Thursday, November 15, 2007

Three books with the word "magus" in the title. Part III: Magus Musician Man

"Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man An Unauthorized Biography" by George Case. It's a book about Jimmy Page! I paid full price for this one.

Note the punctuation on the title page. The front cover has no commas, or indeed any other punctuation. I suspect this was an artistic decision, in order to avoid an outbreak of measles on an otherwise cool flat black cover. One problem with this approach is that I read it as "Magus musician man", which sounds like a Mike Nesmith song title to me, and on some occasions, I've misread it as "Magoo's musician man", which brings even worse images to mind.

Not that the images inside are unpleasant – in fact, it contains some of the most beautiful photos of Jimmy Page I've ever seen, and I've seen hundreds. Its high production values do stand out – the great cover, great photos, good typesetting and remarkably well-formed (or at least well-edited) prose for a fan-written book. Case's overall structure and paragraph-to-paragraph editing work very well. I have one quibble with him, because I couldn't prove I've read it all the way through otherwise, and that's his use of 'said-bookisms'. Many of the quotes from Page are finished with tags like "he spoke", "he revealed", "he recognized", "he remarked" and "he confessed". By the end of the book I was grinding my teeth. "He said" is adequate for a quotation from another source, and as it's an entirely invisible phrase, it's almost required usage in a book-length collection of quotes.

Which leads me on to the major limitation of this book: The author had no access to the subject, and the entire book is therefore based on the author's knowledge of music and his review of thousands of articles, videos and recorded works by the artist. Case seems more than usually trustworthy, but he does use very short quotes and occasionally welds together, inside the same set of quotation marks, two quotes on (ostensibly) the same subject from different interviews. I think this is very dangerous. I know I use varying definitions of the same word when I speak over the course of a few minutes, never mind over the course of 47 years. You have to trust Case to be absolutely sure that Jimmy is talking about the exact same thing in both instances, because you don't get any context. (And I don't. Everyone makes mistakes, particularly when they're sifting quotes after putting a framework together in their minds.) Even single-origin quotes bother me, because they can be used to back up any thesis by careful selection. Once again, 47 or so years of quotes add up to a large body of spoken words – selection bias can easily occur, even if the biographer does not intend to distort a person's meaning.

As just one example, Case quotes something that supports his belief that during the 1977 tour, Page was strung out. "The good Doctor Badgley was said to have asked Page about some Quaaludes missing from his medical valise – "Accusing me? Who the fuck does he think is paying his salary?" the guitarist shot back." (p. 151) (The reference is to Dave Lewis, Led Zeppelin, The Tight but Loose Files – Celebration II, 2003.) But another source I've read states, "In commenting on an incident where some quaaludes were missing from infamous tour doctor Larry Badgley's bag, Jimmy said, "I don't know who the doctor thinks he is, asking me if I took his drugs, especially now, when this is the first time I've been healthy in years."" (Attributed to 'Creem' Magazine writer Jaan Uhelszki.) Now, I'm not saying that Case is wrong – just that life is complicated.

What I particularly like about the book – apart from the pictures – is Case's brief and tidy musical explanations. He seems to have a good idea why each Led Zeppelin song worked as well as it did, and have a knack for getting that across to people like me who can barely strum a guitar. He does tend to use a bit of jargon but each term – EQ, DI – is followed by a one sentence explanation that will ensure you can find it on teh intarwebs if you're interested.

Case is a conscientious documenter, moving from Page's youth, early touring and studio work, through a detailed curriculum vitae of Led Zeppelin, and through the solo years subsequent to that. He does seem to linger a bit over the ohmygoshoccultmagicwhatgives aspect, but less so than the other books I've read. (I read the sensational ones because I like sensation – there's my selection bias.) Then again, he couldn't have called it Magus Musician Man if he hadn't gone into the Crowley thing – and I wouldn't be talking about it here if the book had been called Jimmy Page: Musician Man. He's brief with the groupie history but very focused on drugs. He seems to want to be fair to Page's family life, but since Page is schtum on the subject, he has nothing to go on. He covers Page's charity work, OBE and latter days up to the end of 2006.

So what is Page's story, assuming that he is really 'there' under the sketch created by artful re-arrangements of his words? It's a fairly typical one. Immeasurably talented young boy, loves Elvis (or rather Scotty Moore), joins a band, finds fame and fortune, does a spectacular amount of sex and drugs, cleans up just before death sets in, then becomes a family man and elder statesman, floating amongst the richocracy as stately as a galleon, bearing an OBE and adored by legions of fans (e.g. me).

Both of the magus books in this series of reviews so far have concerned death and rebirth – of base metals into gold, of Urfe into an initiate, and in this case Page from a very complex, beautiful and accomplished young man into quite an ordinary man. [**Note] Rock music in general does seem to produce this progression, this reversal of the Monomyth, a journey downhill. The Monomyth concerns a proto-hero who is called by the gods themselves to undergo an extraordinary adventure, who succeeds and brings a boon back to his people. The typical rock course is from a proto-hero who is called by the gods themselves to undergo an extraordinary adventure, and who becomes an ordinary bloke called by his wife from down the pub at closing time.

I think the public likes it this way, and that's one reason why we watch and cheer from the sidelines, consuming a million VH1 specials and tell-all paperbacks. Hollywood loves to focus on the Campbellian heroes, saving their universe from the forces of chaos and risking the loss of their humanity in the process. But in rock, it seems, many people like to see someone gorgeous attempt to steal fire from the gods, get almost there; then come back, marry the girl next door and start going to local council meetings.

Bathos, baby, bathos.

Rating: If you have about $18 and you adore Jimmy Page, this is the magus book you need on your shelves.

[**Note] Edit to add. I've changed my mind about the ordinary thing. For an updated comment and video proof, see the post for 29th December HERE.

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