musicvirtual children by Scott Warnock

So Zeppelin won

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So Zeppelin won. A jury found that the group did not copy the chords in “Stairway to Heaven” from the band Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

They damn well should have won. I only heard “Taurus” a few years ago, at a summer barbecue. Wow, we said, that does sound a little like “Stairway.” But plagiarism, copyright infringement, theft? Nothing is like “Stairway to Heaven.”

In Berlin Boro (not some fancy ass “Borough”) there is the Berlin Farmer’s Market, or, as we called it, simply, The Auction (to put a link here to its online presence would be, to me, against the essence of the thing itself). It’s a long, one-story building full of store-stalls. Outside, flea market enthusiasts can set up and sell almost anything.

As a kid, I biked the two miles to The Auction to buy the two new pairs of jeans I was allotted each fall for school. I went there to play, poorly, video games, dumping quarters into Asteroids, Pac-Man, Defender, Scramble, and Centipede (the latter was the only one I was halfway decent at; with a nascent sense of economics, I realized other kids got a lot more for their buck with these games).

We went there to go to the Hobby Shop. What a place! It fueled our D&D game. I’d buy the books and adventures, and the players, all patiently waiting for me to get up to speed, would buy little grey lead figures and spend summer days painting these orcs and dwarves.

We’d go there and buy candy. We’d also buy clams from the clam bar, although I can’t believe this started when we were teens.

One day, during my unfortunate slide into teendom, I was wandering outside The Auction and came across a guy selling rock albums. I saw one with a grainy picture of an old man with a bundle of sticks on his back. “Ah,” I thought. “This is that Led Zeppelin album with ‘Stairway to Heaven.’” I paid two bucks. I brought the album home, put it on our stereo, dropped the needle, and played that long, entrancing song over and over again. I wore it out.

One day, I decided to see what was on the rest of the album. I don’t recall my stunned self, but I have this vague recollection of shock as I listened to “Black Dog,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “When the Levee Breaks,” like unseen gold had been there before me. I feel it now as I’m typing this.

In fact, it just dawned on me while writing these words that in the imperfection of life, I thought in Zeppelin IV I had found something perfect.

For me, Zeppelin is the best, above all, no contest. No similar gap between #1 and the rest exists for me with books, movies, anything. There is Zeppelin. There is everything else.

“Taurus” is fine. Spirit is good. But I can’t imagine “Taurus” weaving itself into the fabric of my life. I can’t imagine spending hours looking at Spirit lyrics in that weird “Stairway” script (which apparently Page had developed). I can’t imagine trying to squeeze meaning out of a song like we did by playing “Stairway” backward on Mike Kahn’s reel-to-reel — yes, we thought we heard the satanic messages in Robert Plant’s screechy voice.

One Christmas Eve, I tried to use the “Levee” to fall asleep, unfolding the pounding opening in my mind, but I blanked on the first words and lay awake for hours! (“If it keeps on rainin’…”)

I even have a buried-on-my-computer a semi-humorous short story about a man who finds out his had wife slept with some Zepp members way in the past.

Who knows why Zeppelin has had such a hold on me through the years. Perhaps everyone has their thing that brings them back, over and over. But one thing is for sure: Zeppelin was, is, and always will be unique.

Plagiarists? Zeppelin went through similar accusations with their versions of blues songs. But every time I listen to a Zeppelin take on something else, I’m convinced that uniqueness. Charging Zeppelin with stealing makes me think of Lawrence Lessig’s comment in Free Culture: “Overregulation stifles creativity. It smothers innovation.” I don’t have the musical knowledge or vocabulary to elaborate, but Zeppelin took everything it touched and made it greater — and different.

And through that, the band moved, touched, fascinated, and altered people.

I don’t know how it began, but our tradition was to celebrate the first day of summer with “Black Dog.” We’d soon be wandering over to The Auction, coming home with bags of candy and unpainted goblins.

I was 33 when I got my PhD. In your dissertation defense, you sit in front of your committee and summarize and defend your key idea. My wife and friends Pete and Lou came. I made my case, speaking, as my advisor Eli Goldblatt said, perhaps faster than he’d ever seen anyone speak before, they asked some questions, and then I left the room. They deliberated. I returned and the committee approved my work. I was done.

My friends and wife congratulated me, and then Pete whipped out a small cassette player and pressed play. A guitar rumbled a little. And then we heard Robert Plant, “Hey hey, mama…”

The spirit of Led Zeppelin. Summer had started. I was a doctor for real now.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “So Zeppelin won”

  1. First album I ever purchased! Your are my music soul mate!

  2. They were brilliant. Students of the blues? Absolutlely! Do the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” sound like Spirit’s version? Yes. I was speaking to my brother-in-law (a professional singer) about this tonight and we agree that chord progressions can be easily plagiarized. There are too many examples to write. You hear, read or watch something and it enters the brain. Sometimes Led Zeppelin was unique and sometimes they took something good and made it amazing. “When the Levee Breaks” was an old blues tune, but Jimmy Page et al elevated it to heights I can’t even describe in words. Thanks for touching on a favorite topic. Love to you and the family.

  3. The last day of fourth grade (could have been fifth), I was at my best friends house and he played me songs from an album that I had never heard before. Led Zeppelin IV. I was hooked before the second bar of Black Dog. It, that album, and that band, has been embedded in me ever since. I played it for myself every last day of school, played it for my friend on his last school day possible, and I have played it – even if just for myself – on my kid’s last day of school each year. Led Zeppelin wasn’t the hardest, wasn’t the loudest, wasn’t the most prolific. But to listen to them and to be unaffected on some level would seem impossible. I doubt anyone ever said that about Spirit.

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