In just over thirteen hours, her face will brim with unalloyed delight. She will strut to the center of the stage with pursed lips and eyes squinting into blazing halogen lights. She will play one of the most iconic riffs in the history of rock and roll, and midway through her solo, she will tantalize the sea of outstretched arms beneath her with a guitar that she suspends just above their collective grasp. She will feel alive like no other moment in her otherwise ordinary life, and so will the 600 people in front of her. It will be a moment — dynamic, sexy, perhaps even transformative — but on an early Friday morning, standing amidst the rush hour frenzy on a street corner in uptown Manhattan, Stephanie Paynes has other concerns than the ecstasies of rock and roll. She needs a ride.
Paynes is the lead guitarist and founder of Lez Zeppelin, an all-female tribute band inspired by the four spunky Brits that Rolling Stone once described as “the heaviest band of all time.” Today, I — a 21-year-old college journalist at the helm of my family’s battered Toyota minivan – am driving the band. It is safe to say Lez Zeppelin does not travel the way Led Zeppelin once did.
Although she is first and foremost a guitarist, Paynes, well into middle age, has also taken over the band’s managerial duties just ten years past its inception. The responsibilities of the role are manifold and uniformly dull. Today she needs to ensure that the band — along with a handful of roadies and tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment — makes it down to Falls Church, Virginia, in time for a gig at the State Theater. For 21 hours, I joined Paynes and the rest of the band on the road trip down and back — one that would take us over 500 miles of rolling highway, through generations of musical fantasies, across the gender spectrum and back, all in time for Paynes to return home for a weekend at the beach with her kids.
With her face concealed by a gigantic pair of sunglasses, Paynes, snake-hipped and leather-clad, bears an uncanny resemblance to her counterpart, Jimmy Page. She even matches his swaggering and seductive demeanor as a performer. Offstage, however, she allows her nerves to show. (Page, an inveterate junkie in his day, was usually too stoned to be jittery. He did not vibrate. He floated.) Paynes frets constantly, about everything from ticket sales to sound quality to the press. The self-proclaimed “Jewish mother of the band” and the actual mother of two sons, she even nags her band mates to eat well before each show so they won’t feel faint in the midst of “Dazed and Confused.”
“Why do you think your fans keep coming to your shows?” I ask Paynes as we turn south onto Manhattan’s West Side Highway. Reclining into the passenger’s seat, she pauses for a moment to consider the question before firing back.
“They come for the beer mostly.”
A wry smile flashes across her face, and it’s clear she is toying with me. Paynes, a former journalist for NME and other music publications, has dealt with questions like this one ever since she made perhaps the most devilishly clever consonant swaps in rock history. The band has received years of media coverage, most of it focusing on the unorthodox spectacle of their charade. The name alone provokes bemused joy from almost everyone who encounters it. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I first came across their listing on a website about tribute bands. Paynes knows my type, drawn by the artifice rather than the music, and she makes a point of cutting me down. During our ride to Falls Church, Paynes mocks everything from my outfit to my driving She doesn’t bother answering certain questions and bans me from asking others. “You’re not Rolling Stone,” she reminds me more than once.
In the pantheon of rock and roll, tribute bands are typically comedic fodder — wedding singers who got their hands on a set of costumes. Lez Zeppelin is in this category, but for Paynes, it is not a party trick or a hobby. It is an earnest enterprise, a full-time passion and business that she works tirelessly to preserve. She boasts of compliments garnered from “real” rock stars like Joey Ramone and often characterizes herself, more than a little defensively, as a “true artist.”
Despite her deft and adrenalized guitar play, Paynes compiled a long résumé of letdowns and almost-made-its before the creation of Lez Zeppelin. For years, projects floundered as quickly as they sprung up, offering glints of stardom just beguiling enough to sustain her. Paynes even called it quits from music for a while. Lez Zeppelin was the idea that took hold — the culmination of a tormented career. Formed in 2004, the band, despite its frenetic existence, has managed to survive for over a decade in an era that has been unkind to all but the biggest headline acts. They’ve traveled the globe, released two albums, earned invitations to high-profile music festivals, and even received a compliment from a first-order source: John Paul Jones, the bass player for Led Zeppelin, once remarked on the band’s “superb musicianship.” Some members have come and gone. Paynes is the band’s one constant, embodying Page and leading what she likes to call the “she-incarnation” of Led Zeppelin. The band now belongs to an expanding fleet of all-female tribute bands that includes the likes of AC/DShe and The Ramonas. For her, this is a point of pride.
“Rock was defined by all-male role models, and women were just not brought up in a way to embrace that kind of overt, aggressive stance,” she tells me. “So when we take on a band like Led Zeppelin, who played this empowered cock rock, it’s somewhat radical and shocking to some people.”
As she finishes her explanation, Paynes extends a skeletal hand across the dashboard to indicate our first stop, a storage facility in Hell’s Kitchen, where we load a half-dozen guitars (Gibsons of the same makes favored by Page) into the trunk. Also joining the van is Megan Thomas, the band’s bassist and keyboardist — Lez Zep’s John Paul Jones. With delicate features and crimped platinum blonde hair, Thomas fails to perfectly replicate Jones’ physical appearance, but she conducts herself with similar reticence.
“JPJ liked to stay in the shadows and so do I,” she says before wrapping her face in a scarf and dozing off in the back seat.
A few miles further downtown, we pick up the last member of our crew — a haggard and lumpy fellow whom everyone calls “Nitebob.” Robert Czaykowski by law, Nitebob is a legendary sound engineer and tour manager. I’m soon told that he’s worked with Aerosmith, KISS, and Steely Dan, among other bands throughout over 40 years in the industry. At this point in his career, Nitebob can cherry-pick clients based on prestige and lucrative contracts, but he’s always been fond of Lez Zeppelin and charges them a “friendly” rate, which he refuses to disclose. Dressed in generous black sweats, and with a mop of grey hair and a mouth of browning teeth, Nitebob is a distinctly behind-the-scenes player. His role lacks the traditional rock star glamour, but it puts him in close proximity to the stuff. What he relishes is trafficking in the memories of all that he has seen and heard.
“Boy, do I have some shit to tell you,” Nitebob declares as he boards the minivan, before launching into a series of scathing tirades. Paynes, generally self-possessed, can’t hide her delight, and soon they are gossiping endlessly about who got fat, who got signed, who became a junkie, who works at Starbucks. The subjects of their exchange are not eminent — I hardly recognize a single name they mention — but they are enthralled by the notion of trading inside information.
After a couple of hours of back and forth, the two seem to have exhausted their arsenal of dirt, when Paynes offers one last story. A few weeks ago, she ran into an aging has-been in the bar of a low-rent Parisian hotel. Arriving with his wife in tow, the man, undeterred, tried to engage Paynes in bit of unwanted flirtation.
“It was truly pathetic,” Paynes says, rolling her eyes. Cocking her head to the right, she stares out the window, onto the highway littered with billboards and unilluminated neon signs.
“Rockers never die, they just fade away,” Paynes says with a sigh. For a moment, everyone submits to the placid silence of the road before Nitebob interjects once more.
“Or play smaller gigs.”
The State Theater in Falls Church, Virginia, is a familiar joint for Lez Zeppelin. Not only has the band played it several times, but the State also caters to the nostalgic. The venue was originally constructed as a movie theater in 1936, and that remained its function until 1988, when it began hosting concerts. Situated between a center for spiritual enrichment and a beach shack that bills itself as “a little taste of Florida in the heart of Falls Church City,” the State has an unremarkable history, save that it was one of the first theatres on the East Coast to install central air-conditioning. These days, its shows are often local or kitsch — $5 comedy night, “The World’s Greatest 70’s Dance Party,” and a tribute band called Almost Queen are among the offerings for the end of the year. Inside, the two-story hall can accommodate around 1150 people with standing room only, but for Lez Zeppelin, as for many acts, the main floor is dotted with tables, limiting capacity to 850 and allowing concert-goers to dine in while they rock out.
As soon as we pull into the parking lot, Paynes assumes her managerial duties. It’s just before 4 p.m. and the show won’t begin for over five hours, but she feels no shortage of anxieties. Ticket sales are mediocre, the venue screwed up its marketing, the other band members are running late, and Paynes is short promotion shot glasses for the VIP meet and greet. And then there’s this:
“Always with the tribute band shit,” Paynes groans.
Indeed, above ours heads, tacked to the theater’s marquee, foot-tall plastic letters bill Lez Zeppelin as a tribute band. At this point, I realize that I, too, have been referring to them as such. She clearly resents the label though it is hard to see how she can escape it.
“Most tribute bands are in the business of impersonation,” she says, as she hauls guitars out of the minivan trunk. “They want to fool you into thinking that they’re the real thing — like if you squint, you might think it’s really them. We’re girls so how could we even do that?”
Lez Zeppelin is far from the only band to perform in the style of Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones, nor is Lez the sole troupe of women in the business of playing once-male music. Since Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980 following Bonham’s death, dozens of acts have attempted to fill the void with their own iterations of “Whole Lotta Love.” Despite the flooded market, Paynes insists on her band’s singularity.
“We’ve played festivals — big festivals,” Paynes gloats. “Tribute bands don’t do that.”
She’s not wrong, of course, but as we loaf around the drab artists’ lounge on the second floor of the theater, her bravado feels exorbitant. The lounge is an unglamorous room, befitted with the trappings of a bachelor pad: a beige couch, coffee table, mini-fridge, and television set with the DVD of This is Spinal Tap (naturally). With plenty of time to go before the show, Paynes, Thomas, and Nitebob pass the time by typing away on their cellphones and picking at the modest deli platter provided by a shaggy young venue employee with the title of “hospitality manager.” Calls are placed to babysitters, emails sent to spouses, Facebook pages checked ad nauseam. Just as we settle into the undeniable ennui, the door crashes open to reveal the remaining two members of the band: Dana Athens and Leesa Squyres.
“I’m a cunt!” declares Athens, as she storms into the room, large Starbucks in hand and sunglasses falling down her face. With the band’s regular lead singer serving as a Broadway understudy, Athens is substituting in the role of Robert Plant for the evening. This sort of shuffling is typical for a Lez. Athens, a pint-sized brunette, made all the more diminutive standing near Squyres, whose hulking frame most contradicts the look of her Led analog, the wiry John “Bonzo” Bonham.
Reunited, the women catch each other up on the minutia of their weeks. Although Lez Zeppelin is each of their primary musical ventures, the women have taken up a variety of other commitments as the numbers have dwindled to around 40 shows per year. Thomas is a high school math teacher with a master’s degree in music; Athens teaches dance and singing, and fronts another band; Squyres works security at bars and nightclubs; even Paynes, the Lez obsessive, spends most of the time with her two sons.
With half an hour to go until a “VIP meet and greet,” the women turn their attention to their outfits for the evening. Though they’re cautious to avoid anything resembling “costumes,” the band is sure to don the fashion of their adopted bygone era. Athens and Thomas shimmy into pairs of skintight jeans (Athens’ grey, Thomas’ brown), which they coordinate with white tops. Lisa, as always, wears black. The most scantily clad is Paynes, rocking a black leather mini skirt over fishnet stockings, her shimmering silver shirt unbuttoned to reveal a see-through black tank top. Makeup is caked onto faces, hair ironed into curls, and the women are led through the bowels of the theater and up to the balcony. There wait around a dozen middle-aged concertgoers, swigging drinks and dressed in similarly retro attire. “Oh look, It’s the band!” one remarks with a point.
Soon enough, a semi-circle forms around the women of Lez, as the VIPs pepper them with many of the questions I’ve been forbidden to ask: “Have you ever met the real Led Zeppelin?” (Yes.) “Will you play ‘Stairway to Heaven?’” (No.) “Are you all lesbians?” (“Definitely maybe.”) If Paynes is exasperated, she refuses to let it show, not even as she smiles for a lengthy procession of cellphone photographers. Who these Very Important People are is unimportant and obscure.
A few paces over, I chat with Leslie and Marie, two VIP and self-described ladies of the go-go era. “We really came as a goof,” insists Marie. “Led Zeppelin was our absolute favorite in high school. We figured we’d have a laugh and relive the glory days.”
They giggle at the notion, before Leslie adds, “We even managed to drag our husbands because they’re banking on a make out!” As the laughter subsides, I shoot the husbands a look. One of them, a burly man with a flannel shirt and a crew cut, silently motions to the sides of his head and mouths, “Earplugs!”
With show time drawing near, the hall slowly fills with people. It’s a Friday and hordes of married couples have left the kids at home for date night. Also in the mix are the occasional leather-jacketed man going solo and a small collection of bemused twenty-somethings. They look ironical in advance. The demographics on display — overwhelmingly white and old — are not an unusual draw for Lez Zeppelin. Despite its potential political appeal — women mastering the archetype male band in a testosterone-fueled field — the band tends to attract a wistful, mannerly crowd. Despite the occasional half-hearted “girl power!” cries, none of the thirty or so concertgoers I speak with even mention the gender bending, feminist aspect of the Lez. They came not to rally, but to reminisce, and perhaps to laugh. When I ask people what they anticipate from the band, few express high expectations. As I chat with a plump balding gentleman named Martin, he seems to capture much of the crowd’s sentiment: “Since Bonzo died, I’ll take what I can get.”
A spattering of applause greets Lez Zeppelin as they take their places on stage. With the spotlights still dimmed, Paynes has an unobstructed view of the hall and she takes a second to estimate the size of the crowd. Just under 600, she silently concludes. The figure is smaller than she’d like, but there’s no time to dwell. Beating her black stiletto heel four times, Paynes establishes the song’s rhythm and begins a staccato riff on her guitar. The track is “Immigrant Song,” an exuberant number that affords Athens a chance to bellow a series of extended Plant-ian wails. It’s meant to rouse the audience members, but, still incredulous and sober, the concertgoers mostly remain seated. Waitresses are still dishing out orders of deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and for the time being, the greasy platters of food share equal billing with the band. One song passes with little fanfare, then another. The diners remain unmoved, while the few that stand, having formed a horseshoe around the tables, bob their heads with similar dispassion. But just as it seems that a certain boredom has descended upon the hall, Paynes shoots Thomas a momentary glance, and the bassist slowly strums the opening notes of “Dazed and Confused.”
Almost instantaneously, people react to the slow whirl of Paynes’ guitar. The song is hardly Led Zeppelin’s most famous or technically ornate, but, played live, it unearths its true potency. Athens snarls her way through the first stanza, recounting Jimmy Page’s scathing tale of unrequited love. Gripping the microphone with two hands, she hunches over as she howls, “Soul of a woman was created below.” Within seconds, most of the diners have risen to their feet. Casting aside half-eaten burgers, they lift their fists in the air and offer earnest nods of appreciation. By the time Paynes strides forward for her solo, a small crowd has accumulated before the stage. A smirk emerges on her face as she unsheathes a violin bow — a stunt that Jimmy Page made famous. For upwards of four minutes, she saws it across her guitar strings, and the sound becomes increasingly haunting. As the pitch swells to a crescendo, Paynes whacks her guitar with the bow, tearing slight horsehairs off its frame. She is alone onstage and the crowd is still, eyes unblinking as they watch her raise the bow high above her head. From my perch in the back of the hall, I watch as a mustachioed concertgoer lowers a beer from his lips and turns, incredulous, to his friend.
“She can shred,” he says in astonishment. “My god, she can shred.”
From then on, the band has the audience rapt. They are not amused or bored or thinking about the ride home. They are alive to this music, this band, right now. Athens begins to move with more fervor as she sings. She’s playful, but never jokey, and her arsenal of moves is unending: Deep lunges. Whipping hair. High kicks. Her legs never stop bouncing. At times, she fastens her legs around the microphone stand and rides it up and down. At others, she lifts the stand and swings it before her in concentric circles. She bends back so far that her modest-length hair sweeps the floor. During the sensuous “Whole Lotta Love,” she’s at her most animated. Midway through the first verse, an overzealous fan reaches past the plane of the stage to take a photograph, and, without missing a beat, she drops to her knees and shoves her crotch in his camera. Later, as Thomas plays the song’s signature theremin solo, Athens unleashes an orgasmic moan while singing in the microphone that she holds between Paynes’ legs.
It is around this time that I begin taking note of the evolving scene around me. “This is sexy!” I overhear a woman exclaim, and she is clearly not the only one with that thought. Drunken limbs flail in the air like branches in a storm. Middle-aged couples grind against each other, with roving hands. One particularly bold fellow attempts to do the worm. It is the most egregious dancing I’d ever seen.
As the last note of “Kashmir” echoes through the room and the band exits the stage, the audience refuses to let them go without an encore. When the women return to the stage, Paynes steps to the microphone and offers a suggestion. “Maybe we should play some AC/DC…” she says slyly, and indeed, she plays the beginning of the riff to “Back in Black.” But, as ever, she’s merely teasing her subjects and, without hesitation, the band tears into “Rock and Roll.”
When I reunite with Paynes after the show, she is straddling the bosom of a short brunette named Cathy. “That’s perfect — I love it!” Cathy exclaims. We’re at the merchandise booth in the foyer of the venue, and a few paces away, snapping photos, is Cathy’s husband Jerry. They’re at the front of a line that snakes across the room and back, as people wait for a moment with the band and a chance to purchase fifteen-dollar pairs of black underwear stamped with the Lez Zeppelin logo. For close to half an hour, the band soaks in the adoration, posing for photos and autographing limbs. Last up is a tan and muscled young man. Shaved into his head is a Mohawk that transitions to a rattail in the back. He approaches the table with ambivalence and quivers as he speaks. “If I were half the man you are…” he begins, before getting to one knee and offering a bow.
It’s nearly 1 a.m. before the last fans saunter back to their own minivans and Paynes reloads the band’s gear into mine. Thomas and Nitebob crawl into their seats and pass out by the time we hit the interstate, but Paynes is still revved. During the ride back, Paynes has warmed up to me. She claims I “get it” now, and perhaps I did. I had to admit to myself that the whole enterprise of Lez Zeppelin, which I’d been tempted to think of as a mere lark, as authentic and meaningful as an Elvis impersonator at a corporate retreat, was something meaningful, soulful, a source of genuine pleasure for the band and its audience.
“I think when a rock star is at his or her best, it’s when you can elicit everyone’s fantasy,” she offers. “It has nothing to do with you really. It’s just the way that you can open up that person’s unselfconscious being so that they project whatever they want… It’s almost like an agreement: I’m playing into it, I’m gonna come sex out with you, and they go nuts, and you smile at them because you’re playing the same sort of game.”
As we zip down the New Jersey Turnpike, the road cloaked in darkness, Paynes continues on about her hopes for the band. Even if she’ll never shake the “all-female tribute band” designation, she’ll fight to prove the foolishness of such a notion with every show, every solo, every step.
“I wanted to make sure it was authentic — that it was real and that it was done properly,” Paynes says, running her fingers through her hair. “And it wasn’t only because I had respect for the music, but it was also because we were women, and I knew that everyone respected Led Zeppelin and if we played it shoddily and were less than extraordinary, we would be judged for it. I felt like, for the sake of female musicians, we have to blow the fucking shit out of this stuff. We have to exceed people’s expectations because they’re gonna come in skeptical. A bunch of girls playing this music… They’re sitting there waiting for you to be a joke… But if you show them you can do it, if you play the shit out of it, those dudes — construction worker dudes, guys who’ve been to ten Zeppelin concerts – they love it.”
By the time we could see the Manhattan skyline, the fantasy has faded along with the night. It was dawn. We drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and then cross town to home. As I drop them all off, one after another, it is easy to imagine their bracing transformations: Thomas returning to her job as a teacher, Paynes back to being a mother, and Nitebob, as always, remaining Nitebob. Now alone in the minivan, with the sun rising over the East River, and no company to keep me awake at the wheel, I turn on the radio and stumble onto a familiar tune.
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know.
Jimmy Page’s guitar rings through the speakers and I howl along: And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.