There's a moment in Magus Musician Man, Canadian journalist George Case's new biography of Jimmy Page, when you realize how far from the Hammer of the Gods the legendary rock guitarist has fallen. The author describes a 1995 commercial airplane flight Page took between gigs during his first tour with Robert Plant. Flying between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, a "visibly intoxicated" Page "was caught smoking in the washroom… he dared police to arrest him and faced a $1,000 fine."
Unfortunately, an immediate flashback to Page's 1970s-era glory days never comes. It's too bad, because it would have spoken volumes about how different Page's life is today than at its peak. In 2005, when Page looked back on the heyday of Zeppelin, he told Guitar World: "We weren't the only band that had its own plane, but we were the only ones that had a grown-up plane. Let's put it this way: we didn't have to bend our heads to get into it … But I did have the bedroom [in Zeppelin's leased Boeing 707, "The Starship"]. I did like the idea of the horizontal takeoff. I'm not sure I'd be doing that these days. But back then, I had a different mindset."
He certainly did. Since then, Page, now 63, with shorter hair, a no longer heroin-ravaged nor toothpick-thin body now hidden inside of sleek custom-made dark suits, (still occasionally idiosyncratic-looking, but no longer festooned with dragons and poppies), seems to have mellowed comfortably into his role as one of rock's elder statesmen. In 1992, the Rolling Stone Album Guide's page on Bruce Springsteen ended with the hope that with his "growing older, we see a chance that we missed with Elvis – that of a great American rocker confronting age with grace."
Watching the recently recorded DVD included in the 10th anniversary edition of Springsteen's Born To Run, Springsteen seems frozen in amber, an 57-year old man still wearing the motorcycle boots, muttonchop sideburns and leather jackets more associated with his 1970s era salad days than a middle-age multimillionaire entertainment superstar. Meanwhile, in England, Mick Jagger is desperately trying to hang on to his own youth at 63, and Keith Richards is busy dodging rumors that he's snorting his father's ashes. By those standards, Page is surviving the rigors of middle age astonishingly well.
Nobody's Fault But Mine
Case's book does a thorough job of describing Page's history, especially those chapters on Page's life bracketing his Zeppelin years, which probably won't be as familiar to many readers. As rock musicians go, Page was, by and large, a surprisingly self-controlled teenager – he taught himself to play electric blues guitar astonishingly well, and acoustic folk guitar very well. He also taught himself how to competently play in a wide enough variety of styles and genres that he was an extremely in-demand London session musician in the mid-1960s. And while in those studios, he learned a helluva lot about record production. As a session man, Page may have been Shel Talmy's ace in the hole, but Zeppelin's records are sure a lot better produced than early Who and Kinks records.
Unlike other rock guitarists who made themselves strutting frontmen with sub-par and often anonymous musicians as their backing bands, when Page setup Led Zeppelin in late 1968, he surrounded himself with three musicians who were, in many respects, better on their instruments than he was on his, which takes a pretty good handle on the ego to accomplish.
But by the mid-1970s, Zeppelin's monstrous success consumed the group. With no one to say no to them, and bank accounts large enough to easily fuel the biggest drug habits, cocaine and (especially) heroin would eventually destroy the group. While Page was very much the mastermind behind the group's first albums, by 1979 bassist John Paul Jones was doing yeoman work to write and arrange the songs for their last album as a group, In Through The Out Door. Case quotes Jones describing thos sessions. Jones and lead vocalist Robert Plant "would turn up first, Bonzo would turn up later, and Page might turn up a couple of days later…The thing is, when that situation occurs, you either sit down waiting or get down to some playing".
Minor Errors, Questionable Final Chapter
I did notice some minor errors: if Page's 1970s-era musical pyrotechnics inspired you to play guitar (as they did me), you'll catch several glaring mistakes in Case's descriptions of Page's equipment. Describing the launch parties for Swan Song, Zeppelin's record label in 1974, Case confuses New York's Four Seasons Restaurant with the Four Seasons Hotel. And he sets the film Death Wish II in Manhattan, when that sequel very much took place in Los Angeles.
A more serious mistake is the error in judgment involving the book's final chapter, titled, "Outrider: Interpreting The Rune Of Zoso," a misleading title for a chapter that has little to do with deciphering rock's equivalent to Croatoan or Rosebud. (Though to be fair, Case gives it a game attempt earlier in the book during the section on Led Zep IV. Or "four symbols." Or whatever you'd like to call it.) This chapter is instead a long first-person reminiscence of how the author was himself inspired by Page, a rather mawkish coda to end the book on.
But to give the author credit, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first biography of Jimmy Page since Howard Mylett's thorough, though heavily clip-driven look from 1984, Tangents Within A Framework. (Still worth seeking out on eBay, incidentally, for committed Zepaholics.) When that book was written, Page was just beginning to break his long silence after the 1980 death of drummer John Bonham, and the subsequent permanent grounding of the Zeppelin.
Unfortunately, when Page did reemerge, it was rather tentatively: while Page's soundtrack to Charles Bronson's 1982 Death Wish II shootout was surprisingly self-assured, his playing on The Firm's first album in 1985 was anything but, and Page would spend much of the remaining 1980s attempting to rebuild his image as one of rock's seminal guitarists. Only his deft playing on both electric and acoustic during the "Unledded" 1994 MTV special with Robert Plant would complete the job, even though it heavily leaned on songs which were nearing the quarter century mark in age.
Still, lighting in a bottle only comes once in a lifetime — if at all — for most artists: few would claim that any of the Beatles' solo efforts break the same kind of ground that the group itself did in the 1960s. Page's producing, musicianship and songwriting made Zeppelin 1970's biggest rock group, and at least in the hard rock arena, the Beatles' successors in terms of musical experimentation and craftsmanship. That his influence remains strong is evidenced both by the strong sales of Zeppelin's chronological live DVD in 2003, and of Gibson's reissues of Page's Les Paul and 6-string/12-string doubleneck electric guitars, which retail for around $6,000 and $9,000, respectively. (Page bought the Les Paul that the reissues are based on in 1969 off Joe Walsh for a tenth of the reissue's price. His continued influence helps to ensure that original Les Pauls built in the late 1950s now easily fetch six figures on the collectors' market.)
Over the past 25 years, Page has managed to rebuild his status, from the rock's barnstorming Red Baron to wizened elder statesman. Magus Musician Man is a pretty good description of the journey.