Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: ‘Whole Lotta Zeppelin’ & ‘Neil Young: Long May You Run’

Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time by Jon Bream

Judging Whole Lotta Zeppelin by its cover, I expected it to be as puffy as 1991’s Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell or the booklet in the Led Zeppelin box set. Such illustrated histories are generally more intent on delivering lush photos and drooling fanaticism than true insight and warts-and-all history. Whole Lotta Zeppelin has all those things. Assembled by Jon Bream with a host of guest commentators including Rock journalists and a wide range of famous fans, the book is geared toward a somewhat specific reader. Its partial modus operandi is to take some of the wind out of Zeppelin. This will be unappealing to the worshippers who continue to shrink in awe of the Hammer of the Gods, and the din of the hordes, and the rest of the flatulent mythology. As someone who loves Zeppelin’s music for its power, atmosphere, inventiveness, and cosmic funkiness, yet realizes that the boys in the band can be real jerks and never bought into all the Dungeons and Dragons fantasies or macho super hype, I think Whole Lotta Zeppelin hits the right note. Plant, Bonham, and Page are treated with all due honesty, both as the phenomenal musicians they are and as the creepy misogynists, serial statutory rapists, thieves, and thugs they were during their younger days. Quotes illustrate how unapologetic Page and Plant were about plundering the catalogues of poor blues musicians. An anecdote by Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer captures manager Peter Grant—the so-called fifth member of Led Zeppelin—at his most casually ruthless. Journalist Ellen Sander relays a scary encounter with a couple of unnamed band members that should lose the group some fans. John Paul Jones, of course, emerges unscathed. Even the most demonic Rock band needs its nice guy.

Whole Lotta Zeppelin will also turn off some of the devoted because a good chunk of it is recycled from previously published books and articles. Because it sports so many voices telling the same story, there’s an irritating amount of overlap in the new content too. However, the army of commentators also keeps the telling fresh and the perspective wide ranging. Despite the impression I may have given above, Whole Lotta Zeppelin is not a hatchet job. In fact, some of the “Rock Star” commentaries are tediously fawning; you won’t learn a thing from Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson or Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. But The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler contextualizes Zeppelin’s music in a fascinating coming of age story that reads like a scene from Over the Edge. The essays on the band’s albums—each written by a different journalist— are thoughtful, lively, and invigoratingly varied. An interview legendary junkie William S. Burroughs conducted with legendary junkie Jimmy Page for Crawdaddy! in 1975 is beyond bizarre and beyond valuable. But the defining commentary arrives as a coda via New Musical Express and Mojo writer Charles Shaar Murray, who expresses all the exasperation and astonishment of Led Zeppelin fandom as well as anyone ever has. The lush photos are awful nice too.

Buy Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time at here.

Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History by Daniel Durcholz & Gary Graff

Unlike Whole Lotta Zeppelin, Long May You Run is essentially written by two authors, which makes its overlapping information less acceptable. The problem is the structure. This illustrated history is told as a chronological story regularly interrupted by stand-alone essays focusing on Neil Young’s pre-fame period playing in a band with Rick James, his dad, the circumstances behind CSNY’s “Ohio”, a condensed history of Crazy Horse, etc. The main biography and these essays often contain the same material, which is more significant here than it was in the Zeppelin book because Long May You Run doesn’t even break 200 pages, and the abundance of photos means there’s probably only about 100 pages of text. As such, this is more of a traditional illustrated history than Whole Lotta Zeppelin, even though it’s similarly even handed. I’ve never read a proper biography of Young before, so I found Long May You Run to be a perfectly adequate primer. More long-running fans will be more interested in the book on a coffee table level. Like all the Voyageur Press books I’ve perused so far, this is a beautifully designed hardcover that not only has great (and, I’m assuming, rare) photos of Young throughout his various stages (so often we forget that the flannel-swathed one had a bevy of phases to rival Bowie) and his memorabilia, but also sports some really cool illustrations by underground comix-style artist Peter Pontiac.

Buy Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History at here.
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