Jimmy Page, Unlikely Guitar Hero

Jimmy Page, the revered ex-Led Zeppelin guitarist, was standing on the small balcony of a suite in a posh Beverly Hills hotel on a recent afternoon, leaning against a chest-high railing and peering at the ground 14 floors below.

The idea of jumping--as an option to being interviewed again--may have crossed his mind. That's how much he hates meeting the press.

Page had just finished one interview with MTV, but now was sentenced to another. He was subjecting himself to this torture to help promote his first solo album, "Outrider," on Geffen Records.

Since Zeppelin split up in 1980, Page has been involved in several projects --including the "Death Wish II" score and a band called the Firm. But this is his first full-fledged solo album.

"I had to do some interviews this time," said Page, who rarely talks to the media. "I want people to know about this album."

Page looked sort of green, the shade some people turn when they're about to throw up. But he was just nervous. Smiling through a sickly expression, he thoughtfully characterized the new album:

"It's a guitar album with some vocals. It shows many sides of me--blues, rock 'n' roll, etc. I use three different singers--Robert Plant, John Miles and Chris Farlow. They help me express all these sides. There's variety and all sorts of textures."

He paused, apparently for emphasis, and then added: "It's not Zeppelin. If you want that you have to look somewhere else. I'm not into doing the same old riffs."

The track that will probably get the most attention is "The Only One," featuring former Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant. It's probably as close to old Zeppelin as is possible now. Original bassist John Paul Jones doesn't play on it, but the drummer is Jason Bonham, son of the late Zep drummer John Bonham.

"First I did the instrumental track and sent it to Robert," Page said of "The Only One." "I wanted to get him involved. He wrote some lyrics that were just right for the track."

Why did Page wait so long to do a proper solo album?

"I had to gear myself up to do it," he replied haltingly. "That took a while. This just seemed like the right time. People say I should have done one a long time ago, but it didn't seem right a long time ago.

"Anyway, I've never had a burning desire for a solo career. I did an album. That's all."

Page may be the most unlikely guitar hero around. Playing lead guitar in the world of rock is a rough trade--generally requiring aggression, arrogance and a whopping ego. Wimps need not apply. Shy guys neither.

So how did Page become a guitar hero with a stature approaching that of Jimi Hendrix? How does such an achingly shy, gentle man make all that thunderous, room-quaking music?

"I express myself through music," Page replied. "I let the guitar do the talking for me. I don't talk as well as I play. There are two sides of me. The acoustic guitar expresses the more mellow side of me. The electric guitar expresses the aggressive side of me. Now my life is more on the acoustic side, shall we say."

At 44, Page, despite the gray on the edges of his sideburns, doesn't look particularly old. Nor does he look like a ravaged rock 'n' roller, though he noted, "I've been through a hell of a lot since I started in this business way back when."

That was in England in the mid-1960s, when he was a young hot-shot guitarist. In 1966, he joined the Yardbirds, which then featured another hot-shot guitarist, Jeff Beck. When that band flamed out in 1968, Page recruited Plant, Jones and Bonham for a bluesy hard-rock band that was dubbed Led Zeppelin.

This group flew high with its first album, 1968's smash "Led Zeppelin." Page's inventive guitar playing, Plant's soulful wailing and Bonham's crashing drumming were the core of a mighty sound that ruled rock until 1980, when the band called it quits after Bonham's death. Zeppelin was gone but the legend has lingered on.

Heavy metal has been hot for the last few years, and interest has been rekindled in Zeppelin, one of the pioneer bands in the genre. All today's high-flying groups, from Poison to Whitesnake to Kingdom Come, owe a debt to Zeppelin.

Classic-rock radio has also fueled the Zeppelin legend. Young metalmaniacs are so familiar with the 1971 Zeppelin classic "Stairway to Heaven," you'd think it was a recent release.

"I'm flattered that the music we did so long ago is still relevant today," Page said.

But he didn't have any unusual insights into Zeppelin's greatness. He cited one familiar element: "Chemistry. That's all I can think of. Four talented guys playing with a chemistry that worked. Why it worked for us the way it did I can't say. People are always looking for concrete reasons for things that there are no concrete reasons for."

No session with an ex-Zeppelin member is complete without some digging for dirt. After all, this was the most notorious band in rock 'n' roll. Along with the Rolling Stones, they pioneered bratty, obnoxious behavior among rock stars. They had trashing hotel rooms down to a fine art. Any book on rock 'n' roll rowdyism would have to be dominated by Zeppelin exploits. Whenever anyone talks about the terrible trio--drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll--there are invariably references to Zeppelin.

But how much of all this is true and how much is myth?

"A lot of things happened in those days that were interesting," Page said, downplaying what many claim was a decade's worth of sheer decadence. "Some of it was wild, some of it was fun. I've been in the gossip columns, I've made many mistakes along the line and I've paid accordingly for them."

What mistakes? Inquiring minds want to know. "Just mistakes," he replied. "Things I did at the time that weren't too smart." That's all, no details.

Page's relationship with Plant has been rocky over the years. But Page volunteered only a mild, "He's a great singer and I've always enjoyed working with him."

Page obviously doesn't like having the old days dredged up. The seamier parts of his past, he suggested, are better left buried. Now the father of a baby boy and living in quiet elegance near London, he apparently prefers the simple, conservative life.

That afternoon Page was avoiding all controversy, even passing on an opportunity to talk about Whitesnake and Kingdom Come, bands that have borrowed heavily from Zeppelin. He didn't even dignify these groups with a comment.

Page loves touring.

The last time he was on the road was with the Firm, a band he formed with singer Paul Rodgers for two albums in 1985 and '86. This fall, he'll tour with his new band, including drummer Jason Bonham, bassist Durban Laverde and singer-keyboardist John Miles.

"The show will span years and styles," Page explained. "It will be mainly a guitar showcase. I'll do old stuff and stuff from the new album.

"People will see in the show that I'm not avoiding Zeppelin. That's part of my heritage. I'm proud of it."

Surprisingly, for a man who loves touring, Page has to battle stage fright. "That will never go away," he said. "I get terribly nervous before I go on stage. I get wound up into a knot. I have to psych myself up to go on stage."

But the joy of performing, he insisted, compensates for any pre-show terror. "Once I get on stage the tension explodes and I'm fine. I'm in another world--in a trance almost, doing what I love best, expressing myself through guitar."

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