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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pardon Jim Morrison, But Penalize Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin

Posted By on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Jim Morrison performing in Miami, March 1, 1969
  • Jim Morrison performing in Miami, March 1, 1969
Jim Morrison performing in Miami, March 1, 1969
At the time of his death in a Paris bathtub in the summer of 1971, James Douglas Morrison, singer and lyricist for epochal L.A. band The Doors, was looking at six months' hard labor in Florida. Among other offenses at a March, 1969 performance at Dinner Key Auditorium, a bellicose and profoundly drunk Morrison allegedly wagged his penis at 13,000 assembled rock freaks, none of whom bothered to snap a picture or could say with complete certainty they actually saw it happen. Self-made notoriety and a rock-hating mainstream culture made Jim a poor client, and a Miami jury had no problem at all finding him guilty of indecent exposure and profanity. This week, lame-duck governor Charlie Crist burst forth with the astonishing news that he's seeking a posthumous pardon for Crazy Jim's forty year-old misdemeanor.

At first, one is tempted to dismiss a story like that as another in a long series of newsfeed WTFs -- a late parable on how slowly and with what sawtoothed imprecision grinds the law. Still, what are pardons for even rock's most infamous crimes if there aren't occasionally penalties for even the most ancient? With Jake Holmes' lawsuit against Led Zeppelin winding through the courts, we -- and Jimmy Page -- might well find out. In 1967, San Francisco-born Jake Holmes was a struggling singer-songwriter at the scrag end of the folk-rock boom. His "Dazed and Confused" off The Above Ground Sound is startlingly close to a composition of the very same name off Led Zeppelin's debut LP, released in 1969 and credited solely to Jimmy Page.

Well, okay, I can hear some of you saying. Anybody can fuck up and steal one song, right? At the time Holmes' album came out, Page was still in the Yardbirds, an act positively crow-like in their no-credit expropriations of Chicago blues riffs. Being raised among such stylish yobs might drive anyone to a little smash 'n' grab, the reasoning goes. But Led Zeppelin also had to settle up with publishers over likenesses between Ritchie Valens' 1959 "Ooh! My Head" and Zep's "Boogie with Stu," off Physical Graffiti, released in 1975. Willie Dixon reportedly had to threaten to sue to be put on the credits for "Whole Lotta Love." I've brought Page partisans and Zeppelinites to tears playing them Page's jaw-dropping note-for-note lift of the world-famous opening melody for 1971's "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus," off Spirit's self-titled 1968 debut. Zep opened for the L.A. proto-prog juggernaut on the former's first American tour. A definitive list would shock many a new-minted hippie -- and the sheer volume of appropriated material makes Led Zeppelin I alone the aural equivalent of off-the-truck merchandise.

The idea such that things ultimately matter could be moot in this remixed and mashed-up era. Not even Holmes is eligible for more than the last three years' worth of earnings from his swiped song, and all Spirit's Randy California ever wanted out of Zep was a phone call -- that he failed to get before disappearing in a riptide off Molokai, Hawaii in 1997. But the long ear of history could well be less forgiving.

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Ron Garmon


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