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Led Zeppelin: Sodom and Gomorrah in a Suitcase

21 Min Read

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the July 1977 issue of Creem. One of the magazine’s most famous and beloved pieces, it is emblematic of the spirit of both the rock rag and the author.

FLASH: April 19, 1977, Cincinnati, Ohio: Led Zeppelin, a British rock group, again brought violence to its wake when about 1,000 fans tried to gatecrash a Zeppelin show in Cincinnati last night. Police arrested 100, punctuated by thrown bottles and fights.

Just as I was approaching some semblance of slumber, there was a dull thud, a louder crash and suddenly the wall between my room and the next was lying in pieces on the floor. Needless to say, I was awake. Shit, I knew this was going to happen, I muttered to the intruder. “Yeah, but did you know it would be the Prince of Peace?” inquired Robert Plant gleefully.

I suspected that Led Zeppelin’s legendary form of rock ‘n’ roll expressionism (commonly referred to as “Zeppelinizing”) still existed when the location for this interview was suddenly changed to an uninspiring single-occupancy, Gidget-Goes-Continental breakfast room in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel instead of in Plant’s suite of rooms, as originally planned.

I went down to the front desk to plead for a new room. The clerk protested until I asked him how he’d like to reside in a room with wall-to-wall hamburger patties, cola-drenched bedsheets, French-fried-plastered walls, mustard-smeared mirrors, a 16-piece telephone and gutted cushions where the furniture used to be. I got a new room immediately.

“You know on some nights after a gig, it’s just like the 1973 Led Zep tour [more commonly referred to as the Continental Hyatt House Capers, to the initiated], we’ve already equaled that, even in our short stay,” Robert Plant confessed, when I mockingly inquire whether the band is mellowing with age. “The management has been most kind,” chuckles Plant, lead singer of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest band, both in popularity and tales of debauchery.

‘The lifestyle of rock ‘n’ roll is to live well and to take a good woman.’

“It goes as far as it does because it’s a laugh. It’s not any release, you know all that shit about road fever is just bullshit. We only do what we do because it’s fun,” Robert tells me playfully.

“But Robert, what is it? And how far does what go?”

Robert’s only reply is a coy and knowing smile.

“Well, Robert, if you don’t want to talk about specifics, why don’t we discuss the...er...psychology of the lifestyle of rock ‘n’ roll on the road?” I prod.

“Ah...” he settles on one elbow, savoring his own images before continuing. I’m surprised he didn’t lick his lips. “The lifestyle of rock ‘n’ roll is to live well and to take a good woman.”

Well, does our daring rake ever find one of his female followers trying to lure him away from his happy home back in Merrie Olde?

“Yeah,” Robert replies a bit reluctantly. “But you know people can’t fall in love with me just because I’m good at what I do.”

“But do they?”

“Errrr...Yeah.”

“So, what do you do, put up a red flag and say don’t get too involved, I’m married?”

“You’ve got to do that or say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go,’” he says resolutely. “The time may never come that I’m influenced, but I am prepared to go out and look...Whoops, I hope this doesn’t get back to England!”

Robert doesn’t have much to worry about. Swan Song Records makes sure that as little as possible of Zep’s afterhours antics ever see the light of day, much less the public eye. Much of the mystery of what goes on behind closed doors (or closets for that matter) remains a matter of speculation and rumor.

There is the ever-present bodyguard barricading the hallway with a chair propped outside his room, so he can both scrutinize all seventh-floor trafficking and watch continuous color TV, making it difficult to be a firsthand observer of any of the dirt that lies hidden under the sand-colored shag carpets of the Ambassador.

Six days into an American tour, the backstage broadcasts are scorching with new and improved tales of the perverse.

“You’ve got to be kidding, nobody can do that non-stop for four hours!”... “In a fishbowl?”... “You mean the limo driver never even turned around?”... “He did all that and walked away from the table?”... “It cost how much to keep it quiet?”

But wouldn’t you be disappointed if there weren’t any? I know I’d be aghast if I heard that Zeppelin had cleaned up its offstage act.

It was about 5:30 a.m., and I had finally managed to sneak away from all the carousing and carnage of the past 48 hours, and had successfully thwarted Bonzo from breaking down my door or dousing me with a wastebasket full of what I hoped was water. Bonzo was entertaining himself by going from room to room with a broken bedpost slung over one shoulder, demolishing as many rooms of Swingle’s Celebrity Hotel (where everybody is a star) in as little time as possible.

FLASH: January 29, 1977, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A three-day vigil of Led Zeppelin fans resorted to desperate measures as the cold became more intense and they began tearing down fence posts to feed the fires they had built in metal cans.

Last August, Jimmy Page told writer Cameron Crowe: “I’m no fool, I know how much the mystique matters, so why should I blow it now?” And Page is right, by casting himself as his own Loch Ness Monster, sequestered between tours in Aleister Crowley’s former castle, he only adds to the enigma that goes on forever. Whatever the chinks in Led Zep’s armor, we’ll never get to know without a can opener.

My first encounter with Page was not what you’d call cordial; if I want to be kind, it was chilly at best. He sauntered unsteadily into the room on his obscenely (and enviable) thin legs (I’m certain he couldn’t possibly even measure into a jean size of 27 long), dressed in his regalia of the night before, which caused a passerby in the hotel lobby to remark to her companion, “If that’s not a rock star, he’s a flaming wonder!”

The attire in contention, or should I say, attention, was a pair of white billowing military jodhpurs, a bit on the soiled side today, a Crayola crayon-colored magenta blazer, strange braided leather appendages that trailed down his backside and scuffed umber, knee-high boots. The outfit was flamboyant for evening, much less mid-afternoon, and Page looked anything but flaming — I’d venture he belonged (as usual) in the pale and gaunt category, probably due to his recent bout with the flu that caused Led Zep to stop midway through one of its Chicago concerts because Page was too ill to continue.

He informed Janine Safer, Swan Song resident exec — and Girl Monday through Monday — and myself that he hadn’t eaten in three days (but when he does ingest a meal, it’s liquid, he revealed — something he concocts in his own room out of vitamins, bananas and a blender); so I attribute his unsteady entry to ill health and not drugs since his dark eyes are remarkably clear. Anyway, the general consensus of the members of this tour is that the usually excessive and overindulgent Mr. Page is virtually drug-free. In fact, Robert was overheard to say that this is the first time in years that Jimmy has been straight, adding that this was just like the old days. “I haven’t had this much fun with Jimmy in years,” Plant testified.

Jimmy’s commentary also seemed to substantiate the testimony, when he retold the case of the missing Quaaludes (more on that caper later): “I don’t know who the doctor thinks he is, asking me if I took his drugs, especially now, when this is the first time I’ve been healthy in years.”

Oh, so we can reasonably assume that healthy is a euphemism for straight.

After his initial tirade, we got around to introductions, and as I am introduced as working press, the ever-inscrutable Mr. Page flippantly announces that it’s now time for him to “cellophane his mouth.” I didn’t expect anything more from him, considering Page and the press have traditionally been in uncomfortable company. To further punctuate his point, Jimmy informs me that he intends to have a cocktail party and was going to invite just everyone but the press.

Jimmy Page tells me that the only way I could converse with him during the interview was if I were to direct my questions to his PR woman, and then she would relay them to him.

“They only come for the free drinks,” he says darkly, angrily flicking the ashes from his cigarette onto the floor to further illustrate his disdain.

If I thought things were off to a rocky start then, I was wrong. Page tells me that the only way I could converse with him during the interview was if I were to direct my questions to his PR woman, and then she would relay them to him — despite the fact that I was sitting less than four feet away from him, and that we both spoke the mother tongue.

It is such an eccentric request and I don’t know what to say. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, I should’ve walked out, but this is a cover story, and my dignity is so much more dispensable than my ambition. But like the Canadian Mounties insist, they always get their man. I was damned if I was going to let this one get away — never mind how awkward this whole setup is in this awful charade, as if we were both ambassadors at the UN speaking different languages. But here, in this dark, candle-lit hotel room in Minneapolis, heavy with the scent of incense and cigarettes, there would be no accord.

Despite his obvious enmity, paradoxically, Page is very interested in my reaction to the previous night’s performance. I tell him I’ve seen better Zeppelin, and that I thought this particular show seemed a little lackluster; more remote than control. The PR woman makes the comment that both the Minneapolis daily papers and Robert Plant echo that sentiment. I add, but not in any act of appeasement or in any effort to win this strange man over, that he seemed more enthusiastic and animated onstage this time than in the previous tour.

“That’s why Robert is so pissed,” Jimmy says solemnly, without betraying whether the comment is in jest or not. “I’m very animated, that’s because I’m happy,” he says.

“In fact, I think there were some tremendous moments last night. It was very intense…” he trails off, looking vaguely out the window at the parking lot below.

Yeah, like during the acoustic set when Jimmy became so absorbed in his guitar work that he leaped out of his chair and edged toward the end of the stage, unplugging his guitar in the process.

Suddenly brightened by some memory (the same one?) of last night, he adds, “We were tight, yet loose. Loosely tight.” As if savoring the phrase, he says, “You know, someday I’d like to call an album that, ‘Loosely Tight.’” With that rather uninformative exchange he gets up rather unsteadily, a pale hand holding on to the edge of the wooden chair.

“I’m really not sorry to say this, but this interview is over,” he says formally, like a stiff actor in some Victorian drawing room comedy. Except this isn’t the least bit funny, and the feelings are mutual.

FLASH: January 30, 1977, Houston, Texas: In South Houston, police had to call in fire trucks to hose down the 3,000-3,500 Led Zeppelin fans who tried to stampede Warehouse Records and Tapes to buy tickets for the band’s April concert. Store officials instructed the successful buyers to hide their tickets and leave by the rear entrance of the store, to avoid having them stolen by the crowd.

Robert Plant is looking as handsome as ever, his red tennis shoes are the Chi-Chi Est I’ve seen this side of a locker room, and his perpetually summer blond mane is stiff competition for Farrah Fawcett-Majors. He seems none the worse for his dreadful accident, save his customary tight jeans are a little tighter due to the fact that he can no longer play a vigorous game of soccer for fear of permanently damaging his bad leg again.

Plant is not at all reticent about discussing his car collision of 1975 that shattered his right ankle and leg and halted Led Zeppelin, who were virtually stopped in its musical tracks only months before a massive American tour. As Plant began to recover the use of the limb, and his state of spirit and mind, the rest of the band were released from their uncertain holding pattern. In some odd, inexplicable way, the accident did something for LZ’s solidarity, as tragedy often does, bringing the people involved closer together.

The recording of their “Presence” album was largely occupational therapy for Plant and his restless cohorts. They all needed something to vent their collective energies on since their tour plans had collapsed. So, on the advice of manager Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin recorded its seventh album in the surprisingly short period of 18 days. “We obviously couldn’t tour, so we decided to make a record, which we probably wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for me,” Plant explained a bit wryly.

“What I mean was, against the odds, sitting in a fucking chair, pushed everywhere for months and months, we were still able to look the devil in the eye and say, ‘We’re as strong as you and stronger, and we should not only write, we should record’; so when we did record I got more enthusiastic and that helped me physically. It was much easier to curl up and be cared for. Once I had reacted to the upheaval, that lying dying vibe, once I came to terms with that, I knew I had to pace myself in such a way that I DIDN’T OVER DO IT. Otherwise, I might be back where I started again. I took a very good, close scrutiny of myself, and transcended the death vibe, and now I’m here again, and it’s mad city again.”

FLASH: March 17, 1977, Chicago, Illinois: Thirty young men, including several juveniles, were arrested by police during a disturbance around Chicago Stadium, as thousands of people sought to buy tickets for a concert by Led Zeppelin, “a rock group.”

(Speaking of mad city.) This tour consists of 40 cities in two legs, over 700,000 tickets sold and a projected gross somewhere in the altitude of ten million dollars. “But just suppose Led Zeppelin were scheduling its next tour and the tickets didn’t sell out and it looked as if you weren’t as big as you used to be?” I asked. “We’d just do the tour,” Robert replied confidently, maybe a little surprised that I’d even hint that they’d throw in the towel. “We’d tour and become our own best advertisement...I mean, our music may change so much in times to come that our audience does diminish. Because I know we won’t become passé, we might take things beyond what people are prepared to accept from us. For example, our third album wasn’t immediately accepted, but it was a signpost for the continuity of the internal stimulus of the band. It had to be. It was the next step and people didn’t take to it too quickly. They were more interested in ‘Where’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’? Had we not done that, we would probably have stayed together for only one more album. When you think you’ve reached a dead end, you have to get off the horse.”

Instead of dismounting, they’ve increased their horsepower considerably; for this tour they’re traveling in a luxury Boeing 727, which jets from city to city, and back to the home base they’ve set up at the Ambassador whenever possible. (As long as the supply of new rooms holds out!)

The mood of the journey is not quite that of four businessmen commuting to work, but more like one of those chartered social excursions sponsored by the Elks Club or Acme Travel.

Tonight, however, the twenty-some persons belted into their cushioned seats are traveling to Minnesota for a two-day stint in the Twin Cities. The interior of this pleasure ship is blue and metallic silver, decorated in early video cassettes, Swan Song’s Icarus logo, Caesar’s Palace swizzle sticks and a bar dispensing brain-altering banana daiquiris. The mood of the journey is not quite that of four businessmen commuting to work, but more like one of those chartered social excursions sponsored by the Elks Club or Acme Travel to such exotic digs as Las Vegas or Palm Beach. Maybe it’s the caviar canapés, the light chit chat, John Paul Jones’ backgammon tourneys or perhaps the presence of Dr. Larry Something, the tour doctor, who is threading his way through the cabin, passing out “pregame vitamins” to all occupants of said cabin, regardless whether you’re one of the “players” or not. Very coffee, tea or vitamin E.

Dr. Larry is a veteran of two Zep tours and one Rolling Stones invasion, besides being a graduate of Harvard. He seems to do little more than administer the occasional throat spray and aspirin, in addition to picking up as many willing young lovelies as medically possible. Tonight, our MD is having an especially heavy workout, beginning with the task of trying to revive Robert’s current traveling companion who had just fainted — although probably from the high altitude, not from too close contact with one of rock’s most desirable dream dates. Two more will crumble before the night is over, and the dear doctor doesn’t seem at all amused that he had to discontinue socializing with the giddy Cher lookalike who he’s brought along for the ride. Dr. Larry only scowled, an expression he seemed to affect all evening. Especially when he discovered someone had rummaged through his satchel and looted his entire supply of methaqualone.

He almost wrote his final prescription when he decided to corner Jimmy Page in a bathroom and cross-examine him as to the whereabouts of the stolen Sopors.

“Accusing me!” Page exploded. “Who does he think is paying his salary anyway?” (Is that a disclaimer?)

Dr. Larry was so outraged and astounded by the theft of his drugs — no major infraction for a rock ‘n’ roll tour of this proportion — that you’d think he’d been hired to perform brain surgery, rather than installed as resident rock medicine man. But the trails of the AMA took a backseat, and we all buckled up again, coasting into magnificent Minneapolis to begin the five-point plan that began with deplaning into seven waiting limos, complete with motorcycle escort, to hurry to the Minneapolis Sports Arena, which was teeming with about 18,000 of Zep’s most faithful — all in a state of suspended anticipation to experience some auditory euphoria, after their anguishing two-year deprivation, part of which was spent slobbering on the shrink wrap of the “Presence” album — awaiting the performance of the Real Thing, otherwise known as Led Zeppelin, the defending champs of heavy rock.

The audience will have been administered three hours, 17-plus songs, 30,000 watts of hard and heavy rock, English flash blues and empyrean meanderings from Zeppelin’s repertoire. Dished up along with laser beams, a 12-minute drum solo, smoke, dry ice, extraterrestrial guitar soars and stud-swaggering body language.

This mass purging of underaged frustration makes a Led Zeppelin concert almost a ritual, a coming of age for some, for others a reassurance of the rebelliousness of youth.

You know it’s 1977, and Led Zeppelin has been around for nine years now, and I can’t help but wonder if part of its popularity is due to the fact that the band is the last of an era of cock rockers who plays dirty and, if you’ll excuse the expression, “chauvinistic” rock ‘n’ roll, fulfilling all those wild-hearted bad-boy aggressions on stage that its audience only fantasizes about. This mass purging of underaged frustration makes a Led Zeppelin concert almost a ritual, a coming of age for some, for others a reassurance of the rebelliousness of youth, though there are many fans in the over-30 bracket. (Whatever happened to “Wild in the Streets”?) Sometimes in my more expansive moments, I even have speculated that the band represents an entire code of behavior involved with being cool, fast, young and cocksure. You know, rules for living near the edge.

FLASH: April 17, 1977, Miami, Florida: Five hundred to 1,000 Led Zeppelin fans waiting in line to buy tickets broke through the gates and began vandalizing the Orange Bowl Stadium. Police had to use tear gas to break up that melee, in which 16 policemen were injured as a result.

What does Robert Plant feel about the hysteria around Led Zeppelin?

“Well...One thing about us that does upset me — I see a lot of craziness around us. Somehow, we generate it and we revile it. This is an aspect since I’ve been away from it that made me contemplate whether we are doing more harm than we are good. That’s very important to me. I’m not doing a Peter Green or anything. What I mean is, what we are trying to put across is positive and wholesome; the essence of a survival band, and almost a symbol of the phoenix if you will; and people react in such an excitable manner that they miss the meaning of it, and that makes me lose my calm, and I get grrrr angry.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up. Cool out the ‘works, they don’t help out show very much.” Robert admonished the firecracker-happy audience from center stage, stopping the show after the third song. “Why don’t you save ‘em until you get home and stick ‘em down a drain,” he suggests irritably.

“I don’t know why the fans toss firecrackers. I think it’s horrible. That’s the element that makes you wonder whether it’s better to be halfway up a tree in Wales,” Robert proclaims to me.

“So what are you doing here instead of up that tree?”

“The thing is, I look into so many eyes every night, and when I initially look, those eyes are sort of sealed ‘cause they don’t think I’m real, but bit by bit, I work on just those pairs of eyes until they glow with warmth, and then it makes it worthwhile, and woooosh, the firecrackers dim down...”

In an era where disposable bands and itinerant musicians constantly play a game of musical chairs, it’s an oddity to find a band existing as a unit for the past nine years with the same members that were involved as its inception. In light of that, Led Zeppelin is a study in endurance.

I asked Plant whether any of them had ever anticipated LZ being together this long.

“No. It took a long time before we could look at ourselves from a distance, look back and say: There’s no reason why this thing should ever stop! It’s one of those bands with enough imagination amongst us to keep it going.”

“But, if you hadn’t beat the odds, could Led Zeppelin ever have been strictly a recording band?”

“Had it been me, I wasn’t going to compromise by being Frank Sinatra or somebody. Still having a voice, I’ve got a right to perform. The performance always comes first,” said Robert.

So now, Robert, you’ve given me the secret of your success, your speedy recovery, your peace of mind, your popularity and pocket money. But there’s one very, very important formula you’ve left out that I’m sure all your fans are dying to know: “To what do you attribute your long life?”

“Imagination, self-stimulation and chicks,” he said with a straight face.

“Any projections on the next thing, since you said before that there was no reason why your band couldn’t go on forever?” I poked, half seriously.

“There are two paths you can take...” he pauses to see if I get it. Very funny, but the words go like this, wise guy, “There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on...” Robert, taken only slightly aback by the proper lyrics, paused and grinned.

“I don’t know...I think it’s an extension of what I’m doing but I don’t think I’ll be surrounded by so much hysteria. I think I will go to Kashmir one day, when some great change hits me and I have to really go away and think about my future as a man rather than a prancing boy.”

FLASH: June 1, 1977, Poughkeepsie, New York: Rumors of a Led Zeppelin tour scheduled for fall of 1979, spanning 30 cities in 28 days, has sparked off an unprecedented appeal for ticket information. Unhappy fans, when told that tickets were not yet available, resorted to sending plastic explosives to Ticketron offices across the U.S.

Published in partnership with Creem Magazine

One of the first women to work in rock journalism, Jaan Uhelszki got her start alongside Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds and Dave Marsh — considered the “dream team” of rock writing at Creem Magazine in the mid-1970s. Currently an Editor at Large at Relix, Uhelszki has published articles in NME, Mojo, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Classic Rock, Uncut and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her awards include Online Journalist of the Year and the National Feature Writer Award from the Music Journalist’s Association, and three Deems Taylor Awards. She is listed in Flavorwire’s 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read and holds the dubious honor of being the only rock journalist who has ever performed in full costume and makeup with Kiss.

One of the first women to work in rock journalism, Jaan Uhelszki got her start alongside Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds and Dave Marsh — considered the “dream team” of rock writing at Creem Magazine in the mid-1970s. Currently an Editor at Large at Relix, Uhelszki has published articles in NME, Mojo, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Classic Rock, Uncut and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her awards include Online Journalist of the Year and the National Feature Writer Award from the Music Journalist’s Association, and three Deems Taylor Awards. She is listed in Flavorwire’s 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read and holds the dubious honor of being the only rock journalist who has ever performed in full costume and makeup with Kiss.

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