Erik Davis, author of our Led Zeppelin IV 33 1/3, is a creature of many habits. He’s a writer and scholar, equally comfortable in the realms of rock criticism and explorations of mysticism, whose writings have touched on everything from California counterculture to Burning Man to Phillip K. Dick. His 2005 book on Plant, Page, and Co and their 1971 classic is a perennial favorite in the series, and was ranked #32 on Blender magazine’s roundup The 40 Greatest Rock & Roll Books. Said Blender at the time: “The most intellectually inspired and flat-out fun of Continuum’s ongoing 33 1/3 series of pocketbook album appreciations, critic Davis’s adventurous treatise decodes every magikal property embedded within rock’s most geeked-out masterpiece.” Almost ten years after his book’s release, Davis delves into his “articulate obsession” with Zep.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
ED: Compared to the other unquestionably mighty bands of rock’s golden age, the critical discourse around Led Zeppelin was—with some important exceptions—the lamest and least developed. By taking them seriously, even over-seriously, I could root for the underdog. It was the least I could do render homage to a band who helped make me who I am. I was obsessed with Zep when I was a teenage stoner kid, which was a very weird and kind of occult time for me. I wanted to use the critical form to probe my own overcharged adolescent imagination, because it was overcharged imaginations like mine that helped make the band so mighty.
Who did you reach out to during the writing process? Why?
ED: I reached out to no-one, nor did I do any original reporting. I didn’t want to provide any new information, but deeper, more esoteric interpretation. So I read through most of the criticism—including a handy fan publication that collected all the journalism back in the day—listened a lot, and wrote the book quickly and obsessively. It was the most fun writing project I have ever done, except maybe for writing the lyrics to a rock opera [Ed. Note: Davis is referring to his Burning Man rock opera, How to Survive the Apocalypse].
“I had a very heavy dream about Jimmy Page—black candles, spooky rituals, Eldritch guitars—and I realized upon awakening that I had no choice in the matter. My fate was sealed.”
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another? Be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
ED: As soon as I thought about submitting a 33 1/3 pitch, I knew I wanted to do Zep. I seriously considered pitching other albums, either III or Physical Graffiti, but realized that their fourth record was the most canonical, and would force me to write about “Stairway to Heaven,” which is like writing about the Mona Lisa or something. However, I was already contracted with another publisher for another book at the time, so when the offer came from Continuum I wavered about whether I should take it on. Then I had a very heavy dream about Jimmy Page—black candles, spooky rituals, Eldritch guitars—and I realized upon awakening that I had no choice in the matter. My fate was sealed.
What did you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hadn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing? Did you feel you achieved it?
ED: There are some solid Zep essays out there, good journalistic accounts, and some incisive scholarly texts. But what I wanted to do was different. I wanted to write an evocative “close reading” of the album that would capture its spiritual dynamics—that is, how it makes obsessive close listeners who resonate with their shadowy mystique feel. Along with analyzing how they produced this sense of magic, I also allowed myself to get infected with it, and then took those occult ideas “too far”—a critical excess that seem the most appropriate way to go given the band’s own over-the-top excesses.
What words of wisdom can you offer to aspiring 33 1/3 authors?
ED: Articulate obsession is a drug worth addicting yourself to.
What was your first concert?
ED: Blondie, on the Parallel Lines tour. I thought Deborah Harry was hot. The next one was Todd Rundgren, where I discovered how profoundly disorienting cannabis can be.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
ED: There is a big riff in the book about analog vs digital, and I dropped a line there that Rob Sheffield recently quoted back to me, about how music mattered more when it was actually matter—in other words, when it was physical graffiti. I am glad I spent my formative years as a music fan in the analog era, and my favorite way of getting music is still hunting used bins and listening to heavy discs on a good turntable and good speakers. But of course I have tons of MP3s, and my wife got a Sonos system for the home that we rigged up with a streaming service. As with Youtube, I enjoy the flaneur-like experience of strolling through a global archive without committing and then, usually, just forgetting my steps.
Name a lyric from the album you wrote about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album.
ED: For me, the emotional undertow of the album is captured in Plant’s line in “Stairway”: “There’s a feeling I get / when I look to the West / and my spirit is crying for leaving.” The West is the magic hour of sunset, Tolkien’s elvish isles, summerland—all these sites of imagination, immortality, and death. That kind of haunted yearning explains a lot about why some of us are drawn to the occult, or fantasy novels, or epic rock songs.
Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV is available on Bloomsbury.com, Amazon, or wherever 33 1/3s are sold. Follow Erik’s work on his website, Techgnosis.com.