Back from the Led (Zeppelin), Jimmy Page Tries to Rekindle the Old Rock 'n' Roll Fires
Inside the plane Paul Rodgers, former lead singer for Bad Company and now the voice of the Firm, sits in the back dressed in a blue sweatsuit. Jimmy plunks down in front and straps in for the flight to L.A. In the dinosaur days of the past, the Led Zeppelin foursome had flown in their own jet or rented one belonging to Caesars Palace. This current model, stocked with all the food, drink and comforts a rock star might require at 20,000 feet, is "definitely a comedown for Jimmy," confides a fellow traveler who is familiar with the Zeppelin days. "But you don't send Jimmy Page commercial."
There are other differences this time as well. In Phoenix, the Firm had had trouble selling a scant 5,000 tickets, and their show had been switched to a smaller arena. There was no battery of bodyguards needed to seal off their hotel floor, no teenage girls camped 20-deep outside hoping to be served as a midnight hors d'oeuvre. That had been the case years ago, of course, when Led Zeppelin's powerful, high-decibel playing had defined an entire rock genre known as heavy metal. And Page, with his blistering, rapid-fire guitar volleys, had stood at its forefront, a gaunt rock sorcerer drawing legions of Led-heads wherever he appeared.
Then in 1980 Zeppelin's flight came crashing down when drummer John Bonham was found dead after a late night rehearsal/party at Page's Windsor mansion 25 miles west of London. "It was devastating; I couldn't come to terms with the fact that he was gone," says Page now. While vocalist Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones eventually moved on to other projects, Page did not, refusing to touch his guitar for the next nine months. "I couldn't even look at it because it was part and parcel of the band," he says. Moreover, "I had made such a major statement being in a group like Zeppelin. It's the best of my playing, and one could never eclipse that."
For Page the layoff was his first in almost 20 years of playing. Born outside London the child of a corporate personnel officer, he grew up an "introspective loner," and once said that he had no playmates until he was 5 years old. He taught himself guitar after hearing Elvis Presley's Baby, Let's Play House, and by the early '60s he had become a much-worked session player used by the Rolling Stones, The Who, Donovan and others.
After a two-year stint with the Yard-birds, Page assembled his Zeppelin mates in 1968. Their ear numbing anthems—and Page's Gothic guitar masterpiece, Stairway to Heaven—propelled him into the ranks of mythic strummeisters Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. "The guitarists of his generation are probably the greatest in rock history," says Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun. "But Jimmy Page is the least conventional, the most personal. He developed a magical, distinctive style."
At times, however, the band's offstage excesses seemed just as vital to maintaining their magnetism. Rumors circulated of heavy drug use by some band members, of hardened criminals in Zeppelin's road crew, and of messages to the devil in their music (found, it was said, by playing certain songs backward). And there was more: cocaine and personal tragedy, including Robert Plant's near fatal 1975 auto crash and the death of his small son. Soon Page, the self-avowed student of black magic, came to be seen both as the band's brightest star and its darkest spirit.
Draped over a hotel chair in L.A., cocktail in hand, Page will say nothing about his past drug use or an upcoming book titled Hammer of the Gods that will chronicle the legendary Led Zep appetites for drugs, drink and groupies in various configurations. He seems healthy, alert and his temples are flecked with wiry gray hairs. His hands are those of an artist: soft, supple fingers neatly trimmed, except for a long pinky nail on his right hand shaped like a little dipper.
Last fall Page had been approached outside a London train station by a bobby who discovered cocaine in his pocket, leading to his second charge of possession in two years. Though two such offenses usually carry a prison sentence, Page got off easy. "I take the view," said the presiding magistrate, "if a prison sentence is passed, it may well prevent you from pursuing your profession and helping others."
The trip back hadn't been easy for Page. His nine-month layoff after Bon-ham's death eroded his skills and left fans convinced that his playing days were done. Finally, "I thought if Bonzo was here, he'd be really furious and kick me in the ass." Slowly Page returned to his guitar, playing privately with friends at first, then taking on bigger projects: the sound track to Death Wish II, a 1983 tour in Ronnie Lane's ARMS benefit concerts for multiple sclerosis, two uncredited solos on Robert Plant's LP Honeydrippers Volume 1. By last year "I really wanted to get out and play," he admits, "but I couldn't find a vehicle to work with."
On the stage of the Forum in L.A. a few hours later with the Firm, Page seems to have found not only his vehicle but the driver's seat as well. A white curtain lit in royal blue and majestic purple and a regal orchestral interlude announce a return of rock 'n' roll royalty. All four band members take the stage at once, including vocalist Rodgers, drummer Chris Slade and bassist Tony Franklin. But it is the wispy figure in white, flickering ethereally in and out of the darkness, an electric guitar slung low and mean over his pelvis, that incites the deafening ovation. Shouts of his name rattle the concert hall with the shrillness of primal screams. "I'd give 10 Princes to be with Jimmy," remarks a fan in the midst of his own gyrating air guitar solo. "We're talking rock-god city!"
Afterward, memory of those ticket troubles in Phoenix all but vanish. With the Firm's first LP in the Top 20, their tour has sold out up and down the West Coast, and Page is suddenly predicting future concerts as well. "If we had failed, it would have taken me a long time to patch up the wound," he concedes. "But I am now absolutely committed to not ever quitting. The fact that people are willing to listen to what we're doing, and that they haven't gotten bored enough to yell for numbers from the past, makes me think I was right to do this."