I must admit that my most commercially successful book to date owes its popularity to the subject – a legendary rock star who’d long been an enigma to fans – more than the author. In 2005 I had been shopping around a general overview of the classic rock genre for some time, but a Canadian literary agent I approached with my proposal offered me an opportunity to write something else for Hal Leonard, a US publishing house specializing in music. An unauthorized biography of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page? A personal hero and influence on my amateur guitar playing since my teens? For actual money? Houses of the Holy Shit yeah!
The resultant work, Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man, was a strong seller in hardcover upon release in 2007, leading to a revised and updated paperback edition in 2009, and has subsequently been translated into Japanese and Polish. Although there has since been issued a small library of Zeppelin-related titles (including two further biographies of Page himself), at the time there was precious little informative, adult text available on the topic, and Magus met a hitherto unmet demand among legions of Boomer and Gen X followers. My goal with the book was to present a detailed summary of a life and oeuvre for a mature readership rather than the adolescent devotees who’d lapped up salacious fare like the big previous Zeppelin bio, 1985’s Hammer of the Gods (full disclosure: I was one of them). In writing about rock ‘n’ roll and pop culture generally, a passage from my introduction has been my dictum ever since: “Many accounts of popular entertainers’ careers tend to drift toward fandom, awash with unreferenced superlatives and unverified feats of publicity…and never quite coming to terms with the imperfect, even ordinary, individuals at their center.”
Without any access to Page himself, Magus relied on mostly secondary sources, but I was able to seek out some obscure materials which offered a range of biographical insights not normally available to conventional rock journalists; when I wrote I was employed in the Fine Arts and History division of the Vancouver Public Library, which gave me unlimited access to books, magazines, electronic journal databases, and other research documents I’d probably never have come across otherwise – a newspaper clipping of Page’s 1984 cocaine bust offered a priceless quote from a British judge: “You must realize that to dabble with drugs of this nature is entirely wrong, especially when you are associating with other members of the music world, because it may well influence them to take drugs if you yourself use them.” This helped immensely when crafting the chronology of Page’s less publicized pre- and post-Zeppelin years. As a guitarist, I could also spend some time focusing on Page’s equipment and techniques, the nuts and bolts of his art which many biographers gloss over but which Ian MacDonald’s brilliant Beatles book Revolution In the Head proved could (and should) be made accessible to serious listeners.
Critical and popular response to Magus since 2007 has been generally good; I collected warm reviews in a variety of forums and won a Certificate of Merit for Research in Recorded Rock Music from the US Association for Recorded Sound Collections – not quite the Nobel Prize for Literature, but the certificate still looks nice on my wall. Some hardcore Zep people were dismayed by the lack of inside scoops, or quibbled over my findings re Page’s instruments or stage outfits, but most welcomed my relatively understated perspective on a story usually told in wildly overstated terms. I’ve seen the title cited in other rock books’ bibliographies, and I’ve connected with numerous Zeppelin fans and researchers to discuss the minutiae of guitars, arrangements, and performances. Whether Jimmy Page himself has read it I don’t know, but he has put out his own book of personal photos, Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page, perhaps wanting to get his share of what’s become a significant market. After all, the Magus and the Musician is still a Man.
Next week: Arcadia Borealis: Childhood and Youth in Northern Ontario
An awesome book that impressed me from the first page. And it was the book that introduced me to George Case, Author — definitely a bonus for me.