the best days

Author’s Note:The tastes in music I’ve held in my adult lifetime are much the same as those in my teen years. My favorites, at least in the rock idiom, were The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Still are. I also liked Led Zeppelin, particularly when they reached deep into their folk and blues roots. Some of my friends back in the day preferred the long guitar and drum solos, which at times gave way to bombast. I preferred works like their rendition of Leadbelly’s* “Gallows Pole.” What an exciting performance. About a hanging…. “If Led Zeppelin comes to town,” I said, “I’m going.”

May 30, 1973: Supposedly the most important day of the year for the graduating class at Forest Park Senior High. Get that diploma. Get on with life and the world will be your oyster. A magical day. Still, to scores of students at FPSH, along with thousands of young people throughout the Atlanta area, the most important day that year was May 4. The day Led Zeppelin played Atlanta Stadium.

credit: LedZeppelin.com
credit: LedZeppelin.com

When the Rolling Stones weren’t touring, Led Zeppelin was considered the top attraction in rock music. Less than two months before the Atlanta concert, the first of their American tour, Houses of the Holy, their fifth album, was released. It was a heady time for Led Zeppelin, earning six figure checks at each gig while following up on the immensely successful Led Zeppelin IV. The iconic “Stairway to Heaven,” which, justifiably or not, became the band’s signature song, was the track that made Led Zeppelin IV an astounding chart success. To this day, it is the third best-selling album ever in the United States. “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” Going to California” and “When the Levee Breaks” were also included on the album. Even without “Stairway to Heaven,” a song Elvis Presley admired, Led Zeppelin IV would’ve easily made number one and gained the approval of critics. Yet “Stairway to Heaven” gave the album –and the band — legendary status. So while following up was a tall order, Led Zeppelin came through. Houses of the Holy pleased most of the band’s followers. But not everyone was happy with the album. Gordon Fletcher of Rolling Stone called it “one of the dullest and most confusing albums” of the year, referring to Led Zeppelin as “Limp Blimp.”

But the fans flocking to Atlanta Stadium on Friday, May 4, 1973 cared less about the rock and roll cognoscenti. Their resentment of the critics fortified their loyalty to Led Zeppelin. The loyalty extended so much that some students at Forest Park Senior High made a crucial decision regarding their education: They would skip afternoon classes so they could make the northbound trek to Atlanta and be among the first when the stadium gates opened.

Tickets to see Led Zeppelin at the stadium were only $5.00 each; it was a bargain price that came with a price. All tickets were general admission, making it every fan for him/herself. How close could a fan be to the stage on the baseball field? It depended on how close said fan was to one of the gates when they opened two hours before the show. Once past the gate and through the turnstiles, fans would dash across the concourse, then hurry down two dozen and more concrete steps to the field where the stage was set. Youthful vigor was required as was a good sense of balance. Falling down with hundreds racing at each side wasn’t advisable.

So, English, the last class of the day, was skipped in order to get to the stadium as early as possible. My friend, Steven Coker, and I made it to the stadium in 20 minutes or so. Friday traffic in Atlanta wasn’t so bad then. Or that’s the way it seems. We had the city and the outlying suburbs, but nothing like today’s sprawl which makes life tedious for most of the metro area’s 5 million people.

When Steven and I arrived, with the mid-afternoon sun beating down, there may’ve been a thousand or so people by the gates outside the circular stadium. As more gathered by the shaded areas at the gates, casual acquaintances were made. Sitting on the sidewalk for three or four hours with nothing but a Creem magazine to peruse was a dreadful bore, so hitting it off with newly-made friends was a real bonus. And a classmate or two dropped in as well. One brought some wine to share. Bread with imported cheeses would’ve also been nice, but this was as convivial as things got in such a place on such a hot afternoon.

The banter with friends was pleasant enough, and as the afternoon wore on, the number of new friends grew. Also, the smell of marijuana grew heavier. To some of the kids, it was a concrete paradise. But most of us simply wanted the men at the turnstiles to throw open the gates. They did. The poor guys at the turnstiles must’ve thought an invasion was on. But in a flash, most everyone made it to the field or the choice seats above the infield. I made it to a prime spot very near the stage while losing Steven in the process. As it turned out, he was only 20 feet away but there was a sea of faces between us. So the more than 50,000 fans bolted through and settled in. There we were. On with the show, this is it.

Marty Feldman, a ’71 graduate from Northside High in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, a world away from Forest Park, brought his 14 year-old sister along. They worked their way down to the barricades right in front of the stage. “I spent the entire concert leaning/crushed against the barricade, with Jimmy Page, a few yards away, directly in front of me,” “Feldman remembers. “My sister held on for her life while for two hours I watched in awe as the best band in the world played the best concert I’ve ever seen them play.”

By their Atlanta Stadium appearance, Feldman was most familiar with the power, prowess and charisma Led Zeppelin brought to the stage. He remembers seeing them, after the release of their first album, at the first Atlanta International Pop Festival on July 5, 1969. Feldman and a few around him knew Page had been in the Yardbirds. That piqued their interest a bit. Then Led Zeppelin took the stage. Feldman recalls, “By the time they made it half-way through the first song (“Train Kept A-Rollin'”), the crowd of 110,000 was on their feet in astonishment at this little-known band and stayed that way throughout the entire set. The sun was setting behind the stage as they left. At the beginning of the next set, by Blood, Sweat and Tears, the crowd was still screaming for Led Zeppelin. At the height of their popularity, Blood, Sweat and Tears got booed when they came on stage. Ironically, Feldman remembers that Blood, Sweat and Tears opened with their biggest hit, “Spinning Wheel.” “I kept reminding myself, Feldman recalls, “that ‘what goes up must come down.'”

(Certainly, Led Zeppelin never bottomed out like Blood, Sweat and Tears. Roughly three years after the festival crowd hooted through their biggest hit, lead singer David Clayton Thomas, having left the band, made a ham-fisted appearance on the Carol Burnett Show, lumbering through his current single, “Magnificent Sanctuary Band.” Where was Lyle Waggoner when we needed him?)

The tens of thousands gathered that evening at Atlanta Stadium were like Feldman, awed by Led Zeppelin’s performance. The band was full tilt right off, opening with “Rock and Roll,” then maintaining the fiery pace with “Celebration Day” and “Black Dog.” It was a great set despite the inclusion of “Dazed and Confused,” which included periods of indulgence as Page struck his guitar repeatedly with a violin bow. Later came “Moby Dick” with the monotonous drum solo by John Bonham. The preening and pounding made the uncomfortable setting and lousy sound system more apparent, but as the concert drew to a close with “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Communication Breakdown,” the band left everyone in high spirits. It may have been a long tiring day in a hot sticky place, but Led Zeppelin gave a triumphant concert. At the end of the day and 40 years later, it was all that mattered.

Walking through the parking lots back to the car, the sounds of Houses of the Holy were heard from the tape decks of those already headed home. “Dancing days are here again as the summer evenings grow.” My friend Steven could not believe what a great concert he had witnessed. This may have been his first concert ever so he felt like a major leaguer who hit a home run in his first at-bat. To him it was a milestone cultural event and a bit of an adventure. Helping to continue the adventure on our way home was the Forest Park Police Department. Going south on Jonesboro Road, the blue lights came on behind us. The officer got out and said he thought I was “weaving.” No way. That Boone’s Farm bottle was passed around several hours ago. Afterwards the main concern was watching Led Zeppelin and avoid being trampled. The officer seemed to accept that I was indeed sober. Then, he remembered to ask for my drivers license, which Georgia law required drivers to have when behind the wheel. But I had left my wallet at home. All I had in my pocket was $20.00 or so. This upset the officer. He elaborated on the seriousness of my offense. I could’ve run a red light and killed someone when driving without my license. My not having the license at the time would’ve really steamed the person killed, I presumed. But it was no time to wax sarcastic. I caught the officer’s name and remembered he and some family members infrequently attended the church where my family members were active. My father was an Elder there. Time to play the Dad Card. That got to the officer, who remembered conversations with my father. He seemed to indicate that was as close to God as he had been in a long time. I was free to go.

And then there was Monday. Back at school. The countdown was on. Maybe 15 more class days. Just go through the motions and it’ll be over in no time. Then on Monday morning, the scads of us who opted out classes on Friday were sent to the Assistant Principal’s office. Usually that wouldn’t be a problem. Richard Ragsdale, who had been an assistant principal there for two years, was a fair-minded guy, wisely discerning between mischief and trouble. But he and I didn’t need to meet in his office just yet. Less than two months before, I pulled a prank which fooled a student, a father, a teacher and Mr. Ragsdale. It was a classic but one I had to convey humility over. That was easy enough but it made me wary of disturbing the school administration again.

Yet there I was. In Ragsdale’s office. With a lot of schoolmates packing the waiting area. It was somewhat like sitting outside the stadium gates the previous Friday, except that no one was passing joints or bottles of wine. How silly all this was. Why were we being asked why we ditched Mr. Lockhart’s English class? Or Mrs. Collier’s American Government class? They knew why. The Led Zeppelin concert was a big deal. We had to be there and we had to get there early enough to see Page and Plant up close. Besides, there was only three weeks to go until graduation. We would be out of their way soon. Please Mr. Ragsdale, let this matter slide.

As it turned out, Ragsdale handed out some punishment that seemed negligible. Parents wouldn’t be dragged into it. Soon it was back to class and getting through those last three weeks. Mr. Ragsdale may not have known Led Zeppelin from the Goodyear Blimp, but he seemed to understand. On that day he became an honorary guitar hero.

Over the next year, there were concerts in Atlanta that I enjoyed far more. The Allman Brothers Band. The Grateful Dead. Jim Croce. Doc Watson. Al Kooper. Elvis Presley (but, no, he did not sing “Stairway to Heaven”). Bob Dylan and the Band. In ’77 Led Zeppelin returned to Atlanta, that time playing the city’s main concert venue, the Omni. Oddly enough, even though I had access to free tickets to most any concert in town, I gave no thought to going. That despite my enthusiasm for Physical Graffiti, the album Led Zeppelin released two years earlier. It was one of my favorite albums of the ’70s. Perhaps their best album. Yet that evening I went to Atlanta Stadium again — but to see the Atlanta Braves play the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Braves lost, as they would 101 times that year. From what I heard, Led Zeppelin gave a winning performance a few miles away that evening. I should’ve gone and I should’ve picked up the phone to see if Mr. Ragsdale would join me.

*Born Huddie Ledbetter, Leadbelly, in 1939, recorded “The Gallis Pole,” a centuries-old English ballad commonly known as “Hangman.”

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Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.