Jimmy Page: The godfather of rock

As Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page is honoured in London's Rock'n'Roll Walk of Fame, Tim Cooper meets the legend who inspired an entire generation of air guitarists

Friday 27 August 2004 00:00 BST

On the pavement at Piccadilly Circus stands a man with a pen and a faded Led Zeppelin concert ticket from 1975. He's been waiting nearly 30 years to get it signed by his rock idol and it's about to happen - just as soon as Jimmy Page gets his hands out of wet cement.

This is the sort of devotion Page still inspires, and why he was chosen to inaugurate this week Britain's first Rock'n'Roll Walk of Fame, leaving his hand-prints outside the former Tower Records, now re-branded as the capital's flagship Virgin Megastore.

Page might be an old man now, but his legacy is immense. He has sold more than 200 million albums and he played on countless Sixties hits, drew the blueprint for heavy metal, and inspired countless teen-agers to pick up their first guitar.

Not that you'd know it to look at him. Now in the lobby of a business hotel in Slough, where he has chosen to conduct this interview, the multi-millionaire rock god cuts a strangely nondescript figure. Once, a visit to a hotel would not have been complete without him smashing up a room and throwing the television out of the window. Today, shuff- ling about in shabby jeans and an anorak, it's mainly his scruffiness that sets him apart from the businessmen checking messages before their morning meetings.

Page, the guitarist with Led Zeppelin, was one of the wildest men in rock - the prototype for the lead guitarists lampooned in films such as Spinal Tap, Almost Famous and Still Crazy. But now, at 60 years old, he is catching up on some of the things that he missed during those decades of excess. Clearly he has different priorities to sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Hence our breakfast meeting.

He has, he announces cheerily, been up since six o'clock to get his children ready for school. He says his principal pastime now is parenthood. "I've got three small children," he explains from beneath a dyed-black mop of curls crowning a crinkly, lived-in face. "That passes the time. And I enjoy it."

By his own admission, he wasn't around much for his eldest daughter, Scarlet, because he had other things on his mind in the early Seventies - chiefly a mission to explore the very essence of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Page embraced the lifestyle with particular enthusiasm. Led Zep's favourite groupie, Pamela Des Barres, thoughtfully chronicled some of the highlights in her book Rock Bottom, a compelling compendium of true-life sexual perversion, drugs and violence. She revealed, for example, that Page enjoyed dressing up in Nazi uniform and visiting transvestite clubs in each city Led Zeppelin played, taking drugs with drag queens in the toilets. When his behaviour got particularly uncontrollable, she added, the band's tour manager would take him back to his hotel room and chain him to the toilet - with a groupie, if it was his lucky day - until it was time to move on.

Although Page remains close to Scarlet, now 33 and a respected rock photographer, he admits he regrets his absence from her childhood. "In those early years of my daughter's life I was not physically there for her. I missed all those precious moments in a child's life: getting their first teeth, taking their first steps and all that. I have made a point of not missing out on any of that this time."

Despite having five children from three different relationships, including three with his current partner, Jimena, he tries to fulfil his paternal duties to all of them. Last year he organised his hectic schedule, mastering and promoting Led Zeppelin's live DVD and CD, to ensure he did not miss his teenage son James's high school graduation in Florida. "Every Christmas we are all together, all the mums and all the children," he smiles. "We are a close-knit family."

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It sounds a far cry from the Led Zep days of debauchery, but Page stubbornly (and somewhat implausibly) insists that, despite the band's drug-crazed hell-raising and trail-blazing around the globe in the 1970s - when they were without doubt the biggest band in the world - they were all "family men" at heart. It is this, he claims, that kept them together from their formation in London in 1968 to the death of their drummer, John Bonham, in 1980. "The four members of Led Zeppelin were very different characters in their lifestyles, and that's what made them tick. Two lived in the South and two lived in the Midlands and, apart from when we got together to do rehearsals and write and record, we were all family men with separate lives. Yet when the four members bonded together musically, it brought out this different, fifth, element."

He recalls with perfect clarity their very first rehearsal and the first song they played together - "Train Kept a Rollin'" - along with his reaction. "When it finished it was scary. None of us had played with our musical equals until that point." After Bonham's death, there was never any question about Led Zeppelin continuing. "We had to stop as a mark of respect to John's contribution. We could not have gone on without him. It would have been dishonest. Nobody else could have fitted into his role."

A couple of years ago Page was "really peeved" to read in the newspapers that a Led Zeppelin reunion tour had been announced. It was the first he, or the other remaining members, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones, had heard of it. "None of us had even discussed it - and we still haven't," he says, going on to disappoint all those who dream that it may yet happen. "I thought how awful and dreary that somebody seriously thinks a band would promote what they did 30 years before with a tour. It would be ludicrous. I am not going to go back out on the road simply because someone has booked a tour, or someone says you will earn multi-millions of dollars out of it. We haven't talked about it and we haven't even discussed talking about it."

Not one to spin nostalgic anecdotes about Led Zeppelin's drug-and-groupie-fuelled heyday, Page evades all such inquiries, only remarking cryptically that: "When you came offstage after three-and-a-half hours of intensity, it was not really on the cards that you would go home, put your slippers on and have a cup of cocoa."

There is, though, perhaps a middle ground between reading a book before bedtime and touring transvestite clubs in Nazi uniform in search of cross-dressing drug buddies. But each to their own.

It is this sort of thing that lends itself so splendidly to parody, but I'm not sure that Page himself is best equipped to appreciate it. He thought Almost Famous put a "rather charming" spin on somewhat sordid events, but confesses he found Spinal Tap "close to the bone". He adds: "I definitely recognised the band politics - people getting puffed-up and self-important."

In view of this it is perhaps surprising that when punk arrived, in 1977, he identified with the explosion of energy that revitalised a moribund scene dominated by over-blown, self-indulgent dinosaurs such as, er, Led Zeppelin. He was one of the few of rock's old guard to check out the new bands, though I can also recall the Led Zep singer, Robert Plant, turning up at a gig at the Roxy one night in those early days, attracting sneers that still failed to mask the excitement of seeing a rock superstar in the flesh.

"I remember going to see The Damned and I became really friendly with [the drummer] Rat Scabies - I even played with him once," says Page. The energy of punk reminded him of Led Zeppelin, he says, and of the music that had inspired him. "I tapped into the same energy in the 1950s when I heard people such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. And I hear it now in The White Stripes."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Page keeps in touch with contemporary music, having recently watched - and enjoyed - The White Stripes, Korn and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and is currently planning an album with guest musicians, along the lines of the recent Santana albums. He has even revised his initial verdict on rap ("They steal your riffs and then shout at you") since collaborating with Puff Daddy on his hip-hop adaptation of the Led Zep song "Kashmir". "It was a real privilege working with him," he says, although they never met, the partnership being conducted entirely by satellite link between Page in London and Puffy in LA. "He has incredible energy and a great imagination."

Page still regards music as a hobby. He always has, even when he was a teenage session guitarist playing on records by The Rolling Stones ("Heart of Stone"), The Who ("Can't Explain"), Them ("Baby Please Don't Go"), Lulu ("Shout"), Tom Jones, Donovan, The Tremelos and Herman's Hermits. "I was fortunate enough to turn it into my career, with the added good fortune that it made people happy and inspired some of them to pick up a guitar," he says. "That makes me a very fortunate man."

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