Bought the Shirt

On May 31, 1977, at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, I saw Led Zeppelin in concert--I’m pretty sure. The particulars of that night are hazy, seeing as how I had ingested hundreds of micrograms of paisley quintessence. Such was the recipe for rock-and-roll reverie in the 1970s.

The next afternoon I woke up wearing a gray T-shirt, the “Led Zeppelin United States of America 1977" concert T with the Swan Song graphic. It occurs to me now that it was more than a souvenir. It was proof. In those days of barricade-crushing festival seating, every T-shirt might as well have said, “I survived . . .” Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, the Rolling Stones, The Who. This sense of the dispositive echoes in the phrase, “Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.”

My Led Zeppelin memento disintegrated, and I forgot about it until about two years ago, when I saw it on the back of a stripling hipster kid of about 17 or so. I thought his post-dating of rock credentials was rather cheeky, but didn’t think any more about it. Then I saw another Zep ’77 T. And another.

The Zep ’77 T-shirt filtered up through the pop ether to become a mainstream hit--one of the best-selling band T-shirts in the history of the tragic poseur outlet Hot Topic, right up there with the weirdly ubiquitous Ramones T-shirts. Meanwhile, dozens of retro rock T-shirts of once-dangerous acts such as Kiss and Queen emerged at Nordstrom and Target.


You might be tempted to regard this as ruthless commodification of bands with an anti-corporate message. Don’t be. Gene Simmons would have sold you the skin off his back.

I suppose the return of the Zep shirt is a testament to the music. Zeppelin broke up in 1980 after the death of John Bonham, and yet it has sold 20.4 million albums since 1991. In the last four years, more than a third of Zep sales have been to fans under 25, according to Rolling Stone. The college it-band of the moment, the Australian retro rockers Wolfmother, want to be Led Zeppelin so bad they can taste it.

And yet, given Zeppelin’s equally impressive status in the history of hair-teasing and crotch-stuffing, I imagine many wear the shirt with a sense of light sarcasm.

Pondering the grammar of rock T-shirts led me to Bill Sagan, CEO of Wolfgang’s Vault. In 2002, Sagan bought concert promoter Bill Graham’s company from Clear Channel for a trifling $5 million (Graham was killed in a helicopter crash in 1991). When he looked in the basement of Graham’s San Francisco office, he found rock’s Library of Alexandria: a vast trove of original posters, handbills, photography and high-quality audio and video recordings, decades of material ranging from Cream and Janis Joplin to Moby. There were also T-shirts, lots of them.


“Graham damn near invented the rock T-shirt,” Sagan says. “First as a promotional tool, then as merchandise.” Routinely, Graham received all the unsold merchandise from his shows, which over the decades added up to a small mountain of T’s.

Graham’s pack-ratting has made it possible now to buy, say, an original T-shirt from heavy-metal munchkin Ronnie James Dio’s gig at the Cow Palace in 1983. Many other rare T-shirts have been cloned: Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore in 1968; the Doors at the Cow Palace in 1969.

Why have Gen-Y and younger become so enamored of vintage rock apparel? “I don’t think that generation has codified why it does anything,” says Sagan, who is 57. Some of it is just fashion, the knowing-ness that makes one garment hip and another not. “I think a lot of them want the imagery,” says Sagan, “which is flat-out cooler than the imagery out today.”

And, it seems evident to Sagan, the music of the era turned out to be far more substantial, more enduring, than even the artists themselves could have known. “What if it really was once-in-a-lifetime music?” he says. Sagan estimates that two-thirds of the music his children listen to (ages 19, 21 and 25) is the same music he listened to at their age.

Strangely, says Sagan, the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s seems to have become counterculture again, a rebellious echo from a previous era of war and repression. One of the company’s better-sellers is a replica of a T-shirt Graham had made up for a Jefferson Airplane show at the Fillmore East in New York City: On the front are the words “Jefferson Airplane Loves You”; on the back, a peace symbol.

Eventually everything takes a turn on the retro spin cycle, and the fact that the Beatles and the Stones still rock the tots is hardly to be lamented. But there’s something wistful, even sad, about retro rock and its cotton-knit raiments. It’s the sense that, as Sagan puts it, “Things aren’t as good as they used to be, and better than they’re going to be in the future.”