I’ll never forget the first time I heard Led Zeppelin.
It was a Monday morning in the fall of 1990. I was getting ready for another dreadful, soulless week of high school.
I was eating my equally soulless breakfast of Cheerios and low-fat milk when I flipped over to MTV (they actually played music videos back then). They’d just had an entire “Whole Lot of Zep” weekend which might sound weird because Led Zeppelin pre-dated the MTV era.
But back in the late 80s and early 90s Zeppelin had a huge resurgence in popularity.
I’m not sure why but I’d guess a new radio format known as “classic rock” gave many kids my age their first taste of a very different type of rock music than what was on MTV back then.
The late 80s was the time when dozens of god-awful-cheeseball-glam-metal hairbands ruled MTV. Poison, Cinderella, Warrant, Great White, Skid Row, Winger and Stryper are just a few of the names that come to mind.
To give you an example of just how bad it was, here is perhaps the worst song in the history of the human race (warning: your soul may suffer permanent damage).
So anyway, there I am on that Monday morning in 1990 when MTV plays one last video from the Whole Lot of Zep weekend, a song called “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
I consider this moment my personal Big Bang.
The opening acoustic riff, alternating with the ringing G and D chords grabbed me immediately. This was subtly different than anything I’d ever heard before.
When the 12-string guitar came in (at the 30-second mark in the video), I felt a surge of electricity rip through me. I was totally present, LOCKED IN, mesmerized by what I was hearing.
Now I’ve never been to a Christian revival, but when the whole band comes thundering in together and Robert Plant wails, “Many have I loved!” (at the 1:30 mark), in that moment I felt like screaming out, “LORD JESUS I AM SAVED!”
God had a new name from that day forward and it was… Led Zeppelin.
The video with all the edited, blurred clips added a sense of mystery to the band. Who were these guys? I’d never seen them before. My parents certainly didn’t own any albums by them. I HAD TO KNOW MORE.
After school I immediately ran down to the local record store and picked up the album Houses of the Holy, aptly titled because listening to that album really was a religious experience for me. Within a few months, I’d devoured every album in their catalog and became obsessed.
I’d never heard music like theirs before. It was a more mature form of rock music. It wasn’t made for the radio or MTV. It had real depth, constantly shifting dynamics and colors, raw electric power and tender acoustic beauty, sometimes all in the same song.
But it also had a deep sense of mystery to me. I could hear a thread of tradition running through many of the songs. Some of them felt almost ancient to me. And it ignited a curiosity to learn more about their musical influences.
I discovered American blues music and became fascinated with artists like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. I became interested in British folk music and was enchanted by the music of Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. I started listening to traditional Celtic music which led me to American folk music and bluegrass and old time country. When I read that Plant and Page loved the album Blue by Joni Mitchell, I went out and bought it and went through a period where I was as obsessed with Joni Mitchell as I was with Led Zeppelin.
And of course, I grew to love all those classic rock bands from the late 60s and early 70s as well.
But Zeppelin was my Big Bang. They were the first to expose me to a huge new world of music and for that I am forever grateful.
During that time I also discovered an entirely different side of Led Zeppelin, a side that I eventually found even more thrilling than their recorded albums.
I first heard a Zeppelin live show on a late night classic rock station. They were playing a bootleg of a 1969 show. Not sure how they got away with that because bootleg recordings back then were illegal. But I’m glad they did.
As Steven Tyler once said about the first time he heard them live, “it was so #$%& heavy that it made me cry.”
Led Zeppelin live was like Led Zeppelin on steroids (which is like steroids on steroids). It was the most mind-bending thing I’d ever heard. The songs were totally different, even more raw and more powerful than the album versions.
They took them in completely different directions, stretching some of them out into epic 20-30 minute improvisational versions. They pushed themselves to experiment and explore and you could feel this wild sense of abandon and adventure in songs like Dazed and Confused and How Many More Times. It was like a high speed chase that you weren’t sure how or when it would end but it held you transfixed all the way. And every time it felt fresh and new even though they were playing the same songs.
Through listening to these bootlegs, I started to understand the importance of improvisation to any art form.
I HAD to find more live recordings. Not wanted. HAD.
I started to seek out and find places that sold bootlegs. I found a guy in Rolling Stone magazine (they used to have an ad section in the back pages) who sold them on cassette (I still have every one and hold on to them like old love letters despite the fact I have no way to play them anymore). Every time one came in the mail I felt another key to the mystery of the universe was in my possession.
I located all the hip independently-owned music shops on Long Island that sold concert bootlegs. I even went into Greenwich Village in NYC to comb the old record stores (I’m sure they’re all gone now).
I LOVED that bootlegs were illegal and that I had to search for them. It felt magical when I found some rare live gem in the back of a dusty old music store. I loved that the sound quality wasn’t always great. I loved that I could hear conversations in the crowd.
I felt like I was searching for ancient archaeological relics. I found this whole world of music collectors that felt the same way. This stuff was NOT available in stores and you had to go find it and then share your love of it with others.
Music lost its mystery to me with the digital age. I LOVE that every known Zeppelin live show is now on YouTube.
But it doesn’t feel special anymore. Gone are the days of physically searching old record stores for live recordings. Gone are the days when your personal collection of bootlegs felt sacred.
Everything is just online now.
Even music as a whole, beyond live recordings, has lost something for me with the digital age. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s incredible that you can search for and discover new music right on your computer. Or phone. But it feels somewhat mindless to me now. Whatever emotion you want, you can click a song to convey it. I’m not so sure it’s good to have so much music so readily accessible.
Or maybe that’s just me getting older and crankier. I don’t know.
What I do know is that at some point, we’re no longer that super impressionable teenager that’s ripe for latching on to whatever artistic form awakens us out of the slumber of suburbia and all those subtle pressures and expectations to conform and think and live a certain way. We’re thankful for the awakening and for the places both inwardly and outwardly it led us.
Somewhere down the line you pick up new passions and interests and you look back and realize that even though on the surface, they may seem completely different, there’s a common thread running through them. It’s just evolved into something else.
For me, at this stage of my life, it’s soup.
Yes, I think that’s as strange as you do too.
And yes, we’ve finally arrived at my point.
The first time I had mohinga, a Burmese fish noodle soup, was kinda like the first time I heard Zeppelin (but about 10,000 times less dramatic). I can’t exactly say the heavens opened up, but in a weird way, it was sort of similar.
I was at a small outdoor cafe in Yangon in 2007 when I first tried it and I knew I was tasting something REALLY different.
It didn’t taste like anything I’d ever had before. And yet, it was so familiar in a way I can’t explain. Just like listening to Zeppelin for the first time, it felt rooted in tradition, like I was eating something that had been passed down for hundreds of generations.
The fish broth was so fragrant, light and flavorful but and yet it was deeply nourishing. There were just so many different textures, flavors and even colors. It tasted like the ocean and the earth at the same time – fresh fish, rice noodles, herbs, lemongrass, garlic, ginger and other local ingredients that I couldn’t identify. And of course, everything was fresh.
I’d never experienced a soup like that before.
As I traveled around Myanmar, to different regions, I had mohinga every single day.
And every version was different. Different regions used different ingredients. Different cafes and street stalls, even those on the same street, had their own personal interpretation. Some were richer than others, some saltier, some sweeter. But they were all equally good. I never had a bowl I didn’t absolutely love.
Just like listening to Zeppelin live shows.
This taught me a lot about creativity and improvisation when it comes to cooking too. For me, that comes most easily through making my own bone broths and soups.
A good bone broth is to soup as a good rhythm section is to rock music. It’s the foundation of the whole thing. But of course, it should never get too predictable. Tiny little variations bring about subtle but interesting flavors.
Boxed bone broth is like a boring rhythm section. It’s the same damn thing over and over.
Once you have a good foundation, anything is possible. There’s really no rules. Add whatever you want. It’s all about creativity and improvisation. Experiment. Have fun. Try new things.
Different styles of cooking evolved from the different fauna and flora of different regions of the world, and it’s cool to make things in the authentic old ways, but don’t get too attached to them! So-called “purists” get way too attached to their styles, especially if it’s from where they come from.
Sometimes I think you need someone who wasn’t raised in a particular style or tradition to take that style in a new direction because they’re not bound by the culture around them to do in the “traditional” way.
It’s kind of like Zeppelin and the blues. Like others Brits from that time, they took a traditional style of American music and totally made it their own. They stretched it out, pushed the limits and took it in crazy new directions. Purists hated it. But I think the English blues rock version of the blues is the best type of blues music. Of course, that’s just my personal opinion.
I love finding some amazing authentic ethnic soup recipe and adapting it not just for myself but for others too, especially my fellow Americans who grew up on the same processed canned crap that I did. I love exploring and writing about these things and sharing them here on my blog.
But I also love the mystery of it! I love that the authentic versions are still out there, in places where the thread of tradition still remains strong. And I love that you have to search for them. And find them.
And that you’ll never find them online.
If you follow my blog, you know I just returned from Thailand. While I didn’t go there to seek out soups, I was certainly tuned into the food scene and ate as many different types of Thai soups as I possibly could.
I collected recipes and have started thinking about writing my next book on Thai curries and soups and adapting the recipes for Americans.
It got me thinking bigger though. This was my first trip back to Asia in 8 years. I realized how much I missed traveling and it made me think about doing more of it and blogging my adventures as well.
More specifically, I’ve thought about really exploring the soups of Asia in more depth. There’s SO MUCH to explore. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands more mohingas out there that are little-known to the western world.
I’d love to travel to these countries, photograph what I find and write more soup books with adaptations of the traditional recipes for westerners.
It excites me when I think about it. It also scares the hell out of me. Traveling solo in Asia is not easy. Language barriers, cultural barriers, crazy traffic, crazy heat, mosquitoes, pollution, poverty and food poisoning are common realities. But usually when things scare me, that means I have to follow through.
I have no idea how I’m going to make that work yet. But if anyone has the will to do it, I think I do.
I’ve also thought if I ever do follow through, that the introduction to an Asian soup book will be modeled after this blog post. I want to inspire people to make their own bone broths and let go of written recipes and improvise and be creative.
It’s what people have done forever! It always bring out the best in cooking or any creative endeavor…like music.
So don’t be surprised if someday soon you find me blogging and sharing exotic recipes from some obscure, little-known regions of the world…
…over the hills and far away.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.