Esquire, Apr 2013
What I’ve Learned: Jimmy Page, 69, Musician
Photograph by Chris Buck
That’s quite a profound title, What I’ve Learned. The pressure’s on!
I believe in destiny, yes. It was destiny for the other three members of Led Zeppelin to meet. Each and every one was a master craftsman in his field and that doesn’t always mean it’s going to manifest as a group. So yeah, there was a collective destiny there. Not a happy accident.
There’s no downside to being called a legend, as long as people have actually listened to your music. Whatever reputation I have, it’s on a tried and tested and even digested basis.
I learned music in a primitive way. There were hours and hours of moving the stylus back and trying to recreate things.
My vision from the beginning of the Yardbirds, was to be in a band with longevity, where we can create music which would be unrestricted. And it did manifest that way. Twelve years is a pretty fair innings.
Being a band leader is keeping your hands on the steering wheel of the ship, making the clarion call to get everyone into the recordings and being the prime writer, along with Robert. So it wasn’t just calling the shots, but recommending the artillery.
I don’t know why musicians burn brightest when they’re young, but they do. Absolutely. All the genres that have inspired me, the energy of youth really burns burns burns. Say in the 50s and 60s, the country blues and rockabilly – that’s the music that seduced me and made me want to play and most of those people were in their 20s or 30s. Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane were 21 when they died and they had a massive output of work. Now, musicians are playing at a later age than their heroes ever did. It’s a totally new phenomenon.
The sort of musicians that I liked, or subscribed to, didn’t have the constraints of current musicians today. It’s a totally different creative world.
When I was at school, music was a closed shop. The record companies had an iron grip on everything – it didn’t matter if a band had some written compositions. A singer would be produced by a producer whose friend was a songwriter, and with a band of session musicians and that’s how it went. But then the Beatles came along and kicked open the doors – so producers and A&R men were running all over trying to find bands that wrote their own material. The whole dynamic changed so quickly, that a tidal wave overtook the music business, and it took them a long while to lock it all back down again. Now with all your Simon Cowells, it’s come back to that whole locked down situation again.
The very first time we actually played together, it was so fast that we were locking in and the attitude we had was so powerful. It was like a force of nature, it really was. Divine intervention.
Being a Surrey school kid who learned from records, I had this dream of America – when Chuck Berry sang Back In The USA, it was like an anthem. And everything that Atlantic records meant to me. So to get a gold disc for the first album, that was a real milestone. Not for the material reason, but for the achievement, and what the music meant.
I knew what we had was good, but on our first tour of America, I realized we were having an effect on other bands – they just weren’t even turning up to play. I thought that was pretty odd… The fact that we were intimidating other musicians.
Led Zeppelin didn’t receive that kind of Beatles screaming. We had a more sort of macho crowd. But I remember once in the early days of the Yardbirds we were playing on an icerink, and the stage was mobbed by screaming girls. I had my clothes torn off me. That’s a really uncomfortable experience.
Don’t ask me about mayhem and excess. I used to have a cup of cocoa and go to bed, it was the rest of them. Look, we weren’t the only band to be hedonistic. And it’s a shame that so much emphasis is put on that. The reason you and I are sitting here now isn’t because of some incident with a mudshark in Seattle, it’s because of the music.
What’s England like on a Friday night? Well, we had music to go with it, and yeah, we were taking full advantage and enjoying the moment of it. Sure you’re going to celebrate it why not?
As time passed, a hangover wasn’t just a fuzzy morning anymore, it was a day, and then a second day. I had young children too, so I just decided to leave it behind. And I don’t miss any of it at all.
Once the compulsion is gone then it’s pretty good times you know.
In the 60s there was quite a movement to learn about Eastern traditions but I’d also been reading about the western tradition of magick. I understood how some traditions came from Masonic roots, and I could relate to the ceremony of it. I’d just as soon leave it at that.
I’m not going to say anything as far as Aleister Crowley goes, it’s just not worth it. I mean, I was very interested in the pre-Raphaelites too – Dante, Gabriel, Rosetti – but nobody picked up on that did they?
We all lost John Bonham, as much as we all lost Jimi Hendrix. He was such a remarkable, creative musician. And when he died, that was it – Led Zeppelin as we knew it was over. I’d like to think it would have been the same if it was me that had passed, or Robert or John Paul Jones. I was absolutely devastated. The great loss of a friend and ally, and musical comrade… it knocked me flat. The best thing that happened to me at that point was making music with members of the band Yes – called XYZ. I just knew instinctively this was the right thing to do. It didn’t actually manifest into anything other than some studio recordings but it did me the world of good.
I never expected anything I’ve done to eclipse Led Zeppelin – it’s farcical to even think of it.
I’ve played with Puff Daddy or whatever his latest name is. That was a real trip. Really interesting to riff across that hip hop type of stuff. It was cool.
I’d like to play enough concerts to give people a fair chance to come along. I thought the concert at the O2 Stadium in 2007 was pretty inspiring. But there weren’t any sort of whispers afterwards, or rumors or nudges or winks. So five years later, I don’t really think it’s a possibility. Maybe we’ll all be there in wheelchairs and Zimmer frames and it will be suggested, “well, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have one last go!”
Playing live is a big part of who I am. And I hope to be doing it next summer. I’m feeling a little bit like I did when I was a studio musician, I need to get out there and show the coat of many colors.