Laffitte put it, “They’re all rich beyond comprehension.”
“The show (in London) was a benefit,” Fricke explained. “They didn’t come out to make a buck. They came out to prove a point, to show they were as good as remembered. They did it to honor their mentor and friend.
“It wasn’t just about money. They spent money to do that show right.”
‘People are hungry for substance’
Whatever happens — whether Led Zeppelin tours again, or whether the band members opt to sit back and enjoy us enjoying them — their legacy is as ingrained in rock history as Page’s Les Paul.
For most of Led Zeppelin’s life as a band, disc jockey Jim Ladd was on hand to introduce their music. A fixture on Los Angeles radio since 1969, the Hollywood Walk of Fame inductee can be heard on KLOS 95.5, spinning rock CDs free-form style. He said there is so much interest in Led Zeppelin because the band transcends generational pigeonholing.
“Their music is that good,” Ladd explained. “They’re not just a pop band. It’s in the songwriting, the performance. Led Zeppelin means a lot to a lot of people. Why does any band mean anything? Because the music is so good.
“You never heard this about some pop band. You hear it about the Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. Because we have so little of that these days, people are hungry for substance. That’s why you have so many young kids in high school turning on to that music of that age. They know we have the Beatles, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, while they have Britney Spears. And that is a direct quote from an 18-year-old who once called my show.”
Five minutes before the recent Led Zeppelin show in London was about to begin, Laffitte went to the bathroom. He didn’t really have to go, but he figured when one of the most storied rock bands in history is about to begin its first full concert since 1980 and you have one of about 20,000 tickets that more than a million people desperately tried to obtain in an online lottery, it’s always a good idea to make a pit stop so you don’t miss any of the show.
“I’ve been going to concerts now for 30 years, and I’ve never been in an arena where there was not one person in line at the concession stands or in the bathroom,” he said. “Everybody was in their seats. The anticipation was nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
If they tour, multiply that whole lotta love by many times over.