I Can Make the Zeppelin Fly Again

I discovered Led Zeppelin in high school, at a friend’s house, in his father’s record collection. We put The Song Remains the Same on the turntable, thinking it'd be some crappy old band for the elderly. By the end of the afternoon we were obsessed. We listened over and over, and again the next day. Within a year I'd spent most of my lawn-mowing profits acquiring all the band's albums.

I wanted to know everything about the band, and one place to look was the Internet. This was the early 1990s, when the Internet was relatively obscure. I knew about it only because my dad worked for a tech company and one of his friends showed it to us one night. I immediately began lobbying for a modem, and pretty soon our family was online.

Browsing the Web in those days was tedious and slow. There was no way to search or to get a sense of what was out there. It involved a lot of waiting and error messages. 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 found an article on theoretical physics from someone in Geneva, a meatball recipe from Amsterdam, a math puzzle from Helsinki, a history of aviation from Jerusalem. A compulsive archivist, I dutifully saved them all onto floppy disks (mostly without reading). And yet as much as I loved browsing, what I really wanted was to become a webmaster.

There were four websites already dedicated to the band, but that didn’t deter me for a minute. In late 1994, "Alex Reisner’s Led Zeppelin Website" was launched into Cyberspace. I worked constantly at it. I typed in lyrics from liner notes. I copied tour dates and set lists from books and other websites. I sat with headphones late at night transcribing drum parts and guitar riffs. I thought of the Web as a library, and 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:

The buzz lasted for a week. At school I was quietly certain I was the only webmaster in the room, the only one getting messages from 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 per 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 the band, and because it wasn’t clear exactly what the Internet was or who was on it, they often assumed 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) and drummers wanting to audition for the role of the deceased John Bonham (“I am the drummer who can once again reunite Led Zeppelin.”). But mostly it was old rock ‘n roll fans wanting to tell someone 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 Led Zeppelin as much as I did.

The Web grew exponentially. By the year 2000 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: Excite, eBay, Amazon, PayPal. 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 subject matter but around a particular format and style of interaction.

Then, in early 2007, something happened that 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.

The Web had 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. Pouring your heart into an email could end 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 for 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 that had 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.

And so, for posterity, and as a point of reference, here on the 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