The Great Man Speaks
“Most writers just wanted to know about his (Jimmy Page’s) alleged drug use, weird groupie sex, or whether it was true he’d made a pact with Satan… This is where I come inI had always admired his innovations as a guitarist, composer, and arrangerAs a journalist, I always wondered why nobody ever asked him about that (italics author’s) stuff… This is what I wanted to read about and wanted to write about.”
Tolinski makes good on his interest. Even Led Zeppelin fans who have read Ritchie York’s Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography and Stephen Davis’s notorious, unauthorized Hammer of the Gods stand to learn much about Jimmy Page in Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. While guitar freaks may realize the extent of Page’s contributions to the instrument, lay fans may take for granted Page’s impact on use of fuzzboxes, extended jams, or use of the whammy bar. For those of us unfamiliar with the musician’ss technical side, Tolinski, editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine, makes Page’s musical contributions accessible.
Tolinski is correct in noting too much is known about Led Zeppelin’s offstage antics, including Page’s many love affairs. Tolinski, to his credit, handles this material with sensitivity. Some biography creeps in: we learn Page has been in several serious relationships and fathered five children. When tentatively questioned about the band’s Los Angeles road antics, he replies, in true Spinal Tap fashion, that he believes that band behaved far worse in Japan, where hotel room trashing included destruction of several precious Japanese screens.
When questioned about music, reticent Page is an articulate, gracious and generous interviewee, falling silent only when questioned about personal issues or when asked to criticize fellow musicians.
The resulting text is divided chronologically into chapters concluding in “musical interludes”, conversations with Page himself or his musical colleagues. The final interlude, with clothing designer John Varvatos, may strike some as misplaced amidst a roster of serious musicians, but Page honed every aspect of his stage presence, including custom clothing Varvatos cites as influential to his work. The “Grand Finalé”, Jimmy Page’s astrology by Margaret Santangelo, will either strike readers as in keeping with Page’s mystical leanings or downright silly, but Tolinski intended a comprehensive look at the musician, and readers get one.
Tolinski starts with the very young Page picking up his first guitar and immediately messing with effects. By age 14, Page was playing on the radio. By 1962, he had begun years of sessions work that sharpened his playing and professionalism. Page is on countless ‘60s recordings ranging from Shirley Bassey to The Who. He soaked up music—Elvis Presley, American Blues, the burgeoning English folk scene, Indian and Moroccan music. Tolinski notes Page was one of the first English musicians to acquire a sitar. What rapidly emerges is a voraciously driven, immensely talented, uniquely gifted individual.
Page’s avid attention during studio sessions led to producing and a lifelong interest in innovative sound. He has strong feelings about drums needing to “breathe” and mics accordingly. He was an early adopter of fuzzboxes and pedals, creating sounds that in 1964 were entirely new. He played in the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck, then took over after Beck pulled one of his infamous walkouts. Yet Beck and Page—at least, to hear Page tell it—remain close friends.
When Page realized his musical dreams in Led Zeppelin, the band hit so hard and so fast that reading about their truncated career is a whirlwind, even with Page breaking down every record. The band toured and recorded relentlessly. Led Zeppelin II was recorded while the band toured supporting the first album. Presence was recorded shortly after Robert Plant, his family, and Page’s daughter Scarlet were in a horrible car accident; Plant’s ankle was shattered. He recorded from a wheelchair (try to imagine that kind of vocal power while sitting down in what had to be awful pain). And it’s shocking to realize that drummer John Bonham was only 33 when he died, ending the band’s glorious ten-year run.
Tolinski even manages to work in questions about Led Zeppelin’s musical plagiarism. The band has ended up on court more than once for borrowing riffs, lyrics, even entire songs without crediting the original composers. Page is cagey: “Well, as far as my end of it goes, I always tried to bring something fresh to anything I used… In fact, I think… you would never know what the original source could be. Maybe not in every case…” Page goes on to blame Robert Plant for insufficiently changing some lyrics (!), adding: “We did, however, take some liberties, I must say. But never mind: we did pay!”
Much is made of the band’s professionalism. Page is a perfectionist, and expected his bandmates to be as well. They were. Led Zeppelin never missed performances. They showed up and played, often in excess of three hours, regardless of what may have transpired the night before. Page tells Tolinski “Things ran smoothly because I had the last decision on everything.”
After Bonham’s death in 1980 (a shitty year for rock—we also lost Keith Moon and Bon Scott), Led Zeppelin disbanded, reuniting only twice since. Page remains an active, amazingly productive musician, producing, scoring films, working with everyone from David Coverdale to Sean Coombs while meticulously maintaining the Led Zeppelin archives.
During my teenaged years in Detroit, there were two FM rock stations. One was derisively nicknamed “Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin” by listeners, for its seemingly Led-only playlist, while the other rock station, the great, wondrous, and holy WRIF, disc jockey Arthur Penhallow played “Stairway to Heaven” every afternoon at 4:00. I imagine this went on across the world, making even hardcore fans deaf to the band. Light and Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page, is a refreshing corrective. Read it, then pull out your LPs or your remixed CDs or your downloads and listen anew. The music, 30 years on, remains timeless.