P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist #5: “Atrocity Exhibition” by Joy Division

From left to right: Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner

Today on P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist, we cover one of the most (in)famous bands to come out of the late seventies post-punk movement. Post-punk is an umbrella term used to describe several different styles of music that tried to apply punk rock’s energy and DIY stylings to genres not necessarily within the parameters of rock, like electronica, jazz, funk, dance music, etc. The movement produced numerous bands of note, from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Image Ltd., and Pere Ubu to Devo, the Talking Heads, The Cure, The Fall, and Gang of Four. It was not only the starting point of a surprising number of commercially successful bands, like U2, R.E.M., and Depeche Mode, it also helped influence even more experimental genres like goth rock, no wave, and industrial.

However, the band I want to focus on today is best known for the life of its lead singer, who died tragically at a far too young age and thus cast a shadow not just on the band member’s reputations but also on the history of post-punk as a whole. So let’s talk about Ian Curtis and the genre he helped define.

Backstory

The band was conceived in the town of Salford in Greater Manchester, England, after childhood friends Bernard Sumner (guitars) and Peter Hook (bass) attended a Sex Pistols concert on June 4, 1976. After acquiring the talents of Stephen Morris on drums and Ian Curtis on vocals, the group initially chose the name Warsaw, after the David Bowie song “Warszawa.” However, the group soon decided to rename themselves to avoid confusion with an obscure punk group from London called Warsaw Pakt. Their new name, Joy Division, raised some eyebrows at the time since it was inspired by sex slavery programs run in Nazi concentration camps. This, combined with the illustration of a Hitler Youth prominently displayed on the cover of their debut EP, An Ideal for Living, led to accusations of Nazi sympathies.

But this minor controversy didn’t deter local TV personality Tony Wilson from signing the band to his independent Factory Records label shortly after. The band would go on to release two albums with Factory. Unknown Pleasures was released on June 15, 1979, followed by Closer, released on July 18, 1980. The non-album single “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” released the previous month, became their first chart hit, reaching the 13th spot on the UK singles chart.

Sadly though, Ian Curtis would not live to experience this success. Ian had epilepsy, which would often cause him to experience seizures in the middle of a concert. This condition did not mix well with the band’s relentless touring schedule, and Ian quickly drove himself to exhaustion. Bouts of insomnia, alcoholism, and a failing marriage finally combined to send him beyond the breaking point. His wife, Deborah, found his body hanging in his apartment on May 18, 1980, with the album The Idiot by Iggy Pop playing on the turntable and Werner Herzog’s Stroszek playing on the TV. He was only 23 when he died.

Both albums would go on to influence the alternative rock scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Joy Division itself had made a pact to change their name if any member left. Thus, after recruiting Stephen Morris’ partner Gillian Gilbert as a new guitarist/keyboardist, they regrouped as the seminal new wave group New Order.

But what exactly was it about Joy Division’s sound that made them so influential to future bands as diverse as The Smiths, Radiohead, the Pet Shop Boys, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Maybe I can do my best to explain as I examine the opening track of Closer, a stark and riveting piece of music titled “Atrocity Exhibition.”

The Song

The song takes its title from the experimental anthology novel The Atrocity Exhibition, written by J.G. Ballard and published in 1970. Inspired by recent tragedies like the Kennedy assassination and his own wife’s sudden death from pneumonia, the book attracted controversy for its sexually charged nervous breakdown of a plot, which sees the narrator fantasizing his way through several different roles and scenarios to try to make sense of the chaotic world events he’s living through. Ian Curtis only read the novel after he had written the majority of the lyrics, however.

When listening to the song, one may scratch their head, wondering why the band chose this of all songs to open the album. It sounds nothing like anything that Joy Division has done before, be it the straight punk of An Ideal for Living or the dirges on Unknown Pleasures that sound like Black Sabbath minus Tony Iommi’s heaving metallic crunch. Granted, the calm and steady bass riff sounds like business as usual, as does Ian Curtis’ vocals (albeit a bit more strained than usual).

Stephen Morris’ drums, on the other hand, sound much more tribal and African inspired than the more straight-ahead beats of “Shadowplay” and “New Dawn Fades.” This chaotic atmosphere is further reinforced by the guitar work, which dispenses with recognizable riffs and instead simply bangs away with random screeching, clattering, and scraping sounds that might sound more at home with future noise rock groups like Swans, Big Black, or The Jesus and Mary Chain. This may have something to do with the fact that bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner switched instruments for this track. The result, as TV Tropes put it, sounds “like a chorus [read: cacophony] of deformed souls moaning in agony.”

Martin Hannett’s production, which shaped the sound of both albums, is the final piece that brings it all together. His cavernous and atmospheric production style has been widely praised for how well it complements Ian’s tales of isolation and mental torment. However, Sumner and Hook hated it at the time mainly because they thought it was too far a departure from their more aggressive live sound. On the other hand, Morris and Curtis liked what they heard and thought it would be asking a bit too much for Hannett to make an exact copy of their live sound.

The Lyrics

The lyrics seem to be Curtis spelling out his view of society and human nature, with a chorus that solely consists of the phrase “This is the way, step inside.” What exactly is Curtis beckoning the listener to see? Allow the first verse to illustrate:

Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside.
For entertainment they watch his body twist;
Behind his eyes, he says, "I still exist."

This verse likely references the practice of 19th century Englanders to visit mental asylums to watch the struggles of the mentally ill inmates, as if they were animals caged up in a zoo. It also has a much more personal meaning for Curtis related to his epilepsy. While he was initially open about his diagnosis, he started to become paranoid that much of the band’s audience was there hoping Curtis would have a seizure on stage. It’s certainly not hard to see how Ian could draw a connection between such sick ways of getting entertainment, given the continued stigmatization of those with mental and developmental disorders.

The darkness and nihilism only grow more in scale as the song progresses. The second verse adds to the asylum inmate’s ordeal:

In arenas he kills for a prize,
Wins a minute to add to his life,
But the sickness is drowned by cries for more;
Pray to God, make it quick, watch him fall.

Here, Ian reaches further back in history to the gladiator games of ancient Rome for another case of humans being entertained by atrocities, especially those the ruling class considers so far beneath them as to be barely even human.

After this point, Ian’s narration seems to take the form of a godlike outside observer, watching with glee as the lower classes of humanity struggle against the powers that be, only to be knocked back down into the stations their rulers have chosen for them and slaughtered if they refuse to stay put.

You'll see the horrors of a faraway place,
Meet the architects of law face to face,
See mass murder on a scale you've never seen,
And all the ones who try hard to succeed.

The song ends with this spine-chilling parting message from the omniscient narrator:

And I picked on the whims of a thousand or more,
Still pursuing the path that's been buried for years.
All the dead wood from jungles and cities on fire,
Can't replace or relate, can't release of repair.
Take my hand and I'll show what was and will be.

Here, the narrator seems to admit that he’s been orchestrating these atrocities from behind the scenes and argues that these atrocities will always plague humanity for as long as they continue to exist as a species. The verse takes even darker personal implications for Ian’s mental health at the time if one interprets the last line as an answer to this line from the Unknown Pleasures track “Disorder”:

I've been waiting for a guide to come
And take me by the hand.
Should’ve been more specific.
Personal Thoughts

Those familiar with my political beliefs probably already know where this is going: late-stage capitalism and America’s cultural takeover of the world. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the third verse and America’s forever wars (“See mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen”), its ongoing problems with racism and police brutality (“Meet the architects of law face to face”), and the rigid class divides enforced by the moneyed classes (“And all the ones who tried hard to succeed”).

I can certainly relate to the last line of the first verse (“Behind his eyes, he says ‘I still exist'”) as a person on the autism spectrum. In a society that looks down on the neurodivergent, it’s hard for me not to be self-conscious about my disorder. I usually keep it secret from my coworkers and friends out of fear that they may simply dismiss me as a “retard.”

I feel like Ian Curtis might have been having the same thoughts I’m having right now when he wrote this song. Indeed, many of the lyrics in the last two verses seem to be referencing various capitalism-induced crises that have only gotten worse in the four decades since his death, from the cycle of poverty to the destruction of the environment (“All the deadwood from jungles and cities on fire”). He had previously talked about the bloody history at the roots of the current global order in “Dead Souls”:

Where figures from the past stand tall
And mocking voices ring the halls.
Imperialistic house of prayer;
Conquistadors who took their share.

Fortunately, I have faith that there is a way out, and it lies in what the fourth verse refers to as “pursuing the path that’s been buried for years.” You can call that path whatever you want; Daoism, anarchism, socialism, paganism, the indigenous peoples’ ways buried by the tides of imperialistic conquest. There is no need to surrender to the defeatist attitude that Mark Fisher named “capitalist realism.” We can fight this, and we should.

And that’s all I have to say about the song “Atrocity Exhibition.” Next time, I will be starting a new series where I will dive into various leftist ideologies to teach my readers (and myself) how they would run a post-capitalist world. So until next time, stay safe, beautiful watchers, and rest in peace, Ian Curtis, wherever you may be.

An abyss that laughs at creation/A circus complete with all fools/Foundations that lasted the ages/Then ripped apart at their roots- Heart and Soul

P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist #4: My Top 20 Led Zeppelin Songs

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.

Got no time for spreadin’ roots; the time has come to be gone. And though our health we drank a thousand times, it’s time to ramble on…

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.

Someone told me there’s a girl out there, with love in her eyes and flowers… in her hair.

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.

Robert Plant

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
…when the day is done, I’m looking for a woman, but the girl won’t come…

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:

Oh, whatever
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
Artwork courtesy of Jon Vogel of The Flood Gallery

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.”

Sound familiar?

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.”

2. Kashmir

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.

I sincerely hope he does though, because if that country is half as beautiful as these pictures make it look…

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
Artwork courtesy of Shinigami1289 on DeviantArt

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.

P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist #3: “You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen

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.

Backstory

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 Song

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.

Personal Feelings

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.

P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist #2: “Natural Science” by Rush

On this edition of P.J.’s Ultimate Playlists, I want to pay tribute to one of rock and roll’s most recent fallen heroes. On January 7th of this year, Neil Peart, drummer for the illustrious prog-rock power trio Rush, died at 67 after a three and a half year battle with glioblastoma. True, that isn’t nearly the worst thing that has happened this year…

…but for someone who considers these guys some of the best musicians of all time, it definitely wasn’t easy news to hear. Still, I think the band ended their tenure in the best way they possibly could have. Their final album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, was one hell of a swansong, in my opinion, and while I haven’t seen any footage from their final tour, R40, from what I’ve heard, it was a fitting celebration of the band’s history.

Still, Peart tends to get criticism for the writing quality of his lyrics and his affinity for Ayn Rand in his younger days. As an anarcho-communist, I definitely get the Rand criticism, but Neil had grown out of that phase by the late ’80s if his lyrics are anything to go by. In fact, not only has the band long since removed the shout-out they gave to Rand in the liner notes of 2112, but Peart also stated that “it is impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and be a Republican” in a 2012 interview with Maclean’s magazine.

As for the “bad lyricist” criticism, I realize this is a pretty subjective opinion, but I’d have to strongly disagree there. Kevin Smith, in his Tweet memorializing Peart, called him a “brilliant lyricist” and pointed to this passage from “The Spirit of Radio,” the opening song from 1980’s Permanent Waves:

All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted;
Not so coldly charted, it's really just a question of your honesty.
Yeah, your honesty.

However, here I want to focus on the song that closes out the album, a tale of science, nature, and humanity’s unending struggle to preserve their natural surroundings in an era of relentless industrialization. So join me as we deconstruct the meaning behind “Natural Science.”

The Song

The song, running just shy of 9 1/2 minutes, is divided into three movements.

The first movement, “Tide Pools,” features Geddy Lee softly singing the opening lyrics over the sound of waves splashing over a rocky shoreline and Alex Lifeson’s soothing acoustic guitar. The lyrics introduce a theme that runs throughout the song, comparing our society on Earth with a tidal pool just beyond the reach of an ocean representing the universe’s vastness.

In the lyrics, Neil outright states that he is merely using the tidal pool as “a simple kind mirror to reflect upon our own.” That is, a metaphor to communicate his opinion on humanity’s place in the universe. He describes “the busy little creatures chasing out their destinies. Living in their pools, they soon forget about the sea…”

After a short instrumental break, in which the music transitions from a lonely acoustic piece to the full-throated progressive hard rock the band is famous for, we get something of a semi-chorus with this passage:

Wheels within wheels in a spiral array,
A pattern so grand and complex.
Day after day we lose sight of the way;
Our causes can't see their effects!

The song then transitions into the second movement, “Hyperspace,” which begins with a short passage full of spacey sound effects before exploding into a fast-paced hard rock section in 7/8 time that makes up the bulk of the song. The music’s chaotic nature reflects the lyrical theme of the chaos resulting from humanity’s attempts to alter the natural world in ways it wasn’t meant to be.

Peart describes the inhabitants of this “mechanized world out of hand” as “superior cynics who dance to a synthetic band.” This most likely refers to the corporate overlords of the modern age. Their hubris is lambasted in the following lyrics: “In their own image, the world is fashioned. No wonder they don’t understand!”

The “wheels within wheels” verse is repeated, and the song transitions into the final movement, “Permanent Waves.” A much more relaxed rhythm starts in common (4/4) time and then switches between 6/8 and 12/8. It offers a much more optimistic lyrical picture than the previous movement.

Science, like nature, must also be tamed
With a view toward its preservation.
Given the same stage of integrity,
It will surely serve us well.

Peart seems to say that science must be pursued with a purpose other than transient short term gains, like, say, in profits.

That means you, Elon.

Alongside science, Peart lists “art as expression, not as market campaigns” as a similarly vital force in preserving society. He also assures us that:

The most endangered species, the honest man,
Will survive annihilation,
Forming a world, state of integrity,
Sensitive, open, and strong!

Finally, the song ends as it began, with the tidal pool swallowed as the sea slowly rises.

Wave after wave will flow with the tide
And bury the world as it does;
Tide after tide will flow and recede,
Leaving life to go as it was.

Thus, the snake eats its tail, and the cycle begins anew.

Personal Feelings

This song certainly gives us a lot to chew on in terms of philosophical ponderings.

While I’m not sure if this was intentional, the lyrics seem to have distinctly Nietzschean overtones. This isn’t the first time Rush has dealt with Nietzsche; many have noted the apparent influence of his 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy on the 18 minute opus “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” from their previous album Hemispheres. “Natural Science,” on the other hand, brings to mind this passage from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most mendacious and arrogant moment of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

While this may seem to be the epitome of fatalistic cynicism, Nietzsche actually wanted to show people that by recognizing this truth, they would make the most of their life on Earth instead of just waiting to die and go to a possibly nonexistent paradise.

Indeed, that seems to be what Peart intended to communicate with this song. Humanity has the capacity to create a true paradise on Earth if only we can allow ourselves to move beyond the selfish need to control nature and subjugate it for profit. Given my far-left political views, I tend to view this song through an anti-capitalist lens, even if I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Peart’s intention.

I also can’t help but notice some echoes of Daoism in the “wheels within wheels” verse. The third line (“Day after day, we lose sight of the way”) especially since the word Dao literally means “way” in Chinese. In Daoism, the Dao is described as the natural order of the universe. The Dao is not something that can be rationally understood; it can only be grasped intuitively by living the way nature intended. Indeed, founder Lao Tzu, in his seminal work, the Tao Te Ching, warns against the rule of small-minded individuals like the ones portrayed in the second movement of this song, who try to bend the world to their own whims instead of just letting it exist in its natural state. “In their own image, the world is fashioned. No wonder they don’t understand!” Compare this to Chapter 30 of the Tao Te Ching:

If you used the Tao as a principle for ruling
You Would not dominate the people by military force.

What goes around comes around.

Where the general has camped
Thorns and brambles grow.
In the wake of a great army
Come years of famine.
If you know what you are doing
You will do what is necessary and stop there.

Accomplish but don't boast
Accomplish without show
Accomplish without arrogance
Accomplish without grabbing
Accomplish without forcing.

When thing flourish they decline.

This is called non-Tao.
The non-Tao is short-lived.

Should we choose to live in a world where nature has an equal footing with man, Lao Tzu and Peart argue, then life would be all the more joyful. So what do you say we kick all the corrupt politicians and corporate overlords out of their positions of power and make our own paradise in their memory? We have nothing to lose but our chains.

But in all seriousness, I would like to thank Neil Peart for giving us such wonderful music before his untimely passing. I hope I get to see him jamming with John Bonham and Keith Moon when I get to Heaven.

In the fullness of time, a garden to nurture and protect.

P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist #1: “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor

Welcome to my first ongoing series on this blog! Here on P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist, I will choose a song from any genre that really speaks to me on a personal level and explain (or at least try to) what it is that I love about it. My musical tastes are mainly centered on rock, country, and metal. However, I am willing to give literally any genre a listen at least once, so don’t expect songs from just those three genres. You can expect some Celtic folk tracks, some 60’s soul hits, maybe even a Disney tune here or there. But for now, let’s kick things off with a bittersweet track from one of the premier singer-songwriters of the 1970s folk scene.

Backstory

“Fire and Rain,” which opens side two of Taylor’s second album Sweet Baby James, was the single that helped him break into the mainstream. It’s certainly not hard to see why it gained such success. It packages Taylor’s own personal struggles in a song that is just ambiguous enough to be relatable to anyone who has had a life as rough as he had at that point.

Even though he was only 21 when the song was released, Taylor had been through a lot by the time he recorded it. His late teen years were marred by a deep depression, which became so bad that he checked himself into the McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. After his friend and fellow guitarist Danny Kortchmar convinced Taylor to check out and follow him to New York City to pursue a music career, Taylor developed a heroin addiction. This, along with a series of poorly planned gigs outside the city, caused the breakup of their band, the Flying Machine.

James entered rehab after recording his self-titled debut album in London. Although recording with members of the Beatles was certainly a high point, the two tragedies that struck him during this period would mar his psyche. First, he broke his hands and feet in a motorcycle accident shortly after a well-received performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1969. Then, while he was recovering from that, his friends told him some tragic news that they had kept from him out of fear that it would distract him from his newfound success. His childhood friend, Suzanne Schnerr, had died by suicide while he was in the middle of recording his debut. He didn’t learn about this until six months after the fact.

The Song

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see all the references James makes in the song. The first verse is all about Taylor’s reaction to Suzanne’s untimely death, including his anger at an unknown “they” who drove her to her destruction (“Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you”). Taylor has since admitted that he regrets the way he phrased that line, however. While he has stated that the line was meant to be a jab at fate in general, he sees how it could be easily misinterpreted as condemning her parents, whom James admits he never knew that well.

The second verse deals with his struggles against his heroin addiction in rehab. The line “My body’s aching and my time is at hand” in particular feels very evocative of the often punishing withdrawal symptoms that accompany the drug’s use. The verse also has a strong religious overtone (“Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus? You’ve gotta help me make a stand!”), even though, as far as I can tell, James has never been openly religious.

The third verse deals with James’s feelings as he writes the song, looking back on his successes and failures (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”). He acknowledges that the struggle is not over and that the friends he still has will help him overcome, seeing as how “there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.” This would prove true when Carole King (who played piano on the song) based her own song “You’ve Got a Friend” on the line “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” James, of course, famously covered the song on Sweet Baby James’ followup, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.

Speaking of which, the chorus is undeniably profound, probably because it, in part, draws on some powerful symbolic imagery. Of course, here, fire and rain serve the purpose of symbolizing the polar opposite moods Taylor went through in his struggles. Fire represents the warmth of the sun on good days. Rain represents the loneliness of days when the sun is hidden from sight.

Personal Thoughts

It’s certainly hard not to draw parallels between this and Robert Frost’s famous poem “Fire and Ice.” True, the subjects of the two pieces could not be more different. “Fire and Rain” deals with a single man’s personal struggles (friendship vs. loneliness), while “Fire and Ice” is a musing on how the world might end (desire vs. hate). However, if prominent astrophysicist Howard Shapley is correct, there may be a sun connection in the latter.

Shapely claims to have met Frost in 1919, a year before the poem was published. Frost asked him how he thought the world was going to end. Shapely explained how the Sun would turn into a red giant star in about five billion years after the hydrogen fusion in its core collapses. Earth will either be vaporized alongside Mercury and Venus as the expanding gases consume it or be spared this fiery fate only to freeze over as the Sun’s rays are no longer there to warm it. I’m not really sure how applicable these observations are to “Fire and Rain,” but I’m sure you could make an argument about the desire and hate metaphor applying to the song. Fire represents James’ desire for comfort during hard times, and rain represents his hatred of what has become at his lowest points. Or maybe it’s another song about the sunny good times of the 1960s being swallowed up by the grey storm clouds of the 70s, like so many other songs of that time period.

Then again, I may be delving too deep into “death of the author” territory here. More importantly, how does this song speak to me, you might be asking.

Indeed, the biggest overall theme of this song is undoubtedly friendship. Friendship has never been the easiest thing for me. As a person on the autism spectrum, I have a tough time reaching out to people. Sure, I’ll stop and talk to an old schoolmate or teacher whenever I see them in town or at my workplace, but I never really hang out with them, so to speak. This is even true with my parents, who I’ve grown rather emotionally distant from thanks to their support of President Trump. I really don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to at this point in life. It really makes me feel I need to get off my ass and join Twitter already to finally air my grievances publicly.

It is a very lonely time for me, but not without hope. While Trump’s awful leadership has exposed just how much of a shitshow America has been from the day the first African slaves landed on our shores four hundred years ago, it also helped me discover the way out. And as long as there is breath in my body, I will shout from the rooftops that better things are possible in a world without big government and big corporations and that the people are capable of ruling themselves.

But as for my feelings on the song itself, it’s great. James’ smooth, understated voice really makes it feel like he is right next to you, saying, “Listen, buddy, I’ve been there. I know how hard it is right now, but trust me. The next sunny day is right around the corner.” He sings as if his audience already has a heart as broken as his was at the time, and thus he offers comfort in his understated desperation. It’s really songs like this that let downtrodden underdogs like myself know that we are never really alone. We all know what it’s like to be sad, and we know how to overcome and find our next sunny day.