Davis - Hammer of the Gods

September 17, 2004

Stephen Davis
Hammer of the Gods
New York : Boulevard Books, 1997.

As long as I was on a Led Zep kick, I decided to read Stephen Davis's biography of the band.

Davis tells two, perhaps three intertwined stories.

The first is the tale of two music industry professionals (Page and Jones) who got together with two talented kids from Northern England (Plant and Bonham) to play hard blues. The band then evolved to include Crowleyite mysticism, English traditional music, psychedelic drones, and a LOT of noise. Along the way they retained a structure of hard rock music with extensive dynamic shifts, tempo changes, and thick overlaid textures within a dense pudding of guitar, bass, and drums.

The second is the tale of excess. What happens if you take four young men, couple them with a crew of people devoted to keeping them happy and productive, send them out on the road for months on end, get them drunk, and tell them that no matter what they want to do, they can do it. Almost unlimited money and a crew of people devoted to protecting you from the consequences of your actions is a heady brew at any age, especially for a 20-something rocker with a fondness for alcohol and drugs. Aleister Crowley wrote "do what thou wilt, is the whole of the law" - without the modern Wiccan provision "an it harm none" - and the boys followed Crowley's advice.

This sort of release was liberating for many. One of the most telling anecdotes in Davis' long book of anecdotes was one morning as the band was checking out of their hotel. As usual, they and their roadies and groupies had trashed the place the night before, taking especial pleasure in flinging large TV sets off the 10th-floor balcony to watch them shatter in the parking long below. As the band manager was digging into his bag of cash - the band travelled with thousands in cash just to pay their bills - the hotel manager commented that he had himself often been tempted to chuck a TV off the balcony. The band manager grinned, peeled off another $500 bill, and said "'ere, 'ave one on us." The hotel manager thanked him and went upstairs. A few minutes later there was a huge crash from the parking lot and broken glass once again bounced off the cars and tour busses. The manager came down with a great big grin on his face and thanked the band for the pleasure they had just given him.

Davis organizes a lot of his narrative around the Jeckyl and Hyde nature of the band, using John Bonham as his metaphor for the entire crew of musicians, managers, and roadies. Bonham was a fairly gentle young man, kind and generous. But only while sober. Once he got drunk he turned into a sort of hair-trigger trap. He got more effusive and more generous until something - anything - went wrong, at which point he turned into a raving, screaming, cursing lunatic, raging around breaking anything and anyone that came to hand. They called this aspect of his personality The Beast. The odd thing was that not only did the Beast only come out when Bonham was drunk, he mostly only drank when on tour or when hanging around with other musicians. At home he was reasonable enough that by the late 1970s his neighbors approached him about serving as local Justice of the Peace - he declined. Musicians who destroy themselves and their talent through excess and debauchery are a cliche - no episode of VH1's various musical biographies would be complete without a segment on hard times and self destruction - but Davis reminds us that just as Led Zeppelin took the music that everyone else was playing and played it harder, faster, and with more dynamic changes, so too did they take their excess to striking and unusual levels.

It is a sad story in many ways. It is sad to read of someone who will walk into a bar, order 20 black russians, pound 10 of them, then turn around and try to pick a fight. It is sad to read of a perfectionist geek who gets caught first in cocaine and then in heroin. Finally, it is sad to read about the post Zep careers of Plant and Page. Davis argues that of the four, Jones was the only survivor. And he survived because, in large part, he steered clear of the flying circus that formed the rest of the band, often travelling alone, living elsewhere, and only appearing for showtime.

After the band formally broke up, Page and Plant sometimes got together for benefits or other performances. On some of these occasions, Jones was invited and joined them. At least once Jason Bonham, Bonzo's son who had jammed with the band as a teenager, sat in on drums. Davis points out that Page and Plant together produced a sound that was thin and forced, a parody of their earlier collaberation. When Jones sat in, they sounded like Led Zeppelin again. But, just as Jones had snubbed the rest of the band during their party frenzy, Plant and Page snubbed Jones after the band broke up, and so they all went their separate ways, none of them as creative or effective as they had been as a coherent unit.

I think I need to chase down some of Jason Bonham's music.

There is a lot of prurient material in the book. There are a lot of sad stories in the book. There are some wonderful anecdotes about the origins and evolution of the music. I am glad I read it. As I write this brief commentary, I have Led Zep's first 8 albums running in an iTunes party shuffle.

Posted by Red Ted at September 17, 2004 09:31 AM | TrackBack
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