The Man Who Steered the Zeppelin

The Man Who Steered the Zeppelin
Reviewer: Drew A
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Jimmy Page:
Magus, Musician, Man: An Unauthorized Biography
307 pages
1st edition
April 01, 2009
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

The story of rock's most enigmatic and influential icon, Led Zeppelin's legendary guitarist and producer.

Led Zeppelin were without a doubt the biggest band of the 1970s; it can be credibly argued that they were to the 1970s what The Beatles were to the 1960s. Both bands were trailblazers who defined their respective decades and constantly pushed boundaries and perpetually evolved, never wanting to stay creatively in one spot for too long. However, while The Beatles were almost universally accepted and admired, each band member being known in their own right, Led Zeppelin was a different sort of band. An air of mystery and intrigue, much of it purposely cultivated by the band and their manager Peter Grant, shrouded their every move. Perhaps no one in the band personified this more than lead guitarist, songwriter, musical director, and producer Jimmy Page. As the face and voice of the band, Robert Plant was necessarily out front, while the rhythm section had their own distinct identity as well: John Paul Jones was not only the supremely talented bassist/keyboardist/arranger in the band, but he was very well known for his sessions and arranging work in 1960s London. John Bonham, who along with Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Mitch Mitchell, makes up the quartet of finest drummers to emerge from 1960s Britain, was a larger than life personality on and off the stage. However, while Jimmy Page was *the* star of the band at their inception due to his session work in the 1960s and his stint as the final of three guitar legends in the Yardbirds (following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck), he was also the most private, mysterious, and unknown member of Led Zeppelin. 

Author George Case, a self-described Zeppelin and Page fanatic, has written this unauthorized biography of Jimmy Page in an attempt to tell the story of the man behind the music. As a huge lifelong fan of Led Zeppelin, I was very interested and excited to read this book and finally learn more about Page, who is also one of my major influences as a guitarist.  Of all of my guitar heroes of that era (Clapton, Townshend, Hendrix) he's certainly the one I know the least about, so I was very interested in reading this book.

The book is laid out in chronological order, and each chapter covers a small chunk of Page's life (for example, one chapter covers 1968-70, the next 1970-73, and so on). An interesting twist on the entire book is the author's focus on Page's well-known interest in the occult; this is manifested in quotes from Page's favorite occultist, Aleister Crowley and other occult writers, which lead off each chapter.  While I've never been of the belief that his interest in this subject was anything other than a personal quirk, there are many who believe that it played a larger role in his life and music, so I can at least understand why the author has taken this angle in discussing Page.

The book begins with Page's birth and childhood in Surrey, and the years leading up to his early musical career are quite interesting. Going into this book, I really hadn't known much about Page's early life so it was nice to learn about this part of his background. From here, the author details his burgeoning interest in music and his taking up of the guitar, his first forays in a band (Neil Christian and the Crusaders), and eventually the road fatigue that led him into his first career as the top session guitarist in London.  After initially turning down a chance to join the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton left the band (instead, he referred his childhood friend Jeff Beck), Page finally accepted when an opening in the band came up. Initially brought on as a replacement bass player, he later paired for a short-term dual guitar attack with Beck before the latter left the band. Page gamely carried on, turning the talent-limited band into a band that was a psychedelic hard-rock powerhouse onstage but who were still being groomed as a teeny-bopper singles band in the studio. Upon disbanding the Yardbirds, Page and manager Peter Grant used Page's celebrity to launch a new band, bringing in the other three members of the eventual Led Zeppelin and plotting their domination of the next decade's musical landscape.  The bulk of the book is taken up with the career of Led Zeppelin, although, given how phenomenal that career was, it's chronicled with a slightly rushed and superficial feel. In fact, this would be one of my main issues with the book: while it's clear that the author is a passionate fan of Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page, the short length of the book (it's just under 300 pages) means that he can't delve into as much detail as is warranted. By the time the book is halfway done, Led Zeppelin has already disbanded due to John Bonham's death. The remainder of the book is devoted to Page's post-Zeppelin career; his wandering through the musical and personal wilderness as he coped with crippling drug addictions, failing relationships, and finding his place in the music world after the demise of Led Zeppelin. Forays into a new band (The Firm) and a proper solo album, as well as some less-than-spectacular Led Zeppelin one-off reunion gigs, finally saw him collaborating with Robert Plant again, this time on new material. Finally, a triumphant return to a proper Led Zeppelin concert in 2007 showed that there was still life left in the band and their legacy. However, while Plant and Jones were content to leave Zeppelin in the past and continue to move forward, Page has never seemed able to really let it go. Perhaps this is because his role since the band's demise has also been as the curator as their legacy (since he was their producer and artistic director, after all). But the portrait painted is of a man who has come to peace with the ever-present and towering legacy of his former band, but has never really accepted that it really is all over.

Being a guitarist and gear devotee myself, it was quite enjoyable to see how the author, who himself plays guitar, describe quite a lot of Zeppelin's music and Page's role in it in more technical terms. He goes into some detail discussing the different tones and sounds Page achieved via his various guitars, amps, and effects, as well as many of the pioneering studio techniques he used as a producer. Even though some of the information was not new to me, much of it was, and in any event even a non-musician reading these passages would gain a bit more understanding into Page's approach at creating and performing the music. As for the style of the book itself, the author mentions in the afterword that he has never met Page personally or spoken to him or any of his associates. This is obvious from reading the book, as there are numerous quotes and passages taken from interviews, articles, and other books (all with citations, thankfully). Many of them were already familiar to me from other books and articles on Led Zeppelin that I have read over the years. However, unlike some books where the entire book seems to be made up of these snippets (see my review of the latest Blur biography for a poor example of this), Case does a good job in this book in fleshing out the in-between narrative in his own style and voice, blending in these cited passages quite seamlessly. There are also some examples of humorous wordplay on the author's part that add to the effect. And while it's clear that he is a passionate fan of Page and Zeppelin, he is also very fair and does not shy away from detailing some of the more sordid parts of Page's life, many of which were new to me and a little bit shocking (in some cases).

While the bulk of this book is naturally taken up with Page's career in Led Zeppelin, the two sections of which bookend this are where I learned the most new information. While the Zeppelin portion of the book did contain some tidbits that I hadn't known before, it also seemed to be told almost as much through the voices of the other band members and Peter Grant as it did Jimmy Page, whereas the sections dealing with his pre- and post-Zeppelin life and career focused squarely on the man himself and revealed more that was new to me. Overall, this is a very readable and enjoyable unauthorized biography on one of the biggest and greatest guitarists and producers of the rock era. While it's not perfect and the emphasis on the occult and magic as it pertains to Page's life seems a bit unnecessary to me, it's certainly a valuable read for any fan. Being the most comprehensive and complete biography on Page makes it almost essential reading for any fan of Led Zeppelin.

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