by Bernie Langs
I waited impatiently for five years to view and listen to the one-time concert of the 2007 Led Zeppelin Reunion performance, and immediately bought the film the week it became available in November 2012. Celebration Day, the video of the occasion, was well worth the wait.
I would venture to say that living heroes are few and far between these days, there being a shortage of Achilles-types or gallant Mr. Darcys running around. I have a loose sense of those I admire, and my list includes former Rockefeller University President and scientist Sir Paul Nurse, who writes and speaks with wit and wisdom; Curtis Martin, a former New York Jets football player who diligently trained his body like a machine to absorb the hits he took for years as a premier running back; and Jimmy Page, because of the way he has handled the band’s legacy after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. The market hasn’t been flooded with countless Zeppelin retreads and reissues. Page and his bandmates, singer Robert Plant and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, have issued only top-notch select concert footage and very few packaged musical offerings. Because of this, Led Zeppelin remains a precious commodity.
Celebration Day is a dazzling display that shows that Led Zeppelin has not lost a step since its 1970s heyday. As a guitarist, I know that my own fingers are not as nimble as they were in the days I played in a band in the late 1970s, and I worried that Page’s lead guitar lines would also suffer from a mild arthritic numbness of sorts. Not the case. His solos in the concert are breathtaking. There are several flashes of what I term “the core,” when the music hits and exposes the very essence of the soul. John Paul Jones, who is completely underrated, having had to stand for years next to Page, glues the band together with solid, fluent bass lines and his melodic playing of the keyboard. His clavichord style in “Trampled Under Foot” keeps the band flowing at breakneck pace and in “Kashmir,” his synthesized Arabic/Eastern sounds seem to create a welcome envelope around the guitar and drums, leaving one’s mind to soar and travel through the ancient ether poetically described in the lyrics.
Robert Plant’s singing is always spot-on. In recent years, he has enjoyed Grammy recognition for his work with Alison Kraus, and has been a part of many bands and performed many solo gigs since the breakup of Led Zeppelin. He was the band member who had not wanted to mount a full Zeppelin reunion debacle and tour. In Celebration Day, he displays the musical wisdom that the years have bestowed upon him. He’s traveled the world, and some of the few comments he makes to the crowd during the show pay homage to the old American blues players who inspired the 1960s and 1970s generation of British musicians. During a great favorite of mine, “In My Time of Dying,” he sings out with such blues style that you’d think you were listening to the ghost of Robert Johnson from the 1930s, standing at the crossroads, selling his soul. The drummer for the reunion concert is none other than Jason Bonham, the late John Bonham’s son. He handles his duties and the weight of his responsibilities without missing a beat. I was glad he didn’t imitate his dad’s famous style, but pounds close enough to it to keep the Led Zeppelin sound intact.
I was given a copy of W.G. Sebald’s book, Austerlitz, so many years ago that I lost track of when it had first appeared on my bookshelves. I always figured that at some point I would get around to reading it. What a treasure I denied myself for so long! Within three pages of reading I was gasping at its power, at its magnificent prose, and basking in its old European style and seriousness.
There are books that make you feel that you are part of something special, that the knowledge imparted is fine and rare. Austerlitz is a stunning read. Sebald, who wrote in his native German and passed away in 2001 at age 57, constructs the character of Jacques Austerlitz. Austerlitz tells his life story to a man he meets on several occasions, each time in a different place. The book is without paragraphs, which adds to the gravity of the story of the protagonist’s sudden remembrance of being a boy and taking leave of his parents on a Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia in 1939. He describes in detail the painful journey home and elsewhere in Europe to trace his parents’ suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
The book is a testament to German soul searching in the wake of the atrocities perpetrated during World War II. I recall reading somewhere how a philosopher once asked the question of how we can attempt to make art today, in the shadow of the Holocaust. Austerlitz is a lesson on how it can be done. The book also boasts black and white photos of the places that Jacques Austerlitz journeys, giving it further descriptive and emotional strength. Any serious reader of modern fiction will be drawn to the power of Sebald’s teasing of fact and fiction, of poetry and history, and his unflinching examination of the human condition.