[SOTD] Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks

I wanted to write a post about a song that is about depression, because I wanted to write about my depression.

Now, there’s a lot of songs that are obviously about depression (Soundgarden – Fell On Black Days; Cage the Elephant – Cold, Cold, Cold; Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black; etc. etc.), but I didn’t want to write about those ones. Sometimes I feel like the songs that are obviously about depression can only say obvious things about depression. Sometimes other songs accidentally back into a subtle truth that maybe you didn’t even realize.

Levee is one of those songs.

It’s been a tough patch for me. The reasons are uninteresting. But it’s been raining. I think I need to write some words about what this is like because I think it might be an umbrella. I am losing control of this metaphor and will now scuttle along to the part that is actually going to work.

If it keeps on raining, levee’s goin’ to break

When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay

There are moments where a stray thought comes sleeting down out of the clouds and hits my brain in just the wrong place and it’s like a switch flips from “normal” to “nope, everything is bad and wrong and will be forever.” This is not a fun switch. But it’s been raining. And it seems like it’s been raining for so long, and more and more. And there’s a second switch that gets rained on and flips to “what if it never gets better???” What if it keeps on raining? What if the levee breaks?

The terrific thing about this is that it’s completely uncontrollable. It’s like the weather. It doesn’t matter what the state of the levee is. It doesn’t matter if the levee is the only thing protecting everything. It doesn’t matter. It can keep on raining, just because that’s how the weather works. If it keeps on raining, the levee is going to break, and when the levee breaks, what will happen is unknowable.

Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move

Believe me when I say that I’ve tried both of those options. Neither one makes the unknowable result of the levee breaking any more knowable. Neither one even makes it any clearer whether the levee will break and plunge everything into the unknown.

And do you know what’s the damnedest thing? This unknowability is so vast that it even makes you question the other things you know.

Don’t it make you feel bad when you’re tryin’ to find your way home and you don’t know which way to go?

All of that, though, feels a little obvious. During the last rainstorm, sitting in front of Spotify, listening to music, because that was the only thing that made sense, I learned another thing. The words were right, suddenly, and so I got pulled deeper into the music, and that’s where I learned the other thing.

Is John Bonham the best rock and roll drummer ever? I mean, you can make the argument. I am further willing to claim, at least for the purposes of this post, that Levee is his best track, and that Levee would not work with any other drummer.

Listen to John Bonham’s drum line. It undergirds the bass and drives the melody.  It provides a stable foundation for Robert Plant to wail over. Everything in this song works because the drum line is so good. It is the engine, it is the heartbeat, and it is relentless.

But setting aside its technical and musical brilliance, it does some serious emotional work, too. This drum line is the sound of every injustice and the stubborn march of resistance. It is angry, flashing at times to barely-suppressed rage. That’s why it works.

Here’s what I learned about my depression from this drum line, which I feel somehow obligated to share with you. It keeps on raining, and the levee might just break, but you keep going anyway. You grit your teeth and you push on, because you can and because you must. You keep doing things because it is the only thing you can do. You keep going because you cannot stop. You are relentless because you cannot relent. You keep going, because keeping going is the engine, because it’s the heartbeat, because you are alive, and because, in every possible way, fuck you.

The rhythm provides hope in the rainstorm.

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If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 to be immediately connected with a skilled, trained crisis worker. Or, if you’re like me and talking on the phone can worsen your anxiety, click here for some text-based support.

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