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Snapsongs: “What Is And What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin

Monday 28 April 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

As I am a male of a certain age, no series of musical memoirs should be considered complete without some mention of Led Zeppelin. Every young man needs to select a particular British supergroup to obsess about, and my choice was Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones annoyed me, Pink Floyd was too full of themselves, I hadn’t yet crossed into the land of heavy metal a la Black Sabbath, and I appreciated but was ultimately bored by the Beatles. Led Zeppelin answered the demands for volume, thump and energy that youthful testosterone requires. I could air drum with Bonham, thrash out with Page, play weird keyboard noodles with Jones, and practice my awful falsetto with Plant. It was the perfect setup. It was a staple for my high school morning commute.

But the memory that sticks in my mind the most whenever I think of Zeppelin comes from a somewhat later time, when high school was an era rapidly retreating into history and I was almost finished with my first college degree. The hormone storms were subsiding, I was no longer as young a punk, I was working on my undergraduate thesis. I had begun to embrace a wider array of musical styles, I was more interested in nuance, and I was teaching myself to play bass. My song selections became less of a vehicle for rocking out and more of a vehicle for playing along. Before the howls begin: yes, yes, John Paul Jones is an excellent bass player, but I rarely looked to Zeppelin for inspiration. That came from elsewhere.

So, the scene: it was the summer of 1993, an odd transitional point, an odd brief hiatus in that early collegiate career. A roommate situation had gone sour, which had necessitated a quick exit from my former place of dwelling. I was in a low-rent apartment less than three blocks from the university; it took almost five minutes for the warm water to make its way from the hot water heater to my shower, it was carpeted in medium-gray indoor-outdoor carpet that made spill cleanup a breeze, and it was considered a “one-bedroom” rather than a “studio” apartment through the addition of a flimsy partition of wobbly drywall that was actually installed over the carpeting. But it was cheap and close, it had a nice garden with a big tree, and the high wooden fence around the courtyard meant we only got weird homeless people wandering by every couple of weeks at most. Of course, the fraternity house next door had the habit of playing “Whoomp There It Is!” at high volume early in the morning, but all I had to do was turn on my wall-mounted air conditioning unit to drown them out. As I remarked to a friend at the time, there could be two tornadoes doing a samba outside my window and I’d never know it, because that A/C unit was loud. It made sleeping something of a chore, but dealing with the summer heat and humidity was even worse. I know this because I tried it.

All this would have been just fine and dandy if it wasn’t for the unfortunate mental space I found myself in at the time. In a nexus of genetic susceptibility, social isolation, general malaise and worry about what I was going to do with my life, I had become the victim of periodic panic attacks that lasted anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours. As it turned out, they were almost completely contextual, and as my general outlook and situation improved over the next two years they lessened and finally subsided, never to bother me again. However, that didn’t help me as I lay on my back in that shitty apartment, the din of the air conditioner warring with the roar in my ears, gripping the corners of my bed in a sweaty determination to wait until the world ended or my heart exploded, whichever came first. Although millions of causal abusers have given it a bad reputation as a designer drug, let me just say this: alprazolam, brand name Xanax, is a wonderful therapeutic medication.

In between panic attacks, I was ostensibly working on the undergrad thesis required for my honors degree program, but everyone who has tried such a thing knows how that goes. Things happen in fits and starts, and although the things that needed to get done got done when they were supposed to, there was never a coherent and protracted level of effort involved. I was doing an examination of how my fellow honors students reacted to a required science class, using statistical instruments to analyze their expectations and strategies from an educational psychology standpoint. It was a belated way for me to give something back to the honors program: instead of writing a novel like many of my cohorts, I would attempt to help the administration improve their course design. The class in question was physics for non-majors, and it had been a bone of contention and a hub of controversy amongst my classmates. Honors liberal arts students are not used to learning science, and they are especially not used to failing at any intellectual endeavor. This class offered them the opportunity to do both. I had rather enjoyed my time in the class, as it was taught by an experimental physicist who regularly rubbed shoulders with Murray Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg, but I was a minority. Sometimes, indeed, a minority of one.

So I figured I’d give back to the program by explaining why the class hadn’t been going so well. In doing so, I had stacks of bubble sheets and questionnaires to check off, I had legal pads to fill in with data, and I had to figure out if the answers to a series of thought problems I’d given the class through their discussion sections actually had something important to say, and what that exactly would be. Fortunately for me and my thesis adviser, this indeed was the case. I was able to find a statistical link between the creativity of the answers given and the ultimate grade in the class. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t discover this until later in the fall, when I was able to run my codified data through some stats programs on the VAX cluster at the university. That summer, it was hard to keep slogging through the stacks of paper without an indication that the slog was worth it. This was before iPads and smartphones, mind you, paper was what we used for everything back then.

And paper was how I distracted myself when the slog got too much. I would work my way through the morning newspaper — something of a micro-Internet printed out and delivered to your door every day — reading through everything and then ending with the comics and the classifieds. The classifieds — an analog Craigslist, one that you had to pay to post in, back in those benighted times — were a guilty pleasure. I had very little money and even less storage space, but I always checked out Automobiles, Electronics, and Musical Instruments. I was a closeted car nut, a stymied audiophile, and an aspiring musician. I would briefly fantasize about that 1973 turbo Diesel Mercedes, or the 1978 BMW 3.0, or the Mackintosh tube preamp, or the Adcom spatial multiplexer, or the five-string Fender bass. Or that Kramer acoustic bass guitar. Wait a minute… the what?

Yes, there it was, right in the Musical Instruments section, a listing I hadn’t seen the day before. A Kramer acoustic bass guitar, black, with case, for only $300. Oh, man. I didn’t have much, but I did have $300. I called immediately. It was 8:30 am. The gentleman on the phone was amused when I asked if he still had it. Four other people had already called, but he still had it. I asked when I could pick it up. He said 1:30. I said, okay where are you? Five hours later I pulled up to the house with a wad of cash in my pocket. He was waiting with the guitar in the carport. Deal done.

To clarify: this was an acoustic bass guitar, not an acoustic bass. This was not an upright instrument that might answer to the name bass viol if it wandered into an orchestra pit. I would not have been able to get a double bass — maybe not even the bow for one — for $300. It was just like a guitar, but strung E-A-D-G just like an electric bass. Since it was acoustic it didn’t need amplification. I could hang out on the walkway, or in the courtyard, or around campus, playing out in the breezy air. Or, more importantly, I could play and practice in my apartment without annoying my neighbors through the very, very thin walls we shared.

So I started using my new-to-me acoustic bass whenever I could, which was pretty much every day, because I was still avoiding my thesis. It was glossy black, with golden phosphor bronze strings and blond wood neck behind the rosewood fingerboard. The headstock drooped down in a sharp point beyond the tuning heads. It had a piezoelectric pickup next to the sound hole, so I could technically plug it in and play it through my amplifier, which I did from time to time. It had a decent woody sound with bright attack from the high string action. What this means is, the strings were set high above the frets, so it took more pressure to press them down, which helped generate more sound energy through the soundboard. This extra pressure made the noise of the strings striking the frets sound louder and higher-pitched. This meant I needed to play more precisely, unless I actually wanted that sound. It also meant it was physically harder to play quickly, and raised more blisters when I did. A week of that and I had extra callouses on my callouses, and it made playing my electric bass seem like playing butter. I was pleased at this extra benefit from my impulse purchase.

And this is where Led Zeppelin comes in. I’ve never been able to read music, and have only occasionally attempted to teach myself to do so. Mostly it was because I get bored and quit before I see any results, some of it was because I have a real dyslexia in interpreting timing from the whole-half-quarter-eighth array of flags and bars, and some of it was because I just feel ornery about it. The attempts I’ve made usually coincide with a half-guilty effort to Improve Myself and the availability of sheet music for me to stare at. That summer was one of those times. I had a new bass, one that I probably couldn’t afford, and I felt I should make some effort to rise to the occasion. Every now and then my parents would buy me a Bass Player magazine, and I had a few of them kicking around the apartment. Soon after buying the Kramer, I discovered one of them had the bass sheet music for “What Is and What Should Never Be”. Well, then. Musician, improve thyself.

That particular song was never one of my absolute favorite Zeppelin tunes, but I liked it, and it was a valuable part of the arc of the album Led Zeppelin II. It was definitely more laid-back, something more of a swing-lounge piece than the usual fare I would favor. So it was an interesting experience coming at the song from underneath, so to speak, taking the sheet music and trying to figure out what all those dots and sticks were trying to tell me. In the process I discovered that there was quite a bit more going on than I had expected. Lots of bluesy runs and scales, but a lot of bass chords, riffs that needed tricky fingerwork to pull off, and little bits of gingerbread that I never would have been able to hear in the studio recording — unless they were pointed out to me, like they were on the sheet music. It gave me a new appreciation for John Paul Jones, and for the construction of Zeppelin’s music that lay below the rock-out-with-your-cock-out bluster. It was mellow, and mellowing.

So that became my non-thesis project that summer, deciphering the musical staff and toughening up my fingers in order to play “What Is and What Should Never Be” in its entirety on my Kramer bass. I never managed to learn to read, but I guess that wasn’t the point. The point was to find a place of solace in the panic. When my eyes got tired of reading student handwriting, I’d pick up the Kramer and begin where I’d left off, sometimes playing with the song on CD, sometimes just playing. When my fingers got tired of the high action, I’d pull out my blue Peavy electric bass and run through the licks with very little effort, pleased with how this new acoustic regimen was increasing my speed. Sometimes, if it was a reasonably dry heat that day, I would actually play outside, leaning my folding chair against the wall and putting one foot on the railing of the walkway that served me as an ersatz balcony. The tree would shadow me, the breeze would blow, and the cicadas would serve as a background drone. Peaceful.

As I said, it was mellowing, and that was a relief to me that season. I was plowing through my thesis work, but I didn’t know if it would be a success. More ominously, there was that unspoken situation that lurked behind my thesis, ready to pounce: graduation, and the murky future that extended beyond that. After the December ceremony, assuming I passed all my classes and my thesis was accepted, all bets were off. This was the source and the sustenance of my panic attacks during that long hot summer. What would I be? What would I do? What would I become?

At least I knew one thing: I was becoming a better bass player through the intercession of Led Zeppelin. It wouldn’t put food on the table, at least not yet, and it wouldn’t answer all my questions, but it was something.

2014-04-28  »  Edward Semblance