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Spring has returned with a vengeance to Central Pennsylvania. For a time temperatures soared into the upper 80s, forcing me to start putting the screens in the windows. It’s cooled a bit since then to something more seasonal, but there’s no doubt that winter has left the building. Mere weeks ago I was shoveling huge piles of snow from the roof. Now the leaves are out and the snow seems little more than a distant memory.

The other day, though, dawned gray and misty, with a thick bank of fog hunkered down over the neighborhood. It seemed like the perfect day to listen to “Misty Mountain Hop” and the rest of Led Zeppelin IV.

Ah, yes, Zeppelin. Music that conjures up all sorts of impressions—strange rites and rituals, mysterious hierarchies, unconfirmed rumors.

Of course, I’m talking about high school.

I wasn’t a Zeppelin fan in high school. That was for the guys who drew marijuana leaves with ballpoint pens on the back of their denim vests. Yet Zeppelin is inescapable and gradually they pulled me into their orbit. The first album I bought was Led Zeppelin II. The second was probably Physical Graffiti. Side 3 is my favorite slab of Zeppelin awesomeness, starting with the epochal “In the Light” and ending with the equally great “Ten Years Gone.” I still like to play this side on hot summer afternoons when I have the beginning of a nice beer buzz.

I was inspired to dig out Led Zeppelin IV and load in on the iPod after I watched It Might Get Loud, the documentary in which Jimmy Page, Jack White of the White Stripes, and the Edge of U-2 sit down and talk about guitars. Page is obviously the eminence grise of this trio, with a shock of white hair that makes him look like, of all people, Beethoven. His big revelation: he played guitar in the session orchestra that recorded the theme from Goldfinger.

Page is also still fuming because some music paper once dismissed Zeppelin IV with a single-paragraph review. Well, it could have been worse. They could have named the album Shark Sandwich. (Speaking of Tap, the Edge says he didn’t laugh at Spinal Tap—he could only weep. It came too close to real life. In fact, I think there was a real-life episode when a member of U-2 got stuck inside a huge plastic olive during one of their amazing colossal show spectaculars. How more ridiculous can rock and roll get? The answer: None. None more ridiculous.)

The only time I saw Page perform live was when he was touring with the Firm, the band he formed with former Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Remember the Firm? No? Well, there’s a reason for that. I saw the Edge perform in the same venue, the Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts. It must have been in 1984 or ’85. That was a more memorable show. About halfway through Bono stepped to the front of the stage. “I want everyone to be very quiet,” he said, and I braced myself for some Bonorific musings. “I want everyone on the floor to move very calmly to the sides of the building.” Wha-? “We have a speaker platform that is coming loose.” And sure enough, I looked up and saw this big catwalk full of speakers tilting precariously just above the crowd massed below it. I have to give Bono credit—he got the crowd off the floor without causing a panic, the techies went to work and lashed the speakers back into place, and the show resumed without a hitch. Memorable, yes, but fortunately not as memorable as it could have been if plunging speakers had dispatched a big chunk of the crowd on a stairway to heaven—or a highway to hell.


“First I Look at the Purse” by the J. Geils Band comes up on the iPod. I recently added a bunch of J. Geils tunes. They were a quintessential New England band when I was growing up. Singer Peter Wolf started out as a dj at Boston’s WBCN. But I never saw the band play in New England. I never much cared for them when I was growing up, in fact. The only time I saw J. Geils was when they opened for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles back in the fall of 1981.

I remember it like it was yesterday (here I rest my chin on my hand and stare thoughtfully into the distance as the scene dissolves to reveal . . .)

Los Angeles, 1981. The Rolling Stones have announced their tour for the Tattoo You album. They will play at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which is almost literally a stone’s roll from my apartment building. A bunch of us get tickets. They are general admission, which means an early morning if we want to get good seats. So the crack of dawn on show day finds us sitting in a long line at the Coliseum entrance. I’ve brought a book—Stephen King’s Misery, if I recall correctly—to help me while away the hours.

It’s going to be a beautiful day.

The gates open and we scramble into the venue, which is huge. I mean, it is a coliseum. A lot of people dash to the field right in front of the stage. I figure I’m going to want to sit—it’s going to be a long, long day—so I find a good seat in the stands right next to the stage. Perfect. And then I settle down to wait. And wait.

Finally it’s showtime. The first act is a young fellow from Minneapolis who calls himself Prince. At this point he’s fairly unknown, which explains what happens next. Prince appears on stage wearing a long black greatcoat that opens to reveal he’s wearing nothing but bikini underpants underneath. Why, this kind of mincing sexuality has no place in a Rolling Stones concert! Objects begin to fly onto the stage. Prince struggles through a few songs, but during “Jack U Off” decides he has weathered enough abuse. In an indignant swirl of greatcoat he storms offstage.

George Thorogood and the Destroyers are next and they play a fine, workmanlike set. The undiluted rock ‘n’ roll goes down well. No one throws objects at the Destroyers.

Finally it’s time J. Geils’ turn. All I can recall is some vintage motormouth action from Wolf. (Remember, this was almost 30 years ago).

It’s late afternoon by the time the Stones appear. They play an energetic set, but the stage is so huge there’s not much sense of them as a band. It’s a bunch of individuals spread out over a great distance. Is this the tour that Mick uses a cherry picker to zoom out over the audience? I can’t remember. He either does that or he has some kind of platform that extends out in front of the stage. He does cover a lot of ground during the show, though, running back and forth from one end of the stage to the other. Keith sings “Happy,” and the band does a great version of “Just My Imagination,” which to me is the show’s highlight. They do a lot of their big hits, too. By the time the show winds to a close it’s dark, and once the Stones scamper off the stage fireworks begin to explode overhead. This is rock and roll on a big, big scale. I like it.

The Stones took a day off and then played another show at the Coliseum on Sunday. I understand they had to talk Prince back from Minneapolis to play the second gig. I didn’t have tickets for this one but I managed to enjoy the show nonetheless.

The fun started before dawn when a troupe of acquaintances—friends of casual friends, in fact—buzz the apartment. We let them in. They’re here for the show but they want a place to hang out first. The sun isn’t even up yet, so my roommate and I are not exactly welcoming. They hang out a bit and then head off to the show.

Once the music starts, I make my way up to the roof and listen. I can hear things pretty well. Several of us sit up there, drinking beer and enjoying the show. About halfway through the Stones’ set a friend and I decide to head over to the Coliseum and see what’s going on. We make our across the parking lot and around the big structure until we get to the rear entrance, right behind the stage. Everyone knows the Stones will have to depart from here, and a small but growing crowd is gathering. People get rowdy. They throw bottles and I hear the sound of breaking glass. Police officers on horseback arrive and push the crowd back.

Things are getting interesting.

Suddenly the fireworks erupt high over our heads. Big gates swing open at the Coliseum and a small fleet of limousines pulls out. My friend and I begin running on an intercept course to the road the limos will have to follow. It’s like something from Apocalypse Now. Fireworks explode above us and illuminate the landscape in flashes. We reach the road as the limos are approaching. Suddenly a cop on horseback gallops up. He reaches down and knocks my friend to the ground.

Everything goes into slow motion. The lead limo passes right in front of me. I see Mick Jagger, his face pressed against the limo’s window as he peers up to watch the fireworks. The car cruises by . . . and suddenly things starts moving quickly again. My friend scrambles off the ground and we start running away from the cops, the fireworks still bursting. It’s surreal.

I never saw any of those bands live again. J. Geils broke up shortly after I moved to Boston. I had just started editing a small rock and roll magazine and the story was big news. I tried to score interviews with some of the band members, but no dice. I also scrambled to get a good cover image. The band used to practice just down the road in Allston, in a warehouse with a sign that read “Jim Did It Sign Company.” A young photographer named Derek Szabo lived nearby, and one day he had taken some photos of the band clowning around on the street outside. I can’t remember if I talked him into it or if he volunteered, but we ended up using the shot he had taken of Peter Wolf, hair disheveled, hands raised in a mock boxing pose, on the cover.

Wolf, apparently, was not pleased. Derek later told me that he showed up for one of Wolf’s solo gigs at the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue, and ran into the singer before the show. Wolf pointed at him. “No photos for Szabo,” he said.

Prince recently played at another coliseum when he did the Superbowl half-time show in 2009. As far as I know no one threw things at him. I don’t know what happened to the Rolling Stones. If anyone out there has heard anything, drop me a line.

I still have the tee shirt I bought at the Stones concert. My daughter started wearing it for a while and now my son uses it. The shirt has worn thin over the decades and now it’s as fragile as a memory.


April 2010
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