Jimmy Page, undisputed master of the guitar. Jimmy Page, press-hostile recluse. Or, as another legend goes, Jimmy Page, devotee of the dark arts.
Fans have long wondered what exactly makes up the worried mind of Led Zeppelin’s leader, James Patrick “Jimmy” Page. Brad Tolinski’s “Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page” sheds serious light on this poorly understood, enigmatic musical genius.
Tolinski, editor in chief of “Guitar World” magazine and Page’s chief interlocutor, makes his allegiances clear from the get-go. “It is my belief that Page,” his introduction gushes, “is one of the most important and underappreciated musicians of the last century.” Tolinski plants Page in a pantheon of musical gods that includes Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, and Chuck Berry.
Certainly Page aimed his musical orbit toward the epic and myth-laden. With Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham, Page and his guitar riffs conjured stairways to heaven and Viking raids, and took us “over the hills and far away” to Kashmir and Middle-earth. But, Tolinski argues, “Most writers just wanted to know about his alleged drug use, weird groupie sex, or whether it was true that he’d made a pact with Satan.”
Tolinski takes a deeper look. Expect “Light & Shade” to be less a gossip exposé like the on-tour tell-all “Hammer of the Gods” (1985) and more a musical geek-out between Page and Tolinski.
The meat involves multiple conversations between Page and Tolinski that began in 1993. “Here’s what he didn’t like,” Tolinski says: “open-ended questions, questions that required him to speculate about others’ opinions of his music, or anything that required him to say something negative about another artist.”
Question-and-answer segments are interspersed with short narrative chapters, and “musical interludes,” or conversations between Page and others: Jack White (of the White Stripes); Jeff Beck (Page’s childhood chum); and others. These extra bits, and the smattering of archival photos, tie up the biographical threads, though the chapters on Page’s fashion choices and astrology are more throwaway. (Note to Page freaks: About half of the material here is previously unpublished.)
“Light & Shade” takes us on a chronological tour through each of Page’s projects, beginning with his days as a session musician and member of the Yardbirds, through the Led Zeppelin years, then with bands like The Firm. Tolinski pulls apart each album, mostly homing in on the Zeppelin oeuvre, asking Page questions such as “What is your philosophy regarding volume?” To which Page replies, “I turn up pretty high, but I vary my pick attack — I don’t play hard all the time.”
Along the way, Tolinski helps disperse some foggy mystique that has always surrounded Page and Zeppelin.
As Tolinski’s book makes clear, Led Zeppelin’s creative glue was always Page, and his artistic control steered the band away from the squabbling that sinks many a rock outfit. “I had the last decision on everything,” Page admits. “I was the producer, so there weren’t going to be any fights.” As the piper, Page always managed to lead his bandmates to reason, and today, he’s not afraid to brag: that critics didn’t get Zeppelin at the time because “we were so far ahead”; of the band’s all-night recording (and drinking) sessions, “Our stamina was quite phenomenal.”
Tolinski’s book is attuned to the music nerd, not the casual Zeppelin fan. But if discussions about altered tunings, jury-rigged guitars, unorthodox microphone placement, and “those slashing E and A chords after the F-sharp octave riff” make your hedgerow bustle, “Light & Shade” will happily give you no quarter.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” He can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com or on Twitter @ethanfreak.