It’s Zep-tember! Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias reviews a new rock biog of Led Zeppelin’s unappealing genius, Jimmy Page.
What an egg. Strange, and a little dismal, to plod through a 500-page biography of one of the great conductors of rock – who played the guitar like he was ringing up Hell and getting straight through, who turned it up to 11 and found that merely ambient and so turned it up to a full-emergency, sirens-blaring 111, who wore a dragon suit and chased the dragon and was devoured by the dragon, who drank deep from the well of fuck – and to merely conclude that he wasn’t a lot more than just a bit of an egg. The book is by no means a hatchet job. It lacks the required ambition. And yet Chris Salewicz’s portrait of Led Zeppelin genius Jimmy Page presents a smirking, snickering, supercilious, self-involved smug cunt who no one much liked.
“An asshole,” says Ray Davies of The Kinks. “I want you to leave,” David Bowie tells him at a dinner party. “Dull,” says Marianne Faithfull. Page, she adds, began the process of “undulling” himself as a young studio musician when he began an affair with an older, then-famous singer, Jackie DeShannon. He gave the process his best shot and you can’t fault him for trying. Fame and wealth undulled him no end. He was viewed with awe, a Satanic majesty, diabolical, a keeper of occult secrets so black and so profound that even to look upon him was to invite a curse that would stop your heart – actually all he did was collect a few bits and pieces that used to belong to Aleister Crowley. Did he ever really believe in any of that magick bullshit? Or did he just like to light a few candles at midnight?
Salewicz doesn’t go there very deeply. He doesn’t go anywhere very deeply. This is hackwork, brisk and efficient, right down to the Control A-Control C-Control V cut and paste of two very long interviews he conducted with Page in the late 70s. Salewicz wrote for the NME from 1975-1981. He was brisk and efficient then, too, a reliable music journo who got the get, but was never the get himself, unlike star writers such as Nick Kent (“I chose to affect a flamboyant, look-at-me approach to my journalistic endeavours”), Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, Paul Morley. Salewicz was good on The Clash, and expert on reggae. He’s diligent on Led Zep. “Stairway to Heaven”, “Kashmir”, the Presence sessions recorded when Robert Plant was confined to a wheelchair after a bad car accident (“I took a very good, close scrutiny of myself, and transcended the death vibe,” the old pompadour told Creem), the violin bow, the double-neck Gibson EDS-1275, The Song Remains the Same, Unplugged – it’s all there, and it’s all interesting, a good, solid issue of Mojo without many pictures.
But where is Page? There are no new interviews, no fresh insights or reminiscences from the old coot, now 74. But there are fine details. We learn of his vanity: “He was forever putting perfect waves in his long black hair with a little crimping machine,” says his lover Pamela Les Barres. She adds: “He used Pantene products.” We learn of his stinginess: his nickname in the Led Zep entourage was Led Wallet. We learn he can’t drive: “He collected classic cars, a Bentley, a Cord Sportsman, an Austin Chapman, and an ancient Mercedes, and from time to time he’d head down to his garage and sit in these motorised pieces of art,” writes Salewicz.
“When he kissed me,” says his lover Bebe Buell, “he loved to spew his saliva in my mouth. It was odd. I thought of it as his way of coming in my mouth without coming in my mouth.” He took a racoon on tour. He also took a great deal of heroin and drank too much. He got junk sick; worse, he got fat. The band broke up, and Page fell into a solo career so rotten that he ended up opening for Lenny Kravitz. But Led Zep reform once in a while, which gives him a reason to leave the house.
Mostly he stays put. He’s one of those old men who look more like old women, a dowager with his child bride, his fortune, his garage gleaming with stationary cars. He votes Conservative. He’s a regular visitor to Reading’s Sunday Record Fair. He frequents a working men’s café in Earls Court. He made some of the most amazing art of the twentieth century – he once described his guitar playing as an attempt to create “the façade of a gothic building with layers of tracery and statues”; as a producer, his masterpiece is that long, howling instrumental break on “Whole Lotta Love”, with its theremin, its backwards echo, its supersonic ecstasies – and he spends the 21st century leading a blameless life, at rest, agreeably dull, the same old Jim. Yardbirds rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja recalls coming across him in Topworth, outside a tropical fish store, in the early 1960s. “Hello, Chris,” said Page. “I’ve just bought a nice thermometer for my fish.”
Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography by Chris Salewicz (HarperCollins, $36.99) is available at Unity Books.