The original novel was inspired by a series of improvised stories that the original author, Richard Adams, told his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, during long car journeys. They centered on two rabbits named Hazel and Fiver, the latter of whom had psychic powers that allowed him to see the future. When Adams had finished his story, the girls insisted that he write it down. He hesitated but was finally convinced when he was reading a bedtime story from a mediocre book and became convinced that he could write a better story than that. By his account, he spent the next eighteen months writing the book, working in the evenings after supper. The completed book would bear the dedication, “To Juliet and Rosamund, remembering the road to Stratford-upon-Avon.”
Adams drew from several sources in building the characters, especially several characters that he met during his service in the Airbourne Company of the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II. Hazel was based on an officer he served under who “had the natural power of leadership.” Bigwig, future head of the Watership Down Owsla (aka rabbit law enforcement/military caste), was based on another officer who was “a tremendous fighter who was at his best when he had been told exactly what he had to do.” Kehaar, the rabbit’s seagull ally, was based on a Norwegian resistance fighter who Adams had become acquainted with. Fiver was inspired by the tragic Greek character of Cassandra (although he’s obviously more successful in getting others to listen to his prophecies, otherwise we wouldn’t have a book). Finally, he tied it all together by reading the book The Private Life of the Rabbit by Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley so he could convincingly portray his rabbits in their wild setting.
The book was rejected by seven publishers, all of whom thought there was no audience for it. Adams puts their objections this way: “Older children wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it’s written in an adult style.”
However, when the manuscript landed on the desk of Rex Collings, a one-person publisher in London, the book finally went somewhere. He asked his associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of whom has extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fortunately, he wasn’t. The first edition of the book, published in November 1972, sold out very quickly and garnered numerous positive reviews. The Economist even went as far as to claim that “if there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead.” The book would receive a big boost in popularity after Macmillain Inc. published the first US edition in 1974.
But enough of the making-of documentary. What is it about the book that captured the hearts of so many readers?
The basic story should likely be familiar to most, but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick rundown of the plot:
The story starts in the hedgerows of Sandleford, a hamlet in the English country of Berkshire. A warren of rabbits lives there, among them a pair of “outskirters” (basically unimportant average Joe rabbits) named Hazel and Fiver. Fiver, a diminutive runt with the gift/curse of clairvoyance, foresees a horrible disaster descending on the warren. Hazel, his brother, fails to convince their chief rabbit to evacuate, and so he and Fiver leave of their own accord. They are joined by Bigwig and Silver (both former Owsla), Blackberry (the “smart guy” planner of the group), Dandelion (gifted with speed and a great storyteller), Pipkin (a runt rabbit even smaller than Fiver, naturally inclined to timidity), Hawkbit (“a rather slow and stupid rabbit”), Buckthorn (strong and a good fighter, though still too young to join the Owsla), and Speedwell and Acorn.
They encounter several perils along the way to their new home, with the elil (predators) and hrududil (motorized vehicles) sometimes being the least of their problems. They also encounter a warren led by an eccentric rabbit named Cowslip, which seems like an idyllic paradise where a kindly farmer feeds the rabbits. After Bigwig is nearly strangled to death by a snare, however, the rabbits figure out that the man is harvesting them for their meat and skins, and the native rabbits are using them to increase their own odds of survival. They depart, but not before being joined by Strawberry as they leave, heartbroken over losing his doe, Nildro-hain, to another wire.
They finally make a home on a hill called Watership Down, located about three miles south of Sandleford. Speaking of Sandleford, two rabbits from the former warren, Owsla captain Holly and plucky jokester Bluebell, arrive at the down to inform the others what happened: Men came, filled in the burrows, poisoned the trapped rabbits with gas, shot most of the ones who escaped and then dug up the warren to make way for housing developments.
After Holly recovers, he leads an expedition to another warren another three miles south called Efrafa, which was spotted by Kehaar, a wounded black-headed gull who was nursed back to health by the rabbits. They wish to see if their chief rabbit wishes to relieve its overcrowding problem by sending some of their does to Watership Down, for the rabbits neglected to bring any does with them when they left Sandleford. Meanwhile, while attempting to release some other does from a hutch on nearby Nuthanger Farm, Hazel is shot in the hind leg by the farmer. He miraculously survives, mostly because Fiver has a vision telling him where his brother is hiding, only to receive bad news about Efrafa.
Their chief rabbit, General Woundwort, is a despot who ensures that no rabbits succumb to elil through harsh regimentation, brutally punishing those who refuse to fall in line. However, the cunning Watershippers manage to outsmart the general when Bigwig meets up with Hyzenthaly, a doe leading a passive resistance movement in the warren, and orchestrates a massive escape, leading the fugitives onto a small boat, with Kehaar hampering the Efrafan’s pursuit.
But the Watershippers underestimate Woundwort’s vindictiveness, and he leads his own Owsla to the down and lays siege to the warren (Kehaar, having departed for his native “peeg vater,” is not available to assist). He is thwarted when Hazel, Dandelion, and Blackberry set the dog from Nuthanger Farm on them. Woundwort stands his ground and is presumably killed, although his body is never found, and at least one of his officers still believes him to be alive even months after the fact. Hazel, meanwhile, is saved from the farm cat by the farmer’s daughter, Lucy, and returns to the down unscathed.
The story ends years later, with the warren thriving. A much older Hazel is greeted by the rabbit’s legendary folk hero El-ahrairah, who invites him to join his Owsla, to which he happily obliges.
Why It’s Worth Your Time
Perhaps the book’s best feature is how Adams refuses to anthropomorphize the rabbits beyond raising their intelligence level a bit to make them more relatable to human readers. They are still believably portrayed as vulnerable prey animals, even if they are better able to hold their own in a fight. Consequently, they behave as if death is a moment-to-moment possibility, which it very much is, not just from foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, and birds of prey, but also men.
Indeed, rabbit-human relations are rather complex in the book. Whereas seemingly any animal can effectively communicate with the rabbits if enough effort is put into learning their language (even elil), humans are so far above them on an evolutionary scale that understanding them is all but impossible. Their presence hangs over the story in the same way that Cthulhu and his eldritch brethren hang over the protagonists of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Of course, as Hazel finds out in the final chapters, humans do have a leg up on Cthulhu in that they sometimes do notice their fellow animal’s suffering. Of course, this fact is more confusing than uplifting for Hazel since Lucy is still of the same species that so brutally tore apart his old warren.
Besides that, Adams also distinguishes his rabbit protagonists by giving them their own unique culture, which revolves around their religious beliefs. I mentioned El-ahrairah above, who basically serves as both an Adam figure (as the first rabbit) and a Jesus analog (given how the rabbits treat him as their mythic savior). However, given the rabbits’ love of tricks, his personality could be better described as “halfway between Beowulf and Bugs Bunny,” in TV Tropes’ words. In addition to him, there are several other mythological god-like figures, including Lord Frith (their creator deity), Prince Rainbow (Frith’s right-hand-man who has something of a love-hate relationship with El-ahrairah), Rabscuttle (chief of El-ahrairah’s Owsla and his closest friend), and the Black Rabbit of Inle (the rabbit grim reaper). General Woundwort is added to the pantheon after his disappearance as a sort of bogeyman figure who serves as the Black Rabbit’s right-hand… er, rabbit, I guess.
Adams even came up with a language for the rabbits to speak for whenever he needed a word for a concept unique to the lagomorph experience. For example, humans don’t really need a word for the practice of going above ground to feed. This concept is simplified into the Lapine word silflay, meaning “above-food.” Other Lapine words used in the book include hlessi (wanderer), flayrah (garden food like lettuce, carrots, etc.), and hrair (thousand… or any number above four, since rabbits can’t count any higher). Adams has explained in interviews that he wanted the language to have “a wuffy, fluffy sound” since he figured that’s what rabbit speech would sound like if they could talk. Certain words also have an onomatopoeic quality, especially hrududu (made to sound like a rabbit’s impression of a running engine). Granted, the Lapine language isn’t nearly as well developed as the various languages that were the foundation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium (which isn’t that surprising since Tolkien was a linguistics scholar and Adams wasn’t). Indeed, Adams freely admitted that he made up the words to the language as he went along. Still, as Keren Levy of The Guardian notes, the language is “somehow easy to accept as one we have always known.”
Much has been made of supposed political allegories present in the book. Adams swore up and down until the day he died that it was not his intention. As he states in the introduction to the edition I own: “I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.” It isn’t hard to see why people started drawing those connections, though. The novel is rife with themes of exile, leadership, liberation, self-determination, heroism, and community-building, and it’s hard not to read certain themes of environmentalism into the discussions the rabbits have regarding humans. Take, for example, this impassioned plea from Strawberry to the Efrafans (who are often thought to have parallels with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia):
“Animals don’t behave like men,” he said. “If they have to fight, they fight; if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”
Chapter 27, “You Can’t Imagine It Unless You’ve Been There,” pg. 237, Scribner edition
There’s also this infamous quote from Captain Holly as he recounts Sandleford’s destruction to the Watershippers: “Men will never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed all the animals.”
Even if Adams didn’t intend a political message to the story, it’s clear that a lot of people struggling against oppression have seen themselves in the characters.
One last cool feature of the book I want to talk about before I move on is the fact that every location described in the pages actually exists in real life. Every location can be found within a single strip of land stretching about 7-8 miles long, between the hamlet of Sandleford in the province of Berkshire all the way to the stretch of the River Test where the towns of Overton and Laverstoke are located (Efrafa is on the other side of the railroad at the crossing of two bridle paths known to the rabbits as the Crixa), with the actual Watership Down located smack dab in the middle. Indeed, Richard Adams lived in the region his whole life, so it makes sense that he might want to immortalize it in his most popular work.
If there is one criticism I have to give of the book, it would definitely have to be the portrayal of the female characters. Aside from Hyzenthlay, most of the does are treated as little more than breeding stock to help the Watership Down warren survive, especially the hutch does that Hazel nearly gets himself killed over. Indeed, while Holly and Hazel are discussing the hutch does as the latter lies recovering in a ditch at the foot of the down, he asks, “Are they any good?” Adams tries to dismiss this in the narration by pointing out that rabbit gender relations are not comparable to humans. But the damage was still done, as far as some feminist critics were concerned. Adams apparently came to agree if the official sequel is any indication.
Tales from Watership Down
Tales from Watership Down, published by the Hutchinson printing firm in 1996, was written to be more of an anthology series than a single narrative. The nineteen stories contained therein are divided into three parts. The first part, consisting of seven stories, features more tales of El-ahrairah and two more modern stories. The second part, consisting of four stories, consists entirely of side quests taken by El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle on their way back from Inle, the land of the dead. The third part, consisting of the last eight stories, detail events in the Watership Down rabbit’s lives that take place in the months after Woundwort’s defeat.
Some have criticized the new El-ahrairah tales as pointless since they don’t have context with the story like the ones in the original novel. While I can’t argue against that criticism, I still find many new adventures entertaining in their own right. “The Scent of Smell” is probably my absolute favorite story in the book, thanks to probably being the most epic and adventurous tale in Lapine mythology. Others that have stuck in my mind include “The Tale of the Three Cows” (especially because of the downright Lovecraftian way in which the Third Cow is described), “The Hole in the Sky” (okay, seriously, how much cosmic horror was Adams reading when he wrote this?), and “Speedwell’s Story” (in which one of the more nondescript rabbits from the original novel reveals himself to have a… rather interesting imagination, to say the least).
The stories of how rabbit society on the downs restructures after the fall of Woundwort’s regime are also interesting to read, even if the stakes are a lot lower with the dictator dethroned. We get to see things like forming a new warren halfway between Watership Down and Efrafa called Vleflain. We get to see the story of Flyairth, a spirited doe who, despite nearly undermining the stability of Watership Down due to her pathological fear of the “white blindness” (known to humans as myxomatosis), inspires the Watershippers to promote Hyzenthlay to the position of co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. We see an escaped hutch rabbit named Stonecrop who gets treated like dirt because of how strongly he smells of humans, only to prove himself by scaring an invading horde of weasels away from Vleflain with his scent. And, perhaps most importantly for feminist critics, we get to see Hyzenthlay-rah prove herself as she leads a wounded doe named Nyreem to Watership Down.
Ironically enough, given how critical the reviews on Goodreads seem to be of the El-ahrairah stories in this book, I actually somewhat prefer them over the Watership Down tales, as they had much more of an epic style closer to the first book. Still, despite all that, I think Tales is a worthy sequel and well worth reading at least once.
So, for a while on this website, I’ve been teasing a retrospective for the month of May since my birthday falls on that month, and I want to do a series of essays talking about a fictional work that had a big impact on me during my formative years. I’ve mentioned before on my blog entry about The Divine Conspiracy that I was a bit slow to discover the wonders of fictional literature. There were plenty of novels assigned to me by my English classes that I thoroughly enjoyed (The Outsiders, The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, and probably some others that escape me now).
Especially as I got into my high school years, I began to seek out novels on my own time, like TheHunger Games trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. But out of all the books I discovered during that period, there is but one that I can honest to God say actually changed my life. That book was written by a humble British civil servant named Richard Adams, and its name was Watership Down.
I mentioned in the “Animation Age Ghetto” essay I did a while back that I watched the 1978 film adaptation when I was around 8-10 years old after Mom rented it from a video store. I rediscovered it on YouTube during high school, and it (along with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away) woke me up to the fact that animation was more than a genre of children’s entertainment, which I had been deluding myself into thinking for most of my teenage years. From there, I purchased the novel on my Amazon Kindle, as well as some of Richard Adams’ other novels, like Shardik and The Plague Dogs. And it shortly grew into a life-changing rabbit hole (no pun intended) that led me on a journey that ended with me deciding to become a writer myself when I attended college just a few short years later.
There are five works from the franchise that I will be covering for this retrospective:
The original novel, as well as the 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down
The 1978 film adaptation
The 1999 children’s television series
The discography of the British punk/metal band Fall of Efrafa, whose Warren of the Snares trilogy is loosely based on the Lapine mythology presented in the books
The 2018 Netflix miniseries
So yeah, I’ve got a pretty busy month ahead of me as far as writing goes. I’ve also got that essay on my relationship with autism spectrum disorder that I still have to finish. I also want to get the first part of my Divine Conspiracy pilot uploaded on DeviantArt before the end of the month, come hell or high water. The Watership Down franchise is something I am very passionate about, however, so it should be relatively easy for me.
Things are gonna get pretty busy over the next month, beautiful watchers. I hope you’re ready to come along for the ride!
Much ink has been shed over the past half-century arguing which band in all the history of rock music is the greatest. Some may point to 50s rock ‘n’ roll icons like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, who help codify the genre in the first place. Some may point to the Beatles and the Beach Boys for helping elevate not just rock but also popular music in general to an art form. Others may point to the rough and tumble blues rock of the Rolling Stones and the Who that helped lay the groundwork for punk rock. And still others may invoke the names of prog rock icons like Queen, Yes, and Pink Floyd for fusing rock and roll with the artistic sensibilities of classical and jazz music.
And while all those things are certainly true, for this humble music lover, the greatest band would have to be one that really feels like it represents rock music’s past, present, and future. And that band, for me at least, is Led Zeppelin.
This band is often best remembered for its heaving blues rock tunes like those of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple that helped lay the blueprints for the genre of heavy metal. However, the band is equally famous for its eclectic influences. Their songs included influences from genres as disparate as folk music (including Middle Eastern and Indian), country, gospel, funk, reggae, and even synth-pop and punk rock in their later years. Granted, they probably weren’t as prone to genre roulette as Queen was, but their discography is still pretty diverse. Guitarist Jimmy Page has even gone on record saying that he wanted Led Zeppelin’s music to have elements of “light and shade.” That’s certainly obvious in songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “In the Light,” and others that I will cover in my top 20 list of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. Why top 20? Because the band is just that good!
So without any further delay, let’s talk about them. I should tell you ahead of time that if you don’t see any of your favorite songs on here, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. Indeed, I can’t think of a single Led Zeppelin song I outright hate. This is just my list, and these are the songs from their discography that appeal most to my musical tastes, starting with…
20. All My Love
I hate to start the list with such a tear-jerker of a song, but there was no way I could leave this one off the list. Indeed, this song is all about one of the most painful events an adult person can go through: the pain of losing a child.
During the band’s 1977 US tour, singer Robert Plant received the news no parent ever wants to hear: his five-year-old son, Karac Pendragon Plant, had died of a stomach infection aged only five. Perhaps it was only natural that Plant felt it necessary to include a song dedicated to his memory on their 1979 album In Through the Out Door (the last album released by the band before drummer John Bonham’s untimely death from alcohol poisoning a year later necessitated the band’s breakup).
The song is notable because it was one of only two songs on which Jimmy Page didn’t receive a writing credit (the other being “South Bound Saurez,” also from In Through the Out Door). Instead, it was up to bassist John Paul Jones to help craft the musical accompaniment to Plant’s tale of grief, loss, and acceptance. As such, Jimmy Page’s guitar takes a back seat to Jones’ sweeping and orchestral synthesizer work.
Plant’s lyrics, meanwhile, make heavy use of symbolism and mythological references in his struggle to put his feelings into words. He compares Karac’s soul to “a feather in the wind,” having become one of the soft, lighter-than-air things that a child chases while out in the yard having fun. Plant goes on to call out the Fates (possibly referring to either the Moirai from Greek mythology or the very similar Norns from Norse mythology) to weave him a thread to lead out of the labyrinth of despair he finds himself in, much like how the Cretan princess Ariadne gave Theseus a thread to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur. In the end, though, Plant concludes that nothing, not even death, can break the eternal bond of love between a father and son.
This song caused something of a divide between the band when it first came out. Plant obviously considered it one of Led Zeppelin’s finest moments. But Page and Bonham greatly disliked its soft rock sound, thinking that it strayed too far from the band’s roots. Of course, they weren’t brave enough to voice their opinions at the time, as they knew that criticizing a song about their lead singer’s dead son would be in poor taste. Personally though, I think it’s great when a band that cultivated such a macho image can show such vulnerability. Although, speaking of macho…
19. Whole Lotta Love
What can I say about this song that hasn’t already been said? It’s the single that made them big in the U.S. and was the only song of theirs to break the Billboard Top 10 in the country. It also holds the bittersweet distinction of being the final song performed live by the band before Bonham’s death.
It was also one of several that landed the band in court when one of the American bluesmen they took inspiration from took offense to the band not crediting them. Plant decided to sing lyrics heavily inspired by the song “You Need Love” by Muddy Waters over an original riff created by Page. Willie Dixon, who wrote the lyrics for “You Need Love,” ended up suing the band over it in 1985 after his daughter introduced him to the song. The suit was settled out of court, and Dixon was given a writing credit on the song.
Genius.com has described the song as the band’s most sexually explicit track (even though the “squeeze my lemon” verse from “The Lemon Song” exists), mostly because of how obvious it is that Plant is using the word “love” as a euphemism for his…
Of course, this song would probably be just another Led Zeppelin proto-metal freak-out if it weren’t for the infamous middle section, a psychedelic free jazz-esqe sound collage produced through a combination of Page twiddling around with a Theremin as well as every dial, knob, and switch on Olympic Studios’ mixing board. I remember Ozzy Osbourne describing how freaked out the middle section made him when he first heard it, and frankly, I don’t blame him.
Cap it all off with a short but very sweet guitar solo from maestro Page, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide hard rock classic.
18. Going to California
The penultimate track from the band’s famous untitled fourth album originally started as a song about California earthquakes. Indeed, Jimmy Page even experienced a minor earthquake when he traveled to L.A. to mix the album. It ended up as an acoustic folk ballad about a lovesick man traveling to the Golden State to escape an unsupportive girlfriend, likely inspired by how both Plant and Page had a crush on Joni Mitchell at the time.
However, several oblique references to California’s tectonic instability still show up in several places, often as references to godlike entities throwing obstacles in Plant’s way in the same manner they did to Odysseus in the age of myths:
The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake,
As the children of the sun begin... to awake.
Seems like the wrath of the gods;
Got a punch on the nose and it's started to flow.
I think I might be sinking.
Honestly though, it’s the last verse of this song that really put it on the list since it really speaks to the unshakable feelings of wanderlust, loneliness, and lovesickness I’ve been feeling, especially in the age of COVID:
To find a queen without a king;
They say she plays guitar and cries... and sings... la la la.
Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn,
Tryin' to find a woman who's never, never, never been born.
Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Tryin' to tell myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems...
The last couplet is especially poignant for me since I have painful social anxiety thanks to being on the autism spectrum. I’m also very far left in terms of politics, which is extremely frustrating for someone living in this hyper-capitalist dystopia we call “The Land of the Free.” My dreams of an anarcho-communist utopia seem like hills compared to the mountainous walls that the 1% have built to keep them from coming to fruition. But I have no intention of surrendering them any time soon.
17. The Rover
This track (the second on the landmark double album Physical Graffiti) started as an acoustic piece before it evolved into the swaggering hard rock masterpiece we know today, boasting one of my favorite riffs in all of the band’s discography.
The lyrics tell of a person living a nomadic lifestyle, traveling all across the world to see places like London and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and experiencing the simple joys of life like firelight, purple moonlight, and “the rested rivers flow.” But there are signs of “a new plague on the land,” which the protagonist elaborates on in the third verse:
Oh how I wonder, oh how I worry,
And I would dearly like to know
If all this wonder, and earthly plunder,
Will leave us anything to show?
However, the protagonist also seems to be on a messianic mission (“Traversed the planet, when heaven sent me; I saw the kings who ruled them all”). He warns the people of Earth:
And our time is flying.
See the candle buring low!
Is the new world rising
From the shambles of the old?
He tells us that we can survive this apocalypse “if we could just join hands.” That’s definitely a message this soy-boy pinko commie can get behind.
16. No Quarter
The penultimate track from Houses of the Holy is definitely one of the darkest tracks Zeppelin ever put out. The band achieved the atmospheric sound on this recording through Page slowing the recorded track down using pitch control in the studio and compressing his guitar track, thus giving the instrument a smooth yet growling tone. The track’s cold tone is accentuated by John Paul Jones’ cryptic keyboard lines, played on both acoustic and electric pianos.
This greatly complements the lyrics, which seem to be told from the point of view of the wife of a soldier telling her children why their father has gone out into the cold winter night. Given the line “the winds of Thor are blowing cold,” many have speculated that the song is about a party of Vikings going on the warpath against Christian missionaries trying to stamp out the Norse religion. How else would you explain lines like “They carry news that must get through… to build a dream for me and you”? Of course, the song’s title indicates that the Vikings are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.
Sadly, some lyrics, like “The devil mocks their every step,” indicate that their mission is doomed. The line that goes, “The dogs of doom are howling more,” even seems to draw parallels between Scandinavia’s Christianization and the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok. Indeed, the “dogs of doom” could easily be referring to Fenrir, Skoll, and Manegarm (or Hati), who fulfill their roles at the last battle by killing Odin, swallowing the sun, and swallowing the moon, respectively.
Indeed, this song often puts me in mind of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, which is somewhat ironic, given that story takes place in the deserts of the American West. But still, both that and “No Quarter” are equally bleak tales about the horrors of war and the often bloody history that lies at the foundations of Western civilization.
15. The Rain Song
Believe it or not, Houses of the Holy’s resident love ballad was actually John Bonham’s idea. The idea came to him after George Harrison asked him why the band didn’t do more ballads. Page even quoted “Something,” one of Harrison’s most beloved contributions to the Beatles’ discography, on the song’s first two chords. Plant still considers this one of his favorite vocal performances.
The lyrics tell the story of a romantic relationship’s ups and downs, using the seasons as a metaphor. It starts with “It is the springtime of my loving; The second season I am to know,” referencing the blooming of love against the barrenness of winter. The verse is backed with an orchestral instrumental backing, thanks to Jones’ Mellotron keyboard and soft guitar courtesy of Jimmy.
Hints of cynicism start to cast shadows over the protagonist’s happiness in the second verse (“It is the summer of my smiles. Flee from me, keepers of the gloom”). This indicates that the singer knows that fissures are starting to form between him and his significant other as autumn rolls around. Still, though, the instrumental backing continues to be joyful and upbeat.
Things take a turn for the darkness of winter as the guitars get louder and more distorted, as the gloom that the singer was trying to chase away comes crashing down (“I curse the gloom that set upon us!”). However, the track still ends on a hopeful note, as the lyrics in the image at the top of this section will indicate, while the instruments settle back down into the more relaxed tone they kept through the rest of the song.
The song tends to put me in mind of a quote by singer-songwriter Nick Cave discussing love songs in the context of Federico Garcia Lorca’s famous essay “The Theory and Function of Duende” (Duende being a Spanish term for heightened and authentic emotion conveyed through the arts, especially of a melancholic nature):
All love songs must contain duende, for the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain… The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic, and the joy of love. For just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil- the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here- so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgment of its capacity for suffering.
Nick Cave, Love Song Lecture, October 21, 2000
I think Plant does a fine job capturing the suffering that love can bring even to couples who know they are right for one another. So much so, in fact, that it brings out my own anxieties about the struggles of love. What if, if I ever do find a girlfriend, I’m not emotionally strong enough or mature enough to handle the challenges that will inevitably come to test our relationship? What if there are still some toxic elements from my conservative upbringing held within my subconscious that will drive her away? Or maybe my autism will be too much for her to handle? But still, I want to try at least.
14. Immigrant Song
Without a doubt one of Led Zeppelin’s most popular songs, this track opens up their third album with a bang, somewhat tricking the first-time listener into thinking the rest of the album will be this much of a heavy metal barnstormer before surprising them (hopefully pleasantly) with the diverse folk-blues offerings that would characterize the band’s later discography.
The somewhat tongue-in-cheek lyrics were inspired by a concert the band performed in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the summer of 1970. The band likened themselves to the Vikings that lived on the island nation in days of old, even making references to its famous hot springs (“We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow”). Of course, references to aspects of Norse mythology, like “the hammer of the gods” (i.e., Mjolnir) and Valhalla, are obligatory. Several historical references, like the bloody battlefields the Vikings left behind (“How soft your fields of green can whisper tales of gore”) and their eventual Christianization (“So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins! For peace and trust can win the day, in spite of all your losing!”) also appear in the lyrics. However, that last one could also be the victorious Vikings making peace with their conquered, promising a fair rule as long as the colonized cooperated with them.
The song has since been described as one of the first Viking metal songs, even though it bears no musical resemblance to many contemporary bands often considered “Viking metal” (i.e., Bathory, Ensiferum, Enslaved, Falkenbach, etc.). Still, it’s probably the closest to true heavy metal that the band ever reached (except for another song on this list that we’ll get to later).
13. Fool in the Rain
This song is most famous for its instrumentals and the story told by its lyrics. On the instrumental side, it’s probably best remembered for John Bonham’s performance on drums. Whereas the rest of the band performs in common 4/4 time, John’s drumming follows a 12/8 meter, giving the track a polyrhythm that lends a sense of tension despite its light and upbeat tone. The breakdown in the middle, where the song doubles down on its Latin samba-inspired elements, is also well regarded, as well as the guitar solo that immediately follows it, one of my personal favorites from Jimmy.
The lyrics seem like they’re just the usual Led Zeppelin tale of heartbreak and loneliness, with a coming rainstorm symbolizing our protagonist’s heartbreak over his lover standing him up… until it suddenly isn’t. As the last verse reveals:
Now my body is starting to quiver
And the palms of hands're getting wet.
I've got no reason to doubt you, baby;
It's all a terrible mess.
And I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless.
When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop (Hey!).
The thoughts of a fool's kind of careless;
I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block!
Plant apparently took inspiration from a similar story told in the 1957 song “Silhouettes” by the doo-wop group the Rays. Whereas that song ends happily with the singer clearing up the misunderstanding with his girlfriend, “Fool in the Rain” ends ambiguously, with the singer still running to catch his lover as the song ends. I sincerely hope he made it, honestly.
12. Misty Mountain Hop
This song, which opens side two of the untitled fourth album, is one of several to feature references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. The song itself, however, is based more on real life events that happened to Robert Plant. From what I can gather, Plant was loitering in Hyde Park (some sources say Primrose Hill Park), possibly due to intoxication, which led to him getting arrested. Wikipedia also suggests that a police raid on a “Legalize Pot Rally” on July 7, 1968, also in Hyde Park, may have inspired the lyrics to the song.
Plant uses these incidents as a jumping-off point to discuss whether or not our law enforcement agencies, as we have constructed them, are really qualified to handle such power, and how the average person seems to ignore all the abuse committed in the name of law and order as long as they are not on the receiving end of it:
If you go down in the streets today, baby, you'd better,
You'd better open your eyes!
Folk down there really don't care,
Really don't care, don't care, really don't,
Which way the pressure lies!
In the verse before that, Plant asks the listener if they are truly happy under this flawed system:
Why don't you take a good look at yourself,
Describe what you see,
And baby, baby, baby, do you like it?!
There you sit, sitting spare like a book on a shelf rusting
(AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!) Not trying to fight it!
All the while, the jaunty riffs provided by Page’s guitars and Jones’ electric piano keep an ironically upbeat tone despite the dystopian lyrics (“You really don’t care if they’re coming (Oh oh oh!); I know that it’s all a state of mind!”). It kind of reminds me of “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, come to think of it.
It makes the actual Tolkien reference in the last verse somewhat confusing, however, when Plant has been criticizing his listeners throughout the rest of the song for drowning themselves in drugs and escapist fantasy novels rather than confronting the horrors of the modern world. It also seems to tread dangerously close to “love it or leave it” territory, which, at least currently, is impossible considering that my country is powerful enough to squash any socialist movement in any developing nation the minute it starts hurting Fortune 500 bottom lines.
Then again, maybe the protagonist has been captured by the dystopian government portrayed in the song and tortured until he’s so insane that he thinks he’s become a character in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Or maybe he’s just using the Misty Mountains as a metaphor for a socialist movement powerful enough to finally challenge the capitalist status quo, come hell or high water. I would definitely prefer the latter.
11. Over the Hills and Far Away
This is one of the best songs to demonstrate the band’s “light and shade” approach to several of their songs. The song is famous for its shift between an acoustic intro and a hard rock middle section before ending with a soft harpsichord solo courtesy of Jones. It also may be another Tolkien song, as the title is similar to the poem “Over Old Hills and Far Away.”
The lyrics are yet another tale of heartbreak and loss. But unlike, say, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” or “Dazed and Confused,” where the singer wallows in despair over losing their lover, here the lyrics take a more introspective and optimistic outlook. The first verse, where the singer proclaims that the love his girlfriend has is “maybe more than enough,” seems to take place many years before the second verse, where the singer has become older and wiser (“Many times I’ve loved, many time been bitten; Many time I’ve gazed along the open road”).
The narrator continues to describe all the things he’s learned over the years, with the second verse and part of the third taking the form of several aphorisms:
Many times I've lied, and many times I've listened.
Many times I've wondered how much there is to know.
Many dreams come true, and some have silver linings.
I live for my dreams, and a pocketful of gold.
In the third and final verse, after the narrator has decided he has lived his life to the fullest (“Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing; Many, many men can’t see the open road”), he proceeds to ponder the philosophical implications behind the word “many”:
Many is a word that only leaves you guessing.
Guessing 'bout a thing you really ought to know!
From then on, the song gradually quiets down, presumably symbolizing the narrator growing old and making peace with his youthful mistakes as he lays himself down for his final rest. I wonder how relatable this song is to the surviving members nowadays?
10. What Is and What Should Never Be
The second track from the band’s second album seems to be a tale of forbidden love. It is another light and shade track, with soft verses with lightly picked guitars alternating with crushing hard rock choruses. Plant sings the chorus in a way that almost seems to predict rapping, with lyrics inspired by an affair Plant had with Shirley Wilson, the younger sister of his then-wife Maureen.
The song has got a lot going for it: the poetic lyrics describing castles and sailing away high up in the sky on wings of passion, the epic riffs (including one at the end of the song that alternates between stereo channels), and one of my favorites John Paul Jones basslines.
I’ll admit, though, that the whole lyrical theme of “forbidden love” kind of sours the experience since it reminds me a bit too much of Jimmy Page’s infamous fling with Lori Maddox, a groupie who was only 13-14 when their relationship started. This, sadly, was a common practice back then, as I’ve found out. Maddox even claims to have lost her virginity to David Bowie before she even met Page. This hasn’t ruined my appreciation for their art, but it’s still important to remember that these people were humans, and discussing where they went wrong in their personal lives is important if we want to avoid making the same mistakes they did.
9. Gallows Pole
This song is kind of similar to “Misty Mountain Hop” in that it combines dark lyrical subject matter with an infectiously groovy instrumental track that takes normal folk instrumentation, turns it up to an almost punk rock level tempo, and ends with one of my favorite Jimmy Page guitar solos.
The song is an adaptation of an old English folk ballad named “The Maid Freed From the Gallows” that became especially popular after folklorist Francis James Child collected it in his Child Ballads collection in the 1880s. Knowing Led Zeppelin’s influences, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took inspiration from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s version, recorded in the 1930s as “The Gallis Pole.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this song, besides how the instruments build on a crescendo as the song gets faster and faster, is how the story ends. You see, in the original folk ballad, the protagonist would usually end up being released from their punishment, the hangman satisfied with their bribe. In Led Zeppelin’s version, the hangman receives gold and silver from the condemned man’s brother and sexual favors from his sister. How does he respond?
Your brother brought me silver
And your sister warmed my soul,
But now I laugh and pull so hard!
See you swinging on the gallows pole!
Yeah, it’s not exactly a happy ending. It gets darker when you remember this quote from the first verse where the condemned man asks his friends if they have anything to offer the hangman:
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.
That opens up the disturbing possibility that the condemned man is in this situation because of his poverty rather than being an unrepentant serial offender. It’s certainly not hard to read this song as an anti-death penalty tract in that light, something that is sadly still relevant today, especially in America where systemic racism in the criminal justice system means that black people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people.
8. Ten Years Gone
I think Robert Plant explained the song best in a 1975 interview:
I was working my ass off before joining Led Zeppelin. A lady I really dearly loved said, “Right, it’s me or your fans.” Not that I had fans, but I said, “I can’t stop. I’ve got to keep going.” She’s quite content these days, I imagine. She’s got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports car. We wouldn’t have anything to say anymore. I could probably relate to her, but she couldn’t relate to me. I’d be smiling too much. Ten years gone, I’m afraid. Anyway, there’s a gamble for you.
Remember that duende that Nick Cave was talking about earlier? This song has it in spades. It’s difficult not to empathize with Plant’s dueling emotions here. On the one hand, choosing the music over his girlfriend allowed him to be hailed as a god of rock and roll and gave him, in Freddie Mercury’s words, “fame and fortune and everything that goes with it.” But on the other, Plant still clearly feels a lot of regret at how the affair turned out and still often thinks about how it would have worked out if he had stayed with her.
Of course, Plant was seventeen in 1965, and lasting relationships don’t usually form in your teens. But the connection is still there, which Plant compares to the flow of rivers (“Though the course may change sometimes, rivers always reach the sea”) and eagles who always come back to the same nest (“We are eagles of one nest; the nest is in our soul”).
Greatly complementing Plant’s conflicting emotions is Page’s guitar work, which used up to 14 different tracks on some of the harmony parts. While it’s greatly effective in embodying the complex emotions evoked by the track, it made the song difficult to replicate in a live setting. John Paul Jones had to have a three-necked guitar built for him to help recreate the song live.
7. In the Evening
This track, which opens In Through the Out Door with quite a bang, is notable in that Jimmy Page forgoes his stalwart Gibson Les Paul guitar in favor of a Fender Stratocaster. This allows him to pull off some pretty unique stunts with the guitar’s tremolo arm, including depressing the strings low enough to create a unique metallic scraping sound by letting the strings rub against the pick-ups before launching into a truly epic guitar solo. It also introduces the orchestral stylings of John Paul Jones’ newly acquired Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer.
Plant’s lyrics follow a simple theme: a man who is unlucky in love trying to figure out what he’s doing wrong. He appears to spend much of the track arguing with someone else, either a friend, family member, psychologist or even himself. After spending the first verse declaring that he needs to assert dominance (“So don’t let her play you for no fool. She don’t show no pity, baby. She don’t make no rules.”), the outside party steps in, telling the protagonist he can’t force a woman to sleep with him if she doesn’t want to (“So don’t you let her get under your skin. It’s only bad luck and trouble from the day you begin.”).
The outside party tells the protagonist that it’s his wallowing in despair that’s keeping him from seeing a way out of his situation (“I hear you crying in the darkness; don’t ask nobody’s help. Ain’t no pockets full of mercy, baby, because you can only blame yourself.”). Indeed, a lot about the lyrics seem, at least to me, to represent a member of the incel community trying to pull himself out of his nihilistic downward spiral (which I know is a bit of a stretch considering the word wouldn’t be invented for another fourteen years, but still…). I especially like the message presented in the last verse:
That your days may bring,
No use hiding in a corner
Because that won't change a thing!
If you dance in the doldrums,
One day soon its got to stop, got to stop,
When you're the master of the off-chance,
When you don't expect a lot.
Maybe that’s the reason this song speaks to me so much (or maybe it’s just the “twilight majesty” of the instruments, as AllMusic puts it). As a person on the autism spectrum, it is tough to be assertive, which I feel is a good quality to have when trying to get a date. Autistic people also tend to find comfort in routines, and it takes a lot to get them to break those routines. (Let me be clear, though; I am not an incel, and I find their views on women and sexual assault to be truly sickening). But I’m not giving up hope just yet.
6. The Battle of Evermore
Coming to us from the untitled fourth album, this track (as well as the next song on this list) is probably the most overt flirtation the band ever made with Celtic folk music. It is also one of several to feature references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and even throws in some Arthurian references for good measure. Plant claims the lyrics were originally inspired by a book he read about Scottish warfare, however.
The song is backed by acoustic guitar and mandolin courtesy of John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, respectively, even though the latter had virtually no experience on the instrument before recording the track. As he explained in a 1977 interview with Trouser Press, “I just picked up John Paul Jones’s mandolin, having never played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting.” He would later describe his fingerpicking style as “sort of a cross between Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, and total incompetence.” Maybe it’s just because I don’t know shit about how the mandolin is actually played, but I definitely can’t tell the difference when listening to the track.
As for the lyrics, that’s where this song’s other unusual feature comes in. It is the only Led Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist, namely Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. She and Plant perform a call and response vocal throughout the song, with Plant as a narrator and Denny as a town crier:
R.P.: The Dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all!
S.D.: Oh, throw down your plow and hoe!
Rest not to lock your homes!
All of this combines to create a song that breeds an atmosphere of pure mythological majesty. The numerous references to The Lord of the Rings certainly help with this (the “Queen of Light” aka Galadriel, or “The drums will shake the castle wall; the Ringwraiths ride in black, RIDE ON!!!”), as does the passage that refers to King Arthur (“I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow”). The song overall seems to refer to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields outside Minas Tirith, which served as the centerpiece of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Return of the King.
It overall shares the same melancholic yet hopeful atmosphere that I feel whenever I rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one that I hope I can replicate if I ever get The Divine Conspiracy off the ground.
5. Ramble On
This article was originally just going to be about this song before I remembered just how obsessed with this band I was. It’s another song dealing in Tolkien references (their first, in fact, as it was released on their second album).
The instrumentals are notable for Jimmy Page’s violin-like guitar solos (produced through cutting the treble on the neck pickup of his Les Paul and putting the signal through a specially produced sustain-producing effects unit) and by the unusual percussion utilized during the verses, which John Bonham played on an unknown object (a guitar case? An upside-down garbage can? His drum stool?).
Several references to Tolkien’s writings show up again, as Plant sings about trying to find a girl. Although “girl” might be a symbolic term here, as there are several indications that the “girl” may actually be referring to the One Ring:
'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor,
I met a girl so fair,
But Gollum and the evil one
Crept up and slipped away with her!
Then again, the Tolkien references may be allegorical, and the singer is comparing his girl to the One Ring because he knows she’s not good for him, yet he just can’t bring himself to let her go. No matter what you think, though, one cannot deny that this song is a beautifully ethereal masterpiece. The editors of Rolling Stone magazine apparently agree, as they listed this song as the 440th best of all time.
4. Stairway to Heaven
This is the song that first got me into Led Zeppelin. I had remembered hearing a few of their songs on the local classic rock radio station and eventually decided to look up “Stairway to Heaven” on YouTube. I expected it to be a hard rock banger like the others I’d heard. What I found instead amounted to nothing less than a religious experience, and nothing was ever the same.
Much like with “Whole Lotta Love,” this song has been discussed and analyzed so much that it’s hard to know where to start. Of course, everyone knows that the instrumental track is gorgeous, with the vaguely Celtic folk-sounding intro, the angelic twelve-string guitar riffs, the sweeping guitar solo, and the triumphant hard rock conclusion. But what do the lyrics mean? Do they even mean anything at all, or was Plant just using words like another instrument, like Jon Anderson of Yes was often apt to do? I can’t pretend to know the definitive answer, as this song seems to be one of those “death of the author” type deals, but I can offer my own interpretation… or rather, talk about why I agree with Genius.com’s interpretation since it’s the one that makes the most sense to me.
What we know for sure is that it starts with a materialistic woman who has somehow attached spiritual meaning to her worldly possessions:
There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold,
And she's buying a statirway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed,
With a word she can get what she came for.
In an interview with Total Guitar magazine in 1998, Plant himself summarized the lady in the first verse as “a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration.”
The verse continues with the lady seeing “a sign on the door,” which may be a reference to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which (among other things) condemned the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences, which was a very literal case of buying a stairway to heaven. The “you know sometimes words have two meanings” portion could be a reference to the Doors of Durin in Moria from The Lord of the Rings, or it could just be a cheeky reference to the cryptic nature of the song itself. Then it takes a turn toward the natural with the couplet that seemingly criticizes the lady’s self-absorption in not noticing the natural beauty around her:
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings;
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
From then on, the song takes a turn toward the more spiritual as the narrator wonders how he can earn himself a stairway to heaven the right way. He references going west, which may be a reference to the Undying Lands in The Lord of the Rings, the Native American belief that the human soul travels west after death, or the popular Old West colloquialism “Go west, young man!” The “rings of smoke through the trees” line could refer to psychedelic drugs or Gandalf and his fondness for tobacco.
Plant’s assertion on the Song Remains the Same recording of “Stairway” that “I think this is a song of hope” is demonstrated especially well in the next two verses, the fourth verse starting with a metaphor of spring bringing new life:
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now.
It's just a spring clean for the May Queen.
And ending with this truly inspiring message:
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
There's still time to change the road you're on.
Throughout this section, though, there is a new antagonist in the form of the “Piper,” who seems to be trying to lead our hero astray and has already got the lady in his grasp. He tries one last time to get the lady to listen to his words that money only has power because we believe it does:
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know,
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
A shade of darkness casts itself over the lyrics as the hard rock section kicks in, with the narrator singing about how “our shadows [are] taller than our soul.” This could be a reference to Carl Jung’s conception of the shadow archetype, which is all the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and try to keep hidden, or it could be a commentary on legacy. The lady comes back, but this time as a figure shrouded in light, seemingly having finally realized the futility of her materialistic existence and realized that “the tune will come to you at last when all are one and one is all.”
In all, it would seem to me that the song is a story about a holy man (Jesus? A bodhisattva? An aboriginal shaman? Just some spiritually-minded everyman?) trying to save a woman he loves (platonically or otherwise) from being consumed by the horrors of the 20th-century capitalist system by showing spiritual truths from a simpler pre-Industrial pagan age.
Then again, maybe this comment on “Stairway to Heaven’s” Genius.com page sums it up better:
This all happened in 1970. It’s fair to assume they were pretty high. As in 1970 Led Freaking Zeppelin high. So, yeah… deep, meaningful Biblical allegory, or some hippies trying to rhyme, often unsuccessfully, bits of Tolkien-style mythology in between coughs and giggles? You decide.
Genius.com user SSL9000J
3. When the Levee Breaks
Moving from the closing song of side one of the untitled fourth album to the song that closes out the album as a whole, we come to probably Led Zeppelin’s darkest song, both musically and lyrically. The song features several parts where Jimmy Page slowed down the already heavy and droning guitar riffs and harmonica solos during recording. The result was probably the closest that Page’s guitar work came to the heaving proto-doom metal of contemporary hard rockers Black Sabbath.
Lyrically, the song retains the same subject matter as the 1929 country blues classic by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie that inspired it. In 1927, the Mississippi River burst its banks in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, inundating 27,000 square miles in up to 30 feet of water. Around 500 people drowned, and 630,000 were left homeless, including 200,000 African-American farmworkers, many choosing to join the Great Migration to northern industrial cities. It remains the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States.
The original song and the Led Zeppelin cover both use this tragedy to illustrate the dark place that black people in America were in at the time. The flood came toward the tail end of what has often been called “the nadir of American race relations,” which, depending on who you ask, started with the end of Reconstruction or with Northern Republicans fully abandoning the Jim Crow South in 1890 and lasted until either the 1920s or World War Two.
Of course, this period also saw the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the end of the American Indian Wars, with the Natives being imprisoned in reservations and their children getting their indigenous heritage beaten out of them in boarding schools. Indeed, listening to this song in 2021, it’s hard not to think about how things still haven’t changed in terms of how people of color are still discriminated against in this country, even though legal discrimination is a thing of the past.
The sludgy and echoing instrumentals (including John Bonham’s much-beloved drum intro) provide a perfect complement to Plant’s wailing vocal delivery as he grants us this peek into the darkness at the heart of American history. It’s not for nothing that AllMusic critic Steven Thomas Erlewine calls it “an apocalyptic slice of urban blues.”
This song, which closes out disc one of Physical Graffiti, has been described by all four band members as Led Zeppelin’s crowning achievement. Even though there’s no guitar solo, I find it hard to disagree. Everything about this song just comes together so well; the guitar riff and how the orchestra echoes it, John Bonham’s underplayed yet sill bombastic drumming, the subtle polyrhythms (the guitar is in triple meter while the vocals are in quadruple). Everything’s flawless!
The lyrics are in a class of their own. Much like “Stairway to Heaven,” the lyrics tell of a journey. Unlike the quasi-religious lyrics of “Stairway,” however, the story told by “Kashmir” seems to be more of a metaphor for the journey of life itself. As Plant explains:
It was an amazing piece of music to write to and an incredible challenge for me. Because of the time signature, the whole deal of the song is… not grandiose but powerful. It required some kind of epithet or abstract lyrical setting about the whole idea of life being an adventure and being a series of illuminated moments. But everything is not what you see. It was quite a task because I couldn’t sing it. It was like the song was bigger than me. It’s true: I was petrified, it’s true. It was painful: I was virtually in tears.
Robert Plant, radio interview with Richard Kingsmill, 1995
As with many other Zeppelin tracks, possible references to mythology and Tolkien abound. Some have suggested that the “elders of a gentle race” might refer to Tolkien’s elves, although others suggest that it’s a reference to the Book of Revelation. The “father of the four winds” may refer to the Greek god Aeolus and his four children (Boreas (north), Zephyrus (west), Notus (south), and Eurus (east)). It could also refer to Vayu, the Hindu god of wind and breath, and his three avatars (Hanuman, Bhima, and Madhvacharya).
Of course, the verse that begins with “All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground” is a reference to the real life journey that first inspired the song: a trip Page and Plant made through a road in southern Morocco after the band’s 1973 tour that traveled for miles in a dead straight line, with sandstone ridges surrounding it all the while. It was apparently named after the Kashmir region of the Himalayas because Plant had wanted to visit the region for a long time and apparently still hasn’t.
But in all the annals of rock history, I think we can all agree that Plant’s fifteen-second howl at around the fourth minute is in the top ten greatest moments in rock and roll history, even in the 2007 performance at the O2 Arena. The old man’s still got it!
1. Achilles Last Stand
This is another travelogue song with mythological elements which opens up the 1976 album Presence with a bang. Their far more metalized answer to “Kasmir” describes Robert Plant’s travels in Morocco, Spain, and Greece. The references to Greek mythology were inspired by Plant likening his heel, broken in a recent car crash, to Achilles, killed by an arrow to the heel during the sacking of Troy. The opening lyrics (“It was an April morning when they told us we should go”) even refer to how the Illiad describes the Greek fleet leaving for Troy on an April morning. Of course, it also describes the carefree nature of travel itself and the excitement of introducing new songs like “Achilles’ Last Stand” to their screaming fans once Plant is recovered (“Oh, the songs to sing, when we at last return again!”).
Of course, though, the most famous lyric to come out of the song is this immortal line: “The mighty arms of Atlas hold the heavens from the earth.” While mentioning Atlas here is appropriate considering the Greek mythology theme, it more likely refers to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Further references include “Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again,” which is outwardly a reference to English poet William Blake’s prophetic works. However, I wouldn’t blame anyone who took it as another reference to King Arthur.
The music manages to replicate “Kashmir’s” orchestral magnificence with Page’s copiously overdubbed guitar work. It’s another song that inches very close to bona fide heavy metal territory over its ten-and-a-half-minute runtime. It even includes the so-called “heavy metal gallop” that would become a staple of Iron Maiden’s discography. Indeed, John Bonham’s rapid-fire drumming reminds me of Lars Ulrich’s drumming in the thrash section of Metallica’s “One.” And of course, we can’t forget to mention Jimmy Page’s epic guitar solo, which he himself has described as the best he’s ever done.
With a driving groove that never gets boring even over ten minutes, soaring vocals complemented by an equally soaring guitar solo, and wonderfully evocative lyrics that speak to my own sense of wanderlust, I feel very confident in rating as my favorite Led Zeppelin song of all time.
Well, that was much bigger than I expected it to be. It was a lot of work, but probably the most fun I’ve had working on this blog in a while. Stay tuned for updates on what to expect in the next two months. I promise you that May will be a particularly eventful month for this website, as my birthday is that month, and I’m going to be doing a retrospective on a work of fiction that this blog very likely owes its very existence to. I’ll see you then, guys.
…and I think the fact that they brought back Palpatine for this one really says it all (Warning: I don’t give a shit about spoilers for this one. You have been warned).
Upon its release on December 20, 2019, this film was just as divisive as its predecessor, The Last Jedi. Fans who hated The Last Jedi applauded it as a return to form for the franchise. Fans who liked The Last Jedi panned it as a nakedly obvious case of corporate cowardice on the part of Disney. This review is being written by someone in the latter camp, unfortunately. Granted, I am more of a casual Star Wars fan who’s only watched the movies so far, but I still think I have a right to give my two cents here.
There were several aspects of The Last Jedi that had a lot of more traditionalist fans angry with director Rian Johnson, but probably the biggest was the reveal that Rey’s parent were nothing more than “filthy junk traders,” in Kylo’s words, who “sold [her] off for drinking money.” This made many fans upset, as they couldn’t fathom how Rey could have such mastery over Jedi magic without having been born from a previous Force-sensitive lineage. So how did J.J. Abrams decide to remedy that “problem” here? By making her Palpatine’s granddaughter.
Of course, Palpatine being alive in this movie in the first place is its own can of worms (assuming this is a clone of Palpatine, like some characters in the film suggest, how did they recover his DNA from the wreckage of the Death Star?). But by far the biggest insult in this reveal is how it slaps fans who liked Johnson’s message from the last movie in the face. The Last Jedi tried to teach the message that anyone can be destined for greatness, illustrated beautifully by the film’s final scene. To be fair, Abrams insisted that he thought making Rey Palpatine’s grandaughter would show a more powerful message by having her come from “the worst place possible.” But it still runs into the trap of the “divine right of kings” issue that has plagued previous Jedi protagonists in the franchise.
Another aspect that really pissed me off was how Rose Tico was sidelined after her actress, Kelly Marie Tran, was bullied off social media by racist and sexist alt-right trolls. Many people criticized Disney for this, as they felt the company was capitulating to the absolute worst aspects of the Star Wars fandom. One of the film’s screenwriters, Chris Terrio, tried to defend the choice by arguing that she was written to be a companion of Leia in this film, which became a problem when Carrie Fisher died in the middle of pre-production. But that doesn’t explain why scenes between her and Rey were also cut and why the character was also removed from official merchandise.
Speaking of wasted characters, many reviewers have argued that Finn’s character was utterly wasted in not just this film but the trilogy as a whole. This includes his actor, John Boyega, who felt that Disney had used him as a token minority and didn’t give his character a proper arc. It was implied in the novelization for this film that Finn was going to be revealed as Force-sensitive, but that reveal didn’t make it into the film for whatever reason. Indeed, the only character that felt like he had a genuine arc was Kylo Ren, but his abrupt swerve away from the Dark Side, which was completely against everything Johnson set up in The Last Jedi, made the arc feel hackneyed and without an adequate explanation for his motivations.
But ultimately, that brings us to the biggest reason this film failed: it tries so hard to be the anti-Last Jedi that it completely fails as a standalone film. Doing so completely undermines any artistic purpose that the sequel trilogy could have had and basically turns it into a trite retread of the original trilogy. Indeed, the scene where Palpatine gloats to Rey about how her friends in the rebel fleet are being destroyed in front of her during the climax was so similar to the climax of Return of the Jedi that it was physically painful for me to watch.
The film’s technical aspects were good; the special effects, the camera work, the art direction, etc. The performances were still great, especially from Adam Driver, who manages to sell Kylo Ren’s redemption as well as he can with the script he’s working with (he only says one word after his conversation with Han’s force ghost and acts mostly through body language and facial expressions). John Williams’ music is as exciting as ever, and the battle scenes are as good as they can be given the film’s breakneck pacing.
But still, as someone who really liked the direction that Rian Johnson was hinting at the end of The Last Jedi, I would much rather be watching that film instead. And I’m giving this one a 4/10.
…and it’s definitely a lot better than you’d expect an animated kid’s show based on a franchise about dinosaurs eating people would be.
This iteration of the much-beloved Jurassic Park franchise follows six teenagers who win a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the new adventure camp on Isla Nublar. They include Darius Bowman, the resident dinosaur expert of the group; Brooklynn, a travel vlogger; Kenji Kon, the oldest of the group and something of an upper-class twit; Sammy Gutierrez, an extroverted farmer’s daughter whose family farm supplies meat to the park; Yasmina Fadoula, an introverted athlete; and Ben Pincus, a hypochondriac worrywart.
Unfortunately, the events of Jurassic World happen off-camera, and the teens find themselves having to survive in the tropical ruins of the park as the Indominus rex’s rampage unleashes all the dinosaurs from their paddocks.
Like many fellow Jurassic Park fans, I had reservations about the series when I first heard about it. However, even before the Indomius breaks out in episode 4, the kids (usually Darius and Kenji) end up getting themselves in danger several times through their own childish stupidity. While plenty suspenseful, these scenes did wear on me a bit as they seemed to establish the characters lacking any common sense.
But as the Indominus attack brings the plot into conjunction with Jurassic World’s plot, the kids are forced to use their wits to survive as the few adults left on their part of the island are eaten alive right in front of them. Yes, that happens on this “kid’s show.” One incident in episode 5 even has them getting abandoned by a paranoid and psychotic scientist named Eddie, who immediately gets eaten by the Indominus shortly afterward.
The show definitely knows how to raise stakes in a very effective manner. In episode 6, they are relieved to have survived going over a waterfall… until they realize that they are in the Mosasaurus lagoon. In episode 7, the group braves a pterosaur attack and narrowly avoids having their monorail run off the tracks… only for Ben to fall out of the train when a Pteranodon smashes into it. And then finally, Season One ends as the monorail brings them to the docks, and the group finally scares off the Carnotaurus that has been chasing them throughout the season… only to find that the ferry left without them. Later on, in Season Two, they meet a trio of adults who call themselves eco-tourists and say they have a way off the island… only to discover that they have much darker intentions for the dinosaurs.
Suffice it to say, this series is right up there with the best of the films when it comes to dino terror. But the other aspects of the series are good as well. The dinosaurs look absolutely gorgeous. The designs of the human characters got some flack for clashing too much with the dinosaur designs. I don’t feel like they did all that much. The only problem I had on that front was Sammy’s design, which makes her look Asian even though she’s supposed to be Hispanic.
Speaking of the human characters, this might be my favorite human cast in the franchise since the original film (and this is coming from someone who actually likes the Jurassic World films so far). They quickly managed to grow out of their reckless first impression from the first three episodes and grow increasingly resourceful and clever, especially Ben, whose character arc I refuse to spoil here. The voice cast is excellent, featuring such names as Jenny Ortega as Brooklynn, Jameela Jamil and Glen Powell as the kids’ beleaguered counselors, and even Bradley Whitford as the duplicitous “eco-tourist” Mitch in Season Two.
The story also deserves credit for not descending into fanservice when it dovetails into the Jurassic World plot beats. It could have easily turned into something of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-type affair where the film’s plot plays out while the series characters sporadically interact with it. Fortunately though, the story here is able to stand on its own.
And finally, the musical score is just as good as the films, even if such big names as John Williams and Michael Giacchino aren’t there to helm it this time.
Basically, this series is probably one of the best things to come out of the franchise in a long time. Definitely check this one out on Netflix if you have the time. Even if you hate the Jurassic World films, I have a feeling this series might win you over. And I’m giving this one a 9/10.
If you’ve been paying attention to my posts lately, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been musing quite a bit lately about the nature of God and His relationship to good and evil. This is not a new thing for me. I’ve been more or less stuck inside this existential mode ever since Donald Trump somehow bumbled his way into the White House four years ago. I’ve even started writing a whole fantasy novel series exploring these sorts of questions.
Maybe that’s what drew me to this song, written by a music star who knew that his time had come to finally realize whether or not there really was an all-powerful deity behind the scenes standing idly by as evil seems to consume us all. So let’s talk about it.
Leonard Cohen probably needs no introduction at this point, but for those who aren’t aware, here’s a quick rundown:
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. He started as a poet and novelist during the 50s and early 60s before he went into music in 1967 with his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, partly because there was money to be had in that field. Over the next 49 years, his folk music would become renowned for its minimalism, often dark tone, experimentation with smooth jazz and synthpop, angelic female back-up singers, beautifully melancholic lyrics that explored topics ranging from religion and politics to relationships and sexuality, and his very distinctive bass-baritone voice. He is probably best remembered today for the song “Hallelujah” from his 1984 album Various Positions, especially its various cover versions performed by the likes of John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and Pentatonix.
However, the Cohen song I want to focus on today is the opening and title track of the final studio album released during his lifetime. In fact, You Want It Darker came out on October 21, 2016. Cohen died seventeen days later at the age of 82. Perhaps not surprisingly, it focuses heavily on themes of mortality. So let’s see how the opening track introduces those themes.
The first verse starts with the lyrics, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Here Cohen refers to God’s omniscience and how it gives him a rather unfair advantage since He knows every possible outcome of our choices. Indeed, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman made a similar observation in their classic novel Good Omens:
God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e., everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Cohen then goes on to comment on how pain and suffering seem baked into the human condition (“If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame”) and how humanity can never measure up to God as long as they can fall for sin and temptation (“If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame”). He ends the verse with the title and then the line “We kill the flame,” which may be Cohen indicating that humanity may be just as much to blame for the world’s evils as God is.
The pre-chorus begins with the line, “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” which is a translation of the first line of the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer often recited by close family members at a funeral. While appropriate considering Cohen’s Jewish background, that doesn’t stop him from indulging in some Christian imagery for the next line, “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.” He then comments on divine hiddenness (“A million candles burning, for the help that never came”) before ending on a repetition of the title.
The second verse begins with, “There’s a lover in the story, but the story’s still the same.” This may be either Cohen looking back on his career and all of the love affairs he documented in his body of work or, if the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks is correct, him referencing the story of Abraham and Isaac. Cohen then sings about “a lullaby for suffering, and a paradox to blame,” possibly a reference to the act of prayer and how it has thus far not eased our suffering in an obvious way. He references divine hiddenness by saying that “it’s written in the Scriptures, and it’s not some idle claim” that “you want it darker; we kill the flame.” Indeed, there are several verses in the Bible where God proclaims that He “will come to thee in the darkness of a cloud” (Exodus 19) or “would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8).
But the most affective verse, at least for me, goes a little something like this:
They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker
We’ll talk more about this verse in the Personal Thoughts section, but first, let’s talk about the chorus: “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” Hineni is a Hebrew word meaning “here I am,” usually a proclamation of taking responsibility and readiness. Indeed, this is where the connection with Abraham and Isaac’s story that Rabbi Sacks was talking about comes from. Abraham responded with a cry of “Hineni” when God asked him to sacrifice his son. So did Moses when God spoke to him through the burning bush, and Isaiah when God asked to send him out with His message. And now, Leonard Cohen calls out to Azrael, the angel of death, that he is ready to join the Lord God at his side forevermore.
Even with its dark and foreboding tone, this is still a wonderful song. The minimalistic instrumentation, featuring a simple drum beat, slight touches of electric organ, the haunting backup vocals of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, and one of the greatest basslines I’ve ever heard come together to complement Leonard’s unique voice.
Speaking of his voice, I feel that it adds an odd sense of irony to the track. Cohen’s voice here is particularly booming and authoritative, lending it the feel of an all-powerful deity proclaiming his gospel to the world. Yet, in reality, it is the swansong for a dying elder man trying to come to terms with the evils of the world in his final days on Earth.
As for the third verse (the one that begins with “They’re lining up the prisoners”), while others have made comparisons to the Holocaust, which is certainly understandable, I can’t help but draw parallels between it and the current situation in the United States. Despite what partisan news networks like Fox, One America, and Newsmax would have us believe, right-wing fascism of a similar kind that Hitler introduced to Germany is growing in the United States. Donald Trump didn’t start it; he just helped crystallize the white supremacist elements that have been present in the framework of America since its very founding, elements that many Americans (myself included) thought had been all but extinguished in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
The line “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim” in particular makes me squirm because it seems that there are still way too many people in this country that don’t believe that black lives matter. BLM and antifascist protesters are met with the worst police brutality. In contrast, white supremacists and literal Neo-Nazis are met with handshakes and solidarity, even as they commit terrorist attacks against our most sacrosanct government institutions. The black, Latino, and Native American populations continue to be left in poverty and starvation, as are billions of people all across the global south. In contrast, the 1% continue to amass vast sums of wealth that they do not need. And yet, when those people steal just to get by and rise up in protest to demand their rightfully deserved necessities, they are met by police apologists demanding an increase in funding and right-wing politicians accusing them of being part of a Communist plot.
Speaking of which, upon listening to the song again, I noticed that Cohen never explicitly identifies the subject he is speaking to. True, there is the “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord” chorus, but that could easily be him turning away from the subject of the verses to beg God to deliver him from the madness of Earthly life. But who is it that really “wants it darker”? God? Satan? Republicans? Billionaires? Whoever started that dumbass QAnon conspiracy? Okay, maybe not that last one, since that only really started up a year after Cohen died, but the pieces that came together to form it were still there when the song was being recorded.
But, to conclude, this is a truly profound song. It has applicability to many things, from existentialism to the religious mind to the rise of fascism, past, and future. I’m happy Cohen was able to gift this masterpiece to us before his death. Hopefully, he has found the peace that so often eluded him on Earth.
…and it was easily one of the worst mistakes I have ever made.
This movie came on the heels of the Christian movie renaissance in 2014 that also included films like God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is For Real, Noah, Son of God, Left Behind, and Persecuted. Cameron’s film differs from the others in that it’s presented in a pseudo-documentary style while simultaneously being a holiday-themed family comedy. And that may be part of the reason why this film is such a shoddy, disjointed mess.
Before I explain why, though, let me explain the plot of this film… as much as it can be said to have one. Kirk Cameron, playing himself, attends a party at his sister’s house and notices that his brother-in-law Christian White (played by the film’s director, Darren Doane) doesn’t seem to be feeling the Christmas spirit. When he retreats to his car, Kirk follows him. Christian opens up about his lack of comfort with how the holiday has become consumerist and over-commercialized, as well as how so-called pagan figures like Santa Claus have overtaken Christ himself.
Now, one would think this would be the part where the main character tries to help the doubting party overcome their grievances and show them that Christmas’s true meaning is still there, even if it is buried under all the capitalist excess and pagan influence, right? Well, apparently, that’s too cliché for Kirk because he’s convinced that all the holiday season’s materialistic aspects are actually ways of honoring Jesus. And by God, he’s going to make Christian see the error of his ways, even if he has to violate all the rules of logic (and even certain Biblical commandments) to do it.
First, he tries to compare the swaddling cloths that wrapped baby Jesus in his manger to modern-day gift wrapping. Then he argues that Christmas trees are actually symbols of the cross that Jesus died on because, as Alonso Duralde from The Wrap put it, “there are trees in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus was crucified on planks of wood, so tah-dah! Christmas trees!” Yes, seriously, that’s the kind of logical reasoning we’re dealing with here. During the same section of the film, he also dismisses the connection between Christmas and ancient pagan winter solstice celebrations because (and this is a direct quote): “Last I checked, it was God who created the winter solstice.”
But neither of these brain-dead rationalizations can quite compare to Captain Crocoduck’s reasoning for why Santa Claus deserves to be celebrated as a Christian role model.
You see, according to Captain Crocoduck, Saint Nicolas of Myra, one of the direct inspirations for Santa Claus, is a good role model for Christians because in his spare time not giving gifts to children and the poor, he went around beating up heretics, starting with Arius when he dared to challenge Christ’s divinity at the First Council of Nicaea. Also, rather than the white-bearded, red-suited jolly happy soul often associated with Nicolas and Santa, Captain Crocoduck’s version of the Turkish bishop looks like this.
Basically, all of this is Captain Crocoduck’s way of saying the second most offensive moral in this entire movie: beating the ever-loving shit out of anyone who disagrees with you is a perfectly reasonable response, and anything less is surrendering to every conservative Christian’s biggest bogeyman- political correctness!
So then, even though literally none of Captain Crocoduck’s explanations really got to the heart of Christian’s criticisms of the holiday, Christian is completely transformed. He joyously rejoins the party, and to make up for his crabby behavior, decides to throw a dance party set to a hip-hop rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
In all honesty, I was actually somewhat enjoying myself during Captain Crocoduck’s monologues since his logic was so batshit insane. But here’s the thing: Christian snaps out of his funk about 55 minutes into a film that’s 80 minutes long. How does the film fill its last 25 minutes? First, there’s the hip-hop dance party that lasts about five minutes but feels like it lasts twice as long as the movie itself. Then Captain Crocoduck spends the next five minutes or so narrating over beauty shots of his family’s ridiculously extravagant Christmas dinner, telling us how “Jesus came to Earth in a material body, so we celebrate Christmas with material things.” Even though both those things are based on two different definitions of the word material, but (sighs heavily), whatever!
Then, finally, we come to the ending credits… except that hidden in them are five more minutes of bloopers, including a three-minute section at the very end where two black partygoers improvise a terrible freestyle rap about how awesome Captain Crocoduck is.
That’s just a sampling of the awful pacing this movie has to offer. I haven’t even mentioned Captain Crocoduck’s opening monologue at the beginning that spends four or five minutes complaining about how atheists and liberal Christians don’t like the way his segment of Christianity celebrates Christmas (before the studio logos have even finished airing!). Neither have I mentioned the segment between Captain Crocoduck’s monologues where the aforementioned black partygoers discuss how the so-called “War on Christmas” is tied to Area 51, GMO’s, chemtrails, and other such conspiracy theory nonsense. Ironically, said discussion seems to be Captain Crocoduck’s way of criticizing Christians who believe in the War on Christmas, which is hypocritical considering the insanely implausible ways in which Captain Coroduck tries to justify his own insane beliefs about holiday iconography, like how he argues for nutcrackers being analogous to the soldiers who committed Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (yes, really)!
But perhaps the biggest sin this movie commits is this little speech Captain Crocoduck gives toward the end during his Christmas dinner:
So this is Christmas. Pull out your best dishes, your finest linens, your nicest silverware, your biggest ham! Every side dish you can possibly imagine, and the richest butter. It’s time to feast!… And don’t buy into the complaint about materialism during Christmas. Sure, don’t max out your credit cards or use presents to buy friends. But remember, this is a celebration of the eternal God taking on a material body. So it’s right that our holiday is marked with material things.
Captain Crocoduck’s Saving Christmas
Yeah, I’d like to see how a poor black family in this country’s inner cities might react to Captain Crocoduck’s prosperity gospel bullshit. Or better yet, how an even poorer black family working at a De Beers diamond mine in South Africa might respond to his explanation of how the gifts piled under the tree represent the skyline of Jerusalem (by that logic, they could also represent the skyline of Wall Street and thus be symbols of the totalitarianism of late-stage capitalism).
Basically, this is an anti-Christmas film. Materialism is good, charity is bad, and Santa is a bigoted jerk who beats up people who don’t completely agree with his religious beliefs. Seriously, even Sandor Clegane would make a better Santa than this fundamentalist maniac!
Long story short, there are so many better Christmas movies you could be watching rather than this one. Maybe Klaus on Netflix with its beautiful and revolutionary new style of hand-drawn animation. Maybe Rise of the Guardians with its colorful and badass reinterpretations of classic holiday figures. Or maybe even Christmas with the Kranks, I don’t know! Any of those are better than Captain Crocoduck’s schizophrenic ramblings. And I’m giving this one a Fuck you/10. Merry Christmas, you filthy animals!
…and I give our favorite lovably antisemitic foreign reporter’s Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan a rating of “Great Sucess.”
After first Borat make Kazakhstan very humiliate, the man responsible, Borat Sagdiev, is put in gulag for fourteen year. But then Kazakh government have change of heart and send Borat on new mission to US & A. He is to deliver Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture and biggest porn star Johnny the Monkey to vice pussy-grabber Michael Pence. If he fail to accomplish mission, he will be execute. But things become very complicate when Borat’s daughter, Tutar, smuggle herself into US & A and eat Johnny. Can Borat save own ass and Kazakhstan’s reputation at same time?
And with that out of the way, let’s shift into proper grammar for the review.
A lot of people say this film is better than the original Borat in every way, and personally, I have to agree with them. Whereas the original was pretty much just one random event after another, this film actually has a narrative, driven by Borat and Tutar’s relationship. This isn’t to say that nothing in the original film was funny in any way, but actually having Borat go through a character arc was certainly fun to watch.
Speaking of Tutar, can we have a round of applause for Maria Bakalova’s performance? Baron Cohen really caught lightning in a bottle with this actress, and I really struggle to see anyone else who could match Borat’s comedic stylings while also giving the moviefilm an emotional core that its predecessor lacked.
Also helping the movie is Baron Cohen’s more sympathetic treatment of his interview subjects. Whereas the interviewees in the first film were often treated as mere prank subjects at best (i.e., feminists, gay rights activists, and the owners of the Jewish bed-and-breakfast) or outright monsters at worst (the racist rodeo attendees and the misogynist frat bros), here the interview subjects are presented in a much more sympathetic light. Not only are people like the Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans and Tutar’s babysitter Jeanise Jones treated with the genuine reverence that they deserve, but even people with otherwise morally repugnant beliefs, like the rednecks who help shelter Borat from the pandemic, are shown in a positive light for trying to teach him that women have and deserve rights, even as they preach to Borat about the QAnon conspiracy and advocate for violent revenge against the Democrats that they believe are perpetrating it. What Baron Cohen seems to be presenting here is presenting a much more optimistic portrait of America; yes, this country’s culture often makes it a melting pot of racists, homophobes, and other assorted bigots, but no one was born that way. There is still hope of reforming this society and curing it’s more prejudicial tendencies.
So all in all, just the kind of film US & A need right now. Funny, heartwarm, and politically conscious. Check out for hilarity and Rudy Giuliani sexytime. And I give Subsequent Moviefilm a 9/10.
We all know the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, right? If you don’t, maybe this well known tentacled monstrosity will refresh your memory.
Yes, that’s right, our old friend Howard Phillips was responsible for our favorite non-Japanese kaiju, Cthulhu. But what many people don’t seem to realize, probably because they haven’t read H.P.’s work, is that Cthulhu and his brothers, the Great Old Ones, were not merely radioactive mutants or flesh and blood alien conquerors. They are the gods that our ancestors worshipped, the ones that called for blood sacrifices and rampaged across the land when they weren’t delivered. They are beings hailing from a plain of reality so alien to our own that merely looking upon them can drive a person insane.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, inside that alternate plane of reality are the creator deities that the Great Old Ones worship as gods, the Outer Gods. Instead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, however, we get Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth. This trinity cares not for the struggles of a tiny, insignificant species like ourselves. And even if they do, they offer nothing in the way of salvation. They just make us wish they would leave us alone and make the torture stop already!
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos at large… To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.
H. P. Lovecraft to the editor of Weird Tales, c. 1927
That’s certainly a very bleak way of looking at the world. Lovecraft essentially portrays our universe as a tiny bubble floating in the vastness of the ocean, vulnerable to being popped by the jostling of an oblivious sea creature that didn’t even notice it was there in the first place.
But what if you took that idea one step further? What if you concluded that it is not that malignant eldritch deities are infiltrating reality? What if, instead, reality itself was an inherently malignant deity that we all had to suffer inside the rancid belly of? This is the premise that lies at the heart of the literary creations of Thomas Ligotti.
Much like Lovecraft before him, Ligotti has never been a happy person. He suffers from clinical depression, chronic anxiety, and even anhedonia (a lack of motivation or even the ability to experience pleasure). This naturally led to a strong disillusionment with life that manifests strongly in the often crushing cynicism that pervades his work. From clowns and puppet shows and dreams to medical professionals and office work and decaying urban centers, many aspects of everyday life are tools in his modus operandi of examining everyday life from his detached and darkly comic perspective and dissecting it to find the weirdness and horror lying within.
With that, let me introduce to my ten favorite Thomas Ligotti stories (in no particular order). And maybe keep a nightlight on while we make this journey.
1. The Frolic
This story is Ligotti’s take on every parent’s worst nightmare: the child sexual predator. It focuses on Dr. David Munck, a psychologist who works in the criminal justice system, as he opens up to his wife Leslie about a very unnerving John Doe he’s been working with. This John Doe, a serial child “frolicker,” as he calls it, is infamous among the other doctors for his utter uncanny strangeness.
He insists he has no identity, which seems to be backed up by the fact that no one can find any documentation on him. He speaks and acts in a very childish manner, often shifting between various strange accents. He seems to lack any inkling that what he does to his young companions is wrong in any way. He claims to have come from what Dr. Munck describes as “a cosmos of crooked houses and littered alleys, a slum among the stars,” which is where he does his “frolicking.” He even goes as far as to claim that going to prison is merely a vacation from his work with children and that he can get out any time he wants. But probably the worst thing about Dr. Munck’s interview with John is when the “frolicker” asked if he had “a misbehavin’ lad or little colleen of your own.” And colleen is not that far off from Norleen, his daughter’s name…
Indeed, it’s probably not the best story to read if you’re a parent, especially if you’re paranoid about this sort of thing. Especially if you don’t fancy your child going on a field trip to a place featuring such landmarks as “a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks… that won’t remain still,” or “a stairway that’s ‘broken’ in a very strange way.”
2. The Chymist
This story is told entirely as a single side of an entire conversation, in a similar manner to Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model.” Rather than a Bostonian who paints portraits of corpse-eating ghouls, though, this story’s main character is a man who calls himself Simon, who fancies himself a modern-day alchemist. The story is narrated from his perspective as he carries on a conversation with a sex worker named Rosemary that he meets at a bar. He waxes philosophical about the decay in the city as he takes her back to his apartment to get freaky… but not in a good way. For you see, Simon here specializes in creating waking dreams with his brand of alchemy. And he has a very Freddy Krueger-esqe way of using the human body as his dream canvas as he gives himself over to nebulous unseen entities to help him do his work…
This piece manages to be so effective in its horror by the way it puts us in Rosemary’s shoes. As the readers, we are charmed and amused (or annoyed) by Simon’s ridiculously flowery soliloquies as he takes us on his journey through the decaying city that he and Rosemary call home. And it makes it all the more bone-chilling when Simon reveals his true purpose for the poor woman. It really says something that Ligotti manages to make a simple rape look like a step up compared to the implications behind “Now Rose of madness- BLOOM!”
3. The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise
It’s probably no surprise that someone of Ligotti’s mental disposition might not have the fondest view of the holiday season. This distaste is embodied through a younger relative of the titular character, Jack, as he narrates his lack of joy whenever his parents take him to his aunt’s house every Christmas Eve to celebrate. On his twenty-first Christmas at her house (which he vows will be his last), he listens as Aunt Elise tells a story about the old man who lived in a now abandoned and torn-down house down the road. She tells of how an antiquarian visited his house before he died, only to find himself having been transported to another world filled with a dark fog where tortured shapes wander aimlessly, and realizes he has become the old man himself. Jack shrugs off the story as he leaves to go home, only to see the house has seemingly returned, bedecked in Christmas lights…
This story seems to speak to the portion of us who feel somewhat alienated from our families, especially around the holidays. Personally, I still love the holiday season. Still, they seem to become less fun with the overly-commercialized stranglehold that capitalism has on the Christmas season and as my political views deviate further from the rest of my mostly conservative and patriotic family. The story also illustrates just how strong family bonds can be in a horrifying way with its ending twist, especially for those who can’t stand theirs.
4. Masquerade of a Dead Sword
This story is a dark fantasy tale that takes place in the city of Soldori and follows a bespectacled swordsman named Faliol. A messenger named Streldone takes him to the local duke’s palace to celebrate a local festival. Once there, Faliol begins making grand speeches about a new realm of reality he has experienced, one where demonic spirits tell him maddening secrets about reality. Now his only wish is “to see the world drown in oceans of agony” to relieve himself of “a madness which is not of this world.” While the court mage at first seems to dismiss his ramblings, he soon shows himself to be not all he seems when he starts orating about the need to overthrow the hold that Anima Mundi has on the living beings of this earth. And Faliol is to start the cleansing at the duke’s masquerade ball…
This is definitely one of the more interesting diversions Ligotti has made from his usual modern-day urban horror setting, and it works really well. As one might expect, with Ligotti’s trademark philosophical pessimism at the forefront, he manages in just twenty pages to create a dark fantasy world that would even make George R.R. Martin go, “What the fuck?!”
5. The Journal of J.P. Drapeau
This story follows the titular author as he chronicles his stay in the Belgian city of Bruges in the 1890s and early 1900s. Drapeau’s entries are relatively normal until he recounts an instance where he bumped into an older man being taken away to an asylum, who warns him never to say a word about the things he knows. True, Drapeau sometimes harbors fantastic notions. He attributes the noises in his closet to two corpses that live in it and believes that demons who played with his body parts as a child still live among the stars. However, even as he denigrates other people’s notions of a world beyond ours, he begins to feel as if an ineffable presence is calling out to him. Then he begins to notice something off about his reflection in the mirror and that an alternate version of Bruges from his books is starting to take shape around him…
While I’m not entirely certain what Ligotti was trying to say with this story, I feel like this might be a comment on escapism and how retreating into your own fictional world too often can cause you to lose sight of the real world. Of course, Ligotti, ever the cynic, decides to take it a step further by making it quite literal.
This may be the closest thing to an optimistic story that Ligotti has written, and even has something of a happy ending, depending on your point of view.
The title refers to a fantasy dream-world that has been created in the mind of an asylum inmate named Victor Keirion. It is a world where normal earthly laws and rules have no meaning, resembling a dark and crumbling city where the buildings are twisted at odd angles, sometimes to the point that their roofs face the ground. But his dream sanctuary becomes threatened when a crow-like man invades Vastarien and threatens to destroy it. Can Victor save his dream paradise from destruction?
Interestingly, this story comes right after “The Journals of J.P. Drapeau” in the Songs of a Dead Dreamer collection and has similar themes of disappearing into another world. Whereas the former portrays this as happening against the protagonist’s will, in “Vastarien,” the protagonist deliberately escapes into his dream-world and leaves the Earth behind. Perhaps escape into another world is not always a bad thing after all?
7. The Last Feast of Harlequin
This story can be described as “Shadow Over Innsmouth but in Appalachia” and is even dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft’s memory. Ligotti has also stated that this was the first story he ever published, which really shows how well he had mastered his craft by then.
The story follows an unnamed anthropologist as he travels to the town of Mirocaw, curious about their pageantry festival that centers on a clown motif. Things begin to take a turn for the strange, however, when he bumps into his old mentor, Dr. Raymond Thoss, who has been missing for several years. As the anthropologist investigates further, he soon makes a horrifying discovery about the festival’s true nature, including human sacrifice, a biological secret about the festival-goers that comes out at the sacrifice, and worst of all, the anthropologist’s disturbing connection to all of this…
While people who have read Shadow… can likely guess the ending twist based on my description, the story also bears a strong resemblance to Lovecraft’s earlier story “The Festival,” which features a similar revelation about the true nature of the festival-goers. The only difference being that Lovecraft’s story is implied to be all a dream at the end, whereas here it’s all too real.
This story is undoubtedly one of the most stereotypically Lovecraftian pieces that Ligotti has written. It is also one of the best ones to demonstrate his “reality as a malignant god” concept.
The story follows an unnamed narrator as he recounts his studying of a journal by one Bartholomew Gray as he travels to an obscure island named Nethescurial with an archaeologist named Dr. N-. There they learn of the patron deity of the native inhabitants, who ended up smashing the idol depicting it and scattering to all corners of the globe when they learned of its evil nature. Gray recounts finding all the pieces, only to smash the idol once again when he started seeing the god’s essence squirming around inside everything he saw. At first, the narrator writes the story off as a middling adventure yarn until he, too, starts to feel the evil god’s presence in every wall and floorboard and becomes aware of a shadow covering the moon…
Indeed, this story reminded me of “The Call of Cthulhu” in some ways, in that it involves a narrator reading notes about a globetrotting adventure that eventually leads to the uncovering of forbidden ancient knowledge that drives one insane. At least Cthulhu has a physical body, though. What Ligotti describes here sounds more a Satanist’s idea of pantheism, a black substance that literally permeates every atom of existence. But don’t worry, guys: “Nethescurial is not the secret name of the creation.”
9. The Shadow at the Bottom of the World
This story tells of a farming community that discovers a black mold-type substance formed under a scarecrow’s clothes. The black mass retreats into a bottomless hole shortly after its discovery, and the townspeople elect to board it up and forget about it. However, the warm temperatures of the growing season seem to stick around. Strange colors appear in the vegetation, and a constant droning, like that of a swarm of cicadas, seems to fill the air. The townspeople soon begin to suspect that the black mold is part of a larger entity that demands sacrifice in return for their harvest…
My first impression was that this story seems to be using the black mold as Ligotti’s twisted interpretation of a Mother Nature archetype. It’s not hard to see the whole sacrifice theme as a commentary on humanity taking what they want from the Earth and the Earth finally having enough and demanding something from them in return. Also worth noting is how the narrator doesn’t seem to be a singular person, but rather the town as a collective. The word “I” never appears at all, and the plotline involving Mr. Marble, the only character with a distinct individual identity, might be Ligotti’s commentary on conformity in small-town American society.
10. My Work Is Not Yet Done
Ligotti’s only novella is divided into “Three Tales of Corporate Horror,” as the subtitle suggests. The bulk of the book is taken up by the titular story, which follows junior manager Frank Dominio as he plots revenge against the seven other managers who got him fired from his job. His plans become much more elaborate than a simple shooting spree, however, when a dark force that animates all life on Earth gives Frank psychic powers which he uses to inflict ghoulishly creative and ironic punishments on those who wronged him.
The other two stories are “I Have a Special Plan for This World” (which tells of the Blaine Company’s plight as it deals with a high murder rate in its home city and a yellow haze that constantly covers it. All of this is narrated from the point of view of an employee who seems to know more about what is going on than he lets on…) and “The Nightmare Network” (told in an epistolary format, it chronicles the merging of Oneiricon with the titular network, with catastrophic results).
These stories are notable for how well they portray the cutthroat nature of late-stage capitalism and how well they show how the corporate world’s machinations really make them the new eldritch horrors in town.
Please note, though, that I have only read three of Ligotti’s works so far; Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe, and My Work Is Not Yet Done. If there are some other stories you think I missed, feel free to let me know in the comments. In the meantime, have a happy Halloween, boils and ghouls! Even if the pandemic means you can’t go trick-or-treating, I hope you still have a good time. In the meantime, happy reading (starts laughing maniacally).
…and while I enjoyed reading it, I can’t really say I was able to take its philosophy all that seriously.
This book is the first nonfiction piece from underground horror icon Thomas Ligotti, published by Viking Press in 2010. This book is meant to highlight the philosophy that lies behind Ligotti’s fiction, and boy, is it ever bleak. I think the man himself summarizes this book’s thesis best in the “Blundering” section of the first essay:
Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees- a blunder of blind nature, according to [Peter Wessel] Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not who we are- contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, essentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion?
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
The titular “conspiracy” Ligotti is talking about is perpetrated by those who believe that “being alive is all right” and that human consciousness is not inherently “MALIGNANTLY USELESS.” Since we are the only beings in this universe (that we know of) that have consciousness, it is only fair to assume that our consciousness was a mistake and that the best way to correct this is to essentially self-terminate. Sure, anyone who wants to can have children, but only as long as the human population keeps on a downward trend.
Seems simple enough, right? Well, apparently not, because Ligotti seems to feel the need to repeat these messages over and over again throughout the book. While the repetition didn’t annoy me as much as it did some other reviewers I read on Amazon and Goodreads, I admit it was kind of off-putting.
As for the actual philosophy, I’m not sure if I’m all that qualified to critique it, as I’m no expert on the subject. I can only offer my own reactions to Ligotti’s philosophy based on my own personal outlook on life- and boy, do they clash!
For example, Ligotti’s claim that consciousness is a uniquely human trait is not actually supported by science. Granted, animals can’t communicate with words, so we can’t be certain of this. However, several animals can recognize themselves in mirrors, including elephants, bottlenose dolphins, magpies, chimpanzees, and possibly even cleaner wrasses.
Ligotti claims that all animals except us are only responsive to the four F’s; fleeing, fighting, feeding, and… mating. Yet elephants have been observed mourning their dead and have been observed to hold grudges. African gray parrots have shown the ability to learn as many as 950 different human words and use them creatively. None of this is to say that any of these animals are capable of contemplating their place in the universe like we are, but it does puncture several holes in Ligotti’s “consciousness as a fluke” narrative.
Also hurting this book is just the sheer overwhelming nature of Ligotti’s cynicism. Yes, I know that Ligotti suffers from anhedonia, which means he literally can’t experience pleasure, but that doesn’t mean his depressive state automatically makes his opinions more mature and realistic; it just makes him look like he’s got a giant stick up his ass.
Maybe I’m biased as well because I consider myself a believer in the afterlife. However, I also tend to believe, as a libertarian socialist, that the reason life seems like an endless train of misery is not because of some inherent flaw in human nature. It’s because capitalism puts the most selfish and irresponsible dregs of humanity in charge of the rest of us and makes life suck for most decent human beings on this planet. Needless to say, I can’t entirely agree with Ligotti’s assessment that “both the inhumane and humane movements of our species are without relevance. None of us are at the helm of either of these movements. We believe ourselves to be the masters of our own behavior- that is the blunder.”
Although apparently, even Thomas Ligotti seems to disagree with this statement. In a 2011 interview with the blog “The Damned Interviews,” he claims to support socialism because he thinks that would be the best way to ensure everyone’s comfort as they wait to die in his anti-natalist utopia. Granted, he clarifies that he thinks too many people in this world are “unadulterated savages” andwill never let go of capitalism. But he does seem to hint that he thinks a socialist society is at least possible, which really doesn’t seem to gel with the hard determinist perspective he takes in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
In the end, I think this book is valuable as a way of understanding the kind of mind that could create the Lovecraftian horror stories that Ligotti is so well known for. Pretty much every other review I read online also praised the book’s final essay, which is Ligotti giving a mini-history of horror literature through his own unique perspective. However, his philosophy definitely leaves something to be desired. His arguments that human life is so inherently meaningless that it is not even worth preserving are far too melodramatic to be taken seriously. Indeed, the whole time I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of this speech by online film reviewer Kyle Kallgren, who reviewed the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia as part of his Brows Held High series (specifically calling out Von Trier for romanticizing depression):
Depression is a disease, make no mistake. Von Trier can romanticize it all he wants, but depression is a stasis; it’s a dead end. Succumbing to it is to surrender to death. And he can go on and on about how hollow our culture is and how shallow life is, but what of it? I’m alive. And I can experience the new and share it. Here, now, I’m alive. And what happier thing can be said? And we should all keep creating and sharing. Because, in the words of a better filmmaker [Orson Welles in “F for Fake”]: “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Keep on singing.”
Kyle Kallgren, Brows Held High: Melancholia
Ligotti may be comfortable with surrendering to death, but I’m definitely on Kyle’s side here. And I’m giving this book a 5/10 (it’s closer to a six than a four). Also, check out my list of my top ten favorite short stories written by Thomas Ligotti, which is coming out very, very soon. Thank you! Bu-bye!