Back at the Wilshire Pedro sits there dreaming
He’s found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3,” he says, “I hope I can disappear . . .” — Lou Reed, "Dirty Boulevard"
“Rock and roll owes its life to the power of the commodity fetish” — Erik Davis
When I was 12 or 13 it wasn’t uncommon for me to pick up a magazine devoted to Star Trek and spend the better part of an evening simply staring at the pictures. I also bought the comic books, and pored over the newsprint until the books fell apart at the staples. Once, I even saved up money for a model kit that featured the tricorder, communicator and phaser. When I finally got it home, it proved to be far and away the crappiest model kit I’d ever purchased. I’d had snap-together kits that were more challenging — and better looking.
The dodgy comics and models could have served as a wake-up call. Instead, as I grew older the market provided ever more sophisticated items for me and my similarly smitten friends to purchase and ponder. I had a buddy who favored the blueprints and technical manuals. I preferred the photonovels — cut-and-paste comic books made from prints of actual episodes. Someone’s kid brother bought the wonky action figures, similar enough to the execution of my models that we held up them up to braying ridicule.
We gave the entire pantheon our critical consideration. When all was said and done, these items all served as a means to the same impossible end: to get us closer to The Thing Itself. Like the kid who opens Goodnight Moon to his favorite page, then sets it on the floor and stands on it, that wacky juror who walks into court in her Starfleet uniform just wants to be inside Star Trek. *Sigh*: c’est moi, mes amis. C’est moi.
Until I read Erik Davis’s inspired 33 1/3 meditation (A) on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (IV, ZOSO, what-have-you) it had never occurred to me to dub this sort of longing as “spiritual.” It certainly wasn’t sexual. Although, mind you, Uhura or Yeoman Rand in a red mini and black leather boots were admittedly stirring figures. As was Yvonne Craig, painted green and dancing sinuously in a few scraps of fabric. Then there was that robot girl with the bright, uh, eyes . . .
Alright, so it was sexual. But that wasn’t the whole of it, not by a long shot. There was the technology, the exotic environment, the bonhomie, the adventures and their physicality, the cogent possibility of experiencing genuine fulfillment at the end of a given challenge — a large, engulfing sensibility that was akin to true life, and yet Something Other than actual experience.
So too with Zep’s fourth album. As Davis makes abundantly clear, you can click over to iTunes and download the songs, but listening to those music files through a pair of earbuds doesn’t even begin to evoke the experience of that album’s power in its particular time and place. The music is about noise and sex, sure. But there was a time when the gatefold art, the mysterious symbols, the off-puttingly ambiguous lyrics — even the vinyl itself — combined to conjure an experience that wasn’t just provocative, or even evocative. To paraphrase Coppola’s early enthusiasm for Apocalypse Now, this album wasn't a rock 'n' roll album. This album was rock 'n' roll.
I find Davis’s treatment of the subject matter delightfully adept. He’s quick to identify and brush away the manifold silliness that accompanied (and was frequently generated by) the band and the album. But he’s also fundamentally serious about the group and the musing (and muses) that produced this deeply appealing and inescapable monument of Rock. He performs a fabulous balancing act between critical thought — that post-spiritual apple that finally removed me from my Trekkie Eden — and a suitable receptivity to the possible.
Now that I've finished the book, I want more. I want the LP, I want to read Davis' other work, I want to re-read this book, I want Davis to write a sequel, I want . . . I want!
Wait a sec: how'd I wind up back in the Garden?
Post-script: if this is a little too much Trek for you, blame it on Joel.