FUV Essentials: Darren DeVivo on Led Zeppelin
In Through the Out Door album cover (collage by Laura Fedele)
I arrived late to the Led Zeppelin party. From as far back as I can remember, I always had a passion for music. I was never able to put my finger on what life event fueled this passion or what influenced my tastes, but music resonated loudly in my young ears.
I owned my first records as far back as 1969, when I was four years old. I was aware of some of the hits of the day, thanks to “77 Musicradio WABC” heard mostly on my parents' car radio. As the ‘60s turned to the ‘70s, I remember an oddly captivating song from time to time. It was “Whole Lotta Love."
I didn’t understand it, but the singer’s howls and the crunching and soaring guitar resonated loudly. As I grew older, through the ‘70s, I was constantly developing my taste for what music appealed to me and what didn’t. Somehow, Led Zeppelin, the band I would eventually learn was responsible for that engaging noise called “Whole Lotta Love,” never made an impact on me. It could have been because the band’s songs didn’t have a significant presence on Top 40 radio.
Even after I ventured over to FM, when I was around ten years old, and immersed myself in the album-oriented rock on WPLJ and eventually WNEW-FM, somehow Led Zeppelin flew right past me. I was aware of their presence, just not of Presence, the name of their 1976 album! My memory may be somewhat clouded, but by 1979, when I graduated elementary school and moved on to high school, Led Zeppelin was still over my head. I knew there was a “Stairway To Heaven,” but where it led was still uncharted territory.
That all changed thanks to a neighborhood tough, a boom box, and yellow school bus. After nine years of attending one of my neighborhood’s Catholic grammar schools, St. Clare’s School, in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, I shuffled off, with a decent number of fellow St. Clare’s grads, to an all-boys high school in Westchester County. Salesian High School in New Rochelle was a twenty minute ride north on the New England Thruway. The school was popular enough to warrant a school bus route through several Bronx neighborhoods, including Morris Park. For many reasons to numerous to mention, high school in Westchester County was a completely different culture than what I was familiar with up to that point. There was a significant intimidation factor on that yellow school bus, which was driven by a foul mouthed maniac named Vic.
Imagine a bus frantically weaving its way through the streets of the Bronx to I-95, filled to over-capacity with boys ranging in age from 14 to 17. Of course, older boys, tough guys, and wise guys were in the back. Late passengers stood in the aisle, holding on for dear life. Providing the entertainment were several boom boxes. Having come from a rather strict environment ruled by nuns, bringing any sort of radio to school was completely forbidden. But an all-boys high school was a different scene.
On board Vic’s insane bus, barreling down a highway to hell, was a mountain of kid, named Oliver. Yes, Oliver. Ollie was a year older than me and he was from the neighborhood. He (somehow) graduated St. Clare’s and was now at Salesian, riding my bus, er, his bus. Ollie was massive, at least eight feet tall and probably weighing a half ton. Decked out in leather and chains, he carried a boom box slightly larger than he was.
In the fall of 1979, Led Zeppelin was mounting a highly anticipated comeback with their first new studio album in nearly three and a half years: In Through the Out Door. I didn’t know much about the new Led Zeppelin album, except that it was out and there was a buzz about it. My familiarity was about to quickly change. Ollie had a cassette of the album, and it was number one with a bullet in his boom box, the primary source of entertainment on Vic’s happy rides. I can still hear the ominous droning at the beginning of album’s first song, “In The Evening.” It was intimidating and creepy, like the theme to an Ollie-and-Vic horror film. It was also loud! Robert Plant’s pained cry — "In the e-e-evening ..." — signaled that all hell was about to break loose.
It didn’t take long for me to immerse myself, on my terms, to the thunderous glory of Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, this was at the time when the band was ending, following the tragic death of their beloved drummer John Bonham in September 1980. Devastated, the three remaining members of the band— Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones—announced that Led Zeppelin could not exist without their dear friend and the band ceased.
Interestingly, this announcement came four days before the murder of John Lennon. I quickly became an aficionado of Led Zeppelin, realizing their place in music history as innovators, curators, and groundbreakers. I’d like to think that my underlying love for the band was forcibly knocked into me on Vic’s school bus and by Ollie’s larger-than-life boom box.