September 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me by Martin Millar

Martin, the narrator in Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me is good at comforting women just by listening to them. He uses this trick to get depressed women into bed, but actually, the woman he comforts most is Manx, his platonic friend. She’s bummed out because the father of her baby left her and she’s gained weight and isn’t traveling the world anymore. Martin, who is at odds himself, letting the manuscripts for the literary competition he’s supposed to judge pile up unread, tries to convince her to wear her dramatic Cleopatra hat again. He regales her with stories of the undeniably best moment ever in music history -- Led Zeppelin coming to Glasgow in December, 1972.

When I was seventeen and read Martin Millar’s Ruby and the Stone Age Diet, I fell a little bit in love with the sweet, gormless, lovelorn Brixton squatter protagonist and his best friend Ruby, who never wore shoes, and who made everything okay by naming it. I used to go to a club in Brixton then, called the Whirligig, and lie down under the giant parachute with flashing lights and be glad that I was there.

Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me, like Millar’s other work, is inimitably poignant. It’s oddly comforting to read it, as if Martin is listening to your own sweetly happy, heartbreaking story rather than telling you his. I want to make out with him and then be his friend twenty years later, like Manx.

I lay down to read Suzy at a sad moment, when I felt (as Manx often does) that nothing could cheer me up and that anything I tried to read would irritate me. As soon as I read page one, I was ready to pull my Cleopatra hat out of the closet:

On the 4th of December, 1972, Led Zeppelin came to play in Glasgow. If you live outside of Britain, you might not know where Glasgow is. It’s a large city on the west coast of Scotland. Scotland is just north of England. I won’t trouble you with any more geography. I know you have a short attention span. So have I. I don’t seem to be able to watch a programme on TV for more than a few seconds without changing channels. I can’t sit through long films any more. I never go to the theatre for fear of being bored. When I’m reading a book I need the chapters to be brief. No part of this novel is longer than a few hundred words. Even with a short attention span, you’ll be able to read it easily, a little at a time.

Martin understands. I defy anyone to read Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me in more than one sitting -- that would be kind of like turning off your new favorite song right in the middle -- but even if you’ve given up on finding a magic book, Martin will listen to you until you get happy again.

1972. Fifteen-year-old Martin and his best friend Greg, who spend many secret hours leading their Fabulous Dragon Army to defend Glasgow from the monstrous hordes of Xotha, are both in love with Suzy, who is one year older with feline features, long bright-blond hair and an Afghan coat. Suzy is dating Zed, the coolest boy in school, who looks like Marc Bolan and is so undeniably wonderful that it’s clear he deserves Suzy. “Thinking about Zed now, it doesn’t bother me at all that I hero-worshipped him. He was generous, he was funny, and these are all good things to be. I think about him when I give money to beggars… Zed and Suzy loved each other more than they admitted. They were one of those couples with a powerful bond that even the worst of circumstances could not entirely break. Even when they came to dislike each other, which they did, they couldn’t manage to fall out of love.” Martin and Greg disdain Cherry, the bespectacled, poetry-writing neighbor girl. The hopelessly fat and geeky violin-playing Phil is (hopelessly) in love with Cherry.

Everyone learns that a great miracle is happening -- that the world’s best band is actually coming to Green’s Playhouse, in their own city. They line up in the ice and wind. The concert is just as magnificent as they might have imagined. Even years later, Martin still believes that a real zeppelin brought the band down from Valhalla, also bringing Jimi Hendrix, Howlin’ Wolf and Jamis Joplin to enjoy the show. Zed, fittingly, touches Jimmy Page. The fairies Jean and Agnes, mothers of the first Scottish fairies to travel to New York (Heather and Morag, whose story is told in Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York), are also in the audience. At that one moment, in that one place and time, life is perfect: “Led Zeppelin in Glasgow. Before it I was frustrated and after it I was disappointed, but when the band played, everything was right.”

“I have never been any good at forecasting the future,” says Martin, “I didn’t have the slightest inkling that one day, Stairway to Heaven would be widely disliked. Nor did I foresee that Billy Myers, who sat next to me in physics class, was going to die of leukemia. There didn’t seem to be any warning. One day he had a sore throat and the next day he was in hospital and the next day he was dead. People are so fragile. Sometimes I wonder how anyone ever grows up at all.”

In Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me, things change, the way things tend to do. And people -- the ones who aren’t too fragile -- do grow up. “I realized,” says Martin, “that Led Zeppelin never stopped comforting me. It always lasted. Maybe not so intense, but still there, like these nagging teenage emotions.”

Martin Millar’s books are comforting, and dear, and they really listen. They’re also some of the saddest books ever written, sadder even than life itself, ready to break your heart for years after you first read them. There are fairies, Scottish ones, around to help if things get truly too sad. There might even be great armies of dragons on hand. They might even follow you into your adult life, when people you loved, or still love, are surprisingly gone.

Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me by Martin Millar
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1593762003
224 Pages