No Quarter

Remembering Fabio of a ski shop in the Western Alps near Turin, in the small town of Sestriere. He was a constant there, he had fitted my boots whenever I joined the guys for a trip up to the mountains. Fabio was not actually his name, that was actually the name of the man who owned the shop. My friend Albert Goothe and his older brother knew the real Fabio. I hadn’t met him, but knew he must have existed, and that our version of Fabio was only his stand-in. He ran the shop.

What a job that must be, opening up the till to too much money in the season, watching the children pour in with sweat and jolly-walking out on their boots with wide smiles and more. But Fabio, or Flavio as he came to be known about our crowd, was calm and held an air of quiet entitlement. He had, and probably still has, a round chin and a small goatee and wore a cap. He looked out of place while at the same time breathing a strange kind of self-confidence. He was never very nice to us, he wanted to be somewhere else, but I thought it wasn’t a bad gig for him. We were unmerciful: once we were out of his shop we ripped him to shreds for kicks, and it was truly funny. Anything in these times was perverted into some kind of joke, it was amazing. We felt we owned everything and we had the right of way and mind over all that was before us. Maybe it was the age, fifteen and sixteen and just on the snow and not giving a shit about anything. It was great fun and not quite lodged within the field of regret in my memory, but there was something there that casts some kind of shadow today. Although presumably in everyone’s mind, it was probably the age.

So Fabio was nothing to us but the man of the shop, the hands that fitted our heels and sent us on our way. But then one day he was playing Zeppelin, I can’t remember what. It was certainly not Immigrant Song. That one raises another memory of some kind of animated video my father showed me in his first frantic play with the www‘s and the advent of Youtube. Two animated cats sitting on some kind of pirate ship, racing in poor graphics toward the island shore, Plant’s howl guiding them. I must have been thirteen. I have no idea how my father might have found this, it is very strange. This was my first exposure to Zeppelin, and it was wacked. I then bought the Led Zeppelin II CD for 11 euros sometime after that, because it had Whole Lotta Love on it and I thought this would be amazing to play from the stereo at full volume. I would use my sister’s old stereo, which at the time felt like it had a very powerful and clean sound. The whole album was fantastic.

That day in Fabio’s shop it must have been one of these tunes, or at least one from the front catalogue, one of the sunset-ride hits that in a matter of time everyone is exposed to. A black dog, or a good times / bad times, but not something as obvious as stairway. I think I said something, and Flavio was reborn: he stared at us in wild excitement and began talking about Zeppelin. They’re phenomenal! he kept saying, no, but they are truly phenomenal. He spoke of tracks I had never heard of let alone listened to. I nodded my head, as I could only do. I remember most clearly his final assertion: that “No Quarter” was without doubt their best track. This rang a bell – its quiet vibrating keyboards, its opening notes, frequently heard in shuffled listens, but as if by instinct I had always skipped. If Jimmy Page’s mystical strings couldn’t be heard immediately, it wasn’t worth it. The song also had a running of seven minutes, which I didn’t really have the patience for. Fabio had shoved a few CDs into our hands.

Is No Quarter Zeppelin’s best? It certainly stands out. When I hear it now I can see those dark opening notes dangle off the shoulders of kids in 1973 and how they melted them to the floor. Their ooze dribbling into the crevices between the stones of the pavement, and sliding toward the gutter. Just as they kiss the metal rungs, an imperial chord is released. That chord of four hundred strings, strings that fight and make love and then consume those same children. Children of the earth poked and pinned up by Page and Plant and by that one God’s drum-drum-drumming against the forehead of everything. John Bonham, the guy that I would later discover died because he had four quadruple vodkas at breakfast before a recording session. I’d agree he probably exaggerated that morning.

When Plant’s voice does emerge in the track, it is a cold lizard that leaves a little slime on the earlobe, and then darts away unnoticed. 40 years ago, I took Fabio’s CD home with me, and I tried to put Houses of the Holy into Albert’s sound-system. The CD era was drawing to its end, and the albums wouldn’t play, or maybe I got distracted, I can’t remember exactly. I will not pretend that I ran on home with my golden ticket and No Quarter immediately opened my eyes after a fine day of slope swinging.

When I did get around to it some time later, I listened carefully, and could see something real in Flavio’s fire. It sounded new, and with a raw and direct element that the indie rock that we were listening to back in those days was not delivering. The lyrics didn’t speak to me. Where I sat I was so distant from the winds of Thor and from the giving or taking of quarter or lack thereof. I did not have war on my mind, and on top of that I felt reasonably merciful. But these days, when I turn Zeppelin on, I turn to this song. It fizzles and sways and it stills sounds to me like some great almost cosmic cry from some future soundscape.

In these pages I hope to be thinking about music, and for me music really started with the darkened colours of rock and guitar. Are Zeppelin, and the sound they represent, still relevant for us now? I still love them, but maybe more out of nostalgia. The axes of intrigue point the other way for today’s new cool. This shall have to be considered elsewhere. In the meantime, this has brought me to retrace the cat pirate video that my dad pointed me to, which turns out to be of cat vikings, available at the link below:

http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/vikingkittens

 

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