Gallows Pole

I bought “Led Zeppelin III” the day it came out. I overpaid for it, by a dollar, when a dollar used to be a dollar, at the Vermont Bookshop in downtown Middlebury, I trudged up the hill and broke the shrink-wrap, put the vinyl on the turntable and dropped the needle.

Of course, you can’t mention “Led Zeppelin III” without talking about the cover. Sure, there was the rotating wheel inside of it, but also there was a brass rivet holding it all together and that brass rivet dug into all the other copies of “Led Zeppelin III” in the bin, leaving an impression, and it did so in my record collection, as did the zipper from “Sticky Fingers,” so I placed a cardboard spacer between these records and my others to prevent future damage.

Talk about OCD.

It had been a complete year since “Led Zeppelin II,” one in which so many acts broke, when the radio was overflowing with music, such that when “Led Zeppelin III” was released people weren’t salivating in anticipation, waiting with bated breath, then again, maybe I couldn’t accurately take the temperature of the collective mind, I was residing in the middle of nowhere, in Vermont.

Where I couldn’t quite relate to the people.

You go to college, you’re thrown in with a whole new group, you do your best to make friends, but you wonder…are those you left behind closer to your identity/mentality? After all, I grew up fifty miles from New York City, many of the Middlebury students went to prep schools, which were their own little environments, detached from reality, or students were from the hinterlands, music meant something to nearly everybody, but not as much as it did to me, I needed “Led Zeppelin III” to root me, to connect me to who I once was, in the maelstrom, where I belonged.

I’d seen the band in August, at the Yale Bowl, it was raining, but the show went on, but not forever. They began with “The Immigrant Song,” when the sound was not perfect, when the song was new to the ears of the assembled multitude, and from there they seemed to punch the clock. It was kind of a letdown. I hate to tell you this, but bands usually save their best efforts for the metropoli, like New York and Los Angeles, when everybody is paying attention, when the press is in attendance, when their entire tour will be judged by this one performance. Used to be bands saved New York and L.A. for last, when they got the bugs ironed out, when their chops were up, but in the era of modern day tour routing oftentimes they begin in one of these two burgs and that’s always a mistake, but if you want to see the band at its best go see them where it matters, especially today, when bands get overall touring deals and go on endless slogs of over a hundred dates, sure they’re well paid, but can you imagine doing gig two or six and seeing an endless road of dates in front of you, how do you do it, it’s disheartening, in the old days this was not the case, there were endless one-nighters, but you had to go back to the studio to cut another LP, and before the Police went everywhere almost nobody did, you toured America and England and maybe did a few dates on the continent, but most American acts left Europe on the table, because it was hard to emerge with a profit.

So, the first track I heard on “Led Zeppelin III” was “Immigrant Song.” I loved the line about the land of the ice and snow, but this was not “Whole Lotta Love,” this was not a monster that would dominate the airwaves instantly. And then the album turned into “Led Zeppelin III,” the album derided at the time and now embraced, because it was a left turn, into folk and experimentation, not obvious like what had come before. To tell you the truth, the folky song I liked first was “Tangerine,” the descending chord pattern, the picking, it was like a walk in the countryside, yet with more than a pinch of darkness, yet the chorus added a bit of optimism so you didn’t get completely bummed out. But that intro, that first verse, listening now it reminds me exactly of that first college semester, being off-kilter, studying hard, since all my high school teachers had said “wait until you get to college,” and interacting with others but wondering where my place was, this was long before I realized I never belonged there, that almost no one had relationships, since we were all in such tight quarters, because there were more grinds than hipsters, and the hipsters advertised their self-professed identity, wearing overalls, akin to farmers, and then everybody on campus embraced the look and I was never born to follow, I believed in going my own way, I was brought up to question authority, but this was not the educational institution of the suburbs, this was rigid, the professors demanded respect, and unfortunately it was hard to give it to most of them, they were too self-impressed.

And now you know why the intro to “Tangerine” resonated so, I could slip through the curtain and marinate in the sound, feel I belonged somewhere.

And I played “Led Zeppelin III” over and over again, I know every lick by heart, but mostly it didn’t satisfy, it was a bit of a dud, back when you could still say that, before poptimism, when you must laud everything by an artist, everything on the charts, otherwise you’re not only a naysayer, but an ignorant naysayer. Let’s take “Friends” for example… It sounded like it was cut in Eastern Europe, that the boys had gone on an hejira to the hinterlands and they wanted to express the feeling they experienced, and it might sound good lying on your bed, listening on headphones, maybe stoned, but this was not the celebration of “Led Zeppelin II,” all comers were not embraced.

But “Gallows Pole”… That was the one track that stood out, that captured the essence of what had come before, even if it was essentially a cover.

It started with the pregnant poignant acoustic guitar intro. As if you were on a midnight ride, evading Jack the Ripper.

“Hangman, hangman”

This was the Robert Plant of 1970, not the Robert Plant of today, Jimmy was the leader, the dark force, but Robert was the singer, with his shirt open to the navel and the long blond ringlets, from the country, not London…talk about locking up your daughters. Today Robert Plant is seen as soft, an international treasure, he’s hiding in plain sight, he’s not Jimmy Page locked up in a castle with Aleister Crowley.

“What did you bring me my dear friends

To keep me from the gallows pole”

The onus was on us, the listeners, what could we bring to Robert to save him from hanging. Yes, Led Zeppelin were pied pipers, in their own space, there was not a similar band, on “Led Zeppelin III” they were not playing to casual acolytes, but true believers, what did we have to offer?

“I couldn’t get no silver, I couldn’t get no gold

You know that we’re too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole”

Most of our English musician heroes had come from nothing, this was not America, where you could depend on Mommy & Daddy, where you watched the NFL on your color television, in the U.K. you were flying by your wits, wide awake.

And now Robert and the band are on the horse, you can feel the tension, they’re trying to escape the noose, Robert’s mind is racing. You know, when everything is at stake, when you’re contacting everyone you know, wanting someone to SAVE YOU! You’ve exhausted all of your own personal powers, you’re caught, your back is against the wall, and someone might save a damsel in distress, but a long-haired rocker?

And now it’s pure rock and roll. They’ve torn the roof off that sucker, even though you get the impression they’re out on the tiles, but there are no longer any limits, Robert is screaming, he can see his fate right before his eyes, his demise is imminent, his voice is rising, it’s almost like he’s crying WHO IS GONNA SAVE ME!

And then I dropped the needle and heard it all over again. Because I wanted to hear it, but I also needed to learn it on the guitar. Sure, by this point a lot of people had given up, after picking up axes after seeing the Beatles, but then there were professionals, and then there were the rest of us, that’s how we got closer to the music, by learning it, so I sat by the turntable, dropping the needle again and again, figuring out the key, the chords, and ultimately getting to the point where I could jam through this number and feel good, even though nobody else in my dorm owned “Gallows Pole.”

Now we all know Led Zeppelin returned to dominate the charts with “Stairway to Heaven” and the rest of “ZOSO” or “IV,” whatever you want to call it, killed, fired on all cylinders, “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” hit the notes that “The Immigrant Song” just could not, and “Battle of Evermore” was superior to all the acoustic stuff on “III,” as was “Going to California,” and the reworked cover, “When the Levee Breaks,” finished the LP as if you were the mole being whacked over the head, it was so heavy, nothing else mattered, Zeppelin dominated your mind and the airwaves. And people forgot about “Led Zeppelin III.”

And, to be honest, to a great degree so did I, I knew it, but I rarely played it. I’d been there, done that, back when you could only afford one album at a time and played it to death and waited to scrounge up enough money to buy a new LP.

And when I listen to “Gallows Pole” now, I’m brought back to the fall of freshman year, it captures my mood, my environment so well. I might have been off-kilter, but I was game, I was not giving up, I retained my identity, and ultimately I escaped Middlebury College without my neck in a noose, but barely…

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