Hammered Gods- A review of “Trampled Underfoot”, an oral biography of Led Zeppelin by Barney Hoskyns

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This is a book I got out from my local library, a big thick tome which attracted my interest because it’s a big thick book about a band I like, by an author I’ve heard of, and is published by the established (and still reasonably respectable) publishers Faber and Faber.

I don’t know what TS Eliot would have made of this, but here’s what I think. The book consists mainly of interviews with people, the more interesting of whom have either been extensively interviewed over the years anyway, or who have written books/ have had books written about them. I’ve read three Zeppelin books before, and basically this one didn’t reveal anything I didn’t learn from Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods.

The strong point of this book (if you can take it at all) is in detailing all the first hand accounts of how this particular Zeppelin went down in flames. Essentially it seems that when the band left the stage of Earl’s Court in 1975 to take a break for a while, they also left the good times and glory behind too. What came next was terrible personal tragedy and the descent into addiction among key members of the band and its entourage. If there’s one thing this book underlines in great big metaphorical red pen, it’s the corrosive effects of alcoholism and hard drug use. What a bloody waste.

Not exactly essential then, but a decent compilation. Despite the book’s subtitle of “The power and excess of Led Zeppelin”, there’s more on the latter than the former. There are precious few interesting or worthwhile insights into the music itself or on Zeppelin as a live band.

Overall it left me feeling that I really must stop reading rock books and just listen to the music. However trite this sounds, the music always makes me feel good. The books, on the other hand, always leave me with mixed, but mainly sad, emotions. “Trampled Underfoot”? “Sick Again” more like.

 

Primo Levi: Other People’s Trades.

I can’t believe this book appears to be out of print and only available second hand.

On the surface, an Italian chemist with a flair for autobiographical and discursive writing, with a very sad and turbulent personal history, has very little in common with an english teenager. However, I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me buy this book when I was much younger. It was because I’d read of Levi and his major work “If This is a Man” in the newspaper. And it was also because, having seen this book by him in a shop, I picked it up and read a couple of pages.

Even at a young age, with barely enough knowledge to follow what I was reading fully, I must have known on some level that this was a very special writer. I think the intriguing titles of the essays got me first. Then the tone of the writing. It’s knowledgable and authoritative, but never patronising and its disarmingly personal. As a result,  I have had this book for many years, and it’s survived numerous house moves and culls of otherwise unwanted books. I always come back to it. It is a collection of essays which the late Italian writer published in the Turin paper La Stampa over a number of years. Of course Levi is most well known for his memoirs of the Holocaust, and the books that dealt with that event are very much the product of a writer forcing himself to recollect, to tell people and to stand as a public witness.

The essays contained in this book, by contrast, show another side to Levi, in which the private man invites his readers to take a look at the world around them in his company. The equally enchanting The Periodic Table is very similar to this book in tone and approach, showing his ability to observe and note things of interest that in turn can alter a reader’s perceptions of things for the better. While Levi’s life and his work in chemistry form the backbone of Table, this book by contrast ranges even wider. Levi was an endlessly curious man it seems, endlessly fascinated by the world about him and the people who inhabit it. Hence the title of “other people’s trades”, as each essay is the work of a man who is not interested in just his own little world and opinions, but someone who is interested in what is going on around him. Thus the essays reflect on many disparate topics, from the moon landings to the language of schoolchildren, from the fear engendered by trying to learn a language in your sixties to the wonders of looking at things through a microscope.

The book, then, contains the Levi mix of autobiography and a fascination with chemistry and natural history that we get in his other works. However, the mood is by and large lighter. When I was  younger I  was in no doubt at all that these were the words of a wise man, and a man with a great deal to teach other people.  As I’ve got older and come back to these essays the quality in them that I have come to value most is their humanity and love of life.  Although written for newspaper consumption, there is nothing throwaway about these pieces. The willingness to stop time for a moment, to think about those things which matter, and then to elegantly sum up your thoughts in writing is a timeless skill. Levi had this ability in spades,  and for this reason I don’t think I will ever tire of this book.

 

Robert Graves Part 4: Words of warning.

claudius

The bronze head from a statue of the Emperor Claudius, now in the British Museum.

The names of Robert Graves and the first century Emperor Claudius are forever linked, since Graves wrote not one but two well-known major novels based on the Emperor’s life. In general it seems that Graves’s time spent bringing Claudius to life was a happy and profitable period. Biographies of Graves report him as stating that Claudius would always look out for him, and so it seemed, with the novels being bestsellers upon publication in the 30’s, and hitting it big all over again thanks to the BBC TV adaptation in the 70’s.

Nonetheless, I wonder if Graves had Claudius in mind when he wrote the poem below (certainly the line “limp as he limped” always brings Claudius to mind for me). Either way, I’ve blogged elsewhere here and here about some of the different aspects of Graves’s writing. Now here’s another poem which I like to think exemplifies another of his poetic voices, that of the finger-wagging scholar.

Graves lived a long and incredibly accomplished life. Though he succeeded in many things, I’ve little doubt that he considered himself a poet first and foremost. However another very important aspect to his life and career was his accomplishment as a classical and literary scholar. He was notably independent, though. I could not imagine him ever having settled to a life within a University (though he was Professor of literature at Cairo University for a while). He was too freewheeling for that.

Nonetheless, a scholar he was, and what he had in common with many of them was total confidence and a need to put others right when they were in danger of going wrong, and it’s a trait that made its way into his verse. In the poem copied below, note the total matter-of-fact bluntness and complete confidence of the first stanza. Then note the sheer number of imperative verbs running through the stanzas. They don’t really function as orders in this poem, but more as stages in a ritual the poem’s narrator has seen time and time again, as someone gets gradually more and more obsessed with the object of his fascination.

When he’s writing in this mode Graves reminds me a lot of Seneca in his letters. It’s a voice of experience, study and reflection, well suited to drawing our attention to life’s pitfalls. So here, from a man well used to studying the lives of others, is a warning about getting too fascinated.

This being Graves, though, there’s an emotional rawness ever present. Note how the poem gradually builds to a more intense emotional pitch, ending with the final stanza and its image of the dead man taking over the psyche and whole life of the living person who became too fixated. Of course it probably makes most sense to the majority of us when read as a metaphor. The dead haven’t literally come to life, they just have a tendency to play on our minds if we’re not too careful. However, we can’t be too sure that’s all Graves meant, and it’s probably more fun if we suspend our disbelief and admit that there might, just might, be a possibility that more than one unfortunate has been literally ensnared in the way described. In this sense, the last stanza’s final image reminds me of something out of MR James, another learned man whose writing mixed intellectual curiosity with terror.

To Bring the Dead to Life.

To bring the dead to life

Is no great magic

Few are wholly dead:

Blow on a dead man’s embers

And a live flame will start.

Let his forgotten griefs be now,

And now his withered hopes;

Subdue your pen to his handwriting

Until it prove as natural

To sign his name as yours.

Limp as he limped,

Swear by the oaths he swore;

If he wore black, affect the same;

If he had gouty fingers ,

Be yours gouty too.

Assemble tokens intimate of him-

A seal, a cloak, a pen:

Around these elements then build

A home familiar to

The greedy revenant.

So grant him life, but reckon

That the grave which housed him

May not be empty now:

You in his spotted garments

Shall yourself lie wrapped.