Mystique. My copy of the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary defines it as “an atmosphere of mystery and veneration attending some activity or person. Any skill mystifying to the layman.” This is certainly an appropriate word to describe Jimmy Page, the mercurial magician behind Led Zeppelin and a man whose mystique has often overshadowed the person who is after all just a man.
It is somewhat appropriate that I received Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man: An Unauthorized Biography by George Case amidst the current rumours (again!) of a Led Zeppelin reunion, rumours flatly denied by Robert Plant himself. Love them or loath them, you cannot deny Led Zeppelin their due as one of the biggest rock and roll bands on the planet and at the center of the maelstrom there lived one James Patrick Page. Case does a good job of covering Page’s life, especially before and after Zeppelin since he was rarely in the limelight before he hit the big time and he seemed to shun it after the demise of Zeppelin upon the death of John Bonham.
Any rock and roll history buff will know the general outline of Page’s life. From his incredible success as a studio sideman in the mid-sixties playing on everything from the biggest hits of the Kinks, the Who and Them to his relationship with Jackie Deshannon and then his joining the Yardbirds and combining with Jeff Beck for an incredible but brief twin guitar sonic attack, Case adds some details and clarification to Page’s otherwise little publicized life in “swinging London.” It was his tenure in the Yardbirds, as brief as it was, that to me is where things get interesting. Page began the process of molding the Yardbirds, even with Beck still in the fold, into this incredible psychedelic raving tour de force that he was never able to fully realize due to the implosion of that band but he managed to take everything he learned from that experience and transfer it to the very young, very green (in Bonham and Plant) Led Zeppelin.
The whole concept of Led Zeppelin was always to integrate the light and the dark, the soft and the heavy into a mythical musical partnership that would go beyond the incessant psychedelic noodling of bands like Cream and Iron Butterfly. Page had as much of an ear for Joan Baez as for Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and he wanted the band to integrate both influences equally. Today when we think of Zeppelin, we tend to think immediately of Black Dog, Whole Lot of Love or Stairway to Heaven, conveniently forgetting the regal beauty of songs like Thank You, Tangerine, Your Time is Going to Come or Babe I’m Going to Leave You, songs that are as important to the Zeppelin canon as the heavier, classic rock friendly songs we hear on the radio today. Unfortunately for Page, despite his brilliant production, exquisite musicianship and revolutionary business practices (courtesy of uber-manager Peter Grant) Led Zeppelin were always somewhat tarnished by their excessive reputation, a reputation that seemed to obscure what the band were capable of doing in the studio and on stage and which only now they are getting a grudging respect for.
While Case covers both the sublime and the excessive, the story certainly could have benefited from the participation of Page, not so much to refute some of the infamous urban legends as to expand on the ideas and ideals behind the music and the symbolism often intertwined throughout the band and their music. While Case does an admirable job with an exhaustive amount of research and interviews of those around Page, despite his best intentions he was not able to convince Page to participate.
One of the biggest questions for me was always around the issue of plagiarism, a controversy that has dogged Page and the band for years. While Page has always come clean on giving credit where credit is due, although somewhat grudgingly, he essentially pins the blame on Robert Plant in the end. While he maintains that the music may have been influenced by some of the Blues greats of the past, he insists that it was Robert Plant who was suppose to alter the lyrics of the songs in question somewhat more than he did. “Robert may have wanted to go for the original blues lyrics, but everything else was a totally different kettle of fish.” While I wouldn’t say outright that Page is a thief as all rock and roll borrows from its past, I would hesitate to call him a naïve musician innocent of all charges.
Perhaps save for Jim Morrison, nobody else has managed to remain such a rock and roll enigma and Morrison only pulled it off because he managed to die before he got old. I mean we have all heard the rumours of a wasted Page being led from limo to stage back to limo to the Starship and we all have seen the pictures of him on stage with those huge aviator glasses, silk scarf, jack boots and Nazi SS cap but we never really knew that much about the guy. George Case certainly brings an interesting and balanced portrait of Page and I am definitely able to appraise him in a more informed light now than before but the air of mystery that Page has worked so hard to cultivate still remains. Sure I might know the names of his wives and kids and now I have a bit more details about Boleskin House and what happened to his post-Zeppelin band The Firm but at the end of the day, James Patrick Page still remains somewhat of a mystery to me and frankly, in this day and age where we can seem to Google out every mundane lifestyle detail of the rich and famous, I kind of like it that way.
Even if you are not a fan of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man: An Unauthorized Biography is well worth the effort to read because there is no doubt that Jimmy Page was the engine behind an incredible rock and roll machine and it just might get you to dust off that old copy of Led Zeppelin III and listen to it again in a new light. And somehow I think that would make Mr. Page crack his crooked smile just a little bit for he is still a believer that what he created was perhaps the finest rock and roll band to ever grace the planet.