led bucket o'blood

by rachel s. hanks

to every great composition there exists a dual nature. to the figure drawer, it is the relationship between light and shade; to the musician, bright and dark: chiaroscuro-deep gradations and subtle variations. it is a unity created by the marriage of opposites. for the gospel-blues, it was the streetside preacher blind willy johnson, and for rock and roll, it was the notorious led zeppelin.

gospel-blues: a paradox. since the blues have always been associated with the devil, it's ironic to think that a baptist immortalized traditional slave spirituals through slide guitar and agonizing shouts and groans. but more ironic still is the consummation of blues with heavy metal to create the essence of heavy, light music-like a steel balloon, or led zeppelin (the "a" was dropped from "lead" so that americans wouldn't pronounce it leed)-chiaroscuro (davis 57). it was this technique that became led zeppelin's master trademark and, i believe, revolutionized the history of rock and roll-forever.

today blind willy johnson is acclaimed as the greatest blues slide guitarist to have ever lived (cohn 119-120). but jimmy page, zeppelin's guitarist, is heralded by any modern guitarist as "the greatest rock and roll guitarist" ever. what blind willy did with a bottleneck and jackknife to the neck of his guitar, page took above and beyond to the next level-utilizing violin bows, his trademark gibson fuzz box, the theramin, an echoplex, and metal slides (davis 17, 97; coffey).

inspired by johnson's jesus, make up my dying bed, zeppelin adapted and manipulated the apocalyptical tune and renamed it in my time of dying. in my opinion, this piece best represents zeppelin's keen sensitivity to light and shade. no other song better exemplifies their fragile but powerful use of dynamics, both in subject and sound. the song begins with a series of melancholy danelectro guitar slides, very mellow and hymnlike in nature, only to explode with an unexpected surge of sexual energy. the two play off one another and build intensity, only to recede back into docile churchmode again. at this point, vocalist robert plant intervenes like a banshee:

in my time of dyin', want nobody to moan
all i want for you to do is take my body home

the (s)explosion reoccurs with all instruments in unison:

well, well, well, so i can die easy
well, well, well, so i can die easy. . .

only to rebuild upon the moment of pleasure:

jesus, got to make you . . . shiver!
jesus, gonna make you,
jesus, gonna make up my dyin' bed!

and retract back into a hymn:

meet me, jesus, meet me!
ooh, meet me in the middle of the air!
if my wings should fail me, lord,
please meet me with another pair

and provoke more foreplay:

well, well, well, so i can die easy
well, well, well, so i can die easy. . .

and resurface to delight in the moment:

jesus, gonna make up . . . somebody! . . . somebody!
oh, oh! jesus gonna make up,
jesus, gonna make up my dyin' bed!

the beauty of the piece lies in the tension of the ebbing and flowing dynamics. it is this reoccurring pattern-from out of the slow drone of melancholy into brief intervals of ecstasy-that is not unlike blind willy's soul coming out of the dark (sin) and into the light (presence of god). each progressive build is anticipated by another lull. thus is the nature of humanity, coming to terms with god in the depths of humility and being lifted into the glory of god, only to fall from pride and continue the cycle again. zeppelin reinterprets this neverending round through their sensual wails of agony into ecstasy.

the song continues building upon the moment of elation, guitar and drums tearing into the silence, like the rotation of an engine. hysteria intervenes, and the guilty cry:

oh, saint peter! i can make amends!
won't you let me in?
i never did no wrong, i never did no wrong!
oh, gabriel, let me blow your horn,
let me blow your horn!
i never did no wrong, did no wrong!
i only can be young once,
i never thought i'd do anybody no wrong
no not once!

torque chews and burns into confession

oh, i did somebody some good,
somebody some good, yeah!
oh, did somebody some good, yeah!
i must have did somebody some good, yeah!
oh, i beleive i did, i seen the smilin' faces
i know i must have left some traces . . .

the plateau. page sustains the violent interplay between his drug-induced danelectro and the violent drums, elongates it-and it chortles. out of entropy and into sync, all reunite;

and i seen them in the streets
and i seen them in the theatre
and i hear them at my feet
and i know i tried to feel real
oh, lord, deliver me all the wrongs i've done
oh, you can deliver me, lord
i only wanted to have some fun

and pull into a steady, pulsating rhythm,

oh, keep the angel's marchin', marchin'
keep them marchin', keep them marchin', marchin'

and retaliate for a gasp of air-ecstasy! the point of equilibrium-the marriage of light and shade. the sources reunite and, in rapture, harmonize:

oh my jesus! (11x)
that's got to be my jesus! oh!
it's got to be, it's got to be my jesus!
it's got to be, oh, it's got to be my jesus!
oh, take me home!

friction is conjured and rebuilds:

come on, come on!
i can hear the angel's singin', oh
here they come, here they come
bye bye! bye bye! bye bye! bye bye! bye bye!
oh, it's pretty good up here, pretty good up here
i'll touch jesus (5x)

and loses itself completely in chaos

oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! yeah!
oh, i seen him, come on!
hey! (13x)

until the physical finally gives:

lord, won't you make it my dyin' dyin' dyin'. . .

. . . cough *

led zeppelin redefined the violent interplay of opposites. they possessed a touch sensitive to the delicacy of light and heavy to the allure of shade. the beauty of in my time of dying is the relationship of energy, tension, and release. the cycle rotates and builds, recedes, and rebuilds again. zeppelin knew just when to lay it on thick, and when to pull back.

some may listen and interpret this piece as a vulgar adulteration of a traditional spiritual. i see it as a very thorough introspective into the pomp and glory of led zeppelin's reign. although their music exemplified the beauty of restraint, zeppelin personified the image of ultra-excess. the album from which this song originates, physical graffiti, was released during the pinnacle of their career--a time when pride was high, and humility low (davis 118). thirsty for the thrills of disposable, ready-to-wear pleasure, they indulged and dabbled in every aspect of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. they were even rumored to have made a pact with the devil, at the crossroads, like many blues musicians (davis). they ascended their stairway to heaven only to kamikaze to the heel of the punk revolution and return wiser, sober (ahem), more humble men. out of the dark and into the light, they made up their dyin' beds.

while johnson's voice and guitar ranted on like a demon being exorcised out of possession, the only devil that haunted the blues was the community that oppressed the musicians themselves (bergeon). blind willy succeeded in combining spiritual with secular, uniting heaven with hell. the blues gave birth to rock and roll, only to be abandoned, and later repossessed by a small group of psychedelic experimenters/blues enthusiasts. i believe that led zeppelin's success and influence over all other hard rock bands came from their union of light with heavy; mellow "blood bucket blues" mingled with heavy rock and roll. these legendary doses of melody intertwined with aggressive guitar riffs and exploding rhythms epitomized the essence of chiaroscuro: the fruitful marriage of light and shade.

bring it on home, boys . . .

* zeppelin's added cough at the end is a slightly trivialized tip of the hat to johnson, who died of pneumonia from going to bed in his sopping wet nightshirt after extinguishing a fire that had consumed the majority of his house (hewston; cohn 120). thus, jesus was nigh in making up willy's dying bed (cough). this exhibits yet another dual side of led zeppelin: their inevitably irreverent sense of humor toward even their most revered idol.


bergeon, thomas. re: communication breakdown.

blueflame@surfin.com. the blue flame cafe.
http://www.surfin.com/TheBlueFlameCafe/index.html. 1997.

coffery, timothy john. re: more, more, more.

cohn, lawrence. nothing but the blues: the music and the musicians.
new york: abeville press, 1993.

davis, steven. hammer of the gods: the led zeppelin saga.
5th ed. new york: ballantine books, 1989.

digital graffiti. led zeppelin lyrics--physical graffiti.

halfin, ross. led zeppelin: the photographers.
los angeles: 2.13.61 publications, 1995.

hewston, curtis. the blue highway.
http://www.vivanet.com/~blues/. amazon.com: 1997.

led zeppelin. physical graffiti.
remasters. new york: atlantic d-205832, 1975.

lybarger, jeff. re: blind willy johnson.

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