Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ol' Blue Eyes, mudsharks and heavyweight fighters

On this day in 1969, Led Zeppelin's third North American tour moved across the U.S. border into Canada for one show. During this appearance in Vancouver, British Columbia, Led Zeppelin played at the PNE Agrodome for the second time in three months. This Vancouver show came about as part of a jam-packed touring itinerary on a day between the Midwest Rock Festival in the Milwaukee area and the Seattle Pop Festival.

The week's biggest achievement was not onstage, however, but off. The Recording Industry Association of America had just certified Led Zeppelin's first album Gold on Tuesday, July 22, and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records met the band in New York to present each member with his own Gold record award. Jimmy Page happily reported to the New Musical Express, "We didn't tell Bonzo. He thought we were going to get one between us and we'd have to split it up, each of us getting it for three months at a time. I think he's speechless." Page said this was just after the band received watches from the owner of the Kinetic Playground in Chicago.

Of course, the pressure was on for Led Zeppelin to deliver a second album that was at least as good as the first. Work toward that end was nearing completion, with the final musical touches being added the following month. In the meantime, Led Zeppelin's focus was on the road -- and perhaps on a few fish stories collected along the way.

On July 25 at the State Fair Park in West Allis, Wis., Led Zeppelin headlined the opening night of the three-day Midwest Rock Festival. Also on that Friday bill alongside Led Zeppelin were acts including folk singer Buffy Saint Marie and rock group the First Edition, whose singer was Kenny Rogers. At the time, that band was enjoying success with its follow-up to the year-old hit single, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."

During Led Zeppelin's headlining set in Wisconsin, there wasn't much talking in between songs. Most of it came during the beginning of "How Many More Times," while Robert Plant introduced his fellow band members, and himself, by name. Instead, the group let the music do the talking, with a set of about 60 minutes culminating in an encore version of "Communication Breakdown" preceded by a rendition of "How Many More Times" with a lyrical insert from "I've Got You Under My Skin." It was at least the third time in a week that Plant found himself quoting a song popularized by Frank Sinatra; he had referenced "You Make Me Feel So Young" during the same spot in the performance on both July 20 and 21.

In Vancouver, Led Zeppelin headlined over the Vanilla Fudge and received favorable coverage in both of the city's major daily newspapers. Perhaps the writers were comparing notes, as both made reference to Janis Joplin, noting similarities between Plant's voice and hers.

Ken Spotswood, writing for the Province, hailed Zeppelin's appearance as "their third and best performance yet in Vancouver." He remarked about the first Vancouver show, back in the closing days of December 1968, when "they were then the supporting group of the featured Vinilla [sic] Fudge. It's not hard to see why they have since risen to the top," Spotswood opined. He also declared, "Greatest moment of the concert happened when Plant and the Zeppelin launched headfirst into Chuck Berry's old Rock and Roll [Music] for at least 15 glorious, ear-splitting minutes that conjured up a real nostalgia for the '50s."

For the Vancouver Sun, Jurgen Hesse paid compliments to all four members of the group, including John Bonham -- "a virtuoso, both brash and sensitive" -- and John Paul Jones for staying "in perfect accord with Page" to help him "provide the vibrant glissandi and cadences that make Led Zeppelin's sound unique." However, Hesse makes these positive comments only after lobbing a few insults at Page, who he said played unnervingly loudly and with barely "any compassion" or "feeling for lyricism."

Meanwhile, a young writer named Rick McGrath was just beginning his two-year tenure with an underground newspaper in Vancouver called the Georgia Straight. In an interview with this year for an upcoming episode of the syndicated radio program "Get the Led Out," McGrath described the scene in Vancouver at the time: "In those days, Vancouver was very similar to 'Frisco. We had a really good local music scene. There was a lot of kids. The weather was good. There was money around. Marijuana had just managed to make its way into Canada, and everyone was having a great time." During his final year writing for the Georgia Straight, McGrath received a stage pass to a Led Zeppelin concert and recorded an interview backstage with Plant.

Led Zeppelin and the Vanilla Fudge traveled south from Vancouver to the Seattle Pop Festival for its final night, on July 27. There, at Gold Creek Park in Woodinville, Wash., Led Zeppelin headlined over the Youngbloods, the Guess Who, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and Chuck Berry himself -- they'd just been playing his music the previous night! The Led Zeppelin set immediately followed one by the Doors that both Page and Plant later described in the press as an embarrassing display for singer Jim Morrison.

The latest Doors album, The Soft Parade, had just been released on July 18, yielding among others the sexual anthem "Touch Me." So many young girls at that time were flocking to Doors shows to see the man they believed was a sex symbol but were disappointed to find him now bearded and unrecognizable. Morrison was suffering from an indifference to music, expressing his hatred of overexposure, and directing his energy not to entertaining but to ridiculing the audience.

Robert Plant watched with his wife Maureen during the Doors' set, eventually weighing in on it during an interview with Ritchie Yorke for the New Musical Express. "Morrison went on stage and said, 'F--- you all,' which didn't do anything except make a few girls scream," said Plant. "Then he hung on the side of the stage and nearly toppled into the audience and did all those things that I suppose were originally sexual things, but as he got fatter and dirtier and more screwed up, they became more bizarre. So it was really sickening to watch."

Of the few songs the Doors performed was the hit song, "Light my Fire." Although Morrison had sworn off that old Doors hit in interviews earlier that year, it was still an audience favorite. It remained in the set list, but Morrison was no longer performing it with conviction. The set opened, ironically, with "When the Music's Over" but concluded, appropriately, with "The End." In the interim, Morrison provoked the audience to respond unfavorably. The people who'd been his fans responded by hurling at him crushed cups and curses. Morrison only continued to antagonize them.

Dorian C. Smith, in a news piece covering proceedings at the festival, avoided discussing the rock bands that appeared onstage but focused on the atmosphere, with remarks on such mundane topics as the fireworks, the traffic, the concessions and the weather. "The sun shone down all three days, at times excessively hot. To compensate for the hot sun, several faucets spewed out cool, refreshing water to all who suffered a thirst."

It was on this trip to Seattle that Led Zeppelin's tour manager, Richard Cole, and a cast of characters that included members of the Vanilla Fudge or Led Zeppelin, or both, participated in or witnessed, or both, an infamous undertaking that is referred to as the shark episode or the mudshark incident. In providing fodder for Steven Davis's New York Times bestseller "Hammer of the Gods," published in 1985, Cole divulged the seedy details of this one particular stay at the Edgewater Inn, located conveniently on the Puget Sound and notorious at the time for the permission afforded guests to go fishing from the convenience of their hotel rooms, casting lines out of their windows.

Details vary with each retelling of this now-legendary and relentlessly fascinating tale but amount to the same premise, worded delicately here: A woman who was enticed by these rock 'n' roll fishermen paid them a visit and allowed herself to become a makeshift storage facility for the fish they caught.

Mark Stein of the Vanilla Fudge gladly filled in the few details of this incident that hadn't escaped his memory 40 years later when discussing the incident in a "Get the Led Out" interview. He said, "We were just partying! It was us, Fudge and Zeppelin, partying, and at the time I was -- I had a Super 8 camera, and I was taking pictures of -- you know, I'm on the road and everything -- shows, and this and that. ... Page and Bonham, being true Englishmen as they were, they loved to fish," he said. "I can't remember exactly whose room it was, but I walked in, and there's Richard Cole, their tour manager, and it was Bonham and Page fishing out the window. You know, just having a grand old time, drinking and fishing. So, they caught something. I don't know if it was a mudshark or a snapper, whatever it was.

"And, you know, there were some women around, the usual partying that was going on, and Plant's running around like crazy, you know, having fun. Honestly, what went on from there is over, under, sideways, down -- not to reference a Yardbirds song, but I'm gonna say it anyway. I don't remember specifically what happened. There's all kinds of stories that happened. If you talk to Robert, he'll say, 'I don't know. Something happened. Who knows -- maybe nothing happened!' But, you know, I'll leave that up to the imagination. But, um, that's all I'm gonna say about it."

Pressed to comment on his Super 8 footage, Stein had this to say: "Honestly, I don't really think they [other members of the Vanilla Fudge] were in the room. I was just taking pictures of everything that was happening while they were catching whatever -- a mudshark or a snapper or whatever the hell they caught. And they were just partying, there was a chick there doing the usual rock 'n' roll craziness, and, you know, I'll leave the rest to the imagination. ... I gave the Super 8 to Bruce Wayne [road manager for the Vanilla Fudge]. You know, it was -- I never at the time thought it was gonna turn into this majestic rock 'n' roll road story. I said, 'Here, take these things,' and I was just a kid myself. What was I -- 20, 21? [I] said, 'I don't know where I'm gonna get this developed. Take care of it!' And I never heard hyde nor hair after that. That's the truth!"

Led Zeppelin and the Vanilla Fudge were back in Canada again on July 29, playing at the Kinsmen Field House in Edmonton, Alberta. Concerts West, located in Seattle, organized the concert at the last minute and didn't count on many attendees due to the little advance promotion on local radio. One report said only 400 advance tickets were sold, but word of the double-billing spread nevertheless, and as many as 8,000 fans showed up for the event.

Bob Harvey had reviewed Led Zeppelin's May 9 show in the same city for the Edmonton Journal, when he wrote overwhelmingly positively: "Led Zeppelin is probably the most aggressive, masculine rock group anywhere. They batter at the mind and ear, insisting that they will penetrate." Now for his second Led Zeppelin concert review, Harvey included bits of interviews with Page and Plant to list the band's accomplishments over the preceding seven months since its formation. But the writer was much less positive this time around, saying: "Led Zeppelin wasn't quite as impressive Tuesday as they were at the Edmonton Gardens in May, but they were hampered by the sound system, as well as by having to go on stage first. It would have been better if Vanilla Fudge had played first. Their music's more intellectual, and more jazz-influenced than the gutsy Zeppelin's."

After that, Led Zeppelin and the Vanilla Fudge returned to the United States once again and traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, for two shows on July 30 at the Terrace Ballroom. Stein remembered the following taking place in Salt Lake City: "I was standing out in the audience watching the show. I think it was the first time I actually was totally focused on what they were doing from A to Z. So they went on stage, and I'm standing in the audience, and they played the most incredible, powerful show. I was just, like, just blown away. I was scared to go on after that! I'm standing next to Richard Cole. I said to Cole, I said, 'How do you follow that?' He said, 'Look, just go up and play.' You know? But we went up, and I'll tell you what. They inspired us to probably play one of the most intense shows that we ever played. So it was kind of like two heavyweight fighters on the same bill that night."

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