Whatever restraint I could muster when it comes to devouring anything having to do with Led Zeppelin was, as of that first viewing, gone for good. I simply must have it all. I think it’s best we just get that right out in the open…”
by marc covert
Okay, I’ll freely admit it-I love Led Zeppelin. I have always loved Led Zeppelin. And the way things are going, I always will love Led Zeppelin. Worshiped, revered, idolized, adored, venerated, obsessed-all apt descriptions of my feelings for Zeppelin over the years, and it only gets worse as I get older. The tipping point of hopeless obsession came not at the one Zeppelin concert I attended, in Seattle in 1977, or during any of thousands of hours spent wearing ruts in one album after another, but on the day I went out and bought a DVD player so I could actually watch the Led Zeppelin DVD my wife had given me months earlier. Led Zeppelin is five hours and twenty minutes long and no force of nature could have dislodged me from the couch as I sat there, transfixed, mouth agape, eyes bulging in bloodshot wonder at what was unfolding before me. Song after song, all performed live, much of it pasted together from bootlegged as well as professional footage, a labor of love by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin but especially Jimmy Page, whose uncanny ability to know exactly what diehard Zeppelin fans want came through loud and clear once again. A gift, really, for what it costs. I am still incapable of tearing myself away once I hit “play.” Whatever restraint I could muster when it comes to devouring anything having to do with Led Zeppelin was, as of that first viewing, gone for good. I simply must have it all. I think it’s best we just get that right out in the open.
The years since Led Zeppelin ground to a halt following the death of John Bonham have seen a steady stream of biographies, both on the band itself and its individual members (including the man who loomed menacingly over Zeppelin’s twelve-year run, manager/enforcer Peter Grant). First into the fray was Stephen Davis’ infamous Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, first released in 1985 and updated in 1997 to include the hugely successful Page and Plant collaborations of the early to mid nineties. The surviving band members hated it, as did Grant and his right-hand man, tour manager Richard Cole, who is reputed to have provided Davis with much if not all of the book’s juicier dirt. Not to be outdone, Cole enlisted the help of writer Richard Trubo to pen his own tell-all, 1992’s Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored. (In most respects a forgettable effort, we at least have Cole to thank for setting the record straight about the infamous Seattle “Mud Shark” episode: “’I’m putting this red snapper into your red snapper,’ I roared.”) Other works by Keith Shadwick, Dale Lewis, Erik Davis, Susan Fast, Ritchie Yorke (whose Led Zeppelin, the Definitive Biography is said to be the only book produced with the cooperation of the band members) and many, many others run the gamut from Yorke’s at times embarrassingly sympathetic treatment to Fast’s virtually unreadable academic dissection of every note and wrist-flip produced by the band. Good, bad, or somewhere in between, I’ll keep reading as long as they keep grinding them out.
George Case’s Jimmy Page: Magus Musician Man, an Unauthorized Biography is the latest attempt to nail down the life story of Zeppelin’s enigmatic founder and guitarist. The title itself points out a major obstacle faced by the author: Jimmy Page took no part in the project, letting his lack of a reply to Case’s correspondence speak for itself-not so much as a “When the phone doesn’t ring, mate, that’ll be me.” Not surprising, really, from a man who seems never to have forgotten nor forgiven the pounding his band took in the press throughout the Led Zeppelin years. Case makes no secret of the fact that Page has been an idol of his since his teenage years, or that in order to tell his story he had to rely upon mountains of secondary materials-apparently none of the Led Zeppelin inner circle is talking, either. Curiously, one of the most compelling chapters in the book, and one that would have served well in laying the groundwork of what was to come, complete with the motivations that drove him to take on such a project, appears as the last chapter (“Outrider: Interpreting the Rune of Zoso”). In that chapter, Case writes:
There is another story here. Apart from addressing both the public records and long-standing speculation surrounding Page, and acknowledging the dark whispers about his backstage habits alongside more sober analyses of his musical method, there is also a study of how one human being can survive the passage to and from a kind of pagan divinity. In this is the risky biographical venture of rescuing the subject from his admirers. Many accounts of popular entertainers’ careers tend to drift toward fandom, awash with unreferenced superlatives and unverified feats of publicity (“broke all records,” “everyone owned a copy,” “sales went through the roof,” “one of the top agents in the business,” “all Hollywood was at his feet,” etc.) and never quite coming to terms with the imperfect, even ordinary, individuals at their center. Here, Jimmy page-to whom some quite objective superlatives certainly apply-is considered as just such an individual: striking and original in some ways but rather typical in others, a demigod of myth, but a son, father, friend, bandmate, husband, and lover of reality. …Regarded as influenced and influential artist of a particular age first, and legendary rock star second, the truer and more valuable Jimmy Page begins to emerge.
True enough, and quite a gauntlet for any writer to lay down for himself. The preceding chapters do a competent enough job of telling a tale familiar to any Zeppelin fan who has read the standard works-Page’s rapid mastery of the guitar, endless session work on other bands’ recordings, two-year stint with the Yardbirds as they spiraled toward a messy end, the emergence and explosive success of Led Zeppelin, the heartbreaking series of misfortunes that plagued the band in its later years-but Case’s reliance on established, well-known sources seems to bring him up short when it comes to helping that “truer and more valuable Jimmy Page” emerge.
To his credit, Case makes no claim here to have written a definitive biography (there’s a word any biographer would do well to avoid in any title, publishers be damned), and for the most part, Magus Musician Man is nothing it does not claim to be. A good hard-headed editor could have saved Case from himself in a stylistic sense-most notably by throwing a fit and slashing away at any and all “clever” uses of Zeppelin song titles in his editorializing (“It had been a long time since they publicly rock and rolled,” “…the band played Reykjavik, Iceland, bringing their patented brand of hard rock to the land of ice and snow and the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow,” “…then in his time of dying Jimmy Page may well find himself climbing the stairway to heaven after all”). In fact, if an editor or Case himself had resisted the temptation to resort to such an amateurish literary stunt, that alone would have set Magus Magician Man apart from the pack; you’ll find such cutesie gems in nearly every published work on Led Zeppelin, and it’s downright embarrassing every time.
Most notable in Case’s book, which enjoys the advantage of being published in 2007 (a real plus when writing a biography of a still-kicking subject) is the chapter “All My Love,” which covers the years 1991 to 2006, years that have been mostly kind to Jimmy Page:
The unanimously favorable reaction to the DVD and CD [How the West Was Won] premiers clinched Jimmy Page’s passage from controversy-dogged heavy metal guitarist to permanent member of the entertainment aristocracy. With no great recording or touring obligations on the horizon, he was easing into a contented semi-retirement where the desperate pave of making, say, Presence was not something he wanted to recapture… Instead he was free to collect both the riches and acclaim now directed his way.
Most of what you have here would be easy enough to find with a little digging, but it’s still good to hear about Page being happily married, with three children by his wife, Jimena-12- and 10-year-old daughters and an 8-year-old son, not to mention his grown son and daughter, James Jr. and Scarlett. Perhaps most surprising to me was to learn about Page’s philanthropic work, most notably Casa Jimmy, “a safe house for homeless children and teens, including single mothers, in Rio [de Janeiro]’s Santa Teresa area,” and the Action for Brazil’s Children Trust, established by Page and his Brazilian-born wife in 1998.
Beautifully designed, with an awe-inspiring Ian Dickson back cover shot of Page at the top of his game, apparently picking up his guitar for an encore at one of the legendary Earls Court shows of 1975, Magus Musician Man is a book that, despite its shortcomings, will appeal to anyone who feels the pull of Led Zeppelin and wants to absorb as much behind-the-scenes information on its members as possible. For the time being-until more years go by and maybe, just maybe, Jimmy Page opens up to a trusted, capable biographer, a tall order indeed-Case’s homage will have to stand as the best contemporary treatment we have.
Jimmy Page: Magus, Magician, Man
An Unauthorized Biography
By George Case
Hal Leonard Books