I Can Make the Zeppelin Fly Again

Back in high school, like every newly-uncomfortable teenager pushing their way through the crowded hallways, I was looking for a way to be. Everyone else seemed to have it figured out. They were real, solid people with personalities you could count on. The clean-cut captain of the swim team who interrupted class with corny jokes, the cafeteria bully who mashed inedible objects into people’s food, the biology whiz who everyone said was destined for Harvard. And then there was me, who must have appeared equally solid but who felt like just a boy-shaped miasma, lacking guts, constantly fumbling for words, prone to blanking out at any moment.

I discovered Led Zeppelin at a friend’s house, in his father’s record collection. At first it was the sound that got me, the raw electric scream of it. And those drums: loud and relentless and free of doubt, the audible expression of some deep, inaccessible part of my own nature. What it gave me was nothing more than a feeling. But whole lives can be spent in pursuit of feelings. I listened with my friend in the afternoons, after school, and eventually we had the music’s attitude inside us, its confidence, its way of being.

This was the early 1990s, when the Internet was a little-known technological novelty. It was painfully slow, often broken, and hard to use even under the best circumstances. There was no obvious starting point, no way to search or to get a sense of what was out there. It involved a lot of error messages and waiting. Images were rare, and appeared on the screen gradually, line by line. Yet there I was each evening, huddled in front of the household PC with the modem bleeping and gnashing, looking for Web pages to read. I used the Internet like I used the library, browsing aimlessly until I came across something inspiring. But the makers of websites, unlike the authors of books, were accessible. The wires coming out of my modem followed some unbroken path, crossing over land and under sea if necessary, to their modems, sitting atop their very desks. The thought of this connection was dizzying. And how marvelous to be a participant in this world, to acquire an article on theoretical physics from Geneva, or a meatball recipe from Amsterdam, a math puzzle from Helsinki, a history of aviation from Jerusalem. I dutifully saved everything onto floppy disks. And yet as much as I loved browsing, what I really wanted was to become a webmaster.

The fact that there were four websites already dedicated to the band didn’t deter me for a minute. In late 1994 a new site was launched into Cyberspace: Alex Reisner’s Led Zeppelin Website. I worked constantly at it. I typed in lyrics from liner notes. I copied tour dates and setlists from books and other websites and compiled what seemed like an accurate and comprehensive record of the band’s concerts. I sat with headphones late at night transcribing drum parts and guitar riffs. If the Web was a virtual library, I was the keeper of the Led Zeppelin section.

I installed a visitor counter on the home page. Some days it didn’t move, other days it increased by five or ten. I looked at it every day. Who were these people visiting my site, I wondered. Soon enough, I got an email:

For the next week I sat in biology class, as always, unable to tell xylem from phloem, in English mystified by the The Scarlet Letter, in all ways utterly baffled by girls, but quietly certain that I was the only webmaster in the room, the only one getting messages from people in the wider world. It put the anxieties of high school in their place.

At first the emails were were sporadic, but soon, as the visitor counter grew to four digits, I was getting at least one each week. If people asked factual questions, I was happy to show off my knowledge. If they just wanted to chat I was usually too shy to engage, though heaven knows I shared their sentiments. A lot of people wanted to meet Led Zeppelin, and because it wasn’t clear exactly what the Internet was or who was on it, they often assumed I was connected with the band in some way, or that I was the band (e.g., “I am a thirty-nine year-old philosophy professor who is interested in writing an authorized biography on you”). There were grandmothers and girlfriends in search of birthday gifts (an autograph or a personal meeting, usually with guitarist Jimmy Page) and drummers wanting to audition for the role of the deceased John Bonham (“I am the drummer who can once again reunite Led Zeppelin.”). One person just wanted to know, “What is the name of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page’s sister’s horse?” But mostly it was old rock ‘n roll fans wanting to tell someone out there how much the band meant to them, and to relive the glory days (“I buffed my girlfriend behind a bush while Plant was screaming.”). These were people who loved Zeppelin as much as I did.

By the year 2000 the Web had grown exponentially. My visitor counter went to five digits, and then, to my astonishment, six. Site names began to change. Instead of “Kendall Jackman's Fitness Page” and “Vormur's Joke of the Week” there were baffling neologisms with a six-character limit: Amazon, Excite, eBay, PayPal. Those two guys at Stanford named Jerry and David changed the name of their bookmark list to Yahoo!. Search engines were still primitive, but getting gradually better, especially one called Google. My concept of myself as librarian grew less tenable as new commercial and social hubs turned the quiet, well-organized library into a noisy town square. New software made it easy for anyone to “post” things. Web pages gave way to blogs. Then came MySpace and Facebook, and finally, microblogs. Sites no longer coalesced around particular subject matter but around some format and style of interaction.

Then, in early 2007, something happened which, at the time, I didn’t understand. The emails slowed dramatically, and by the end of the year they stopped entirely. That was the sudden and definitive end of them. The number of visitors hadn’t changed--still several thousand “uniques” per day--and the site still appeared on the first page of Google’s search results for “led zeppelin” (certainly due to its old age, not its quality). I was baffled, and though by then I was no longer a Zeppelin-obsessed teenager, I missed the emails. Maybe, I thought, the experience of posting their own words and images on the Web revealed to people that Alex Reisner’s authority was flimsy at best. Or maybe they no longer wanted to engage the librarian at his desk when they could put a question to all their friends simultaneously in the town square.

In retrospect, the tone of the Web had fundamentally changed. Where previously a site was a person’s carefully curated exhibit, a quiet place you could go and explore, now a website came at you with a sales pitch and a call-to-action, it popped up ads and seemed to watch your every click. Many sites had commercial motives, and this put everyone on the defensive. Now pouring out your heart via email could result in the humiliation of an automated response, or subscription to a mailing list. No longer did you assume a like-minded nerd was sitting at the other end of the wires, keen to field your question. Just look at the comments--the world was filled with crazy people. And so the town square was no place for sharing one’s personal feelings. Instead it was full of public performances of personal feelings, and these performances could earn “likes” and “shares.” If my visitor counter had been riveting, these tickers were downright addictive. With such an enticing game at hand, emailing a single webmaster (a word which had by then fallen out of favor) seemed cumbersome and wasteful. It could earn no points. This, at any rate, was how I eventually explained it to myself. It felt like an era had ended.

And so, for posterity, and as a point of reference, here on the modern commercial and gamified Web, I present a selection of emails I received between 1995 and 2007. Since these messages were meant to be private, personally-identifying information has been removed.

Table of Contents

I Know I’m Not An Aging Burnout

Emails about concerts.

Expert, Professor, and Guitar Supermaster

I received more emails about Jimmy Page than any other band member. I did clearly explain on the website that I had no connection with the band or any of its members.

It’s Cool If You Are, I Was Just Wondering

Questions about Satan.

My Mom Is Bothering Me

Emails from kids.

Even Robert’s Height Would Be Useful

Requests for homework help.

$40,000: What, You Cannot Afford It?

Beefs with the band.

Kiss You Ass Bye Bye

Beefs with me.

Listen and Tell Me I’m Not Going Mad

Confusion about lyrics.

After receiving a number of emails in which people type-hummed songs to me and asked me to identify them I posted an entry on my frequently-asked questions (FAQ) list: “What’s the song that goes ‘Dum-da-dum da-dee dum-dum ...’”? The answer was: “I can’t actually hear you humming. If you can remember any lyrics, try using the search bar found on the top right corner of any page on this site.” I thought this was a good way to stop the humming emails but the plan backfired.

I Can Make the Zeppelin Fly Again

Drummers often wrote to debate my drum transcriptions. And with John Bonham out of the picture, some saw a gig opportunity.

All the Greatness Will Be Done