Saturday, February 26, 2011
Travel has always been one of the great themes of rock music. The “urge for going,” as Joni Mitchell calls it, is an adolescent impulse that often carries over into adulthood. The protagonists of rock songs are often here but want to be there; and movement can be social, romantic, and sexual as well as merely physical. What is not often found in rock songs is the conflation of this urge and a sense of the elegiac; of loss and remorse. In an elegy, as the poet mourns, he or she moves towards acceptance, forgiveness, and consonance with final truths. What inhibits Robert Plant’s “Big Log” from being the rock equivalent of an elegy is that the movement portrayed in the lyrics is circular, beginning and ending at the same place. That this movement is accompanied by vignettes that suggest a long car ride creates an intriguing dynamic. Most rock fans will know that Plant himself did have solid reasons to be elegiac in the early 1980s; having spent the 1970s as the front-man for the most successful band in the world, he had seen the band dissolve, and one of its founding members die. But reading the lyrics of “Big Log” as an elegy on the collapse of Led Zeppelin is too limiting, too reductive. Because these verses read as an interior monologue, a narrator talking to himself, and are not generally aimed at a specific Other, the song comes off more like a nuanced self-portrait that allows for some psychological detail. The expansive pathos of the music heightens the impression, and makes “Big Log” one of the most moving touchstones in the rock canon.
The song begins and ends with the line “my love is in league with the freeway,” and the parallel structure carries over into the second verse, which begins “my love is exceedingly vivid.” We imagine this protagonist speaking these lines to himself as he drives. Yet, because we never learn anything about this “love,” it could be construed as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, someone he has created. It could be that he is doing this to lull himself, so as not to confront or notice his own loneliness. But there is also the shaky sense that this construct, “my love,” may be partly real. The vagueness of “my love” mirrors the vagueness of what and how we see when we are traveling, and the “travel sense” we have at times during which we experience ourselves as being between things— between two places, between two states of consciousness. Thus, as vague as this traveler is, he has a strange integrity— he is traveling inside himself, as well as in his vehicle. But the “questions in thousands” must, we feel, be connected to some past experience, and what is “leading him on” into forward motion are the same feelings that are driving him backwards. Most rock songs only delineate the feelings of forward motion— the delicate balance between movement and stasis that Plant creates here is uncommon.
The sense of stasis is amplified by the presence of loss, that “when the journey is done/ there is no turning back.” The protagonist knowingly uses “journey” with irony, and in a dual sense— irony, because the journey there is no turning back from is inward, and psychological, rather than the car journey he is on; and dual, because once any journey (outward or inward) has been undertaken, it can never be retraced. The “you” that appears in both verses (“and it’s you once again,” “your love is cradled in knowing”) add a further layer of mystery. The first “you” seems to refer to the pain that animates the song, which he chooses to personify; the second seems to be some person, who may or may not play a central role in the protagonist’s journey and the sense of loss it entails. There is a sense, not only of vagueness to this protagonist but of confusion. Between all the levels and layers of coming and going, he seems to have lost his sense of rootedness. Whatever loss he has endured may have struck deeply, in fact, at his roots. What binds the lines of the verses together is just this sense— that roots have been effaced, leading the protagonist to a limbo state on every level. Because the complex emotions that accompany a limbo state are infrequently addressed in rock music, there is a dearth of comparisons to be made to this piece. Limbo states often take hold with the “thousand questions” that are attendant on the losses of age. As has been stated, the piece ends with the line that began it which, if read closely, can come to seem like a red herring. What if there is no love? The freeway is a place associated with restlessness, boredom, and irritation, but not usually love; and if having a love “in league with the freeway” is having no love at all, then the protagonist is far more isolated than he wants to admit. That isolation gives this protagonist just a tinge of desperation, and it is a compelling tinge. Nonetheless, it is ironic, and not in a dual sense, that rock purists have never particularly fetishized this track. It is seen as Robert Plant’s first solo hit— no more, no less.
“Big Log” is musically ambitious, and exquisite. Rather than employing the “guitar army” that was Jimmy Page’s forte during the Zeppelin days, Plant uses guitars sans distortion, along with the synths that characterize so much 80s music. As in Zeppelin, it is the guitars, rather than the melody line, that grant the song its hooks. The one repeated arpeggio that stands out the most has the bittersweet longing of Spanish folk music in it. When this arpeggio, which is played in the Dorian mode, is put into this novel context (synths, drum machine, and a descending, minor key chord progression), it makes palpable the feeling of the open road which is one topos the song builds from. There is a final, circle-closing lick, less expressive than the Spanish arpeggio, played on the low E and A strings of the guitar, that seals the song off into mournfulness. The way the song is mixed, Plant’s vocals are not especially elevated; he is submerged into the texture of the piece, enough that it is easy to get lost in the sound, without especially noticing the lyrics. What is magical about “Big Log” is that, like the narrator himself, it has its own integrity— the perfect mesh between sound and sense in the piece is something not often seen in popular music. This is especially true of the early 1980s, in which synths were often used to sugarcoat vacuous sentiments and hokey contrivances. Even the monotony of the programmed drums works; they reinforce the hypnotic quality of the treble-toned guitars and Plant’s voice. The understated quality of the video made for the song enhances its aura of stasis and isolation. Plant pulls into a gas station, wanders around some kind of adjacent abode, and we see him shredding pictures (we don’t know what of) and sitting in a classroom. The images are disconnected; while there is no obvious hinge between the lyrics and what we see, they emphasize the confusion, vagueness, and isolation of the protagonist in the face of losses and endings.
It may seem strange to say that there is more consonance between “Big Log” and the Zeitgeist of 2010 than of 1983, but I believe it to be the case. America, and the entire Western world, has lost a certain amount of innocence in the last ten years. We are coping with big losses; the acceptance, forgiveness, and consonance with final truths are hard-won, if they happen at all. Because the American populace is obsessed with movement, we often forget that genuine movements are usually interior. It is not just for philosophers and scientists to say what moves— individuals need to measure these parameters for themselves. A solid work of art is as good a place to start as any.