Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography'

Chris Salewicz's 'Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography.'
Chris Salewicz's 'Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Sorry, Paul McCartney: Jimmy Page is "the greatest national treasure of British popular music."

Of course, the source of that estimation may be a bit biased: Chris Salewicz has just published a 520-page tome that bills itself as The Definitive Biography of Led Zeppelin's musical mastermind. Whether or not it's actually "definitive," the book is readable and informative...and, appropriately, heavy.

It's largely the story of Led Zeppelin — the band form in 1968, on page 135, and break up with John Bonham's 1980 death on page 430 — but one of the biggest revelations for those who aren't already Page-philes is just how extensive the guitarist's pre-Zep career was.

Page's involvement in the Yardbirds is well-known; Led Zeppelin, in fact, were first billed as "the New Yardbirds" when they toured to honor commitments for the former band. Salewicz implies that even that supergroup (also featuring the mercurial Jeff Beck, and previously Eric Clapton) was something of a stopgap for Page, who was tired of being a hired gun.

Page was able to command 50% of all Led Zeppelin's earnings — his bandmates and their manager split the remainder, at least initially — because he was famed as one of the rock world's most in-demand session musicians. Here's a very partial list of the classic tracks he played on:

- "Gloria," Them
- "You Really Got Me," the Kinks
- "It's Not Unusual," Tom Jones
- "Downtown," Petula Clark
- "As Tears Go By," Marianne Faithfull

Salewicz argues that Page is also underrated for his early work as a producer, notably on a 1965 session by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring Clapton; the musicians cut "I'm Your Witchdoctor" and "Telephone Blues." The author quotes journalist Brad Tolinski, another Page expert:

The significance of this session cannot be emphasized enough, for it represented the birth of the modern guitar sound. And while Clapton did the playing, it was Page who made it possible for his work to be captured properly on tape.

So by the time Page was ready to form his "New Yardbirds," the working-class London native, who'd been turned on to his lifelong instrument by Scotty Moore's playing with Elvis Presley, had a strong vision. He wanted a heavy blues band like the Yardbirds, but with himself more firmly in charge.

John Paul Jones, another respected session veteran, was a shoo-in for bass. Then, Page wanted a powerful white soul singer. He considered Steve Winwood, and approached singer Terry Reid. (You've never heard of Terry Reid? Exactly.) Reid had just booked a slot opening for Cream, though, so he recommended Page consider the essentially unknown vocalist of a band Reid had shared a bill with: Band of Joy.

Page was blown away by the teenage Robert Plant, who brought his bandmate John Bonham along into a band that ultimately took its name from a comment by the Who's Keith Entwistle that an earlier Page supergroup would go down "like a lead zeppelin" if they ever actually tried to become a band. (They dropped the A from "lead" to reduce the risk of mispronunciation.)

Though Salewicz is clearly in awe of Page's musical skill, he notes that Led Zeppelin had several extra-musical factors working in their favor as well. For one thing, the band members all got along. Page and Plant bonded over their shared attraction to mystical themes, and the complementarity of their compositional skills (Page never styled himself a lyricist) helped to minimize friction.

Page, too, kept a tight eye on his finances; experienced in the music business and wealthy from his session work, he self-financed Led Zeppelin's recording sessions so the band retained complete artistic control and owned their masters. The band also hired Peter Grant, who marked a decisive break with the Colonel Parker school of music management and helped to establish a new standard for that role: he was honest with the band and didn't take any attitude, but he understood that he ultimately worked for them, not the other way around. He traveled with Led Zeppelin and kept a close eye on their affairs.

Their financial and musical affairs, that is. As for their sexual affairs and drug-fueled escapades...here, Salewicz acknowledges some tension. Led Zeppelin, more than any other single group, defined the excess of touring life for '70s rock gods. (They were the principal inspiration for Almost Famous.) Salewicz's approach to this is basically twofold.

On the one hand, he shows you the scene as Page saw it. If Bonham was the John Belushi of the band, constantly drunk and often belligerent, Page played the mysterious genius. Hopped-up as he got, he always managed to deliver searing musical performances; he didn't get involved in silly shenanigans. His approach was to sit back, watch the chaos unfold, and then select a mortal woman (often, a mortal girl) to bring back for a session of smoldering sex.

Salewicz also presents the perspective of the women who "dated" Page back when groupies were stars in their own right. These women largely have positive memories of their experiences with Page, whose obscure charms refused to wear out. In her autobiography, legendary rock-star consort Catherine James captured the essence of Page as she knew it.

There were no real words to describe his seductive allure and painful charm. It wasn't just his lithe, elegant, rock-and-roll mien, or his Pre-Raphaelite angelic face and soft, long curls. He had an indescribable smouldering look in his eyes, like he had a secret he might share with you one day. When we kissed he inhaled my breath like he was savouring my soul. I'd never felt anything quite as dark or sensuous as James Patrick Page. He captivated me with stories of the English countryside and his lone manor in Pangbourne...He always made me feel like we were somewhere off in the mists of Avalon.

The privilege and convenience of being "off in the mists" came through when Page was asked about the journalist Ellen Sander's account of being sexually assaulted by John Bonham while she was reporting a Led Zeppelin profile. "That's not a false picture," mused Page, "But that side of touring isn't the be all and end all. The worst part is the period of waiting before going on. I always get very edgy, not knowing what to do with myself." So essentially, Page excused the behavior as merely Bonham's way of dealing with the stress of rock life.

That kind of insight at least brings the reader closer to understanding Page, for better or for worse. A major reason the book doesn't exactly feel "definitive" is that it tends to hold its subject at a respectful remove, narrating his achievements but not really getting into his head. There's very little space given to Page's upbringing and family, and his marriages are discussed as matter-of-factly as Led Zeppelin tours.

The aspect of Page's non-musical life that Salewicz explores most deeply is his involvement with — the author makes a point of naming it precisely — the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The famous "golden god" line in Almost Famous resonates with Page's fascination with an occult practice that encourages the "assumption of the god form" in its acolytes. Page went so far as to buy a house formerly owned by the haunted artist Aleister Crowley.

Salewicz draws on a range of sources, broken down in a bibliography not not in the form of detailed references. His access to Page himself seems to largely have been in the form of profiles written in the twilight of the gods — that is, around the end of Led Zeppelin. Two of these are reprinted at length in the book, and it's refreshing to finally hear from the guitarist himself. (Spoiler: circa 1977, Page thought Presence was the most important Led Zeppelin album to date.)

While Salewicz's treatment of Page's early years is relatively concise, it's also confidently sketched: the author nicely lays the groundwork for how Page can be considered the quintessential British rock guitarist. He formed a skiffle group (of course), went to art school (naturally), dated one of Elvis's former groupies (as you do), and picked up the sitar (de rigueur).

In the end, the book is convincing: from a musical standpoint, Page deserves even more credit than you realize for the invention of the entire genre we now know as "hard rock." He didn't just know how to play the guitar, he had a vision for how it would sound and feel.

The signature evidence of this may be "Whole Lotta Love," the song that opens Led Zeppelin II. It's a reworking of a Muddy Waters song by way of the Small Faces, but Page claims credit for the five-note riff that drives the song. Salewicz calls it "the first hard-rock standard and a tune that radically altered expectations of the sound of the electric guitar and rock vocal."

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