“I probably partied harder with REO Speedwagon.”
That’s what Neal Preston, photographer extraordinaire, said when I asked him what it was like riding on the Starship, Led Zeppelin’s legendary private jet. He said there were no groupies, very little coke, the main activity on the plane was SLEEP! That was another of Mr. Preston’s aphorisms, “Sleep is underrated!” He never got enough of it, no one did. Maybe two hours a night.
And you wonder why everybody’s on drugs. (They may not have been partaking on the Starship, but everywhere else…)
With the Internet and cable TV, our nation has become homogenized, but every once in a while you have one of those experiences that sets L.A. apart. Like yesterday, when I ascended into the hills to Preston’s house. Surrounded by canyons, with a view across the San Fernando Valley, this hilltop perch is right next door to…Anna Nicole Smith’s pad, where they shot her reality show. That’s L.A. Where few are behind gates and you can be famous but seen shopping at Ralphs.
So Neal grows up in Forest Hills and starts bringing his camera to shows and meets Gary Kurfirst and Shelly Finkel. And they allow him into their shows at the Singer Bowl and he hones his chops and instead of going to college he follows a girl to Los Angeles and as they say, the rest is history.
He gets a partner and they get a staff contract with Atlantic. He becomes best friends with Cameron Crowe and accompanies him on his “Rolling Stone” adventures. And he tells Danny Goldberg he wants to go on the road with Led Zeppelin, and months later he gets the call, he’s good to go.
Now you might think this is the dream of a lifetime. And it is, if you’re a music fan and have the constitution of a Navy Seal. Listening to Neal’s stories and reading his new iBook, you’re first and foremost impressed how much WORK was involved. We see the stars having fun, but not only do you have to earn your exalted position, there’s no such thing as teleportation, you’ve got to journey to all those arenas, you’ve got to come down from the adulation, you’re living in the eye of a hurricane with no perspective. Hopefully enduring the twenty-odd hours when you’re not on stage. Which are brutal.
“I’ve been around the world fifteen times, but I haven’t seen a thing.”
Oh, Neal walked on the Great Wall of China for twenty minutes, but he was so busy doing his gig, all he saw were hotel rooms, limos and arenas. He wants to go back, to Italy, to Russia, where he shot Billy Joel’s show, before he dies. And he’s not going to bring his camera. He never does. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a VACATION!
So we’re upstairs in the fading afternoon light, reviewing decades of rock history, and I’m reminded why I came to L.A., for this feeling, of not doing but living. Talking. In casual clothing. In a place where where you went to college is less important than how well you get along.
And then we went down two flights of stairs to the vault.
I saw pictures of Springsteen that would blow your mind. All the musicians. They were so YOUNG!
That was a very long time ago. When rock stars ruled the earth. When they were as rich as anybody and international heroes.
Like Led Zeppelin.
They were too successful. That’s what Danny Goldberg says in the iBook. FM radio blew them up and the elder statesman rock journalists backlashed. Yes, Danny had a brilliant insight, every three or four years is another musical generation, because that’s how long high school lasts. So pissed, Zeppelin cut off access to the press. Until in the early seventies they hired Danny, and he hired Neal.
And they weren’t the only ones. There was the promo person turned artist relations maven Daniel Markus with the worn out American Express card and the rolling papers with his initials imprinted upon them. And Janine Safer Whitney, the book’s secret weapon, who dropped out of Swarthmore to join the rock and roll circus. She’d booked the Pretty Things for a gig, and when they canceled claiming visa issues, she used a connection to the State Department to get them clearance. But it was all a ruse, there was no impediment. It was all a Swan Song lie. And when she called the office to complain, after ranting on and on, she was given a job.
But there weren’t many. It was a lean operation. Four musicians onstage, very few on the Starship. It wasn’t about the entourage, but money…and power.
And it was all masterminded by a retired wrestler with a big belly known as Peter Grant.
He believed in mystique, in restricted access. It was his band, all access went through him, he was the manager. You know the acts, but behind each and every one is a brilliant mastermind. Read the credits.
And the band raped and pillaged for a decade, before the irascible John Bonham expired. And everyone’s been at loose ends ever since.
Jimmy Page never regained his footing.
John Paul Jones receded even further into the background.
Robert Plant had a middling solo career and then repeated the Zeppelin formula with Alison Krauss, giving people not what they wanted, but what they needed.
And Peter Grant passed away.
And the music lived on.
And when music infects you, you want to get closer.
And despite my incessant questioning of Mr. Preston yesterday, I learned very little. Because it’s not observers who get these gigs, but workers. The musicians create, everybody else plays a role. Want to work for the band? Have no opinion and keep your lips tight. If you can’t get along, if you can’t keep a secret, we don’t want you.
And it was all a very long time ago. Neal’s since shot Nancy Kerrigan, the Olympics, a ton of stuff for “People.”
But that’s all news.
Led Zeppelin was art. And it’s art that remains.
And it’s not only the music, it’s the images.
These were truly rock gods. But instead of relying on a hand-me-down book generations old, the music is still pristine, and Preston’s images shock us into the past, we confront what once was and forever will be.