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Changes fill my time, baby, that’s alright with me
In the midst I think of you, and how it used to be
—Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “Ten Years Gone”
This is the mystery of the quotient, quotient
Upon us all, upon us all a little rain must fall
—Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “The Rain Song”
As we exited the air-conditioned comfort of my mother’s 1960-something New Yorker sedan, the humid, 95-degree heat in the parking lot of Tampa Stadium hit us like a ton of bricks. We hardly noticed, though, because we had something far more immediate on our mind. To wit: a band called Led Zeppelin, which was scheduled to play in a few hours for me, my four companions, and 70,000 other rabid fans who shelled out that evening’s $10 ticket fee.
When the show started just a little before dark, about four hours later, there was no opening act. There was no announcement, either, just Jimmy Page’s 12-string guitar ringing out the opening chord from “The Song Remains the Same,” as a laser projected an undulating figure-eight above the stage. The crowd erupted in the most electric celebrations I’ve ever experienced. It was June 3, 1977. I was just 12 years old, this was my first rock concert, and it was about to change my life forever.
Alas, despite the words “Rain or Shine” printed on the Willie Wonka-style tickets, the concert was quickly interrupted by a thunderstorm considered torrential even for Tampa—a place which rightly or wrongly had long been dubbed the lightning capital of the world. Singer Robert Plant first promised to return in 15 minutes. Later came an announcement that the show was being postponed. In the confusion, a small riot broke out. Fortunately, my friends and I managed to get out before the bottle throwing and clubbing happened. We only learned of the violence hours later while listening to the radio. A few days later, Tampa Mayor William Poe vowed Led Zeppelin would never play the city again.
In the four decades since then, I have occasionally found myself recounting the brief ecstasy, profound disappointment, and lost innocence of that day, even as I struggled to remember some of the finer details. As short and electrifying as it was, for instance, how did the performance really stand up? And what, precisely, were the reasons for the abrupt cancellation and the events that led to a small number of bottle-throwing fans clashing with police donning riot gear? With the help of Internet resources including LedZeppelin.com, YouTube, and Amazon’s Look Inside feature, here’s how things unfolded, to the best of my recollection.
The Tampa show was mid-way through the second leg of a three-leg North American tour that originally called for 51 concerts. On the surface, things seemed to be going well. Ticket sales were brisk, and the band played before 76,229 people on April 30 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit. The concert broke the record set four months earlier when The Who played for 75,962 people. (At the Tampa Stadium show four years earlier, Led Zeppelin broke the Beatles attendance record with more than 56,000 in attendance.)
In other ways, however, problems abounded on the tour. Two dozen fans were arrested at a concert in St. Paul on April 13 when hundreds of people without tickets attempted to force their way into the show. A Cincinnati show six days later saw a similar incident, with police arresting 70 people when about 1,000 fans crashed the gates at Riverfront Coliseum. The following night, during a second appearance at the same venue, a fan died after falling from a third-level seat. On May 21, fans caused a reported $500,000 worth of damage at the Summit Arena in Houston in an incident that resulted in 40 arrests.
Behind the scenes of Zeppelin’s 11th and final North American tour, things were equally chaotic. By many accounts, Page’s heroin use was noticeably impairing his performances and was creating a rift in his once-close relationship with singer Robert Plant. Drummer John Bonham was going on legendary drinking benders. Manager Peter Grant, according to other accounts, was using large amounts of cocaine that transformed the legendarily shrewd businessman into an erratic tyrant who made a series of ill-advised decisions. Arguably the best example of Grant’s poor judgement was the hiring of John Bindon, an actor-turned-bodyguard with ties to London gangsters, as Led Zeppelin’s security coordinator.
Of course, my companions and I weren’t aware of any of these events as we traveled to Tampa that Friday afternoon. It was the last day of school, and I was excited to say goodbye to elementary school and enter the more independent world I imagined junior high would be. On the car ride up, Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” played on the radio. I was joined by my girlfriend, my 14-year-old brother, his girlfriend, and one of my brother’s friends.
Somehow, we not only talked our parents into letting us go, but getting my mother to stay behind in the car and let the five of us venture in by ourselves. The lack of parental oversight is hard for me to fathom now, but in my 12-year-old mind, it felt like pure freedom. Four decades later, it still does.
In the parking lot and inside Tampa Stadium, the musky smell of pot smoke was everywhere. I saw a grown man dressed as a woman, in a stunning purple dress adorned with pom-poms. I was finally out of the sterile and all-too suffocating confines of Sarasota, where my family had moved three years earlier, and was suddenly transported to a place I imagined had infinite possibilities. We quickly decided that seats in the stands were too far from the stage and navigated through a labyrinth of tunnels that led us to the football field. The crowd was so dense that every square inch of grass was covered. We pushed as close to the stage as we could without someone beating us up. We finally settled somewhere near the 40-yard line closest to the end zone where the stage was already set up. When I saw Bonham’s signature gong, I knew we had finally arrived.
Out on the field, concertgoers were finding all kinds of ways to pass the time in the sweltering heat. Some people tossed Frisbees. Others built human pyramids that stretched four or five levels high. Somehow, no one seemed to get hurt when the pyramids inevitably toppled to the ground or into large numbers of people sitting nearby. Crowds in the stands crushed paper Coke cups, converted them to projectiles, and threw them at the much smaller number of people on the field. Those of us on the field returned fire, but we were hopelessly outnumbered.
One motorcycle biker near me, sporting a cut-off jean jacket and a thick beard, was determined not to be outdone. He had somehow procured a sock filled with sand and was in the process of catapulting it into the stands just as I was walking by. The heavy sock hit me in the chin like a boxer’s uppercut. He laughed and asked, in an indifferent sort of way, if I was OK. I said I was, even though I was stunned for a minute or two. But I soon forgot about it. I was 12 years old, it was my first rock concert, and we were just hours away from seeing the band that over the past year had consumed every waking moment of my short, pre-adolescent life.
Looks like rain
As dusk approached, a giant, black raincloud settled right over the stadium. For the first time all day, a gentle breeze blew, bringing with it a few flecks of rain and a slight drop in the heat, much to everyone’s relief. Given Florida’s propensity for sudden downpours, it should have spelled trouble, but I didn’t think much of it. I don’t think anyone else did, either.
A few minutes later, at around 8:20, Led Zeppelin launched headlong into “The Song Remains the Same,” and the entire stadium exploded. Plant’s voice alternatively screeched and roared. Page riffed though power chords and lightning-fast leads. Bonham attacked his drums in a way that only The Who’s Keith Moon could possibly match. John Paul Jones’ jazz-infused bass lines brought a dose of levity to the potent brew.
In a departure from Led Zeppelin’s previous tour, “The Song Remains” didn’t segue into “The Rain Song.” Instead, it ended with something close to a full stop. A few seconds later came the opening riffs of “The Rover” from the band’s Physical Graffiti album, and then, some 24 bars into the song, the band abandoned the song altogether, moving into “Sick Again,” another song from Physical Graffiti.
Like my 70,000 newly made friends, I was ecstatic as I mouthed the words and danced. Page’s phase shifter and other guitar effects sounded surprisingly crisp given he was playing in an outdoor arena, where acoustics are notoriously bad. At one point, the lasers projected an aura around the guitarist, who was dressed in a brilliant white silk suit adorned with poppy flowers, dragons, and birds. The scene was pure electric. When the song was over, Plant greeted the crowd.
“It’s more than a pleasure to be back in the Tampa region again,” he said. “It’s been about four years, right? So I guess the best thing we can do is the less talking and the more music the better, right?”
The last song of that short set was “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” from the album Presence, which the band had released a year earlier. The bluesy, heavy-metal opening riff was infectious. As the song continued, the light rain grew stronger. After the hours of heat, the wind and the rain felt good at first. Then, about halfway through the song, the sky unloaded. The bootleg tape of the show uploaded to YouTube and embedded above captures the moment the rain started falling harder, at the 15:54 mark. The audience reacted mostly with exhilaration. Then at 16:54, the rain grows into a full-on torrent, as is clear from the muffled sound that results when the taper attempts to protect the recording equipment.
The torrent continued. At 18:25, the taper picked up an array of audience reactions, including “Fuck!” “I’m going that way.” “This is the worst! This is the worst! This sucks!” My companions and I sought refuge in a small sheltered walkway that led to the stands. The walkway was packed with masses of bodies wet with sweat and rain. Like us, they were trying to escape the downpour. Even as I stood drenched I remember making eye contact with another fan as we belted out the remaining words to the song.
Got a monkey on my back
Got a mo, mo, mo, mo, monkey on my back, back, back, back
Gonna change my ways tonight
Nobody’s fault but mine
After the song finished, there was a long pause. Then Plant said: “Listen. We want you to bear with us because there seems to be some water falling on the electrical equipment. So we’re going to give it a 15-minute break. Are we cool? A 15-minute break.”
The rain continued to fall heavily for another 20 minutes. Then it stopped. But after 45 minutes, Led Zeppelin was nowhere to be seen. We had no idea then, but according to a timeline published by The St. Petersburg Times, Led Zeppelin’s convoy of 13 limousines had already fled the stadium after being told the show was being postponed until the following night. The same account, citing stadium officials, said that the band was also “warned that to leave was to invite problems with the crowd.”