Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Album That Changed My Life - Houses of the Holy

The idea for this came from a friend who changed my life almost as much as this album did.

We were supposed to be in church. Well, my friend Mike was anyway.

Somehow, he had arrived at an arrangement with his mother. He would be allowed to go to the late mass, allegedly, with me and Mark. I think it was partly a matter of convenience. With his two sisters, they made a family of five who, as they all got to high school age, probably had a hard time fitting in their little car. So, the rest of them went to the early mass.

I think it was a matter of convenience in another way, too. It was becoming more of a battle to get Mike to worship every week, and, this way, his mother could let herself believe he went to church. And, while out of her sight, he could do what he wanted to do, which was drive around with his friends all afternoon.

That’s how Mark’s car came to be called “The Temple.” On most Sundays, if the surf wasn’t up, I would walk across the street to Mark’s house, and we’d drive around the corner to pick up Mike, ostensibly to go to church. Mark’s car had the best stereo system, so it became our place of worship, a rolling sanctuary where music and marijuana were doled out in strong doses.

We drove for hours, up and down our stretch of the Treasure Coast, from Vero Beach to Jupiter. Between us, we smoked a small forest of marijuana. And we listened to some incredible tunes. But the music selection was dominated by two bands. Pink Floyd. And Led Zeppelin.

Let me tell you a few things about Zeppelin. When they played live, they excelled at escalating their songs to crushing crescendos. A music writer at a Zeppelin show in Boston in 1969 saw concert-goers in the first few rows so invigorated by the band’s performance they began rhythmically slamming their foreheads against the front of the stage. It was from this event, and the subsequent review, that the term “headbangers” was coined.

But Zeppelin doesn’t get enough credit for their ability to unplug from the amps and play without losing their impact. They could be heavy and light. Their name, perhaps more so than any other band name, captures the essence of what they were.  Led. Zeppelin.

We explored the Led Zeppelin catalog in order. By then, everyone had heard the first two albums, and witnessed the blues being transformed into crunchy rock before their very ears. Led Zeppelin III was more acoustic and held hints of the Welsh countryside where most of the material was written. This was part of the genius of Led Zeppelin. Each album was distinctly different from the one that preceded it and the one that followed it, but still bore the unmistakable signature of the band.

After that came the fourth album, officially untitled, which combined the band’s different moods and influences with innovative production into something unique and eternal. And, of course, it informed the world that there just might be a Stairway to Heaven.  

The next one in line was called Houses of the Holy. This was an album that changed my life.

Each member of the band was at his musical peak. Bassist John Paul Jones had introduced the Mellotron to his repertoire. Robert Plant’s rangy yet throaty voice had never been better. John Bonham’s drumming was powerful to the point of being intimidating. Jimmy Page, in addition to being one of the greatest rock guitar players that’s ever lived, had become a gifted producer.

Page had perfected his technique of recording guitars by placing a microphone right in front of the speaker cabinet, as per the usual method, but also placing a microphone twenty-five feet behind it, and running the combined signal into one channel. The effect of this was that it recorded the sound in the space between the two microphones, and captured the ever-elusive ambience of the room in a simple but remarkable way.

I’ve never heard guitar tones better than those on Houses of the Holy. And they were recorded in 1972.

The album dripped with the raw energy of their earlier work, but it was more refined. It would still test the pain threshold of your ear drums if you wanted it to, but it had a pop sensibility that wasn’t in the first four albums. The subject matter wasn’t confined to the usual sexual angst or medieval lore.

 The first track is called “The Song Remains the Same.” Conceptually, it’s a simple expression of unity, the idea that music gives us all common ground. But the song is anything but simple. When I first heard the guitar work, my jaw dropped. It still does.

“Dancing Days” and “Over the Hills and Faraway” are rollicking party songs, the former with a simple but clever guitar riff, the latter with a folky twelve string acoustic opening that segues quickly and powerfully to Page’s layered electric guitars and Plant’s wailing vocals.

“The Crunge” and “D’yer Maker” contain elements of funk and reggae - and humor - that confuse music critics, but, ultimately, display even more of the band’s versatility.

“The Ocean” is a tribute to the fans as they appeared from the band’s point of view on stage – a rocking and rolling sea of people.

“No Quarter” is a dark song that’s dominated in the early portion by Jones’ keyboards. The production style gives it an eerie, almost psychedelic feel. Plant sings of howling dogs of doom and soldiers walking side by side with death. The middle section features an unusual guitar solo by Page, but each member of the band is suitably showcased. When played in concert, it stretched to twelve or fifteen minutes long, and ended in a knee-shaking climax.

Finally, there is “The Rain Song,” a seven and a half minute guitar symphony, with a healthy touch of the Mellotron. Using seasons and weather as an extended metaphor for emotions, Plant’s lyrics tell of the changes that occur in relationships.

I think I knew even then that “The Rain Song” would resonate with me decades into the future.

It was near the end of my senior year in high school. Mike and I were going off to different colleges. Mark was staying behind. Each of us was changing, and we knew it. Our relationship with each other was changing. We knew that too. But we behaved in that peculiar way teenage boys do, unable or unwilling to express complex emotions.

And then comes House of the Holy… with this whole range of feelings I hadn’t expected from a Led Zeppelin album; love, loss, friendship, confusion, sorrow… If the artistic growth of a band can be compared to the course of a human lifetime, like us, this raucus teen was becoming an adult.

I had avoided lengthy relationships with girls. I didn’t do break-ups well. I still don’t. I wanted the trust and comfort level that comes with commitment and time spent together. But I was terrified of being vulnerable, and of what the end might be like. That which I craved most was also that which I feared most.

Some things never change.

My friends and I discussed lyrics that touched us in one way or another, but never talked about why, or how. We recognized the power of music to penetrate pockets of emotion we didn’t want to acknowledge, or didn’t even know we had. But that was as far as we would go. My favorite songs usually expressed the things I felt, but didn’t have the nerve to say.

I will never forget this one Sunday. We were supposed to be in church. Or, at least, my friend Mike was.

But we were in The Temple, driving around, listening to Houses of the Holy. “The Rain Song” came on. It was a beautiful, sunny day. And there was something about that moment that struck us, the three of us.

All the things we were thinking about were there, in one song. Love, loss, friendship, confusion, sorrow. Beginnings… and endings.

Mike piped up from the back seat, and in the long, slow, drawl of someone who was very stoned, said, “Wow. I wish it would rain.”

Just then… I swear to you on a stack of Led Zeppelin albums… I saw a few small splashes on the windshield. Then a few more. Then a steady sprinkle for about thirty seconds. And then it was gone.


“Holy shit.”

“Are you kidding me?”

I can’t recall who said what, but I remember hearing those words.

After that, it was a long time before any of us spoke again.

I don’t believe in miracles, so I don’t know what to say about that afternoon, that moment.

Maybe it’s better left unsaid.

When we dropped Mike off a few hours later, his mother was standing in the driveway, smoking a cigarette. As he walked past, she raised a skeptical eyebrow, that gesture of silent interrogation parents do so well. There would have been no use trying to explain that we’d had a spiritual experience far more powerful than any we could have had at St. Patrick’s.

A few weeks later, I was gone. Off to college. I don’t recall any long good-byes. I just… left.

Every time I hear Houses of the Holy, I think of Mike and Mark, and of many other people, too. I think of relationships that didn’t end the way I wanted, or that ended for no reason at all. I think of all the things I left unsaid, and of what I would tell each of those people, if I had the chance.

Because, you see, I can say it now.

But I still can’t say it any better than Robert Plant did...

I’ve felt the coldness of my winter
I never thought it would ever go
I cursed the gloom that fell upon us
But I know that I love you so         

Track Listing –

The Song Remains the Same
The Rain Song
Over the Hills and Faraway
The Crunge
Dancing Days
D’yer Ma’ker
No Quarter
The Ocean