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 affairs 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 prosecution, 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 occultist 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.


frank ack said...

I was blessed to be on the North American tours 1975 and 77. I became righteous friends with Potsy, Mick Hinton and Ray Thomas. The the tours of the 1970s where was much more than a wild roller coaster ride. Pressure and sensationalism go hand-in-hand the Fiasco's that a company goes tours to me it's not worth mentioning.Who desires to relive their trials and tribulations.
I would like to hear Jimmie's answer if anyone had ever handed him a 9 mm German Luger that matched his attire in in Dallas Texas on 1977 . I'm pissed off @ him because I'll never see & hear him play A Live A Gain✓

Mage Music by Lif Strand said...

I feel like the book is just more of the same old same old. It's a rehashing of the gleanings of other people's reports of Jimmy Page's actions and thoughts, with a focus on the most lurid possible interpretations.

A biography is an account of someone's life. I think what we have here is rather a kind of historical fiction. Or, actually, a definitive accounting of Salewicz's opinions.