Funny, I can’t remember now where I bought my Gibson EBO bass. It was a pretty cherry red in a brown cardboard-type case. I didn’t know how to play it and felt extremely self-conscious whenever I pulled it out of its case at William and Mary that freshman year. I never even bothered to learn where the notes were for a year. That anxiety and repression were clear residues of my fear and loathing with the oboe.
There were a few musicians (using the term loosely) on our hall at W&M. One was a chubby New Jersey kid who could play quite well. Had a Guild six-string and a very clean, Young Rascals style. Another was Bruce Chapman, who became my best friend that year. He had played organ in a band in Maryland, which made him a hotshot. He’d set up his keyboard in his room, I’d plug in my bass and we’d thump and grind together. We got lots of mileage out of that Spencer Davis song, “Gimme Some Lovin’” with the “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, BOMP” bass opening and the trademark Leslie organ sound. Bruce was very patient with me. I even found where the C was. I got such a big charge playing with him, even though my part was one note and its octave.
Bruce, Reid and I, plus a few other people, made it to the Baltimore Civic Center the following year for a remarkable show. Vanilla Fudge was the headliner; also on the bill was Led Zeppelin, Gun (another British band), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and a local group, the Paisley Lemon Bars or something like that. The local band made us all wince, mostly because the sound system stank. Those days, being an opening band meant nothing more than letting the sound guys twist all the dials and set all the levels while you were trying to perform, leaving you looking and sounding like tone-deaf maniacs.
Gun never played, and we never knew why. No announcement made. Reid had bought the album, and it wasn’t bad. The best part was the cover, an animated scene from Hell with ghouls and devils enough for Heironymous Bosch. I think Reid still has it.
Paul Butterfield’s band was excellent. They had this tall rangy curly-blond guy playing a Telecaster. He was fluid and inventive. Even when Butterfield howled on harmonica and this guy backed away to play rhythm, his style was so distinctive that I still kept my eyes on him. I don’t remember a bit of what Butterfield played. And I don’t know why Mike Bloomfield, who had a totally different attack, was not there. I wasn’t disappointed.
Next came what Reid and I considered the main attraction—Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page on guitar. I need to back up to say that the Yardbirds were the most influential band for Reid and me. Like the Stones, their base was the blues (they were the backing band for Sonny Boy Williamson while he was in England). But where the Stones were very pop oriented, the Yardbirds had a wild gleam in their collective eye. Their edge was hard, the guitars more abrasive, the bass boosted, and they could wail and scratch unlike any other group of the day. So we knew all the songs of those early guitar heroes, Clapton at first, then Beck, glorious Beck (Reid’s all-time fave) and, finally, Page. “Little Games” was a bittersweet album, the Yardbirds’ last, with some dazzling moments. Hell, Reid and I were so into the Yardbirds that we went to see the movie “Blowup” several times just to see a section where the group gets on stage and rips through a demented version of “Stroll On” (“Train Kept a-Rollin’” with different lyrics), complete with Beck smashing his guitar to smithereens as Page chunked away coolly. (We watched in awe the first time, then figured out later, to much disappointment, that Beck was bashing a cheap guitar and the whole thing was staged. C’mon, Jeff!)
Sooo, here was Page with a new band. Reid had bought the album only a day or two before, and I recall him saying that while he hadn’t given it a thorough listen, it didn’t knock him off his feet at first. I hadn’t heard one note, so I was in that blissful situation of being completely blown away by a band I’d never heard. I love when that happens. Living Colour did that to me.
I can’t remember the order of the songs. I think they started with “Communication Breakdown.”
First image: Page, scraggly black hair, his skin as pale as smoke, wearing bell-bottoms and a leather bomber jacket, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Very tough guy. Your mother’s worst nightmare on guitar. He was playing a 1950s vintage Telecaster with a black pick guard. It was slung low, real low. We’re talking knee level. So here’s this razor-thin guy with his arms totally extended trying to reach his guitar, like he’s just caught it from falling.
Page kind of staggered when he played, both physically and musically. He would stumble around a little, then yank the guitar’s neck as if to choke the truth out of it, then stumble back a few steps. His leads stuttered. He’d have a fluid combination of riffs, misfire slightly, hesitate, then blaze away in a different direction. It was riveting. Just as with a person stuttering, you’d listen more closely, waiting for the words or notes. You’d take nothing for granted. Page never played it safe with the formula leads because he’d string together notes in patterns we’d never heard before.
Reid and I had a barometer for the caliber of a guitarist. If he could make us laugh—play something so new and so amazingly good that the notes seemed to bubble up inside us with irrepressible laughter—then we were impressed. Page made us laugh that night with his skimpering and wailing. One set of ascending triplets—sextuplets!—had us both giddy.
I distinctly recall that at the beginning of the set, Page’s guitar sound was not prominent, way too low in the mix. So a roadie ran onto the stage and put a mike right in front of his amp. Much better. That’s not something you’d see in today’s mega-technology.
Which brings up a point to bear in mind. Back then, you didn’t have sound engineers in the audience. You also didn’t have elaborate lighting, only your basic spotlights that wandered back and forth from the singer during the verses to the guitarist during the leads. Zero stage sets. Bare bones amplification. Now everything runs through the PA and a gazillion-channel mixing board and comes out a not-so-dull roar. Then there was more definition among the instruments, particularly noticeable, as with Page, when one was way out of balance.
Page fit our preconceptions nicely—battle-hardened ex-Yardbirds guitar ace. The band’s singer was another story. He had sheep-curly hair—couldn’t see his eyes except when he kept moving his hair aside—a shirt with the ends tied together at his navel like some calypso singer, and tight-tight bell-bottoms. Somewhere in there, either the shirt or the pants, was a blinding shock of pink. Pink? Who was this guy? Was it a guy, even? He sang high enough to shatter glass, but he swaggered so much had had to have balls. He’d take the mike, hold it out front, arm’s length with the cord tight against his hip, and move around half like he was playing guitar, half like he was making love to some phantom princess.
We had to look up his name later on the album. Robert Plant. He certainly wasn’t in the denim-and-leather mold of Page, but he had an energy that crackled. Page’s playing seemed to goose him, and they’d spar back and forth. Of course, “Dazed and Confused” was magical in that regard. The record sounds a bit hokey when the call and response part comes, but live, with Page drawing a violin bow across the strings, it was half duet, half gauntlet thrown on the floor. “Anything you can play, I can sing better.”
In my mind, John Bonham and John Paul Jones were supporting cast members. That was unfortunate, because I’d love to have appreciated Bonham’s drumming then, when he was in his prime, as I do now. But I can’t remember a lick about either of them.
The band as a unit was hungry. They played a stunning set filled with energy. It’s amazing now to think of them, future hammers of the gods and heirs of rock’s world heavyweight crown, opening for the Vanilla Fudge. Reminds me of when Yes opened for Ten Years After. But that’s another story.