There are a few different approaches one can take in dating Led Zeppelin, the larger-than-life hard rock band who caught fire during the 1970s like an out-of-control comet. You can stick to the music, which is the approach taken by the upcoming documentary “Becoming Led Zeppelin.” You can be a rut, as in Steven Davis’ highly unauthorized 1985 book Hammer of the Gods. Or you can chomp on the whole story, glory and mayhem, train wrecks and true bliss.
This is how Bob Spitz deals with his sprawling novel, “Led Zeppelin: The Autobiography” (Penguin Press, 688 pages, ★★★ ½ out of four, out now). Spitz, whose previous themes have included the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Ronald Reagan, knows he doesn’t need to exaggerate the band’s obnoxious behavior, from the blind, drunken sexual assaults of drummer John Bonham to the fearsome entitlement of guitarist Jimmy Page. He also knows that said behavior doesn’t cancel Led Zeppelin’s strong musical victories as the most famous rock band of her generation (they’ve routinely sold out over the Rolling Stones). The good, the bad and the ugly coexist in Led Zeppelin’s story, and Spitz knows just enough to report and tell it all.
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It all starts with the blues, the obsession of 60’s English white boys looking to break free from the safe strains of pop. “For a generation of British teenagers looking to make their mark, the blues has become a state of mind,” Spitz writes. Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and others made the hearts of these young musicians beat with bitterness, including an infamously talented slender guitarist named Jimmy Page.
It wasn’t long ago on the page that The Yardbirds jostled alongside his friend Jeff Beck. To his credit, Spitz does not portray this pairing as a kind of cooperative paradise. One stage wasn’t big enough for these two egos. Besides, Paige had something bigger on his mind: a superhero group, who boasted the kind of talent and profile no one else could match.
From the studio scene in London he plucked guitarist John Paul Jones. In the midlands blue-collar pub scene found singer Robert Plant and fierce drummer John Bonham. There is a relative innocence to these early times when forces are gathering. Zeppelin had not yet become a diva group. Mountains of cocaine, rivers of wine, and piles of money have yet to coagulate after the Quartet. Their demands and expectations have not yet become absurd. The band’s manager, Peter Grant, wasn’t yet an addictive bully. Zeppelin just wanted to be louder and better than anyone else. And often they are.
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It’s clear that Zeppelin wasn’t the only band of their time and environment that participated in the rock ‘n’ roll surplus of the ’70s. But they seem to have pushed hedonism to extraordinarily destructive lengths. The book details two cases of attempted rape by Bonham, who drank himself into an early grave at the age of thirty-two. Paige was a connoisseur of groups of minors: “Robert’s girlfriends weren’t as young as Jimmy; Robert’s girlfriends weren’t as young as Jimmy. “Many were hovering around adulthood,” Spitz wrote. Regarding the group scene, it was Blunt who said, ‘Minute One is twelve years old and the next minute is thirteen years old and above.”
“It tells us about attitudes at the time that cultural commentators did not describe as offensive,” Spitz wrote. “Rock ‘n’ roll bands – especially Led Zeppelin, perhaps the most outrageous in the behavior department – were given a pass.”
On the other hand, Spitz doesn’t give anyone a pass. Hovering over all the partying and all the jams and richly detailed accounts of each album’s creation is an abundance of hateful behavior that only got worse as Zeppelin’s fame exploded. Blame it on drugs, alcohol and empowerment if you like it, but this is a group photo that doesn’t flatter.
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