There’s a pre-concert vibe outside the Ace Hotel theater in downtown Los Angeles, people spilling off the sidewalk into the street as they wait for the doors to open. Once inside, they jam the bar and try to be heard above the din.
It’s a rock ‘n’ roll crowd, except there’s no band on the card tonight. The draw: a 70-year-old Englishman talking about his new collection of photographs.
Jimmy Page, mastermind of Led Zeppelin, is on a book tour.
Trim as ever, he gets a standing ovation when he comes on stage, elegant in black with his silver hair neatly fixed in a short ponytail. Over the next 90 minutes, the audience hangs on every word as Chris Cornell, the frontman for Zeppelin-evoking Seattle band Soundgarden, projects images from the guitarist’s new photo-autobiography, “Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page” (Genesis Publications), on an overhead screen and asks the guitarist for the stories behind the pictures.
There’s Page as a choirboy, Page as a session guitarist, Page prowling the world’s concert stages with Led Zeppelin, the dominant band of the 1970s and the No. 2 bestselling group of all time after the Beatles. If hard rock had a logo, Page would have a strong claim to be its icon with his mane of black hair, his rail-thin frame and his road-beaten Gibson Les Paul hanging almost to his knees.
Still, Led Zeppelin disbanded 34 years ago after the death of drummer John Bonham, and there has been just a handful of partial reunions since. How then to account for the 1,400 people at the Ace, who have paid $100 or $150 simply to hear its former guitarist talk?
Or how to account for Led Zeppelin cracking the Billboard Top 10 four times — this year — with rereleases of its first four albums, remastered by Page and augmented with alternate takes and mixes?
For the answers, start with the songs.
“The music is memorable. It’s hook heavy. Unlike so many other bands, these songs stand the test of time,” says Bill Sagan, who runs Wolfgang’s Vault, an online retailer of rock memorabilia.
Sagan isn’t a rock critic (many of whom never cared much for Zeppelin anyway), but as a merchant, he knows something about the band’s wide and enduring appeal. In the male-dominated world of hard rock, about 40% of the Led Zep T-shirts he sells are for women. He sells a lot of smaller men’s sizes too, suggesting that teens and young adults are the buyers.
T-shirts are worn to make a statement, he said, and young people looking to project an outlaw image get that with Led Zeppelin.
“When you think of hedonism, you think of Led Zeppelin,” Sagan said. “They had this edge.”
The band’s road antics are, indeed, the stuff of legend. The 1985 bestseller “Hammer of the Gods” by Stephen Davis is a saga of trashed hotel rooms, groupies and controlled substances. Although much of the book has been disputed by band members and others, it no doubt contributed to the group’s notoriety.
There are few glimpses of that in Page’s book, aside from one image of him chugging from a bottle of Jack Daniels backstage at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis in 1975.
“Maybe the photographers couldn’t keep up the pace,” Page says with a smile, sitting down to talk one morning last week.
Page said a book of photos appealed to him more than written memoirs, the route taken by Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Neil Young and others.
“If there were autobiographies of my contemporaries, I would always have a look to see what photographs were in there,” he said. “I’d go straight to the photos. And I think a lot of people are like that.
“I have been approached to do a written book, and I like the idea, but it’s probably something to release posthumously,” he said, his voice turning serious for a moment.
“I want to be able to say everything. Everything.”
Until then, there is the photo book. To support it, Page has done appearances in Paris, London, Tokyo and New York, where artist Jeff Koons interviewed him at the 92nd Street Y.
His book is 512 pages of sweets for Zeppelin fans. The 1970s glory days are there, as is Page playing “Whole Lotta Love” at the 2008 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in Beijing.
Los Angeles is also well represented. There’s a young Page playing the Casino ballroom on Catalina with the Yardbirds in 1966, and epic scenes at Inglewood’s Forum. (Cornell showed one at the Ace event. “You can see it’s full,” Page pointed out, to hearty applause.)
“We had lots of friends here, and there were lots of other musicians here,” Page said earlier in the day. “And there are good music shops for instruments. There’s a guitar shop here called McCabe’s [in Santa Monica]. I went to McCabe’s at the time I came over here the first time in ’65.”
It’s hard to talk about Page without talking about guitars. Rolling Stone ranks him No. 3 on its list of greatest players, after Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Yet it was his skill as a songwriter and producer that seals his place in rock history, said Brad Tolinski, editor of Guitar World magazine and author of “Light & Shade,” a collection of interviews with Page.
“He really is the architect of modern music,” Tolinski said. “His bit of genius wasn’t just as a guitarist — it was how he recorded John Bonham’s drums, and where he put John Bonham in the mix.
“If you go back to the ‘60s, and listen to where the drums and bass were in the mix, they were sub[servient] to the vocals,” he said. “Jimmy pushed the drums way up front, with the guitar and the vocals. What do you hear now on the radio? Why do you think hip-hop sampled Zeppelin early on? It was a profound shift in popular recording.”
So, what about a reunion? Page quickly dismissed reports last week (since discredited) that the band had been offered $800 million to reunite by Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson. “I never saw a contract,” he said.
Led Zeppelin hasn’t played since a one-off 2007 tribute concert for music executive Ahmet Ertegün in London, and singer Robert Plant, after winning multiple Grammys for an album with singer Alison Krauss in 2009, is touring with new songs and a new band.
“We’re talking seven years later, and there hasn’t been any sort of will, if you like, to do that,” Page said of a reunion.
The band’s reissued albums, being released by Warner Music’s Atlantic label, will have to do for now. But why does Page see a need to hear subtly different versions of the same, decades-old songs?
“It presents more information to people about what was going on at the time of the recordings,” Page said. “I was in the studio more often than the others because I was producing the band, so I had far more points of reference that were needed to make this project seriously play. For the recording history of Led Zeppelin, it was my thing to do. For the fans, it gives them more information.”
Some of the alternate takes are stripped-down versions reminiscent of how the band played live, without backing musicians to play the extra guitars and other instruments added in the studio. He pointed to a new cut of the blues number “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
“What you hear is just the four of us going at it,” he said. “It’s fantastic, the energy. It will make your hair stand on end. This is the whole point of having these things out.”
Asked to name his favorite Zeppelin songs, Page demurs. He cites “Achilles Last Stand” as a “guitar epic” and says “Tea for One” features some of his best playing as a lead guitarist.
But favorites? Some songs were more successful than others, he concedes, but that doesn’t make them favorites.
“The Led Zeppelin legacy is that everything that was recorded was recorded for a purpose,” he said. “All of the songs are very different to each other, and that’s undisputed. The motivation behind each track, and the memories behind each track, and the reasoning, and the atmosphere, are very different.”
Still, with his book and reissue project now mostly finished, Page says he’s ready to focus once again on making music.
“I’ve had quite a lot of material under my belt that I haven’t recorded, because I wanted to be really sure that I could really put the blinkers on and really focus on it,” he said. “I think I’ll come back here next year doing my own [music]. I’d be showcasing things from the past, which people know me more, and also I’ve got new music that I’m really, really keen to present. And there would be some surprises.”
At the end of his L.A. swing, Page was feted with a dinner at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood. Ringo Starr was there, along with four of the biggest names in rock guitar — Kirk Hammett of Metallica, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh of the Eagles and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
“The best thing I can say is thanks — thanks for being a ... genius,” Perry said. “He raised the bar on our kind of guitar playing, and our kind of rock ‘n’ roll, and I don’t think anyone’s touched him.”