Friday, July 03, 2009

Traveling Riverside Blues

Discovering something is always a joy, and I can well remember when I discovered Traveling Riverside Blues by Led Zeppelin. I was a pre-teen, alone in my room when Radio One played a few songs it had recorded earlier with the band. (The others were Whole Lotta Love and Communication Breakdown.) The insistent, lyrical slide guitar figure hypnotized me as I listened to Robert Plant sing about something at least as alien as those I read about in my beloved science fiction books. He sang about a place where he can barrelhouse by the riverside, with his rider whose front teeth were lined with gold. "She's got a mortage on my body, got a lien on my soul," Robert sang in that high voice he had in those days, "She's my brownskin sugar plum." And then, of course, "Squeeze my lemon, 'til the juice runs down my leg. Squeeze it so hard I'll fall right out of bed. [Lower, spoken:] I wonder if you know what I'm talkin' about."

Well, I did know what he was talking about - being pre-teen is no guarantee of ignorance - but the place he met her was what took my fancy. Still does, even though now I know most of the songs he borrowed the lyrics from. Even though I have most of those songs on an mp3 player that means I can hear them instantly.

I couldn't hear them instantly in those days. Finding out that the set was to be broadcast was hard enough. Hearing it and recording it on a cassette tape was a minor trial. Once I had it, I could listen to it over and over again, and I did. I don't think I ever met another person who had a copy. For all I knew, I was the only person who had listened to the broadcast, let alone kept it to secretly enjoy. For about twenty years, from 1970 to 1990, it was unreleased. After that, everybody could hear it, of course.

It's still my favorite Led Zeppelin song, mostly because of the sublime riff and the way it moves and swells and seems to wriggle with piscine strength and joy - a thoroughly riparian motif befitting a song about barrelhousing on the riverside. It's up on YouTube, so have a listen to the most distinctive voice in rock counterpointing the strongest guitar player.

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