Regular readers of this blog, which is to say people who read the articles I write unrelated to disability as well as those about accessibility and such (about 10 of you), would know that I’m also passionate about music, literature, poetry and a lot of other artistic endeavors. At any given time, I’m usually reading two or three books concurrently. Recently, I’ll have one silly book, something by Terry Pratchett for instance, a non-fiction book about some topic I find interesting and a work of “art literature” often from the past.
Over the past week, I read a non-fiction book that I thought was so terrible that I had to reach for one of the greatest books in the canon of American literature just because I needed a strong dose of beauty and genius to rebalance a brain punished by the non-fiction work I had read immediately prior.
The blues, a style of music that derived from spirituals sung by African slaves in 18th and 19th century America, is the genre that inspired most other styles of American music. Rock and roll, a lot of jazz, country, rockabilly, R&B and other American inventions have their roots in whole or in part in the blues.
The blues is also the style of music I enjoy playing. By no known definition of the word can I be called a “musician” but I can blow blues harmonica well enough to have a lot of fun jamming with friends. It was when I played acoustic blues with a friend then working on his PhD in aero-astro engineering at MIT (an actual rocket scientist) that I acquired the nickname Blind Christian as we thought that a pair of nerds playing American roots music called “Blind Christian and Chunder” sounded like a couple of old guys from blues history.
As I do with many things I love, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years reading about the history of the blues and listening to the music chronologically so as to learn about its evolution as to see which musicians influenced those who would come later. I enjoy the history of artistic movements and observing that, as one generation stood on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, how they would take the art into a different direction.
Most recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of blues-rock from the sixties and seventies, largely acts from England. I reached the British blues-rock era led by performers like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, BB King and a few others. I found myself listening to a lot of Cream, Jimi Hendrix (sure, he was born in America and learned his craft here but he had to go to the UK to find the other members of his band and to develop an audience that he couldn’t in the states), The Yardbirds and a few others. This brought me to Led Zeppelin,, an act I ignored during their peek years while I was in high school.
The Bad Book
As I spent my time listening to early recordings by Led Zeppelin, I found that I was tremendously impressed by their skill as musicians. Jimmy Page could play guitar as well as any navy blues-rock player, including Hendrix. John Bonham followed in the tradition of drumming masters like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Gene Krupa, Ginger Baker, Art Blakey and others who brought the drum kit into the forefront of their music rather than just keeping time and banging away. John Paul Jones played bass ones that often needed to be highly complex so as to allow the guitar and drums to sound musical during wild improvisational moments. Robert Plant had a perfect voice for blues-rock while, in his prime, also looking like a Greek statue of male perfection. I wanted to learn more about this band so I got a biography of the band from Audible.com.
When Giants Walked The Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin was the top search result on Audible when I looked for “led Zeppelin.” The description of the book on the Audible site sounded interesting so I bought it with one of my Audible credits.
Excuses For Crimes
Over the years, I’ve read a number of rock biographies. In general, the authors tend to canonize their subjects and describe even their worst moments in glowing terms. In “When Giants Walked The Earth”, however, these relatively juvenile passages of the wild behavior of the members of Led Zeppelin during their peek years often sound like the author is suggesting that their horrible treatment of women, acts of sadism and possibly rape, were “a sign of the times” and not the reprehensible violence that the really were. A lot of bands lived wild lives during the seventies but this was the only book in which I’ve ever read such bogus excuses for what I think is actually criminal behavior.
“Giants” contains a bunch of flashbacks to periods in the lives of the Led Zeppelin members. These, in the fashion of a creative high school level writer, are described in the second person. The phrase, “You’ve wanted to be a singer since your fifth birthday…” I’m the reader and that’s to whom second person is usually addressed but, in this book, either the author thinks his readers are actual former members of Led Zeppelin (a total of five people in its history) or would be entertained by long passages in the second person. I found this aspect of the book to be entirely annoying with all of the immature notions of a teenaged writer. Of course, as this is a rock and roll biography, high schooled aged boys are probably the target audience, hence, maximizing the faux artistic stylings may allow them to think their being all intellectual and shit. This technique falls flat on its face.
The author also seems obsessed with Alastair Crowley, the philosopher of modern satanism. While Jimmy Page was and likely remains a member of OTO and some Led Zeppelin album covers contain symbols derived from OTO imagery, the implication that “Stairway to Heaven,” possibly the most popular song in rock history, could only have been written with “supernatural, satanic magic flowing through Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the Led Zeppelin members who wrote the song, is so ridiculous that, while reading these passages, I found myself yelling at the narrator on the audio version of the book. If an author wants to assert that something satanic occurred, it is first incumbent upon said author to first prove that satan, Lucifer or whatever supernatural actor is at work exists at all. Art doesn’t come from supernatural inspiration, it comes from hard work, lots of practice and a level of individual creativity based purely in the human condition.
“When Giants Walked The Earth” is about five people: Jimmy Page, founder of Led Zeppelin and its guitar player; Robert Plant, lead singer; John Bonham, one of the greatest drummers of all time; John Paul Jones, bass and keyboard player and Peter Grant, the band’s manager. With the exception of Jones, the quiet member of Led Zeppelin who described his wild years as “I participated in the fun parts but when things got too ugly, I would disappear,” the people described in this book are not individuals whom I would ever want to meet in person.
Jimmy Page was a sadistic misogynist. John Bonham was a violent drunk and, based on description of events, a rapist as well. Robert Plant was a self absorbed tyrant. Peter Grant turned into a paranoid and abusive individual who acted horribly toward nearly everyone outside of the band.
Over the years, I’ve learned to separate the art from the artist. Musical giants, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, for instance, were all horrible people. Beethoven abused nearly everyone in his life, Miles beat up wives Eartha Kitt and Cicely Tyson. Charlie Parker, such a bad heroin junky, would steal from even his closest friends. Artists are all humans and some humans do very bad things. Their art, however, stands on its own and, these three at least, created works of such profound beauty that, separate from the awful men who wrote these compositions, they will stand as beautiful forever.
The members of Led Zeppelin did horrible things while also creating some of the most lasting rock and roll music of all time. I can despise them as individuals while admiring their creations.
Major Factual Problems
Perhaps the author doesn’t know about BitTorent and the availability of Led Zeppelin bootlegs online. In one passage of the book, the author describes a concert performed at a venue called “Earl’s Court” in London. The band had to leave the UK to become “tax refugees” so as to avoid the then incredibly high British tax rates, up to 95% on income earned abroad, back then, In this section of the book, the author puts a whole lot of words into Plant’s mouth that, when I listened to the bootleg recording of the concert, I found that he was making a lot of the stuff up entirely. Robert Plant made a few snarky comments about the UK government during the concert but didn’t say about half of the things the author had attributed to him. In fact, no one at all can be quoted as having said about half of the statements he attributed to Plant so he must have just made them up.
Don’t Get This Book
If you want to learn more about Led Zeppelin, find a different source. The over the top level of pretentiousness in this book makes it nearly unreadable at times. The author tells a story that doesn’t seem compatible with other sources and does so in a manner that seems designed to amuse high school aged boys.
Rebooting My Brain
When I finished “Giants,” I desperately needed to find literature of the highest level of artistic expression. While I enjoy literature from around the world, my greatest literary passions are for 20th century American writers. As I was looking for something I knew in advance would contain prose written with the highest levels of skill, a book with stark poetic beauty, a work with rhythmic properties that can leave one’s jaw dropped and one that touches the heart of the human condition, I decided to read for abut the tenth time, William Faulkner’s Light In August.
For this blog article, I’m going to write a bit about this incredibly important novel and why I decided to read it now. Do not consider this to be an adequate review of “Light In August.” This novel has been dissected, discussed, reviewed, studied, analyzed and written about by thousands of literary experts. I’m an advanced reader and haven’t the skills to even begin to write a proper review of a real literary masterpiece. Please, if you enjoy reading great literature and are not already familiar with the works of William Faulkner, take the time to read his three masterpiece novels: “Light In August,” The Sound and The Fury and Absalom, Absalom. All three of these novels are considered by people who study such things to be among the greatest works in the English language. Faulkner is often compared favorably to literary legends like Chaucer, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Marcel proust and others. Unfortunately, likely due to Faulkner’s adult themes, sex, violence, racism, hatred and the fundamental condition of southern Americans, his work is rarely taught in high schools and if you, my loyal readers, are like most people, you probably managed to graduate from college having read few masterworks during your four years of vocational education.
The Great American Novel
Throughout the 20th century a notion called “the great American novel” persisted. In short, the idea was that there would some day be a single novel that would, better than any other, describe the American condition in prose similar to that of British writers. When many discuss this idea today, they don’t assume that it’s a single novel but, rather, a collection thereof. In general, though, there is an assumption that “American” literature didn’t really exist until the late 19th century, hence, works like Moby Dick are often categorized as “English language literature” rather than “American literature” as, stylistically, they are far more similar to English literature than American.
Like the earliest work to gain international attention as a great American novel was Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It described the pain in all Americans, black and white, caused by racism, slavery and hatred. Twain, however, hadn’t the luxury of including topics of sexuality and “white on white” violence in his works as 19th century readers wouldn’t have accepted such and the censors would have banned books about such topics.
In the 20th century, authors like Sherwood Anderson, Earnest Hemingway and others would raise the artistic bar for American literature and expand the subjects covered. William Faulkner would be at the forefront of this movement.
In the decades since Faulkner died, the influences of his works are readily apparent in other masterpiece novels as well. If one reads novels by another American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison, they will hear echoes of Faulkner throughout. Morrison’s character, Milkman, in her novel “Song of Solomon” may not have been possible without Faulkner having created his Joe Christmas character, the protagonist in “Light In August.”
If you are looking for the great American novel, “Light In August” is a terrific place to start learning about the art of American literature.
Of all of the characters in American literature, including Huckleberry Finn himself, Joe Christmas may be the most well studied. This character is so complex, so wonderful and horrible, so deeply American that, decades after the book was written, he remains one of the most important characters ever created in English language fiction. If you read “Light In August” you will recognize him, love him, despise him, pity him, fear him and, quite definitely, learn to think differently about him.
“Light In August” functions on multiple levels. One can read it as a crime/mystery novel. It can be read as a novel about the American south in the post civil war and pre civil rights era. It is kind of a love story and a story of hatred and violence. The story, therefore, is far more complex than you are likely to find familiar. It is, however, compared to other modernist masterworks, novels like Marcel Proust’s multi-volume “Remembrances of Things Past,” James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” “Light In August” is also very “accessible.”
In “light In August,” Faulkner uses a tremendous number of what were then largely experimental literary techniques but does so in a fashion that doesn’t ever distract from the meaning of his words. If you enjoy audio books, you will undoubtedly notice the tremendously effective use of meter and rhythm in the author’s prose that adds to the overall beauty of the work without ever sounding clunky. In some passages, Faulkner uses iambic pentameter, the rhythmic pattern popular in the Elizabethan era, written using southern and African American dialect in prose. Perhaps Faulkner did this to suggest, “Take that Shakespeare” and show off his own skills, others have suggested he did this to increase the dignity of otherwise very poor and ignorant characters. No matter the motivation, it’s a delight to hear.
If you’re really interested in Led Zeppelin, find a source to satisfy your curiosity other than “When Giants Walked the Earth.” It’s a terrible book.
If you want to learn about American “art” literature, William Faulkner and “Light In August” would be a terrific place to start your education. And, if you’ve just read something so terrible that you need a brain cleansing, the works of William Faulkner are a gray place to look for tremendous beauty.