Saturday, June 23, 2012

No Communication Breakdown

I have a lot of books on my TBR pile, most of which are fiction. Occasionally a nonfiction book sneaks in, and the latest was Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis. I read the book as research for a freelance assignment about a group of young men who form a band. Since I'm neither an audiophile nor a musician, I decided that I better educate myself about the business.

We fiction writers pride ourselves on plucking the emotional strings of the reader and it was a surprise that a true story like Hammer was able to punch me in the guts over and over again.

Like many American teenagers of my era, Led Zeppelin formed a significant portion of my coming-of-age soundtrack though I never paid much attention to their personal melodramas. I can remember when I first heard them and so they appeared to me fully formed and complete, like children of Zeus. Of course there is a back story, and it was astonishing to learn the many what-ifs along the way. Like Rod Stewart was almost their lead singer. That in the early days LZ crossed paths with a shy, out-of-work piano player named Elton John. They were stalked by a mousy lost soul who as it turned out, was Squeaky Fromme, the woman who later tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. The original name of the group was the New Yardbirds and after much confusion over their identity, the Led Zeppelin moniker was chosen as a joke. Robert Plant showed up for his first auditions spattered with asphalt from his day job on a road crew. John Bonham helped at his father's construction company and carried bricks to bulk up. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones cut their teeth as studio musicians and got to witness first hand the consequences of fame's excesses, which helped them navigate the trials of future stardom. They both shared a reputation as cheapskates.

It's tempting to try and make the Led Zeppelin story conform to the mold of a tragic tale. But in truth, everything runs its course. No one is immune from tragedy, every life has a sad ending, and even this super group was no different. Still, I felt genuine sorrow for these rock stars when I read how Fate hit them hard, and their millions were of little help to ease the heartache.

One example: on August 4, 1975, Robert Plant, his wife and two children were in a car crash while vacationing in Greece. Seriously injured, they lay beside the road until a passing farmer loaded them in the back of his fruit truck for a long ride to the hospital. Plant and family were in convalescence for months, and the group had to cancel a major tour. Two years later, Plant lost his son Karac to a viral infection, and the incident cascaded into events that led to LZ never playing in the US again.

Not all their stories deserve pity. Drummer John Bonham became a drunken bully, frequently beating up women, and to no surprise, died of alcohol poisoning at the age of thirty-one.

Looking back on the Led Zeppelin story, the plot--as it were--unfolded with the spectacle and sordid theater of a Harold Robbins' pot boiler. It would be a challenge for any of us novelists to think of a tale as rich and complex.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Mario, in fiction, their life story (which I wasn't familiar with) would have a made-up feel. But then, most people's lives do.

Mario Acevedo said...

Charlotte: So true. Fiction has to make sense to be believable.