Chris Salewicz pulls out all the stops to emphasise this is no ordinary rock biog; this is a Jimmy Page biog, this is one louder, one bigger, one nastier, but the rock god title is for the reader to decide, says Sam Boland
It's become standard practice for the biographies of legendary hellraisers to open with a dropped intro, a little vignette of devilment and debauchery to whet the reader’s appetite, a sign of the good stuff to come, a promise that it’ll be worth plodding through the opening chapter or two set in Nowheresville, Ohio, or post-war, bombed-out London, as our hero shucks corn to pay for acting lessons or collects scrap iron to swap for guitar strings.
Keith Richards’ Life, for example, opens with the Rolling Stone getting arrested on a highway in Arkansas in 1975. Will his lawyer free him before the redneck cops discover his car is loaded with drugs? Find out in 200 pages, cos here’s Chapter One…
Perhaps aware of the convention, Chris Salewicz doubles down on the dropped intro with both a preface and an introduction, the former a brief but nonetheless shocking taste of the druggy, neurotic sleaze that surrounded ’70s rock stars’ personal lives, the latter an extended riff on drunken violence behind rock’s public scenes, as promoters, managers, and roadies brawl for territory backstage on one of Led Zeppelin’s monster world tours.
Therefore the change of pace from this double-whammy hellscape to Chapter One, with its suburban blandness and mundane biographical details (Page, like fellow guitar god Richards, was both an only child and a choirboy) is as disconcerting as waking from a nightmare. Salewicz is pulling out the stops to emphasise that this is no ordinary rock biog; this is a Jimmy Page biog, this is one louder, one bigger, one nastier. Unfortunately, there is a law of diminishing returns to such hyperbole; in the end, the title of ultimate rock god is entirely subjective. Salewicz’s job is to tell the story, and his success or otherwise depends on how well that story is told, not on whether a reader thinks Page, Clapton, Richards (an ‘also-ran’, says Salewicz), or anyone else is the biggest star.
Thankfully, when he’s not trying to reinvent the rock biog wheel, Salewicz is a diligent, subtle guide with a wealth of sources upon which to draw — at several points reproducing in full UK music press interview he conducted with Page. The first couple of chapters of any such tale follow a familiar path (Jimmy’s mum and dad, Jimmy’s first guitar, Jimmy goes to art school), and are intended for the hardcore fan; the general interest reader might be forgiven for skipping ahead to the really salacious chapters — the reader’s equivalent of crying out for ‘Stairway’ at a Zeppelin gig, if you will.
However, Salewicz imbues these early glimpses of the young Jimmy with enough foreshadowing and meaning as to enrich the picture we later develop of the fully fledged Page — for example, we see him master record production and schmooze label owners at a precocious age, hinting at his later need to command the Zeppelin empire. And this foreshadowing deftly creates an empathy with and understanding for a character who goes to some truly dark places. So dark that if you read some passages of this book backwards, you’re likely to discover satanic messages.
The casual reader will no doubt come to this book associating Zeppelin, and therefore Page, with ‘Stairway to Heaven’, Dionysian rock’n’roll excess, and those rumours of devil worship. And while purists might be disappointed at the lack of new material, Salewicz is unafraid to tell the (genital) warts and all story of guitars, groupies, and gurus.
In 1969, between the release of Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, we see an infatuated Page pursue supergroupie Miss Pamela, later the author of the definitive groupie memoir I’m With The Band. A couple of chapters and albums and a whole lot of drugs later, things have taken a turn for the rancid — for instance, we get the unedifying spectacle of Irish DJ and journalist BP Fallon, then Zep’s press agent, saying the so-called ‘baby groupies’ Sable Starr and Lori Mattix were the ‘predators’ and the likes of Page, multimillionaires twice their age, were their poor, unfortunate prey.
Wisely (perhaps unavoidably in this new era of holding even the rich and famous accountable for their actions), Salewicz correctly characterises the rock stars’ treatment of these vulnerable underage girls as “little more than trinkets, abused victims”. Rock journalist Mick Farren colourfully describes the groupie scene around Zep as “running in semen and beer and unpleasantness and old Tampaxes”.
Salewicz lifts the lid, too, on the rumours of devil worship, Faustian pacts, and satanic rituals that have long been part of Zeppelin’s, and more specifically, Page’s legend. It may seem like sub-Spinal Tap nonsense now, but guru Alastair Crowley’s influence was not limited to Page: David Bowie, several Beatles, Jim Morrison, and Black Sabbath were all also drawn into Crowley’s B-movie, Hammer Horror-style devil worshop. Certainly, his belief in ‘sex magick’ was a good fit with several rock star lifestyles, not least Page’s.
Not specifically addressed in this biography, although running through it as an underlying current, is how Page and Zeppelin repeatedly altered the course of rock history. They were a new breed, perhaps the first instance of the rock hierarchy respawning and rejuvenating itself.
While Page’s first group, The Yardbirds, were less-successful contemporaries of the Beatles and Stones, Zeppelin were formed almost a decade after those groundbreakers. While the Beatles and Stones formatively delved through 50s rock’n’roll to find influences in skiffle, blues, and Tin Pan Alley, Zeppelin took amphetamine-fuelled 60s rock, welded to the increasing audio possibilities of constantly developing technology, as the basis for their sound (and thus laying down the blueprint for the genre of heavy metal, without being heavy metal themselves).
There is a telling passage in which engineer Glynn Johns hawks around advance copies of Led Zeppelin to both Mick Jagger and George Harrison; neither superstar ‘got it’. Disappointing for Johns, perhaps, but healthy for the youth movement that was rock’n’roll — confusing and/or scaring your seniors should always be top of the agenda.
Of course, the same fate befell Zeppelin in the mid-70s when punk emerged but, by then, the rock behemoth was staggering under the weight of enormous world tours, even more enormous substance abuse (Salewicz attempts to lend some Byronic romance to Page’s heroin addiction), and a certain Emperor’s New Clothes immunity to criticism that gave us the bloat of Physical Graffiti and Presence and the self-indulgence of concert film The Song Remains The Same.
This, of course, gave us yet another current staple of rock — the comeback gig. Salewicz, to his credit, skewers a couple of the myths about Knebworth, in particular its size and popularity.
And, just as Zeppelin might have been getting back into their stride, the vodka-fueled death of drummer Jon ‘Bonzo’ Bonham in 1980 caused their permanent break-up, leaving Salewicz almost four decades of Page’s guest appearances, supergroup flirtations, and awards with which to fill his last few chapters.
Balancing the hellraiser years with national treasure semi-retirement is a common puzzler for the biographers of rock icons who ignore The Who’s advice and don’t die before they get old, and so we see Page in a spat with his neighbour, pop buffoon Robbie Williams, over landscaping, and performing Olympics bid PR work with talent show winner Leona Lewis.
This genteel acceptability is a far cry from where Salewicz began his tale, and he makes no attempt to square the circle for us, which is as it should be. Salewicz has chronicled one of the heavyweight figures of modern culture; it is up to you, the reader, to interpret.