Despite a renewed media presence—a new concert film hitting theaters this Wednesday, Brad Tolinski’s new book Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page reaching bookstores later this month—it’s not quite right to say that Led Zeppelin is back, simply because they never really went away. True, it’s been 30some years since the band’s breakup following the death of drummer John Bonham, and the surviving members have reconvened only a handful of times since, for one-off events like the 2007 Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert captured in the aforementioned documentary Celebration Day. But the band has remained a staple of rock radio, and lead singer Robert Plant’s solo career burnishes the old mystique even when he’s doing country-blues duets with Alison Krauss.
Guitarist Jimmy Page’s path, by contrast, has sometimes seemed driven only by the pleasures of a steady paycheck. Page began his career as a session player, and post-Zeppelin he has seemed to drift wherever the money led him, from film soundtracks to a stint backing Zep copyist David Coverdale.
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Back in the day, Led Zeppelin created its aura of mystery by opting out of the machinery of publicity. They stopped releasing singles; the members rarely gave interviews. If you were to approach Led Zep, it would be on their terms—through the music. In the absence of verifiable fact, rumor and innuendo ruled the day. Tales of Page’s occult proclivities, and of the group’s excesses—chemical, financial and sexual—have, with the passage of years, attained the status of legend.
But, in recent years, Page has worked to dismantle the edifice of myth surrounding him. Though still an intensely private man, Page has grown more expansive with age, granting unprecedented access for director Davis Guggenheim’s intriguing 2009 guitar documentary It Might Get Loud and submitting to the occasional wide-ranging interview. In Tolinski, Page has found an ideal interlocutor to share his story on his terms.
The onetime Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine, Tolinski has interviewed Page many times over the last two decades, and figured out early on a simple tactic that had eluded earlier generations of rock journalists: approach the subject through the music. “I had always admired [Page’s] innovations as a guitarist, composer and arranger,” he writes. “As a producer, I believe, he ranked up there with true innovators like Phil Spector and George Martin. As a journalist, I always wondered why nobody ever asked him about that stuff, and I imagine Jimmy wondered the same thing.”
The pure notes of musical discourse, in other words, have been drowned out by the drumbeat of prurient speculation about mudsharks, nose candy and Aleister Crowley memorabilia. One can hardly blame the journalistic community, though, if discussion of string gauges and amp wattage fail to appeal to more than a niche audience. Let’s face it, sex, drugs and trashed hotels are an easier sell to the masses.
But Light and Shade pulls off a very neat trick. While the book has its share of gearhead bafflegab, Tolinski has compiled and sequenced the conversations masterfully to constitute an oral autobiography, and—most crucially—brought in other, less guarded voices to supplement Page’s own recollections.
So while the man himself might prefer to discuss his tenure with the Yardbirds largely in terms of the teen-pop songs and production forced upon them by management, Page’s old bandmate Chris Dreja fills in the human contours of his situation—of being the new guy in an established band that was already well on the way to self-destructing, of the personal and professional tensions of Page playing alongside (and eventually squeezing out) his childhood friend Jeff Beck. And while the short-lived ‘80s project the Firm mainly prompts Page to reminisce about a Fender Telecaster tricked out with a B-bender, singer Paul Rodgers opines that the experience of being in the band literally saved Page’s life, pulling him out of a spiral of depression that followed Bonham’s death.
Tolinski also manages to get Page on the record—at least in general terms—about the use of drugs and especially ceremonial magick as spiritual technologies to supplement his creative process. Throughout the book, Page comes off as forthright, self-aware and quietly self-assured. The rockstar dazzle, the charisma, the constant working of the room that masks a deep need for love and attention—you get none of that from Page. He apologizes for nothing, and seeks no one’s approval. He’s professional; he’s proper. He’s not interested in drama, even his own—despite having lived a remarkably dramatic life. As Tolinski notes:
[Page] has been forthcoming, polite, and respectful with me as long as I have followed a few unspoken ground rules. He expected me to have assiduously done my homework, to have the facts at hand, and to ensure that, to the greatest possible extent, our conversation focused on music. …. Here’s what he didn’t like: open-ended questions, questions that required him to speculate about others’ opinions of his music, or anything that required him to say something negative about another artist. Any one of these could cause a perfectly good chat to end abruptly and not resume for a very long time.
Not so much the Magus guarding his unholy secrets, then, as a reticent English gentleman loath to overstep the bounds of propriety. It’s actually rather endearing—which is not a quality I’d ever associated with Page. Even as it underplays the bad craziness of his life story, Light and Shade succeeds in making Jimmy Page human and relatable. It’s not the only side of the story, for sure, but it’s a worthy addition to the canon of books about Led Zeppelin.
Caveat lector: This review was prepared using an uncorrected proof provided by the publisher. The final product may vary slightly in content or formatting.
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