Friday, 24 June 2016


Sing to the Hand

There are enough of them to compile an excruciating mix tape, aren’t there? Maybe enough to fill a box of a dozen Maxell chrome 90s. Those songs you never want to hear ever again. I’m not even typing about ‘Where Evil Grows’ by the Poppy Family or Terry Jacks going solo; I’m typing about those tired FM radio warhorses, those monumental tunes that still cast dark shadows far beyond the realms of pot and puberty: ‘Money,’ ‘Hotel California,’ ‘Free Bird’ and the strutting king bee of them all, ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

Thursday an American court decreed that Led Zeppelin did not steal the music of an American band called Spirit to create the opening chords of what may be Led Zep’s best known but not best song. I didn’t follow the proceedings closely but I was highly amused by the tableau: lawyers quizzing geriatric rockers, legends and golden gods, in 2016 about what they were up to in 1970 or ’71. In this instance ‘I don’t remember’ is not an evasive answer, coached perjury is near impossible.

The first time I heard of Spirit was 1978. Jay Ferguson released an album called Thunder Island. The eponymous lead single sounded like Joe Walsh slumming in California, and he was, Joe played guitar on the track. It was an okay song but I’d rather have heard Joe Walsh doing Joe Walsh. A few years later Don Henley would absolutely nail the same wistful vacation longing with ‘The Boys of Summer.’ The Thunder Island sleeve was pina colada tropical beachcake, sort of icky Bee Gees and excruciatingly similar to Love Beach, that year’s Emerson, Lake and Palmer release. My music magazines said Ferguson had once played in Spirit.

Led Zep has been called to account before, specifically by Chess master Willie Dixon for entire verses of his writing which were incorporated without credit into ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ After the (rightful) settlement Jimmy Page said something like Robert Plant forgot to rewrite the words or just sang what he knew. My sense is that plagiarism in stoned composition is more accidental rather than calculated although digital technology has opened an entirely new Pandora’s Box of borrowing, sampling and stealing – does Bo Diddley own his beat?

I have never heard ‘Taurus’ by Spirit though I know enough not to confuse it with ‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Had I been investigative I could have descended into the YouTube vortex and compared the intros of ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ I didn’t. Led Zeppelin IV or ‘Zoso’ or ‘Runes’ is in my music library. I have not played it in years because I cannot bear to listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ one more time.

The song remains the same: I have acne and braces and it’s the end of the high school dance and it’s too late to work up the nerve to approach a girl I think I like and I think might like me although I’ve no idea why she would. The beginning of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is playing and I am trying not to look twice at a girl who could’ve looked twice at me and so instead stare into the awkward void of adolescent hell. It’s a long song for a sort of slow dance and if I don’t act quickly it will soon be over. Funny how times slips away.

These days I rarely sleep through the night. I know restlessness in the wee small hours is a function of age. What often wakes me up is a dream invoking my teenaged years, the embarrassment, the shame, the stupidity and the sheer ignorance I possessed because I thought I knew everything while knowing less than nothing. I get out of bed and walk down the long hallway toward the kitchen. In my head I hear: ‘There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.’ Heavy stuff, the relentless soundtrack of unresolved, past-dated angst; I just want to make a sandwich and read The Economist. But first, the bathroom.

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