Jimmy Page on His New Book, the Velvet Underground and Meeting Burroughs

Luke Turner

By Luke Turner

on 11.13.14 in Features

It’s not uncommon for there to be long lines outside the Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, situated just opposite Notre Dame Cathedral on the South Bank of the Seine in Paris. The store is something of a tourist attraction — it stands on the site of an earlier shop frequented by the likes of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, while this later incarnation, opened in 1951, features a wealth of medical textbooks used by William Burroughs to research his 1956 book Naked Lunch. Its first public reading took place here, at which Allen Ginsberg was allegedly so nervous that he took off all his clothes.

‘The first rehearsal where we all got together in one room, it was without doubt, from “1-2-3-4-in” that everyone knew that they’d never played in such a unit before. It was just scary – exhilarating, and it just had to be.’

Today the crowd outside is larger than usual, snaking around the corner and up the Rue Saint-Julien Le Pauvre. Interspersed among them are photographers and a camera crew, all waiting for Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

Page is visiting the bookshop as part of the promotional tour for his new “photographic autobiography” Jimmy Page, an image-heavy coffee-table book that covers his entire life, from his early musical endeavors as a chorister and schoolboy band member, through session work for acts including Petula Clarke, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker and Nico, to Led Zeppelin’s stratospheric rise to all-devouring monsters of rock. It also features photos of Page playing “Kashmir” with Puff Daddy, the brief Led Zeppelin reunion at London’s O2 Arena, and his collaboration with Leona Lewis at the end of the Beijing Olympics.

Page arrives in a black limousine, wearing a black leather jacket, jeans and scarf, and seems both humbled and genuinely awed by his surroundings (especially when Shakespeare & Company’s owner points out the Burroughs connection — one of the most striking photographs in the book shows the writer and guitarist laughing together after they met for a Crawdaddy interview). Indeed, while the book has plenty of images of Page in full flow, pouting away onstage at the height of his pomp, it also seems like an attempt at subtle repositioning, highlighting its author’s use of innovative techniques and new recording technologies. So much has been written about Page’s more notorious, nonmusical exploits; here he seems to be attempting to redress the balance.

Why did you decide to do what you called a “photographic autobiography”?

When biographies or autobiographies of my fellow artists get published, I turn immediately to the photographs to see what they’ve included, and to see what photographs I haven’t seen before. That’s one part of it. Writing a book, I could see that [being] fraught with legal problems. I could see a position whereby you could portray the life of a musician from the age of 12 or 13 all the way through to even this year. As we all know, every photograph tells a story, and you can see both the decades passing by, as well as what happened in those decades.

What was the process of collecting the pictures together like? Was it a pleasurable experience for you?

Well, yes, because I could see the whole journey. I have the first photograph of me as a choirboy which I thought was quite fun, and I titled that, “It might get loud.” I also have photographs of the early days, pre-Beatles, the little groups I was in. And along the way I had photographs of Bron-Yr-Aur when Robert and I went there [in 1970 while writing Led Zeppelin III], and a photo turned up of me sitting in front of the fire playing acoustic guitar, which is really cool. All these things are in there and I could see the journey. How to start it was obviously the choirboy shot.

You look very angelic as a choirboy…

[Smiles] Ah, well…

What sort of music were you into then? Did you enjoy the church music?

As a choirboy, I did. In that photograph I’m trying to play the guitar, I’m in the process of trying to get it tuned. The curious thing about this photograph is it was taken by the choir master — his name was Mr. Coffin, and he was an amateur photographer. He said he remembered Jimmy Page coming to the choir practices with the guitar and trying to get it tuned to the organ.

You went from school bands to being a very successful session musician. Did you feel frustrated by that?

I’d been in a group and that got a bit testing, because the music that we were doing was going to [become popular] in about another year — it was sort of Chess catalogue, and it wasn’t really being received, apart from by real muso fans. The gigs that we were doing were the ones where they’d want you to do Top 20 and all of that. So I quit and went to art college, which was really a very wise decision. But I kept playing. I was in the interval band of the Marquee Club in London, and I got headhunted out of that to start playing on sessions. It was really exciting, because my background, my musical appetite was voracious across the board. It wasn’t just rock ‘n’ roll guitar, or just blues or just rockabilly. It was country blues, it was fingerstyle guitar, and it put me in good stead for this work as a session musician, because I wasn’t a one-trick pony. It was quite exciting in the early stages, because they’d say “do whatever you like.” So I’d come through with my musical self-education. My point of reference was the same as the other guitarists who were around, just a little wider.

Do you have a favorite record from the sessions?

One that makes me go “Oh yes” and smile? “Goldfinger,” you know, with Shirley Bassey. And one of the others was Joe Cocker, “With a Little Help From my Friends.” But that was right at the end. I’d been in the Yardbirds then, and had gone back to doing a few sessions, and that was one of them, just on the cusp of getting Led Zeppelin together.

‘I used to go down to the Scene Club, and that’s when the Velvets were playing. I can assure you there was nobody there, but they were phenomenal, and any opportunity I had to go and see them I went.’

One of the things I found interesting was that the Yardbirds were one of the first groups to cover the Velvet Underground. I was intrigued whether Warhol and the New York arts scene was a big inspiration for you?

Warhol had decorated [New York’s] Steve Paul’s Scene Club with bacofoil, and he said that this was the color of speed. I used to go down to the Scene Club, and that’s when the Velvets were playing. Not many people went. I can assure you there was nobody there, but they were phenomenal, and any opportunity I had to go and see them I went. Then the album came out and we included “I’m Waiting for My Man” in “I’m A Man,” and apparently by all accounts we were the first people to be paying serious attention to them when we were covering it. But I just thought they were so cool.

How were those early Led Zeppelin rehearsals, did it feel that you had something really good and new going? Was it an exciting time?

The first rehearsal where we all got together in one room, it was without doubt, from “1-2-3-4-in” that everyone knew that they’d never played in such a unit before. It was just scary – exhilarating, and it just had to be. From that one rehearsal room in what is now Chinatown in London I took the band to my house, which is all documented in this book — it shows the very room where we rehearsed. We rehearsed the first album and the set that we’d take to Scandinavia for a handful of dates before the recording. It shows the room in this book where we’d rehearse, and it’s the room where we came back to rehearse “Whole Lotta Love.” I’m standing next to a jardinière, which comes from a flea market — I bought it in Paris around that sort of time.

The book has great connection with place, these objects that have been around — there’s the great picture of you with an old boat in the boathouse on the Thames.

It was an incredible house. You could just drive this boat out onto the River Thames at night, and see the sunset — I had a great lifestyle, I really did.

There’s a photo where you’re playing a very psychedelically painted guitar and your caption says that you “consecrated” it — what did you mean by that?

I painted it, I really made it my own, so it was like no other Telecaster. I felt that it was like a consecration. It’s quite a magical guitar. I’ve still got the guitar, but something happened to the painting on it. Somebody was house-sitting, and I think he’d got very stoned one night — he was an artist — and I think he thought “wouldn’t it be nice to paint Jimmy’s guitar?” He stripped it, painted it, I came back and he said “I’ve got a gift!” That’s what drugs can do for some people. He deconsecrated it. I’ve still got the guitar, it still plays the same but it doesn’t look the same. But I think I’m going to resurrect it.

Speaking about the visual side of your life, the book really shows the evolution of your style. There’s a great photograph of you in Pangbourne Churchyard wearing a terrific outfit, and your caption is “With allusions to Oscar Wilde.” What were your style inspirations?

It evolves just as the guitar playing does. Then it gets to a very hairy place, and there’s a beard. That was a result of being at Bron-Y-Aur cottage, because there was no electricity there, and there were gas lights. It was really cool. It was at the time when there were cassette recorders coming out, and they were really interesting for fooling around on guitars. The song “That’s The Way” comes out of it. It felt OK to grow a beard at Bron-Y-Aur. There weren’t showers then — we did wash, but we were a bit unkempt, and the beard grew longer, and when I took that beard off I decided I was really going to start mutating the fashions all the way through. It starts to arrive at personalities within the guitar playing, so you’ve got the dragon suit and the poppy suit…

Did you work with designers?

With the dragon suit, I had it as an extension of something that was worn in [1976 film] The Song Remains the Same — it had planetary symbols on it, and a bit of a dragon. I had one bit that I could pay for, then the next bit I could pay for, and suddenly it was a suit. Then I commissioned the poppy suit from the same people.

There’s a great photo of you and Burroughs in the book, and he influenced anyone from yourselves to Throbbing Gristle — why was he such an inspiration?

For me, coming in here and being told about the Burroughs connection is really substantial, I’ve got to admit. I’d read Naked Lunch, and Burroughs was somebody who was really iconic, a hero for me. It was in 1975 and Led Zeppelin were playing Madison Square Garden, and I was asked would I like to do an interview with William Burroughs, because he wants to write an article about things. I said “absolutely.” I jumped at it. He was writing for a magazine called Crawdaddy and he wanted to write on the fusion, if you like, of trance music, which of course he was familiar with having gone to Morocco and Tangiers, and the sort of music that we were doing, which is of course repetitive riffs and trance. To be in the presence of Burroughs! I didn’t know that was what he was going to write about until I was in his presence, and then it was revealing. It was a fantastic experience. He’d been regularly to Led Zeppelin concerts. I was thrilled to bits.

‘I was always trying to move things beyond what they already were. So playing the guitar with a bow — the idea of it wasn’t a gimmick, but to make music that way could be…quite disturbing really.’

I find that aspect of trance music in Led Zeppelin very interesting. You were bringing this far-out stuff into American sports stadiums.

There’s two things here…the first as far as trance music goes, my real point of access would have been through the Chicago blues movement, and what was going on with the artists that were on the VJ label, and Chess. There’s no doubt about that. But I did have eclectic tastes, and before I was a studio musician, I was already accessing Indian music and North African music, and various styles of guitar playing. I’d even touched on it in the Yardbirds, in the limited recording we’d had a chance to do. I’d been moved by the music of Krzysztof Penderecki. Being self-taught, there were limitless boundaries to where you could go and access music. If it really affected you and it really was good, well, you’d take it all on board. I know people would come to my house and they’d find it really unnerving, because I’d be putting on classical music and I’d be putting on rockabilly music, and I’d be talking them through it, and then it’d go to Hamza El Din, an oud player, and then some Little Water playing the harp, and their heads would be spinning with all of this musical content that I’m laying on them. But for me, it was perfectly normal.

One of my favorite things that you’ve done is the Lucifer Rising soundtrack. That was so different from Led Zeppelin, was it a nice break to be doing something like that?

I had a studio at home, and it got to the point where I was left on my own and got up to mischief. Actually Lucifer Rising, in this trawling through my archive, I came up with the original mix of it, which is really a thrill to find. I had this multitrack and I started messing around myself, playing the instruments, making up loops, putting effects on things. I was really working, I was like a sketch pad. It took on a life of its own, Lucifer Rising. It was really good stuff. It’s pretty intense.

Lots of people know you as a great guitarist, but you did some very pioneering things with that soundtrack, the fuzzbox, using guitar synths, bowing your guitar. Do you feel people haven’t paid enough attention to these more leftfield things?

Yeah, but it doesn’t matter, it’s all there in whatever capacity you listen. I was always trying to move things beyond what they already were. So playing the guitar with a bow — and I’m pleased that you mention this — other people have done it along the way, like Sigur Ros. The idea of it wasn’t a gimmick, but to make music that way could be…quite disturbing really.

Freaking people out?

Yeah, but also freaking myself out. I want to do that as I’m playing. I want to feel like I’m drawing it right out of myself. You get an effects unit and something like a digital delay line, when that had come out, and then you see what it’s not supposed to do, and you get the feedback on the end of “Houses of the Holy,” for example. You hear it locking in on the studio version. It was always, “Let’s see if there’s another way from how other people do it. Let’s see if we can come to a good result.”

Talking about [1988 solo album] Outrider, you’d done one solo single years before that. Was it quite hard to do that again?

I had a solo single in 1965, and then I had a solo album in 1988, which I thought was pretty good going really, considering I picked up the guitar when I was 13. I still haven’t had another solo album, though there have been collaborations along the way. To do the album was fun, Jason Bonham was playing the drums, which was really cool, John Miles singing. Chris Farlow, who was a superb singer and who I’d admired as a kid. I used to watch his band, he was amazing. It was great to have him on this album. I think now is about the time to do another one.

On [1994 live album] No Quarter, you and Robert Plant went out of your way to work with people from different cultures. Why was it important to do that?

There was a point in 1972 when Robert and I went to Bombay, I was particularly keen to set up a session where we’d go in with Indian musicians and they wouldn’t know who we were, and they wouldn’t know our music, and just see how successful it would be, taking the guitar in there with a translator and see how far you could get. We did two numbers — “Friends,” that Robert sang on, and there’s another, “Four Sticks,” which was done with four sticks, on a double-ended drum and a table, with string players. I realize now it was an incredible thing to do and pull it off.

The book ends by you saying, “It might get louder.” Will there be a solo album?

I don’t want people to think it’s going to get quieter. I’ve been working with all these projects that have been quite lengthy and time-consuming, like the book, the Led Zeppelin releases. All lengthy projects. I have my own agenda, and I knew that the re-releases give me a chance to get a unit together to go out and play live. That’s my master plan now.