Roots and Fruits: Blues, Invention, and Led Zeppelin

A common perception of Led Zeppelin devotees is that they are borderline fanatical in their love of the band, that they react with an insane degree of defensiveness whenever their rock gods are criticized and not shown the respect they deserve. Now before I continue I must provide full disclosure: I am one of those Zeppelin fans. Having said that, I concede that we “Zep Heads” have great difficulty accepting the multitudes of anti-Zeppelin arguments. Use the word “overrated” in the presence of a Zep Head and do it at your own peril. Things could get ugly :lol:

On the flip side, Zeppelin haters are equally fanatical in their loathing. Over the years I’ve learned that there is just something about the band that really pisses certain people off, often to the point where they’re willing to make risible statements that can’t be taken seriously. Black Sabbath kooks are particularly guilty of this, like when they say – with a straight face no less -that Ozzy has a better voice than Robert Plant. Stop it you fools. Just stop it.

During their exhilarating 12 year run from 1968 – 1980, Led Zeppelin was accused of having been many things: crass, oversexed, licentious, volatile, too loud, too aggressive, too debauched. These were meant as insults. I see them as hallmarks of rock and roll. You remember rock and roll, don’t you? In this day of Miley Cyrus and Beyonce, auto-tune and rampant lip-synching, it’s easy to forget pure, unadulterated musical badassery. And to those aforementioned aspersions of Led Zeppelin, I would just counter that they were also electrifying, mercurial, seductive, intrepid risk-takers who dared to fail (which they occasionally did), shrouded in mystique, swagger, and unpredictability. And at the root of it all was thoroughly solid musicianship.

And that sound … oh that sound …

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John Bonham, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin:

LedZeppelin

When we put aside the sordid tales of drugs, groupies, touring mayhem and hellraising that followed the band’s reputation, even to this day, we discover the musical force of nature that was Led Zeppelin. That these four particular guys happened to find each other is one of those fortuitous events in pop culture; two seasoned and accomplished session musicians on guitar and bass, a sledgehammer of a drummer who never had a lesson in his life, and a visceral, howling singer from England’s Black Country. Each one irreplaceable. Put them all in a studio together and it reached a rare level of chemistry. If there was ever a band that was the sum total of its parts it was Led Zeppelin. Just the fact that the group decided to call it quits after the death of their drummer John Bonham (a wise decision) tells you all you need to know about their interdependence. Though they were reviled by critics at the time, their legacy of blues-infused heavy rock has propelled them into iconic status. And yet even in their music, Led Zeppelin has not avoided controversy. Oh Zep, what are you doing to us?

Approximately seven songs in the Zeppelin catalogue have been cited as “rip-offs”, accused of having been plagiarized. Some of these accusations have had legitimate merit. Others are debatable. Regardless, the too-frequent occurrence of such claims is disconcerting to hard-core fans, and adds fuel to the vociferous Zeppelin hate club. In 1985, Led Zeppelin was sued over their song “Whole Lotta Love” by Willie Dixon, the American blues musician and songwriter. Dixon wrote the song “You Need Love”, which was recorded by the great Muddy Waters in 1962. While he was aware for years of Zeppelin performing their “version” of the song, Dixon assumed it was being presented as a cover. But alas, it wasn’t quite a cover. When he learned that he received no songwriting credits on Led Zeppelin material, he filed suit. It was settled out of court and Dixon received an undisclosed amount.

Willie Dixon:

WillieDixon

Dixon used his award from the settlement to fund the charitable organization Blues Heaven Foundation, whose mission statement is “to help artists and musicians obtain what is rightfully theirs, and to educate both adults and children on the history of the Blues and the business of music.”

In spite of his numerous legal battles, Willie Dixon was able to see the bigger picture and fundamentally understood the essential “borrowing” that goes into the creative process. He said, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on.” A gracious statement. Roots and fruits. I like it. I like it so much that I “plagiarized” it for this post title. Credit to Mr. Willie Dixon of Mississippi :-)

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on stage:

PageandPlant

We’re all familiar with the famous quote from Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Blunt words from a man who did his fair share of stealing. (Cézanne anyone?) Stealing is an awfully harsh word though, and in these instances of creativity it’s difficult to know exactly where the line is drawn between being heavily “influenced” by one’s predecessors and flat-out theft: theft being an unethical act, and influence being a gesture of admiration and appreciation.

Like many of the British Invasion bands of the 60s, the members of Led Zeppelin were inspired by the American blues tradition. They made no secret of this. Musically-inclined youths in postwar Great Britain turned to the sounds and expressions emanating from the American south for musical awakening and stimulation. And who could blame them? The music is raw, rich, and authentic. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has been a passionate and vocal champion of Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues legends of all time.

The legend himself, Muddy Waters:

MuddyWaters

Though I’m not going to chronicle all of Zeppelin’s disputed songs, let’s take a look at one more. In 1972 the band was hit with legal action by ARC records over “The Lemon Song” on behalf of Chester Burnett, stage name “Howlin’ Wolf”. His 1964 song “The Killing Floor” bears strong lyrical resemblance to the Zeppelin version, although musically they sound very different.

These are Howlin’ Wolf’s lyrics:

I shoulda quit you a long time ago
I shoulda quit you, babe, long time ago
I shoulda quit you and went on to Mexico

If I hada followed my first mind
If I hada followed my first mind
I’da been gone, since my second time

And these are Robert’s Plant’s:

I should have quit you, long time ago
I should have quit you, long time ago
I wouldn’t be here, my children
Down on this killin’ floor

I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
Every time I go away and leave you, darling
Send me the blues way down the line

Yikes. Busted. Once again the suit was settled out of court and songwriting credit on the record was amended to include Chester Burnett’s name.

Chester Burnett, aka “Howlin’ Wolf”:

HowlinWolf

Now let’s clear up one thing in this mess: lifting riffs is not the same as “plagiarizing” a song. Not even close. And chord progressions cannot be copyrighted. If they could be, then literally every single rock, pop, blues, folk, or country song ever recorded would be the subject of legal action. The basis for valid music plagiarism cases has almost always involved melodies and lyrics. Remember, it was lyrics that nailed Led Zeppelin on “The Lemon Song”, along with others.

Without lyrics or distinguishable melody, plagiarism cases become trickier. Recently, a new suit was filed against Led Zeppelin over their most popular song, “Stairway to Heaven”. The family of Randy California, founder of the progressive rock band of the 60s and 70s called Spirit, have claimed that the opening bars of Stairway were ripped off from the Spirit song “Taurus”. You can listen for yourself. This claim seems tenuous at best, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Stairway is an eight-minute long composition and is largely lyrically-driven (“Taurus” is an instrumental). And Stairway develops structurally in a way completely different from the Spirit song. Stairway has that great “arc” which makes it such an effective, indelible work. So we’re talking about maybe five seconds of similarity, not to mention a complaint suspiciously filed over forty years after Stairway became part of the public’s music consciousness. Randy California himself has been dead for 17 years. That descending chord line in question has been around for centuries. No one “owns” that. Just like no one owns the G chord, or the D minor scale, et al. And if we’re trying to pinpoint the origins of that Stairway to Heaven opening guitar riff, then what about this guy? –> Davy Graham, “Cry Me A River”. Hmm . . .

There is a element of futility in some of these cases. We can keep going back, and back, and further back, even to Robert Johnson, to trace the “original” authorship of a music composition, or a mere segment of a composition. But the reality is that, in rock and blues especially, the musical vocabulary at one’s disposal is limited from the get-go. Blues recycles the same chords over and over again. In music generally, only a finite number of scales and chords are available for use. So it is inevitable that similarities will occur, accidentally or otherwise. Legal rulings have been a crapshoot. George Harrison was successfully sued for plagiarism over his song “My Sweet Lord” for its similarities to the The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. Coldplay, however, beat the rap in a suit brought by guitarist Joe Satriani.

Copyright/plagiarism cases can be very complicated legally when they involve artistic matters. If the issues at hand pertain to things like sounds, ideas, concepts, styles, etc and are subject to interpretation, it becomes a tough call. Heck, if Apple could lose their lawsuit against Microsoft over an interface, then little-known songwriters in a heavily crowded field surely have an uphill battle.

Breaking here for a moment to say that one of my all time favorite Led Zepplin songs is “Over The Hills and Far Away”. Love it. Strumming, singing, thumping … everything you need in a great song that soars :-)

If there’s anyone who would have legitimate grievances in a music plagiarism lawsuit it would be Johann Sebastian Bach, who revolutionized music, invented and experimented with counterpoint and harmonics in momentous ways. You know that piccolo trumpet solo in the Beatles’ song “Penny Lane”? That was inspired by one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos which Paul McCartney happened to see performed on the BBC. (The musician who played that terrific solo was trumpeter David Mason). Composer Johannes Brahms said, “Study Bach and you will find everything”. And that about sums it up. I say we bring old Johann back from the dead, get him lawyered up, and watch the lawsuits rain down like an avalanche on all the recording studios around the world. I’d love to see that. Old Johann in his powdered wig, red-faced with fury, storming into a songwriting session and yelling … “That’s my arpeggio, dammit!!”. I’m being jokey but it’s fairly true, that Bach and Monteverdi and Telemann and all those prolific geniuses of music’s golden age are responsible for pivotal compositional devices that have been used for hundreds of years.

JS Bach:

(c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So at this point in time, the musical “toolbox” is full. All anyone can do here in the 20th and 21st centuries is pilfer the toolbox. That’s what Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did, albeit carelessly. Originality, in the purest sense of the word, doesn’t really exist anymore. All the literary plots have been written, all the chord progressions have been implemented, all the choreographic moves have been executed in dance. We can tweak it and mix it up, embellish and add and subtract, speed up tempos or slow them down, revamp and transform, and hopefully create something that resembles originality. And that’s fine. Oh and by the way, all you painters out there? Your toolbox is full too, just in case you forgot ;-)

Here’s where I take issue with some of my fellow Zeppelin defenders. Justification is frequently given that Zeppelin’s admitted reworkings of songs made them better than the originals, that they breathed fresh new vitality into them, and infused them with the powerful, pulsating Zeppelin sound that was their trademark. And they did, this is true. But it’s not really the point. If you improve on something you appropriated does that make the appropriation any less larcenous? Sure Jimmy Page could shred on his Les Paul like nobody’s business, and Robert Plant could wail erotically that he wants to “make you burn, make you sting” and “be your backdoor man” to the thrills of female fans, and Jones and Bonham could pound out the most solid rhythm section in the history of rock,  but if you’re appropriating then just say it. Just clarify it. That’s all. Jimmy Page, the mastermind of Led Zeppelin, is an intelligent guy and a superb musician and composer in his own right. It seems, frankly, that he should have known better. Led Zeppelin has made a boatload of money over the past 40 years. If they did so on the backs of uncredited lesser-knowns then that is simply wrong.

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But if the Zeppelin haters think these plagiarism cases will cause us Zep Heads to waver in our loyalty, the answer is … they won’t. Trust me. We will rationalize. We will even say that Led Zeppelin filled an valuable role by reviving and reinvigorating blues music that might otherwise have been forgotten. What did Willie Dixon say about keeping the “roots” alive? Led Zep did that, in their own reckless way. They owned up to it. And paid for it. Now can’t we just enjoy the fire, vigor, and spirit of great music?

You guys, I told you was I bringing Music Mondays back, and it seems I’ve done so with a vengeance! Thanks for reading this monster of a post. Whew! Let’s conclude with Led Zeppelin performing in their glorious heyday. In this clip I really like the way Page, Jones, and Bonham close it out at the end. And Robert Plant’s open shirt? I like that too ;-)

New York City. 1973. The Garden. Led Zeppelin doing their ferocious song “Black Dog”. This isn’t American Idol, folks. This is rock and roll.

LED ZEPPELIN!!!!!! <— Zep Head :sorry:

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For C  

  Ixsixán

Corporeality

So I bitched all summer over not having enough work and now as the summer comes to an end, and art modeling will soon kick into high gear, I’m like NOOOO!! NOT YET!! Okay, I’m a pain in the ass :lol:

I suppose since last spring brought a good share of professional aggravation and frustration, I’m feeling some ambivalence about facing the art scene full throttle. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to seeing certain people again that I’m fond of, and faithfully serving in my role as muse. I just hope my middle-aged body cooperates! I did a lot of running, biking, and exercising this summer, but I still could have done more.

I came across this video that I really enjoyed, “Sculpting the Female Torso” by Peter Rubino. Sculpture is amazing in that it begins as amorphous slabs and gradually transforms into a replica of the human form through molding, carving, scooping, and all those wonderful tactile sensations. Once when posing for a sculpture class I saw an artist get fed up with his tools and take out his plastic credit card, which he then used to scrape ridges in the clay with better precision. Sculptors get it done, one way or another. Beautiful final result in this video:

 

Not to be outdone by the three dimensional molders, artists who use pencil have to “mold” in their own way as well. Lights and darks, as we all know, are the keys to creating form on a piece of paper. This is my torso drawn by my dear friend Daniel daSilva.

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Have a great Labor Day weekend, everyone! Peace and blessings. See you soon :-)

Love, Claudia

I’ll Fly Away

Hello dear friends.  I believe I alluded to some family strife in a previous blog post. I wish I could report that the situation has improved. Sadly, it hasn’t. The last couple of days have been difficult. Of course you all understand that it’s not appropriate for me to go into detail here, as it is family stuff and I don’t want to speak negatively on my blog about people I love and care deeply about, no matter how incredibly frustrated I am. Just pray for us, if you’re so inclined.

For now, I’d like to share a video that I discovered through Fred Hatt’s blog Drawing Life. Fred posted about his photography experiments with the GoPro camera, which captures very cool visual perspectives. Here, a GoPro was strapped to an eagle as it soared through the French Alps. It is absolutely breathtaking; a real “bird’s eye view” that makes we wish I was riding on the eagle’s back, flying away from turmoil, taking in the extraordinary splendor of the earth, without a care in the world. See you all very soon.

Miles Davis Way

Like most big cities, New York has its share of honorary street names. More than it’s share, really. Our city council has re-named so many streets in tribute to famous figures that’s it’s hard to keep track of all of them.  The standard for street re-naming according to the council is “proposed honorees must be individuals who are deceased and of significant importance to New York City.”  The names range from local politicians to military figures to contributors to the arts, academia, sports and finance. The sheer number of them is a testament to the historical and cultural breadth of our throbbing, humming city and how many noteworthy individuals have lived here, worked here, created here, and found inspiration among its people and neighborhoods.

East 110th St is “Tito Puente Way”. West 145th is “A. Philip Randolph Boulevard”. Broadway between 51st and 52nd is “Al Jolson Way”. West 31st St is “Father Mychal F. Judge Street”, in honor of the Fire Department Chaplain who was killed during the 9-11 attacks while administering last rites. These are just a few examples of many. Last week, the city unveiled its newest street honorific; “Miles Davis Way” on 77th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The jazz legend lived on the block for 25 years. It’s a cool honor for the man credited with the “birth of the cool”.

For Music Monday I’m posting a 1989 interview with Miles Davis from the 60 Minutes archives. Interviews with Miles Davis are quite rare, as he was not the most accessible or congenial fellow in the music business. However, I found this interview interesting in that you can see flashes of humor in Miles, and a sense that he’s putting us on a bit. And Harry Reasoner, in spite of some rather silly questions, deserves credit for getting the elusive Miles Davis to sit down for a face to face interview at all. They touch on race, music, art, women, and Miles’ past heroin addiction. Also, this isn’t the first time Miles Davis has been the subject of a Music Monday. Here’s my Museworthy post from March 2010 about Kind of Blue.

O’Museworthy

“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”

– Daniel Patrick Moynihan

In a Dublin Park, light and shade, c. 1895, Walter Frederick Osborne. From the National Gallery of Ireland:

Osborne-DublinPark

Poets. Playwrights. Rebels. Iconoclasts. Wisecrackers. Saints and sinners. Lacemakers, footballers, farmers and whiskey distillers. Full of joy and cynicism at the same time. I would drink to the Irish for St. Patrick’s Day but I’ll be modeling for hours and hours. So I’ll get naked instead. Consider it a tribute to all the Irish bad boys I dated in my younger, more free-spirited years. Troublemakers ;-)

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, and Happy Music Monday! Here’s a group of fine Irish fellas. Maybe you’ve heard of them :-)

Music, Survival, and 110 Years

It sometimes bothers me that many of the Music Monday posts are obituaries for an acclaimed figure recently lost. But I feel like I can’t help it, because I believe strongly in eulogizing the dead. Life stories are fascinating to me. And if there was ever a person whose life story deserves a tribute here it is Holocaust survivor and classical pianist Alice Herz-Sommer who just passed away at the age of 110. Alice is the subject of an Oscar nominated short documentary The Lady in Number 6, which I really hope wins at the awards ceremony this Sunday.

To describe Alice Herz-Sommer’s life as remarkable would be a spectacular understatement. I am completely in awe of this woman. She carries not an ounce of anger, bitterness, anguish, or sadness. She radiates nothing but joy and gratitude. And the way she speaks about music – Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, etc. – is pure love. From Prague, to a Nazi prison camp, to her apartment in London, here she is, in her own words. RIP Alice, you beautiful extraordinary soul . . .

1964

We Beatles fans have surely been relishing all the “Beatles 50″ hoopla that has built up these last few weeks. Yesterday, February 9th, was the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on American television on The Ed Sullivan Show. I happen to enjoy commemorating watershed moments, whether they mark points in serious history or popular culture, if only because they add structure and context to our perceptions of place and time, and replenish our memories. Also, I just love history of all sorts.

Over the past fifty years, the Beatles have been the beneficiaries of much mythologizing, fanaticism, and hagiography; deifying treatments that John Lennon himself often repudiated and felt were unwarranted. The elevated status of the Beatles irks some, and as a hard core Beatles fan I can appreciate their opinions. I think much of it has to do with the Beatles serving as a symbolic proxy for Baby Boomers, a generation that has become, fairly or not, a subject of derision in some circles. Nostalgia is great, but it does seem to have a breaking point when people just tire of it all.

It’s fairly futile to quarrel about the Beatles music or whether they are fully deserving of their exalted status, a point of contention which was being disputed on Twitter last night during the CBS Grammy tribute. The larger point, I think, is the Beatles’ fortuitous position in the 60s zeitgeist: four young men who morphed from fresh-faced playful innocence into disillusioned cynicism before the world’s eyes over the course of a mere six years – a mirroring of the world itself during the same transformative period of time. It might be worth examining the significance of the “50th” in terms of 1964 itself. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was just one notable event in an overall notable year. So what else happened in 1964? A lot. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Shea Stadium was opened and the Polo Grounds were demolished. Three civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi,. The Warren Commission report was published. The New York Times Co. v Sullivan Supreme Court ruling upheld the First Amendment. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Dr. Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ford Motor Compnay unveiled the first Mustang. Jack Ruby was found guilty of assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald. A computer program written in BASIC was run for the first time. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor got married. And my brother, Chris Hajian, was born on September 29th :-)

Since we’ve all seen the grainy footage of Ed Sullivan introducing the band, extending his arm and hollering “The Beatles!!”, the ensuing screams, and the opening guitar chords jangling away, let’s watch a different video for Music Monday. Here are the Beatles singing sweet harmonies in “This Boy”. The year, of course, is 1964: