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Hats Off to Jimmy Page

February 27, 2011 by Somebody Else

It's been a long time since I first heard Led Zeppelin. It was the summer of 1983 and life was as awful for me as it has ever been and hopefully will ever be. I had just become a teenager and was at the point where I had finally begun the full descent into isolation and alienation, but hadn't yet reached the stage of wanting to lose myself in an imagined psychedelic wonderland. We happened to have a rather nice stereo system, whose radio I had connected to an expansive television antennae mounted on the roof of our home. When the sky was perfectly free of clouds, we could get crystal-clear reception from the nearest FM radio tower about fifty miles away, which broadcast a customary mix of what would today be called classic rock, but back then it was still just rock.

One seemingly uneventful evening, I was holed up in my room reading some book or another with the unscreened windows to my room wide open in an effort to bring down the muggy heat, since the house had no air conditioning. My younger brother's friends were in the other room where the stereo was. They were playing around, listening to rock music, making noise and distracting me. It occurred to me that I might suggest that they go downstairs and play Atari or something. So, I got up and went into that room and in one way or another convinced those younger boys to leave.

I was about to leave myself, but I figured that I'd first better turn off the stereo. Before I could do this, however, the radio announcer came on and said that coming up next would be the greatest rock and roll song of all time. He didn't say what it was. This was of course followed by a flood of radio commercials for an extended break. I grabbed a blank cassette tape and prepared to record. If the song was so great, I wanted a copy of it.

Finally, after building up my expectations and forcing me to listen to far too many radio ads, there was a brief moment of silence, during which I pressed the record button. A simple but compelling acoustic guitar came in, playing those finger-picked notes that countless male teenagers strive to master the moment they get their first guitars. From that point, the song began to pick up momentum in stages that almost imperceptibly succeeded one another, eventually rising to a terrible, fevered crescendo and then finally coming to a surprisingly stark and minimal close with a handful of words sung without instrumentation. The hair on my arms stood on end. In so many ways, it was radically different from any another song I had ever heard on the radio. It seemed to be trying to connect me with some terrible and forbidden reality contained within life itself, something awful and wonderful and tangibly present and unseen, something swept under the rug and unacknowledged by the uninitiated. And now that I had the song recorded on my cassette, I was one of the initiated.

I played my cassette recording of "Stairway to Heaven" over and over and over. The younger boys trickled upstairs again since they had gotten bored playing Atari. I played the cassette for them. We all listened spellbound a few times. All agreed that it was a really amazing song.

I don't know if it was the vocals or the guitar that most caught my attention, but the answer is that probably neither did. Back in those days, I just focused on the overall impression that the song made on me.

Knowing what I know about music after all these years, which admittedly is not all that much, I can see now that "Stairway to Heaven" is a tightly controlled musical composition. If you listen carefully to it, you can tell that not a single note of it is improvised. It is meticulously structured and planned out in any number of different ways, whether with regard to recording techniques, song structure or execution. Undoubtedly, it was carefully edited, assembled and mixed-down. Yet to my teenage ears it seemed as if it had descended to earth as a preexistent bestowal from the gods.

As the years went by, I ran into other young people around my age who knew a lot more about Led Zeppelin than just "Stairway to Heaven." Through them, I was introduced to several of the albums recorded by that band. And in that catalogue of music, I discovered a broad range of styles and moods.

My favorite rock station would sometimes set aside a half hour on Friday nights for nothing but Led Zeppelin. I would get my cassette ready and record whatever came on. In this way, I broadened my own personal collection of music from this band.

Led Zeppelin became like a door into another realm for me. Surrounded by a confusing and depressing existence in which I was told that my greatest priority should be to get a good education so that I could make money and lead a responsible and productive life, Led Zeppelin seemed to be calling out to me, asking me to step across some secret threshold hidden in some misty wood somewhere. If I could just make it to that sacred spot, I would be in paradise, and I'd never again have to pay any more heed to nagging adults who weren't in the least interested in me finding myself through mystical experiences, because as far as I could tell in those days, they themselves had never even considered finding themselves through anything at all.

I decided to grow my hair as long as possible and try to find some marijuana and LSD, because I had the distinct impression that this was what I was supposed to do if I liked Led Zeppelin. Of course, to be fair, Led Zeppelin themselves never suggested that I do such things, whether in their music or otherwise. And no, I have no interest in the bogus theories about playing their tunes backwards.

Initially, I had no luck finding any illicit drugs, and I sadly discovered that my very un-Zeppelin-like hair -- quite similar to that of Jeff Lynne, the lead singer for ELO -- was growing at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, I did have a newly-formed cigarette habit, a Walkman and my growing Led Zeppelin music collection. Walking down the streets alone at night, I sang along with Robert Plant and memorized the lyrics and melodies to practically every Led Zeppelin song ever committed to vinyl. My flexible and strong teenage voice was able to follow along without too many problems. I fancied myself a not untalented vocalist, and thanks to my extensive practice with the master Robert Plant, I worked up the courage to audition for a band made up of high school classmates.

I actually got to sing for this band, which concentrated solely upon cover tunes with a special emphasis on forgettable and disposable songs by Night Ranger, such as "You Can Still Rock in America." After only one show, I was unceremoniously canned and replaced by a fellow student who unlike me probably didn't complain about having to sing Night Ranger material and who unlike me never suggested covering any Led Zeppelin tunes. Unsurprisingly, that cover band ceased to exist once its members had graduated from high school and had gone their separate ways. I'll bet that at least one or two of those guys are ready to sell me a life insurance policy if we ever get in touch again.

One part of Led Zeppelin that really got my attention early on was the sex thing. The song "Whole Lotta Love" became my battle cry to sexual activity. However, scoring marijuana and LSD turned out to be a whole lotta easier than patterning my non-existent sex life after "Whole Lotta Love." Eventually, "Whole Lotta Love" came to mean "whole lotta frustration" for me, and I actually started to kind of tune out the lyrics to that particular song and focus more on the freaked-out guitar part in the middle.

And I suppose that's when I began to wonder if maybe there wasn't a kind of disconnect between what guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant were doing on certain compositions. During the break on that song, Jimmy Page pushed the boundaries of popular music, making odd noises by plugging his guitar into some unusual piece of electronic equipment and doing things with it that people weren't used to hearing on mainstream radio. Whereas a lot of pop music sound experimentation in the preceding decade had sounded atmospheric and spacey, Page's daring sonic adventure here somehow seemed primal, gritty, and maybe a touch dark and threatening.

Was it all about sex? Maybe not in principle, but at any rate, Robert Plant took care of all possible ambiguity by having an out-of-body orgasm in the middle of the recording, or at least he pretended to have one. Likewise, the song's elemental, lurid main riff sounds about as randy as a guitar riff can. And the power chords after the extended break pretty much amount to a testosterone-fueled explosion. Still, the prolonged weirdness in the middle of the song was definitely groundbreaking art -- the song amounts to more than just a pep rally for gratuitous sex.

Then I encountered songs where I discovered that Robert Plant's voice was a definite distraction from the accomplished musicianship of his band mate Jimmy Page. One example that particularly stands out in my mind is "Since I've Been Loving You," which features some of Page's most interesting guitar work. The studio version of this song is admittedly quite good, but there is a live recording from 1973 -- which appears on the documentary The Song Remains the Same -- that is truly amazing.

For that live performance, we see a musician at the very top of his form. Dripping in sweat and obviously rather tired as seen by the way he lurches across the stage as he plays, Page nonetheless delivers a masterful performance that seems almost effortless.

When I look at and listen closely to that video, I can see and hear a musician who has performed for so many minutes, hours, days, months, and years that he has reached the point of no longer having to give much conscious thought to playing his instrument. All he had to do was to be there and feel the music flow into his fingers. The notes are not always precise. The execution is uneven, faltering, casual, crowded, minimal, loud, quiet, gentle, aggressive, silent, and then sudden. It seems messy and indifferent yet somehow at the same time spot on in terms of feeling and attitude. It's indulgent at some moments yet also restrained and sparing at others. In short, it's true guitar playing from a true guitar legend.

Unfortunately, it's also all put into the context of a traditional blues tune converted into a super-cheesy love declaration and served up by Robert Plant to show his female fans that not only can he give his girl a whole lotta love, he can also give her true love. I guess he wanted to show the ladies that he was capable of deep feelings or something.

Many years after first discovering Led Zeppelin, I learned that Jimmy Page had actually had a professional music career with the Yardbirds prior to joining up with Plant, Jones, and Bonham in 1968. I was surprised to discover how little Page actually did as a member of the Yardbirds. I mean, sure, he played plenty of notes with the Yardbirds, but if Page dwelt in his own sonic universe as a member of Led Zeppelin, with the Yardbirds he seemed to be a temporary guest in someone else's cramped room. Everything with the Yardbirds was pure pop formula.

"Look here, Jimmy, play this part over and over, then play the chorus, then the break, and then those ten notes we've had you practice for the lead, then back to the main riff and then the chorus to coda and you're done. That'll sound groovy and we'll get the chicks to dance."

Apparently, Jimmy Page did not run the show as a member of the Yardbirds. For them, he played more like an employee. No wonder he wanted to start his own band.

So, who could have expected that a relatively obscure and seemingly undistinguished member of the Yardbirds, which for much of its rather brief existence was primarily a vehicle for Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, would later on develop such a markedly unique, rich, and unconstrained style of music?

They say that Eric Clapton plays some smooth leads, has come up with some solid and unforgettable tunes, and has a great singing voice. I'll give him that. But while Clapton created songs that have become cultural standards, Page/Plant created music that was timeless art -- although Page/Plant have admittedly created their share of cultural standards as well.

While Clapton explored dark themes in some of his songs, Page/Plant created some tunes that grabbed hold of you and took you into dark realms. While Clapton told you about what was going on in his life, Page/Plant told you what your life was all about and made you feel it right down to the marrow of your bones. While you played Clapton at a party with all your friends gathered around, you put Page/Plant on your walkman when you went walking around alone at night. What would you rather listen to while walking through a snowdrift in the middle of a deserted field at 3 AM, "Born under a Bad Sign" or "No Quarter?"

I suppose that no discussion of Jimmy Page can ever be complete without taking into account his professional relationship with Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. Undoubtedly, it was a most fortuitous combination of talents.

Despite his not infrequent forays into trashy onstage posturing and his heavy reliance upon lowbrow vocal filler aimed at lonely young women who had drunk a bit too much cheap beer, Robert Plant is without a doubt one of rock's greatest vocalists. At his peak, he possessed a powerful and inimitable falsetto in addition to a resonant and adaptable tenor voice. Regardless of his evident appeal to the common man and woman, during interviews he speaks with perfect poise, eloquence, and erudition, qualities that manifest themselves in the lyrics of several Zeppelin compositions that explore historical or literary themes. Plant had the genius to appeal to his listeners on a number of levels, whether they were doctoral students of medieval history or teenagers flipping burgers at McDonald's. He is an intellectual with no formal education beyond grade school, so he fits in just as well at an academic conference as at a blues bar in rural Mississippi.

Rumor has it that Page was not entirely satisfied with Plant as his lead vocalist, notwithstanding the string of hit albums the two had produced over the years. A few years after Led Zeppelin's breakup in 1980, Page teamed up with Paul Rodgers, formerly of Bad Company. At the time, Page praised Rodgers' vocal style, and rather carelessly commented that Rodgers was the kind of vocalist he'd always wanted to work with, thereby throwing the work of his former singer and band mate into an undeniably negative light. Although Rodgers is an unquestionably talented vocalist, and there was some real creative chemistry between him and Page, after two albums their group, The Firm, came to an end after less-than-stellar record sales. Whether Page was able to admit it to himself at the time or not, Plant was his best musical collaborator.

Probably the most underappreciated member of Led Zeppelin was John Paul Jones, a very talented and capable musician in his own right who had the presence of mind and the humility to assume a backing role within the group. A multi-instrumentalist known as a skilled musical arranger outside of Led Zeppelin, it is hard to imagine that he did not exert considerable influence over the development and structure of the band's compositions. Undoubtedly, much of the polish, class, and style that are evident in so many Zeppelin songs owe a lot to his guiding hand.

Finally, Led Zeppelin would not be Led Zeppelin without the tree-trunk drumsticks of John Bonham. Just take a listen to "Moby Dick." Need I say more?

What exactly is it about Page that makes him one of the greatest popular guitarists and musicians of all time? Is it his creativity, dexterity, phrasing, and artistry as a player of guitar leads? Does it have to do with his compositional brilliance as a songwriter, his use of inspired chord changes, innovative guitar tunings, and unique song structures? Is it because of his daring exploration of a number of styles and themes that had not been a part of popular music up to that time? Might it relate to his broad use of instrumentation, whether a mandolin for "Battle of Evermore," frequent acoustic guitar, keyboards played by Jones, electric guitar played in a number of different ways, slide guitar for "That's the Way," the use of a marching band for "Fool in the Rain," or the employment of wind instruments for "Kashmir," etc.? Is it owed to his dedication and creativity as a music producer, as the man who spent three almost sleepless days and nights in a recording studio laying down and mixing tracks for the epic song "Achilles' Last Stand?" How many times shall I say yes?

Ironically, at least in my view, some of Led Zeppelin's most popularly acclaimed material was essentially plagiarized from other artists. Among those Led Zeppelin songs attributed at one time or another to the band but in reality taken in part or completely from other musical artists, we have: "Black Mountain Side," "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," "Since I've Been Lovin' You," "Moby Dick," "In My Time Of Dying," "The Lemon Song," "Bring It On Home," "Whole Lotta Love," "Stairway To Heaven," and "Dazed And Confused." So, although this unacknowledged borrowing -- or outright theft as some would have it -- may have tarnished the band's reputation for artistic integrity, no one who judges fairly can deny that Led Zeppelin's reinterpretation of those songs is a worthy accomplishment in and of itself. Likewise, by bringing this music to a mainstream audience that otherwise would have probably never heard it, Led Zeppelin raised the status of the real authors to mythical levels. Too bad Jimmy Page didn't do anything to raise the status of their bank accounts -- or that of their legal heirs -- to mythical levels as well.

In many of their borrowed songs, Led Zeppelin did something quite common to the British invasion music of the previous decade, which was to blend their bohemian English working-class white-boy personas with material whose origins lay with outcast African-American male musicians living precariously in the segregation-era south of the United States. As in the 1960s, this approach seemed to touch a very deep and undoubtedly largely subconscious nerve among millions of white people in the United States, who found that they could really appreciate and enjoy certain African-American music after it had been reinterpreted by a foreign band made up of white men.

But quite frankly, in my view, the most interesting and compelling material by Led Zeppelin consists of songs that were unquestionably written by the group itself. If lifting material from other artists was a way to crank out a few megahits and leave a lasting impression upon certain kinds of music listeners, then their completely original material amounts to their lasting legacy as musical artists. And what a legacy it is.

In interviews, such as those done in the recent documentary It Might Get Loud, Page does not come across as the cultural icon and musical giant that he truly is. His quiet and unremarkable voice can sometimes sound a bit melancholy and tired. His English accent is still decidedly working-class in spite of his enormous personal wealth. Unlike his former band mate Plant, he is not poised, eloquent, or erudite, nor does he come across as an intellectual. He tends to stutter a little when he talks, pauses, repeats himself, corrects himself, and lets his sentences trail off into a handful of casually mumbled words from time to time, as if the thought were not really worth sharing anymore, but the words had already started to come out. Yet with all that, there is a kind of measured and self-knowing calm about him, a quiet joy, and a restless creative spirit still smoldering after all these years. With his long, flowing white hair, and his kindly crow's-feet-lined eyes smiling along with the rest of his dignified countenance, he seems much wiser and more interesting than the lantern-bearing hermit from The Song Remains the Same that he himself had imagined he might be like one day.

So, I say, with all due respect to Roy Harper, hats off to Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin has been more than just a passing teenage fad for me. Almost thirty years after discovering them, so many of their songs still touch my heart and soul. And as for the ones that mostly appeal to the virile young man that I no longer am, such as "Whole Lotta Love," they are now good for a wry nostalgic smile and lighthearted chuckle.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...