“Good Times Bad Times: Led Zeppelin rises again in new biography”

Rock and roll became the dominant musical institution of America by the early 1960s. Louder than anything before it, rock and roll was a vessel for the teens of the nation, bursting with the energy and desire necessary to truly break free from the beliefs of their parents.

The loudest of the bunch was British group Led Zeppelin, and their full story requires closer to 100 pages of context in order to truly appreciate.

This is where author Bob Spitz, a journalist known for his biographies of Ronald Reagan and the aforementioned Beatles, seizes his opportunity to shine. In his new book, Led Zeppelin, Spitz details the band’s meteoric rise to kings of rock from guitarist Jimmy Page’s beginnings as a session musician to drummer John Bonham’s untimely death in 1982.

In a way, it’s an odd pairing of author and subject. Spitz is an incredibly polished and detailed writer; the descriptions of Robert Plant’s “octave-piercing” voice and the virtuosity of the various musicians create vivid renditions of each band member as a fiction writer would dream up characters out of nowhere. The amount of research that went into the extensive history of the band even extends to voices and mannerisms of crew members, and, even when discussing the more hedonistic aspects of Zeppelin’s past, the subjects are handled and written about cleanly and compellingly.

Spitz does not shy away from the vulgar or unnerving actions of the four men, including (but not limited to) John Bonham’s excessive drinking problem, Jimmy Page’s sexual deviance and several stories about pianos falling from hotel windows. He does not, however, endorse any of the behavior at all. Rather, he provides in-depth contrast between the social guidelines of the 1970s and the climate of today amidst the #MeToo movement.

Led Zeppelin was not a group of saints, by any means, but Spitz never claims they are. He also does a respectable job of portraying the surviving members of the band as those who have learned from and regret those dark moments in their past. Up until the last few pages, when he details Zeppelin’s reunion concert at a tribute event for a long time friend of theirs, Spitz takes pride in pointing out the band’s recovery and highlights, noting how much healthier the members looked all these years later, the crowd’s reaction and the overall energy they played with.

Indeed, it would be ignorant towards pop music as an art form to not focus at least a little on the band as just that, a band, and an incredibly powerful, influential, multi-talented one at that. Spitz puts as much emphasis on each member’s genius in rock and roll as their troubles with sex and drugs, putting about as much effort into describing the interplay between Robert Plant’s voice and Page’s guitar as an astrophysicist would describe the wonders of outer space.

Page is the one treated first and foremost as the protagonist of the story. Zeppelin was his band, after all, formed in the twilight years of his previous band, the Yardbirds, from an idea he had to turn up the volume and emotion in the emerging hard rock scene even higher. Even though it would eventually be Bonham who fell victim to the rockstar lifestyle, readers are meant to feel for Page the most throughout the story. His life (which could just as easily be referred to as his character arc with how the book unfolds) is the life of the band. From precocious teen guitarist to the foremost ambassador of rock, from producing and arranging the band’s most iconic songs to falling asleep onstage as a result of heroin, Spitz is able to retell years of public information and make it sound never-before-heard.

Regardless of how far gone Page may have been, Spitz’s recap keeps him tethered to sanity and charm enough for his flaws to be pointed out, but never letting him appear evil.

Ultimately, this biography is a testament to a few things. It is a testament to good storytelling, showing it is possible to write colorfully about matters of public record. It’s also a testament to how well a murky past can be handled respectfully, and in lenses that still make the subject(s) compelling to learn about.

Lastly, of course, it is a testament to Led Zeppelin. The band’s music, some of the most important and recognizable ever made, is readily available, but there aren’t many better places to hear their history than this book.