The Musical Magus Speaks

Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page
Brad Tolinski

page bookIn 1978 or so a classmate, Bobby P., had it all: a late-model Trans Am with Cragar  wheels and a cranking sound system powering Jensen tri-axial speakers. The music Bobby blared–what was then called hard rock– featured a healthy proportion of Led Zeppelin and has never gone away even as its audience has literally gone to pot–twice.

Well, the still-living Zeps are approaching 70 and it’s time for a bit of hagiography to set in. Readers know that’s my least favorite form of biography and the present volume, in which the ground rules included never touching on any subject Messr. Page deemed off-limits, is a prime example of that execrable form. What you’ll get from this breezy read is a guy who only wants to talk about his career in the rosiest tones.

The upshot is the same old stories  absent the sex and drugs that were front and center in Steven Davis’ Hammer of the Gods. Evidently Sir James (technically, an OBE does not merit a Sir but it’s not my system so I take liberties) does not talk about sex using a shark in his now esteemed state.

I suppose he can choose to say it was always all about the music. But he, as much as any of the others, was a prime mover in the excesses of pageantry, self-indulgence, faux-profundity and debauchery. So to pretend he’s Stravinsky with a flair for dramatic presentation is somewhat absurd and not fair to the facts.

The Zep Boys in full regalia at the Kennedy Center, Dec. 2012.

The Zep Boys in full regalia at the Kennedy Center, Dec. 2012.

The form of the book makes for a quick read. Arranged chronologically, each chapter features an introductory narrative and then excerpted interviews meant to illuminate the subject at hand. Because the interviews were conducted for magazine features over a number of years there is more than a little repetition. Political  staffs should study these conversations to see a guy staying resolutely on message. He rarely strays from his script.

For the player there’s just enough drooling over equipment and technique to provoke more questions. There are also these sidebar conversations that are meant to illuminate other aspects of Page’s, ahem, legacy. So you get John Varvatos on his fashion sense and some New Ager on his astrological chart. All these did for me was illuminate the scope of the problem.

I tend towards the apostatic with bands and artists, none more so than those I grew up with. Here’s the Led Zeppelin problem in one short, declarative sentence: They made the world safe for the whitest music ever. In fact, for all their stated love of the blues they drained every hint of color from them. Led Zeppelin’s is relentless, driving music. There’s none of the swing you hear in the electric blues of the 1950s. Tellingly, there’s also one element missing: air. Zeppelin tunes may rock, they just don’t breathe.

Harsh? Perhaps. Maybe I should let the music should speak for itself. They allegedly gave us the first world music/rock admixture with Kashmir. Thing is,  Dick Dale had already done so a dozen years earlier in 3: 30, and you could dance to it. How about funked up numbers like “Trampled Under Foot?” This is an ostensibly  James Brown inspired track and every time I hear it I wonder if the English lads ever heard Bootsy Collins or Clyde Stubblefield play. How about that English folk/Celtic thing they have going on in more than a few places including Stairway? Funny that Aqualung was being recorded right next door to the IV sessions and that both bands chose to plunder the Bert Jancsh/John Renbourn/Pentangle catalog.

Here’s maybe the most apostatic thing I can say: the best Led Zeppelin song is the one written in the common verse chorus form, All of My Love. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Page hates it. And yet his acoustic solo may be the most beautiful, and I use that term without reservation, thing he ever played. Just listen to how he evokes a mood before jetting off to guitarland.

I will say that Tolinski makes a strong argument for Page as one of the great producers. And it’s important to remember, now that you can buy an effects rack and just dial in Led Zep or any other band, that these guys made this stuff up with comparatively little equipment.

So I’ll grant all that but they aren’t my heroes or even close.  As with so many of these things it strikes me as less about how things are than about how one believes them to be. And that’s true whether you’re in the band or a fan.

VIDEO BONUS:

Not much in the way of video (this was, after all, 1979 and thus pre-MTV), but here’s All of my Love so you can listen to the acoustic bit. It starts at 2:55.

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