When I was a boy, my family lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a three-story building in Woodside in New York City’s borough of Queens. Me and my sister, four years my junior, sacked out on a Castro convertible in the living room. Come summer, the only air conditioner sat bolted into the window of my parents’ bedroom. Out in the living room, if the temperature and humidity remained intolerable, we could train a fan on us. Many nights, though, evening’s air cooled enough so that by leaving the windows open we could get to sleep.
On one such summer night in 1977 I lay half-dozing, the slightest breeze palpable when it stirred the humid air. My sister had fallen asleep and I would have quickly followed if I hadn’t heard a song wafting up to our apartment which immediately sprung me from supine and had me craning my neck out the living room window, peering through the cage of our fire escape at the scene below.
Some teenagers were hanging out with a big cassette tape player/radio, a boombox as they were called. I had never heard the song they played but I instantly recognized the group: Led Zeppelin. I hunched through my window, literally entranced by the music—its hypnotic rhythm and pulsing drums; its colossal attack with what seemed a full orchestra behind it; its distinctly Egyptian or Middle Eastern sound, a melody mysterious, even mystical. And then that unmistakable voice, the other-worldly vocal cords of Robert Plant.
I was 10 and I was hearing “Kashmir” for the first time.
“Kashmir” is one of 15 songs on Led Zeppelin’s 1975 double-LP Physical Graffiti, their sixth offering, their magnum opus, the band’s “high-water mark,” as their lead guitarist Jimmy Page has said of the album.
Each of Rock’s four canonical groups—its cardinal directions: The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin—dropped double-albums on their fans. As with everything, The Beatles did it first, in November 1968, with “the White Album” (its actual title The Beatles.) Not long afterwards, The Who released the Rock-opera Tommy in May 1969. Living in the south of France in 1971 as tax refugees to evade seizure of their assets back in Britain, The Rolling Stones recorded their magnum opus, Exile on Main St. The album hit every thoroughfare in May 1972. And The Who did it again in October 1973 with a second double-LP Rock-opera, their modly masterpiece Quadrophenia.
Then it was Led Zeppelin’s turn.
As far as the crafting of canonical double-albums, Physical Graffiti differs from all the others in that it melded the “new stuff” with earlier material. (Nobody knew that at the time, which adds retroactive plaudits to the heap of praise this masterpiece rightly received.) The lovely acoustic guitar instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” went back to Led Zeppelin III. (Bron-Yr-Aur, an 18th century stone cottage in the Welsh countryside where Plant and Page composed the songs for Zep’s third album, gave its name under varied spellings to two tracks: “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is the penultimate song on Led Zeppelin III.) “Down by the Seaside,” “Night Flight,” and “Boogie with Stu” couldn’t fit on Led Zeppelin IV. And can you guess which album sessions yielded “The Rover,” “Black Country Woman,” and a song called
“Houses of the Holy”?
Such was the abundance of Zeppelin’s creative wealth that they could also omit “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?” Remarkable!
Last month, as I hunkered down another day in The Great Confinement, I decided to treat myself to an exquisite listening pleasure, a perfect album and a perfect indulgence: a sealed copy of an original pressing of Physical Graffiti. I searched eBay, quickly found one, and made the seller an offer he soon accepted.
It’s my third copy. The first one was given to me as a gift when I was in 7th grade and I simply wore it out with youthful exuberance and bad habits. I purchased another copy in my 30s. With better care this one has served me well for decades, but it shows its age on quieter numbers, such as “Ten Years Gone,” the aforementioned “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and in the expectation-filled pauses of “In My Time of Dying.”
Talk about expectation! When it arrived in the mail I reverted to that ten year-old boy in Queens. And then I opened the box and held it before me, a time capsule of sorts. They probably made this copy of Physical Graffiti in the late 1970s. Even if the wax was pressed in 1980, these two hallowed vinyl discs, the first ever adorned with the iconic Swan Song label, have been waiting 40 years to deliver—or unleash—their sonic tidings.
The album is still in its original shrink wrap with a black promotional sticker I remember well (shaped like the windows on the first and second floors of the building on the album cover) listing the songs and touting “TWO RECORD SET.” And in the upper righthand corner sits a somewhat faded sticker from Record Town with the price, a whopping $13.99 (Physical Graffiti debuted in 1975 at $11.98, a sizable sum at the time but it didn’t keep the record from hitting number one in just two weeks, the fastest of any album up to that point.)
Carefully, I sliced the shrink wrap along the opening where the inner sleeves slide in or out of this elaborate, extravagantly crafted gatefold cover (the buildings which comprise the image lattice for the gatefold are located at 96 and 98 St. Marks Place, or 8th Street, in Manhattan.) I know some collectors out there are wincing that I’d even think to open the record. Hey, wine is for drinking, records are for playing, life is for living.
And like opening a rare old bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy, I paused to appreciate not only the poetry which awaited me but all the poetry which had passed. “Ten Years Gone” indeed—times four plus five. A pleasant difference between wine and a record, though, is that you can listen to a record again and again.
And so I powered up my stereo, positioned my easy chair at the vertex of a triangle formed with my speakers, and dropped the needle on virgin vinyl. For a moment, even with the volume set at “11,” I heard a beautiful sound: nothing. No hiss, no crackle, no pops. Nothing. If you listen to vinyl you know how sweet that is. Analog Valhalla.
I went straight for the filet mignon, Side 2 (of 4), one of the greatest sides of music ever made; just three songs, but oh what a trio they are: “Houses of the Holy,” “Trampled Under Foot,” and “Kashmir.”
The whole experience allowed me to truly hear again these venerable anthems and all the other songs of the collection…. And I was floored: the breadth of the offerings, the ambition of the enterprise, the majesty of the achievement!
Let the refreshment of “Night Flight” wash over you. Groove to the James Brown-on-steroids funk of “The Wanton Song” (what a title!) Kick back with the soothing country airs of “Down by the Seaside” (which, by the way, forms a transcendent diptych when paired with “100 Years Ago” by The Rolling Stones!) Embark on an inner journey, the echoing mystical epic that is “In the Light,” sister-ship to “Kashmir.” Step into a saloon and set your feet a-tapping to the upright piano and mandolin of “Boogie with Stu.” Do you enjoy as much as I do the way John Bonham’s booming drums kick in on “Black Country Woman”? “The Rover” rocks hard, “Sick Again” even harder, “In My Time of Dying” finishes you off and takes you to heaven.
And then there’s “Ten Years Gone,” which on any given day could be my favorite Led Zeppelin song, a bittersweet beauty of poignant insight and ravishing melody.
Physical Graffiti is life soundtrack, music which has provided the education of young ears, the edification of souls of all ages. And though it’s impossible for me to hear its songs for the first time again, the pristine perfect album I indulged in last month got me close:
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon
I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June
When movin’ through Kashmir.