9.8.18

JIMMY PAGE – The Definitive Biography by Chris Salewicz



Back in 2012 I was involved in convoluted negotiations with Jimmy Page’s lawyer for Omnibus Press to publish a trade edition of the photo book Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page that was eventually published by Genesis, who’d already published it as an expensive, cased, limited-edition. Although these negotiations came to nothing, I received a ‘boiler-plate’ contract that included the tightest confidentiality clauses I had ever seen in 30-odd years working in the book trade. Had I signed this contract I would have consented never again to discuss Jimmy Page with anyone, not even his music or the types of guitars he prefers, let alone where he lived, who managed him or the terms of the contract. These were the sort of confidentiality clauses you might expect if you were doing business with the Royal Family, the Ministry of Defence or MI5, and I was amazed at the inflexibility with which the clauses were worded and the harsh penalties that would be imposed were I to break them.
         It has always been my contention that, like the Windsors, the MoD or MI5, those who seek such restrictions on the reporting of their doings have something to hide. Jimmy Page fits the bill nicely. The indiscretions in his private life are fairly well known thanks to a number of sensational Led Zeppelin books that, beginning in 1985 with Stephen Davis’ Hammer Of The Gods, have enhanced the group’s reputation as intemperate sybarites yet at the same time done nothing whatsoever to diminish their standing in the rock hierarchy. We all know that when Led Zep were in their pomp Page was a bit of a lad in the sex’n’drugs department but, like many of his peers in his profession, he nowadays wishes to brush such matters beneath the carpet; unseemly exploits of a young man given the freedom to indulge but who is now silver haired and wrinkly, keen to emphasise his maturity and good standing in the world of arts and culture, an elder and respected gentleman of the heritage rock establishment. He’s also a multi-millionaire used to getting his own way.
         So he won’t welcome this book by Chris Salewicz, who earned his spurs on NME in the period when Led Zeppelin was just past their peak but still a mighty force, and went on to write about music for various magazines and daily newspapers before moving on to books. He interviewed Page at length for Gig magazine in 1977 and for NME in 1979, and in his writings about the group has maintained an objective stance while at the same time acknowledging the unquestioned merits of much of their output and their phenomenal clout. He is a detached observer, however, and, by chance, we sat next to one another when in 2014 Page was interviewed at the Cadogan Hall in Knightsbridge by Guardian Music Editor Michael Hann, both of us noting how Page deftly avoided answering any questions requiring an answer that might have given too much away or strayed into areas he wasn’t willing to discuss. Page knows full well that mystery and imagination fuel Zeppelin’s mystique and so long as that’s intact the money will keep rolling in.
         Unlike Page, however, Salewicz doesn’t mince his words and neither would I expect him to. Although longer and more detailed, Martin Power’s 2017 book The Three Lives Of Jimmy Page was far more deferential, with a tendency to skirt around the sex, drugs and other controversies such as Page’s flirtation with the dark arts and the sometimes violent behaviour of Led Zeppelin’s support staff. Salewicz, on the other hand, wades right in on these matters, the introduction to his book a graphic account of the ugly confrontation in San Francisco in 1977 that effectively ended Led Zeppelin’s career in America, a decisive episode that Page casually brushed aside as inconsequential during that Hann interview.
         This is an early indication that although the book purports to be the ‘definitive’ Page biography, the emphasis is firmly on a retelling of the Zeppelin story: to whit, 130 pages devoted to Page’s life before Zeppelin (some 24 years), 300 pages devoted to Zep (12 years), and a rather miserly 68 pages to his career thereafter (38 years, more than half the subject’s life), much of which is actually devoted to Zeppelin’s aftermath. While it’s certainly the case that the Zeppelin era is the most attention-grabbing, their story has nevertheless been told many times before and told well, as it is again here. The measure of a new book on the same subject, therefore, is contingent on three factors: the quality of the prose, which is certainly not lacking, and nor should it be given Salewicz’s pedigree; the perceptiveness of fresh insights, which is subjective, and in this regard Salewicz writes well about the impact of the group, Page’s dominant role within it and the milieu that enabled it to thrive; and the inclusion of new, previously unreported, information, which is demonstrable and hard to come by in the light of Pages reticence and so many other books. I am familiar with most of these other books and was around at the time so I know the Led Zeppelin story pretty well, but a couple of unexpected ‘scoops’ – of which more later – were intriguing to say the least.
         Getting to grips with Page’s inscrutable, elusive and illusive character, however, is no easy task. He’s as slippery as an eel and though Salewicz explores just about every creek in which our eel swims, like every other biographer he can’t quite nail him and neither can anyone else, including those interviewed, whether directly or indirectly. As a result there are opposing views galore. Some, like Michael Des Barres, have nice things to say, others, like Simon Napier-Bell, not so. Some, like various recording engineers, some musicians and Zep tour manager Richard Cole, even contradict themselves. Most of the women with whom he’s had relationships – and there’s a lorryload – seem to adore him unconditionally, even when he dumps them, and the bewildering complexities of Page’s love-life in the mid-seventies reads like the script for one of those old Whitehall farces wherein men and women end up hiding in wardrobes dressed only in their underwear. Nevertheless, the thoughts of the trio who became sufficiently close to Page to bear his children, Charlotte Martin, Patricia Ecker and Jimena Gomez-Paratcha, are unrecorded, all of which suggests that ongoing maintenance payments might just be subject to the confidentiality agreements with which I was once faced.
         Which brings us to money. It’s no secret that Page’s nickname was ‘Led Wallet’, a reference to his alleged stinginess, and there can be no doubt that he has amassed a fortune that he’s clung on to as tenaciously as a dog with a bone. It’s a trait he shares with many in his line of work, among them Ray Davies, Rod Stewart and Van Morrison or so I’m told, and I take the view that this stems from being ripped off early on, as Page possibly was in The Yardbirds. Musician/roadie Joe Jammer states, probably erroneously, that Page was a millionaire even before he assembled Led Zeppelin, then goes on to say that despite this Page would hitchhike to London from his Pangbourne home to save pennies. ‘They talked him into at least taking the train,’ says Jammer. ‘But he would only do second-class. And some hippy guy came up to him and said, “Jimmy, why are you here in second-class?” He told the story in the office. So [manager] Peter Grant made a decision. He hired a car to bring Jimmy into town. And Jimmy refused to pay for it. So the other four had to pay for it.’ Such parsimony, of course, has enabled Page to acquire and occupy substantial Grade 1 listed properties that would be the envy of a Russian oligarch.
         Then there’s the drugs. Salewicz details Page’s ingestion of everything from alcohol to cannabis to cocaine to heroin with just about everything you can think of in between. Like Keith Richards, he’s survived the lot, the inference being that if you’ve got the money you can afford the treatment and avoid persecution, at least until 1982 when a chance encounter with a cop in the Kings Road revealed Page’s stash of cocaine, only for a skilled QC to stretch the truth in his defence and get him off with a slapped wrist. Salewicz suggests that Page viewed his drug intake as ‘professional’ in that he needed to push the boundaries of perception in order to fuel his creativity, which I can go along with, but we’re still left with the impression that a weaker character would have succumbed to all this poison in his head and veins, and in this respect we’re left with no doubt that propping up Page’s delicate frame is a core of tempered steel.
         Attitude, too, was at the heart of Page’s modus operandi. He knew precisely how rock stars should carry themselves and what they should wear, prompting Salewicz to write astutely: “A fanatical vanity and an almost immeasurable self-adoration would appear to be important prerequisites for an aspiring rock star. But although he may have possessed these attributes, what was far more dominant in Page’s case was an impulsive drive that derived much more from an almost obsessive self-knowledge, underpinned by what he had learned about himself from his studies of both art and the occult and the consequent confidence it gave him. Frail, sexually androgynous and mentally muscular, he exuded a complex iron toughness; this was someone who would not back down.”
         Neither would Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s larger than life, occasionally thuggish, manager. Grant became Page’s attack dog, his bulwark against reality, and this meant that Led Zeppelin wouldn’t back down either, not after they’d gained a foothold on the rock ladder at any rate. This led to a misplaced belief in their own invincibility that was ultimately their undoing, and although I’m forever sceptical about things like curses and witchcraft, when Salewicz points out that Page’s fellow uccultist Kenneth Anger put a curse on the guitarist after they fell out over his involvement in the soundtrack to Anger’s film Lucifer Rising, I could see his point. “… it cannot be overlooked that from this point on, Led Zeppelin’s nosedive was inexorable,” he writes. “Now mired in addiction and alcoholism, Jimmy Page’s days of greatest creativity with the group were behind him. What lay in the future for Led Zeppelin was remorseless tragedy and death…
         Writing about the group’s music, Salewicz is occasionally passionate, usually objective and unafraid to praise songs that in the fullness of time have become a tad clichéd. It’s not unreasonable to wonder how the biographer of Bob Marley and Joe Strummer can switch easily to liking Led Zeppelin, but Salewicz is a fair judge of what’s good and what isn’t, and he’s especially celebratory about the group’s early shows and records. Page’s immense skills as a guitarist are a given, and his diligence in mastering the instrument and working as a session musician is covered in great detail, as is the rise and fall of The Yardbirds, with or without Page. I first saw Led Zeppelin in 1970 and anyone with ears could tell this was no ordinary group, so I concur with much of what he writes about this early period and their rise to fame and fortune in America. It’s no secret that some of Led Zeppelin’s music was ‘derived’ from old blues material, and Salewicz is assiduous in tracing these sources, though he stops short of accusing the group, and Page in particular, of outright plagiarism. He’s also good on tracking the rivalry between Page and Robert Plant, a sub-plot that enriches his book no end. The singer has the guitarist’s patronage to thank for his elevation to rock’s high table, yet his intransigence with regard to reuniting Led Zeppelin on a grand scale has nonetheless stymied Page’s hopes of a windfall that would enable him to put in a bid for Buckingham Palace should it ever come onto the market.
         On the negative side, I thought it was a bit rich including both of the author’s lengthy Page interviews verbatim, some 42 pages in total, and there’s a paucity of information about Page’s life after Zeppelin which is skimmed through very sparingly, especially considering how many years have elapsed in this period. Furthermore, the single eight-page photo section is inadequate to say the least, though the blame for this can surely be laid at the door of the publisher. A screen grab of skiffling young Jimmy, two small pre-Zep shots, no post-Zeppelin photos, no photos of any of his WAGs, and every pic seen in many other books, is inexcusable for a ‘definitive’ biography, a reflection surely on Harper Collins’ unnecessarily austere budgetary constraints.
         Finally, the scoops, so spoiler alert. On page 97 we learn not only that Page’s parents separated and divorced ‘in the mid-sixties’ but that Page’s father had been leading a double life and created a separate family with another woman. This fascinating angle is not followed up in any way beyond a comment from a ‘Life Coach’ who states, ‘You would never trust anyone again, especially intimate people’, and the author’s interpretation that the trauma went a long way towards developing Page’s steely, rather isolated, character traits. Secondly, on page 151, Salewicz reveals that during negotiations with Atlantic Records Page ‘made it clear to Grant that… he would receive 50% of all earnings, the rest to be shared out among the other three musicians and Grant’. This was a bombshell, I thought, and again it is not followed up nor commented upon at all as the book progresses. We are left to assume that somewhere along the line a more equitable share of the profits was agreed upon.
         It’s been a standing joke in the music industry for years – and one that Peter Grant himself once propagated for advantage – that crossing Jimmy Page is likely to result in a curse and therefore highly inadvisable. Perhaps that’s why Chris Salewicz, whom I’ve known now for over 40 years, concludes his book by stating: ‘Despite all the odds, Jimmy Page has become the greatest national treasure of British popular music.’ I thought that title belonged to Paul McCartney but, then again, it’s one way of ensuring you don’t wake up as a newt.

27.7.18

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN




Love or loathe Abba – and the longer we live the fewer there are who need to be won over – it’s impossible not to like this great big, warm-hearted, funny, touching and occasionally silly movie. Like the clothes Abba once wore it’s OTT and, like the original film, it’s a feast of colour and attractive people, all of them cavorting about in sunny, picturesque locations where everyone has a habit of joyously bursting into song and waving their arms about as another Abba classic is performed by cast members, not always with the same skill as Agnetha and Frida but with enthusiasm and knowing smiles that more than make up for any shortcomings in their vocal attributes.
         Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, like Godfather II, a shifting prequel and sequel to the 2008 film but unlike Godfather II no one avenges family honour by arranging a violent death. Tears and heartbreak, misfortune and indignity are smoothed away with an Abba song, 16 in total, a few of which are reprised from the earlier film – how could you not include 'Dancing Queen'? – though many are album tracks uncollected on either Gold or More Gold and therefore not quite so well known. Part of the fun, as before, is guessing when they’re about to arrive through slightly oblique turns in the story and appropriate bits of dialogue.
         It has to be said that those unfamiliar with the plot of the original film – a girl’s quest to identify her father from among her mother’s three boyfriends – might take a while to cotton on to what’s happening here. Lily James plays young Donna, the role played by Meryl Streep in the original film, and her story not only takes up most of the screen time but also packs the emotional punch. We meet her at her graduation ceremony – cue for ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’ – after which for reasons unexplained she heads for Greece via Paris where she meets the first of her three lovers, to be followed in quick succession by two more on the island of Kalokairi.
         The scenarios in which Donna falls into bed with these three personable young men – all of whom appear youthful in the past and mature in the present – are developed and explained at some length, and while it might not be unreasonable to assume that a girl who shags three blokes, one after the other within what is probably no more than a month at most, is asking for stern censure from moralists, Lilly plays Donna as so damned kind-hearted and lovely, with a smile that could rouse the dead, that we just accept it and forgive such unseemly indiscretions, completely reasonable behaviour in fact. 
         Intercut between the scenes of young Donna’s dalliances is the present day story of how Sophie, her daughter, now in her twenties, is refurbishing the holiday hotel on Kalokairi that she has inherited from her mother, presumed dead. She is joined there by her mother’s two best pals, played, as before, by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, both of whom we meet as their younger selves in the Lily James scenes, and who between them contribute the lions share of the film’s laughs. A grand re-opening is planned and all looks to be going well until a fierce storm ravages the island, wrecking all the preparations, just as, coincidentally, a fierce storm on the island long ago complicated Donna’s plans. Still, help is on hand when two of her three fathers decide to fly there despite having previously declined to attend – the third already lives nearby – and along the way pick up a retinue of local guests who all arrive by boat and give us a rousing performance of ‘Dancing Queen’, Abba's masterpiece, which actually seemed to me less important than the pleasantly ambient Abba music heard in the background throughout the entire film. The surprise guest at the grand party is Sophie’s grandmother, played imperiously by Cher, who resembles an alabaster statue with her flawless skin and blonde wig.
         Despite a bit of will he, won’t he earlier, Sophie’s boyfriend also decides to come over for the party and, on the night or just before, Sophie discovers she is pregnant, much to his delight. The hotel opening is, naturally, a huge success, enlivened of course by song and dance. Cher discovers that the hotel’s manager is an old flame called – wait for it – Fernando, and serenades him appropriately. Finally, the film closes nine months later with the christening of Sophie’s baby, the scene intercut with – concentrate now – Donna, ie Lily, bringing her baby, ie Sophie, to the same chapel twenty-odd years earlier, their intermingling faces reflected poignantly in the font. With the tugging of the heart-strings now reaching breaking point who should arrive but the ghost of her mother, Meryl Streep making a brief cameo at the end, singing ‘My Love My Life’ though we are left to assume that only the cinema audience can actually see her. The whole wonderfully happy business ends with the christening party where Cher sings ‘Super Trooper’ in a key a few semitones lower than the original.


Lily James as Donna

         All of which sounds like a very frothy confection indeed but I expected no less and came away delighted with what I’d seen. There are many funny asides that I won’t dwell on here and Lily James, who sings and dances beautifully, walks away with the honours. Then again, everyone involved plays their parts to perfection and there’s even brief cameo appearances by Björn and Benny, the former as a university don and the latter as a pianist in a restaurant.
         I laughed a lot while the film was playing and even reached for my handkerchief once or twice, and as the credits rolled while Cher belted out ‘Super Trooper’ I was reminded of a paragraph that my friend Carl Magnus Palm wrote in Bright Lights Dark Shadows, the Abba biography that I commissioned for Omnibus Press in 2000 which went a long way towards sealing my admiration for the Abba and their music.
         At the end of the chapter immediately before the one that deals with Abba’s revival in the Nineties, Magnus wrote: “Perhaps as a reaction to the cold chill that swept not just across Sweden but across the entire western world, there appeared on the horizon at the beginning of the Nineties a nostalgic yearning for the more colourful and carefree Seventies. Who better to spearhead this celebration than the most popular recording artists of that decade, the group whose wild costumes epitomised the fun and the fearlessness of Seventies fashion, and whose music reached out to absolutely everyone, majorities and minorities alike?”
         This week I read that the UK might have to bring in emergency food rations and medical supplies as a result of the disastrous Brexit vote, and a couple of weeks ago I was among the thousands who marched against the policies of America’s unspeakable President. Abba can’t stop all this but watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again this afternoon at least made me forgot about it all for two hours. Try it.