Flash & Filigree

Led Zeppelin – St. Louis Arena – May 11, 1973

Led Zeppelin – St. Louis Arena – May 11, 1973

I was attending college in Portales, New Mexico in 1971 when Led Zeppelin scheduled a concert appearance in Albuquerque.  I was young and newly married, and my husband was in the Air Force, stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis.  When we heard about the concert, he was scheduled to leave within a few weeks for a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Though desperate to see them in person, we had neither the time nor the money to make the trip.

After my husband left for the war, I moved back to our hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, found a job, and counted the days until he would return home.

I was at the airport an hour early the day he was scheduled to arrive back in the states.  The plane pulled into the gate, and as the men hurried out of the jet way, I stood there with the other wives, girlfriends, children and mothers, watching for my husband.  He was nearly impossible to miss at 6’2” with wavy blond hair, sky-blue eyes and a smile so appealing it made women’s knees buckle.  He weighed a muscular 195 pounds when he left for Vietnam, but it was his wry humor, generous spirit and strength of character that I had missed the most.  I could hardly wait to see him.

The gate area was packed solid with people hugging and crying.  I stood there, thinking he had missed the plane somehow.  I had begun to panic, when I felt a hand on my elbow.  I turned around and found myself staring into the face of an emaciated stranger.  He tried to embrace me, but not recognizing him, I pulled away.

Then he spoke—and I knew that this gaunt young man was my husband.

The man who stepped off the plane at Lambert Field in late 1972 weighed just over 140 pounds, and was so changed from the person who had left the year before that I had walked right past him.

We went home, hoping to resume our life together.

As the days passed, and then the weeks, I came to the tragic realization that my beloved husband—a strong, funny, open, affectionate, brilliant light of a man–had left himself in a country halfway around the world, back down the months, across the canyon of time.  What emotional wounds he had suffered in that place had severed him from his self—the self he had been the day he left to go to war.  I could remember the person, the excellent human being that he had been, but no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much or how long I loved him, I had to accept, finally, that he would never be that person again.

We separated, then divorced in 1973.

I grieved for the loss of my husband, my marriage, and I withdrew from any life outside of work.  Friends tried over and over to pull me out of my funk, but I was in no mood for fun and spent weekends by myself, reckoning with my past and contemplating a lonely future.

The morning of May 11, 1973, two of my buddies dropped by unannounced for a visit.  They were in a great mood, and when I asked what was up, one of them flashed something in my face:  three tickets for the Led Zeppelin concert being held that day in the St. Louis Arena.  If anything might get me out of the house, it would be Page, Plant, Bonham and JPJ, they explained.  I wavered at first, but they were relentless.  I finally agreed to go.

My love affair with music–which continues to this day–began when I was a little girl growing up in St. Louis, Missouri.  I remember sitting in the back seat of our 1962 Valiant listening to AM radio with my mom as she sped around running errands, listening as she sang along with the Shirelles, Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Drifters, Bobby Darin, Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins, Gene Vincent.  I sat there looking out the window, memorizing the melodies and words to those songs so I could sing along, too.

The Beatles arrived in my life in 1964:  four high school freshman girls sat around our tiny TV set waiting for John, Paul, George and Ringo to arrive on stage at The Ed Sullivan Show. We had heard their songs on the radio and liked them well enough, each of us acknowledging our favorite (mine was John, the “intellectual” one), but we had all rolled our eyes at news stories of teenage girls flinging themselves at these four “older” men.  We would never be so uncool, we thought, until Ed introduced them and they appeared in all their long-haired, black-and-white glory.  We jumped off the couch and promptly flung ourselves at the television en masse, peppering the screen with adolescent kisses.  After the show, we daydreamed aloud about what it would be like to see them in person, and how we might simply die right there on the spot if we were ever to be so lucky.

I had many boy friends—as opposed to boyfriends—in high school.  Independent even then, I preferred the ease of friendship over the complexity of romance.  On Saturdays, we would ride around until the sun peeked over the horizon, listening to KATZ radio in St. Louis and blues music broadcasts from East St. Louis, the only all-night music stations on the air in those days.  Most times we would pool our money and hit a late-night barbecue joint on North Kingshighway, feasting in the car on a mess of ribs and thick pieces of greasy toast while listening to the dusky world of the blues:  Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Thelonius Monk, Lou Rawls, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters.

1968 felt like the year in which serious rock and roll FM radio came to St. Louis, and AM radio became passe’.  I traded top 40 tunes for Derek and the Dominos, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd and The Band.

In 1969 the big news among me and my friends—and a chance to have our first “live” music experience–was a plan for a gathering on a farm outside a little town in upstate New York,  Woodstock, which was to be the biggest free live concert event ever held in the U.S.  The words “free” and “live” made it sound like rock-and-roll paradise; all a person had to do was figure out how to get there.  We bought a road atlas and decided to hitch hike east, but our hopes were dashed when we made it as far as Chicago and heavy rains hit the Midwest.  When no one stopped or even slowed down, we crossed the highway and pointed our thumbs back towards St. Louis.

Not long after, a friend from high school who“dropped out” after graduation (a term synonymous then with becoming a hippie) had returned from a road trip to San Francisco, raving about a new band she had seen there, a second-tier act on a playbill with Country Joe and the Fish and Taj Mahal.  I was intrigued, since I was familiar with the guitarist, who had played with a group I liked called The Yardbirds, but other than that I knew nothing about them.

One Sunday afternoon, she brought over their first two albums, and we played them over and over, deep into the night.  They were, like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, all of a piece, and it felt wrong somehow to play them any other way than straight through from beginning to end.  Their name was Led Zeppelin, and like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, they hailed from England, but Zeppelin’s music was more complex, more bluesy and soulful than Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards.  “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” made us shiver, and we agreed that Robert Plant’s voice was the sexiest we had ever heard.  “Your Time Is Gonna Come” introduced me to how a Fender pedal steel should be played, and we pronounced Jimmy Page the best guitarist on the planet.  “Whole Lotta Love” made us feel as if we were listening to something forbidden and seductive.  I was jealous that my friend had seen them live, and I told her so.  Would a band that ballsy ever come to the Midwest, we wondered.    

Three years later, I no longer had to wonder—they had come to St. Louis, and I was about to see them live.  My friends were so revved up that we left for the concert four hours before it was scheduled to begin.  When we arrived at the Arena, folks were already lined up by the hundreds.  They were dressed in wild 70’s garb:  huge bell-bottoms, the shortest miniskirts, platform shoes on both the women and the men.  One of my friends wore Frye boots, adding another three inches to his 6’3” frame.  The other wore a full-length leather trench coat which concealed two hip flasks of straight gin.  I wore my best pair of patchwork Levi’s bell-bottoms, pieced together from a hodgepodge of used jeans bought at Value Village (they still live on the top shelf of my clothes closet), a hand-crocheted top given to me by a waitress friend at my favorite vegetarian restaurant, and a pair of my most hip platform sandals.

When they opened the doors to the Arena, we made our way inside, scoring seats twenty rows back from center stage.  As the lights went down and the appetizer act came on, some folks settled in, while the rest visited with each other and drank and lit up.  The sweet odor of pot wafted through the auditorium.  My buddy took a swig off one of his hip flasks and passed it to the girl next to him.  The fellow to my left had a pistol stuck in the waistband of his jeans.  He caught me looking at it and smiled.  Three girls sitting in front of us were barely sixteen.  Wide-eyed and curious, they giggled non-stop until the opening act wound down and the music ended.

The stage went dark, and the audience became silent.  Then the light show began, and we saw them in the flesh for the first time.

I no longer remember the order of the songs, but I vividly remember moments:  the descending chords and metal slide on “Whole Lotta Love”; the slow build and release in “Ramble On”; the crowd’s collective surge towards the stage at the first chords of “Stairway To Heaven”; Plant’s despairing “babe, babe, babe…” on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”; the complex rise and fall of emotion in “What Is And What Should Never Be”.  Everyone stood; then we stood on our seats.  I fell in love with Jimmy Page that night, full, fast, and hard.

After the collapse of my marriage, a kind of protective mechanism must have kicked in, because for a long time I was simply numb.  I cast off family and friends, music, the things that mattered most to me, that made up the fabric of my young life and in the process I somehow lost the ability to feel.

So in revisiting the memory of my virgin live concert experience–Led Zeppelin’s 1973 visit to St. Louis–what stands out for me are the physical sensations their music evoked:  the heat of Robert Plant’s sexually hypnotic vocals; the startling genius of Jimmy Page’s chill-inducing guitar riffs; the fierce, singular drum work of John Bonham, resonating in the pit of my stomach; and the rumble of John Paul Jones’ bottomless, heart-thumping bass racing up and down my spine.  I felt more alive than I had in months.

Afterwards, none of us wanted to go home.  We wanted to hold on to the experience of that live music as long as possible.  My friends and I left the concert hall and drove around listening to our eight-track Zeppelin tapes deep into the night, on and on, until the sun rose over the Mississippi River.

— Diana Ossana

Copyright 2007 All Rights Reserved

One comment

  1. susan handshy

    diana, enjoyed the Led Zeppelin piece. so many great references to St. Louis, and the great music we listened to. We (sibs) love all kinds of music also. thx for making me smile. xx

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