Then-current album: Now and Zen
Opening act: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Back of ticket ad: KJOI 99 FM, “the joy of Southern California,” black lettering on white background, with a palm tree located in the center of the O. It apparently broadcast ‘beautiful music,’ and is now KYSR.
The first Ticketmaster ticket I specifically saved, though the repeat info to the left of the main part has been torn off as well as the basic entry section to the right, regularly removed whenever such a ticket was presented to admissions staff. Like all first experiences the appearance of the ticket set a certain level of expectation — though of course I had to have seen such tickets already. Whatever the origin point, for me tickets were ‘this’ size and shape, had these colors, had their information printed directly onto the light coated stock paper with an equivalent of a typewriting machine. You can just see the lettering indented into the ticket face, not strong enough to show up on the other side, but deep enough to be noticeable. The hole up there under the 27 is where it was pinned to the bulletin board, a familiar feature that will recur with each ticket.
I’ve previously mentioned my classic rock phase of late high school, when I started getting into — and within a few months, getting bored with — the rituals of hearing certain songs by certain artists played over and over to the point of familiarity, then numbness. This wasn’t new for me at all — I already knew the routines of top 40, but top 40, for all that it was glacial, also still changed. Old songs fell off the chart and out of rotation, new ones took their place, new and unfamiliar bands appeared, or maybe older names first being introduced to me as a listener. Classic rock in contrast was cossetted, static, an endless locked loop. Some light crept in from time to time — and in fact the station I listened to there in Coronado was a little more adventurous than most, introducing things like R.E.M. and Love and Rockets and, via their Sunday night metal show, Metallica and other similarly inclined bands to their otherwise stultifying rotation. So even if it wasn’t all bad, it was still representative of a phase I was happy to have, then happy to leave when it had served its purpose for as a musical education for a time, a place, a mindset.
Led Zeppelin was part of all that, unsurprisingly, and for the first time I started actually buying their albums, collecting them all over the course of the calendar year of 1988. But I’d already known Robert Plant’s solo work — like a slew of people in my age and place, that’s probably how I first heard of both Plant and Zeppelin. The death of John Bonham, the very existence of Zeppelin, was a completely unknown thing to me growing up, but I do remember listening to top 40 in upstate New York and hearing “Big Log” and then “In the Mood” over the course of a few months, being entranced by their easy, intricate flow, the odd lope of the former, the synth breakdown and guitar figures of the latter, Plant’s voice a bit unusual to my ears, not unattractive, still odd.
The indulgence of the Honeydrippers followed that — I admit I still probably like their version of “Sea of Love” more than the original, however coached by nostalgia and memory — and I also remember the odd, squiggly paranoia of “Little by Little” on the air in California, again all through top 40. Plant was a regular pop artist to me by then, though I’d started to hear more about this other band he’d been in. By the time of Now and Zen, sold as his ‘return to Led Zep’ roots and the first album of his I’d actually bothered to buy, he was an oldies artist to me, but in the same sense that Duran Duran was that year with “All She Wants Is,” coming back and making me think of already distant times years and thousands of miles and an adolescence away.
I’m not too sure if I’d have gone to this show, though, were it not for another reason — for the first time I was going to a show not with family members or a larger group, but with one other person on a date. Her name was Jackie (or at least that’s how it was pronounced), a UCLA student like me, from the Central Valley, Latina in background. I remember her being friendly, exuberant, funny; we’d struck up a conversation due to our being in a class together, a big poli sci course I think. A friend of hers was also part of our group but I sadly admit I don’t remember her as well.
Who knows how it all came together, if I’d noticed he was coming, if she had mentioned it first — I vaguely remember her being a big classic rock fan herself, so there was definite mutual musical interest at least. I’m honestly not even sure if we just went dutch or if I bought both tickets. The show had already been on sale for a while so we ended up over to the side of the balcony, the venue having mostly sold out by that point. I do remember the drive over, though — me being my nondriving self, we were in her car, and at some point it stalled completely on a side street somewhere, maybe even near a highway turnoff. Pre-widespread cell phone use to summon help, we might well have been in a tough situation but after some minutes she got it fired up again and off we went.
Years and years before I’d been to Universal Studios with my family, so this was a return in some sense, but the Ampitheatre I’d never been to, and I knew nothing of its previous incarnation as an open-air venue. This would also have been well before the development of Citywalk as a sanitized open-air main-street mall, so we’d’ve parked and walked for a bit to actual get over to the Ampitheatre itself, but there’s no memory about any of that at all in my head — in fact the next thing I clearly remember is Joan Jett, doing a song that wasn’t hers.
Then again, Jett’s always had a good line in that approach. Like Plant, she was already something of an oldies artist to me, though at an even deeper remove — “I Love Rock and Roll” was one of the first songs I specifically remember from my earliest phase of top 40 listening, in 1981-82 in Coronado, after having received my first personal radio that I would listen to deep into the night when I could. Great, great stuff, then and now, a deservedly huge hit, while her take on the stately pomp of “Crimson and Clover” similarly caught my ear, and some years later there was the remake of “Everyday People” and, well, I could go on. (My knowledge of the Runaways during all this time = none. My knowledge at the time of this show = vague.)
Perched up in the balcony, seeing the show at an almost sidelong angle, I just remember this one song that had a big, insistent riff, that she was singing to with controlled cool. I was a bit confused by the lyrics, though, wasn’t too sure I’d heard that right — Jackie must not have known either, since I recall that some time later I was talking about the show to my coworker at the SRLF library at UCLA, Jon, and mentioned the song to him. “‘I Wanna Be Your Dog?’ Yeah, that’s the Stooges!” “Oh, okay, I’ve heard of them, I’m pretty sure…”
And Plant? The crowd lapped it all up and he and his band did their thing and I think it all went down well — for me, the sense of the crowd didn’t extend to any of our immediate neighbors, in fact I don’t even remember them at all. It was almost like there was just us up in the balcony and a big massed crowd down front, though we certainly couldn’t have been the only ones up there. But the mind plays these kind of tricks, and it seemed all the roars of recognition for the Led Zeppelin songs he was playing for the first time since the band’s demise, one-off reunions aside, were down there, somewhere, beyond the darkened edge of the balcony, in the faces of those on the floor lit in the reflected glow of the stage lights.
The two songs I remember clearly were a medley of the start of “In the Light” leading into “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” — two of my favorite songs still by Zeppelin so that’s all right — and a really nice version of “Big Log” that I’m pretty sure turned up in the encore, something that stuck with me probably because it was one of those ‘early’ songs for me, something already part of a convoluted backstory of other songs and other times. Otherwise I mostly think of Plant’s long blonde waves in the stagelights, his general affability (honed by years of experience dealing with all sorts of crowds, doubtless) and one odd, wonderful moment. Flourescent glowsticks had long been a rage that decade, even before rave culture repurposed them further. At some point, in between songs someone chucked one of them from out of the crowd towards the stage. I remember tracing the arc with my eyes as Plant noticed it as well. Pausing in whatever he was saying, he realized it was going to go over his head — and then made a perfect leap and one-handed catch, snatching the glowstick out of the air and landing solidly on his feet like he had just done a simple little hop. Plenty of applause and cheers for that one — who knows what the intent of the person pitching it up there had been, but Plant doubtless had dealt with worse there too, so why not grab a glowstick for the hell of it?
That’s about all I can recall, and based on the date of the show that would have been one of the last times I saw Jackie too — the quarter ended soon thereafter and for whatever reason we ended up not staying in touch, though we saw each other once or twice around on campus since that point, exchanging hellos with a smile. I guess it was all more of a ‘friend date’ than anything else in the end, but hey, that’s life for you.