Wanna be a rock star? Career advice from Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White
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Whether they’re nuclear physicists, poets or archeologists, it’s always fascinating to put people who practice the same craft together in the same room and get them talking. That’s pretty much the concept behind Davis Guggenheim’s new film, ‘It Might Get Loud,’ which is playing in New York and L.A., then heading to 12 more cities on Labor Day weekend. Instead of interviewing astronauts or molecular biologists, Guggenheim chose three world-class guitarists -- Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White -- who not only play some wonderful music together but ponder their place in the world as well.
The movie is full of sly humor and oddball personal revelations. White, who worked as an apprentice in an upholstery shop, made one of his first records as a member of an obscure Detroit band called the Upholsterers. Page, who for years was rockdom’s dark prince of black magic and self-indulgence as the maestro of Led Zeppelin, spent years as a young studio hired hand, handing out a business card that read: James Patrick Page -- Session Guitarist. (He even played on Shirley Bassey’s 1964 hit, ‘Goldfinger.’)
Not only do the guitarists have totally different musical styles but entirely different looks. In a bow tie and bowler hat, using a hammer and nail to build a makeshift guitar, White has the air of a frontier tradesman in a Mark Twain story. With his black skull cap, goatee and intense dark eyes, the Edge looks like a jewel thief from a Guy Ritchie movie. Page, who’s now 65, is the most elegant of all. Sitting in the back seat of a town car, with his long white hair, black frock coat and ramrod-straight bearing, he looks like a distinguished London barrister on his way to court.
Of course, their real passion is music, which constantly makes its presence felt in the film, whether it’s Page playing air guitar to his favorite old Link Wray instrumental or White being transported when he hears the Son House delta blues tune that changed his life. As White says in the film: ‘When you dig a little deeper in rock ‘n’ roll, you’re on a freight train straight to the blues.’ But what fueled the passion that drove these artists to such heights? I wanted to hear more about their formative years -- the years before they were such familiar legends. Who inspired them? What shaped their love for music? What obstacles did they overcome? What pitfalls have they avoided?
Here are some excerpts from my interviews with the three guitar heroes at the center of ‘It Might Get Loud.’
The Edge: U2 met in high school at Mount Temple, which changed our lives. We’d rehearse every day after school in a classroom after we first cleared away all the desks to the side. It’s about 3 1/2 miles from the Dublin city center in the northern suburbs. There were both well-to-do and tough working-class areas nearby, so we got to mix it up with kids from all sorts of different economic backgrounds, from kids whose dads were professionals and kids whose dads might’ve been in jail. We were in the right place at the right time. Punk rock had come along when we were very impressionable and we all came to the conclusion, despite scant evidence that we had any real talent, that this was what we wanted to do with our lives. We just grabbed it and said, ‘That’s it. We can do this!’
Jack White: I’m the youngest of 10 kids and my mother was the youngest of 10 kids too. I’m still trying to figure out how it influenced me. All I know is, growing up with all those other brothers and sisters, it was like having 10 parents. I’m not sure what was a positive about it and was a negative, but I know it definitely gave me a level of drive and ambition. I certainly wasn’t always going to be a musician. In fact, when I was 14, I got accepted into the seminary in Wisconsin. I was ready to move, but at the last minute, I decided to go to public school in Detroit, just to get some more experience in life. I never had the pull toward the seminary again. But I guess I’ve always had this sense of unwilling leadership -- that it was my job to get up on a soapbox and have something to say. If you listen to the history of music, you could argue that it’s not that much different, preaching or playing music. It’s usually all the same topics.
Jimmy Page: That old clip of me in the movie, as a kid on TV, saying I wanted to go into biological research. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a bit of camouflage, really. I could never have done it. I wasn’t a rebel or anything. I left school after taking my exams and I remember my dad saying, ‘I’d really be keen if you’d keep up your academic subjects.’ But it wasn’t a battle -- my father never banned the guitar or harmonica. I just wanted to play in bands and it was like regular work for me, even as a teenager. Five days a week, three or four hours a day. I did go to art college for a while, but it was all about modern art. I was disappointed. I wanted to study oil painting, you know, to have something to do for my twilight years.
The Edge: Punk changed our lives. The first band I heard was the Stranglers, then the Jam on ‘Top of the Pops’ on Thursday night. After that, we started getting all the music magazines -- we called them ‘the Inkies’ -- so we could learn about what was going on. There were certain records, like ‘Horses’ by Patti Smith and Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot,’ and anything by the Ramones, that had a huge impact. You’d spend hours and hours, just listening to them, soaking everything up. And then came the Clash. We saw them in 1978 at Trinity College in an examination hall -- no seats, standing room only. Seeing the bands live changed everything. The music wasn’t just more affecting, but you could feel the raw energy and the commitment. Most important, it was music we felt we could play. We actually learned a bunch of Ramones songs, which we pretended were ours to get us our first gig on an Irish TV show.
Jack White: Blues meant everything to me. It really felt like the truth to me, as if you’d stripped rock ‘n’ roll down to its basic elements -- aluminum and copper. It gave me something to hold on to. And it turned out that it was who I wanted to be. The struggle was -- how do I use this music? I didn’t want to be a white guy at a blues festival, a tourist -- what Davis Guggenheim calls a ‘note pusher’ -- doing a sports bar version of the classic blues from the South. But the kind of music I loved made me an outcast in Detroit. When I grew up there, in the ‘80s, it was a minefield. There was Prince and Guns ‘N Roses -- and otherwise, just a lot of bad music. No one in my neighborhood liked Guns ‘N Roses. All the white music had left Detroit and gone to the suburbs. If I would play guitar on my front porch, everyone would make fun of me. I guess I just took the hard road for no reason. I don’t know why I didn’t just get a turntable and a pair of Adidas like everybody else.
Jimmy Page: If it was punk rock that opened up the Edge’s eyes, for me it was the blues. It was rock ‘n’ roll before there was rock ‘n’ roll. I still love the first Muddy Waters album that I bought. I play it all the time. I learned how to play bottleneck guitar listening over and over to an Elmore James record. Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Johnson -- to me they were artists, just like great painters. They created a whole world with their music. Our biggest problem, and this was true of myself and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, was when we were young, we didn’t have enough money to pay for both our guitars and our records, so I befriended a guy on my street who collected blues records and listened to his. The first time the Yardbirds went to the U.S., we went to Chicago and headed straight to the blues clubs to see Magic Sam and Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. I think they were happy to see us, because the only other outsiders who’d been there were some nerdy record collectors from Sweden.
Jack White: I am suspicious of technology. I only record on reel-to-reel tape. I appreciate moving parts. With digital, nothing is moving, so it’s like everything is dead. It used to be that every band recorded with the same equipment, so if they sounded different, it was a different style -- they came at it from a different angle. Today, if you see a beautiful photograph, the first thing that comes into your head is: Is it Photoshop? It’s the same thing as listening to a band and thinking -- they were just using Pro Tools. To me, those are the toys that are destroying the music business because it destroys a musician’s devotion to his craft.
Jimmy Page: I come at it from a different direction than Jack. For me, learning how to use tape echo and all sorts of technology that were new, at least when I was young, were great learning experiences. But I agree that craft is important. Being a session guitarist was my apprenticeship. I was self-taught, so being in the studio, playing jazz one day, rock the next, then Top 20 tripe, I had to learn how to read music to do the job. But that was a huge step forward, because I realized that once you could read music, you could write it too.
The Edge: It’s all about how you use technology. Most of my amps and guitars are older than I am, but I like them because they’re better made, not just because they’re old. In most of the tech world, people are focused on fidelity. But to me, what’s important is creating music that’s emotionally engaging. In U2, we abuse technology. With ‘Achtung Baby,’ we purposefully used technology to distort our guitars and amps and sound to the point where a lot of people who bought the album took it back to the store, thinking it was defective. But we weren’t interested in pristine fidelity. I guess what the three of us all have in common, for different reasons, is a restlessness. We’re all trying to get at this unattainable sound in our heads. You need tension, something at odds with itself, to make good music. Whenever it’s easy or straightforward, it’s boring. It’s why playing in a band is such a great thing, because everyone is after something different, which often takes you somewhere unexpected, which is usually the most interesting place of all.