Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sour Grapes

A Biography of Led Zeppelin When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall, Orion Books UK 2008

I finished Mick Wall's book. It's long, 450 pages not including the indexes, but has little new to say. It covers the early gigging days of the individuals in Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin's formation in great detail, the life of the band in good detail and then hurries through the post-Zeppelin days touching briefly on the times when Zeppelin members played together and hardly at all on solo efforts. At the end, there's an astonishingly bitter wrap-up taking in the 02 Led Zeppelin Reunion in 2007 and Jimmy Page's current life. There are a few pictures, all of them in common circulation, some with weird captions that make sense after you've read the text but don't relate to the picture at all. (e.g. one picture of Jimmy Page onstage wearing his Poppy Suit and playing a Les Paul is captioned, "Riding Caesar's chariot on the '77 US tour. According to one journalist, Jimmy 'sauntered unsteadily into the room on obscenely thin legs.'" Caesar's Chariot is the plane Led Zeppelin chartered to get them around the US for the tour. What Caesar's chariot with a small 'c' may be is anyone's guess.)

It starts off hopeful and positive and as it wends its way to the present day it becomes more and more negative, ending up in a sour blast at Jimmy Page and (unusually, as he's generally untouchable) taking some digs at Robert Plant. How did a man like Mick Wall, who wanted to write a better book than the zany, entertaining but hopelessly tabloid-oriented Hammer of the Gods (by Stephen Davis) end up focusing on drugs, curses and deaths, with an unpleasant side order of shit-stirring between Plant and Page in the last few hundred words?

The book needs a copy editor – or rather another one, since he mentions on his blog that he had one. Wall's workmanlike prose is mostly serviceable, but he has a tendency to dangle participles, misplace his modifiers and occasionally use a word that means the opposite of what he intended. The lack of attention means we get text like, "Situated along a steep track that leads through a ravine, when Jimmy and Robert arrived at Bron-Yr-Aur in May they found a stone dwelling so derelict it had no electricity, running water or sanitation." The mind runs in circles trying to reconcile Jimmy and Robert simultaneously arriving and being situated.

Of Plant's car crash he says, "Landing on top of Maureen, the impact shattered Plant's right ankle and elbow," and there's a sentence beginning, "A former member of the Tornadoes, a week later the whole band joined Hale for a surprise forty-five minute set at the club". We also get, "you'd recommended your old friend Jeff, who was just sat around", as though Jeff Beck was a stuffed rabbit; "such laughingly prudish tomes as Hammer of the Gods", instead of laughably; and the younger Jagger described as "no less malleable" than Mick Jagger when Wall means no more malleable.

There's more; I stopped writing them down after a while, but I do have to mention the sentence that concerns a revamp of Train Kept A-Rollin' which "again found the band bending over backwards to rein in their natural inclination to stretch out". Right. Oh, and the description of promoters prior to Bill Graham "herding the kids… like cabbages."

Fact-wise, who knows? I can't be bothered to check it against the Dave Lewis tomes that Zeppelin historians use as date references. When it comes to my own pet subjects, I can do a little better. Wall refers to "Bulmer Lytton" instead of Bulwer Lytton (p. 400), refers to Jimmy Page's ring cast in the shape of an Ouroboros, a snake eating its tail, as "a symbol synonymous with 'evil' throughout all conventional religions" (p. 429), states that a plea of "nolo contender" (sic) means "I will not plead guilty" ('nolo contendere' actually means "no contest") (p. 382), and calls the Boston Gliderdrome the Gilderdrome (p. 361).

He also quotes something from Peter Makowski's interview with Page which makes no sense at all. "You have Isis who would correlate to the early religions. Isis is the equivalent of man worshipping man, which is now where we have Buddha and Christ and all the rest of it, like the three ages. And then the child is Horus, which is the age of the child. Which is pretty much the new age as it was seen." (p. 305) Simple addition shows Page's quote has been garbled - the only ages mentioned are Isis and Horus, but Page says there are three. Page must have actually said something like, "You have Isis who would correlate to the early religions. Osiris is the equivalent of man worshipping man, which is now, where we have Buddha and Christ and all the rest of it. Like the three ages, and then the child is Horus, which is the age of the child."

You can't blame Wall for the quote but if he had really studied up on Page's beliefs you'd think he would have found a better way to explain this fundamental tenet. Alas no: when a similar concept comes up elsewhere, in Bonham's three-intersecting-circles symbol, Wall calls them a "man-wife-child trilogy" (instead of "triad" p. 250) and goes on to say, "It represents the three evolutionary ages, Osiris (past), Isis (present) and Horus (future)". Perhaps Mick Wall is a Mariolator. Most of the rest of us, including Crowley, were under the impression that our currently sanctioned gods are male and the mother-gods lost ground some time ago.

On page 221, after consulting his tame occultist, he says that the Golden Dawn (Uncle Aleister's outfit) is based on ideas from the book of Enoch, "angels who consented to fall from heaven that they might have intercourse with the daughters of earth [causing] the birth of Magic", without Wall appearing to realize that the same story is also in Genesis, and is the ultimate source of the title of his book.

Genesis 6: 4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

He gives the reason for the title as only, "(I)t was actually called: When Giants Walked The Earth. Which is kind of how I look back on those times now. A time of real rock giants, not false gods like Oasis or whoever your current favourite bad boys are but your actual great beasts like Zep, the Stones, The Who... " I don't know why that lack of cross-referencing to Enoch bothers me, but it does, especially as he says "great beasts" in there too.

On the other hand, the book's high word-count means that Wall is free to spend a lot of time going through the band's history in detail. This is the selling point of this book – you couldn't wish for someone to pack in more facts on the Yardbirds, Peter Grant, the history of Tin Pan Alley management in general, and the fighting, intimidation, pushing and shoving that gets a band to the top. The scene setting for the early sixties is superb and even though I've read my share of pop biographies, Wall managed to tell me something new, or at least put something a more striking way, every few pages. His description of Led Zeppelin as a band appealing to youngsters, not the officially empowered arbiters of cool, the older hippies, really hadn't been brought home to me before. A simple mention of a mobile pie stall had me back in England in the sixties in a second. The description of the angry, regret-filled sessions for Presence gave me a deeper understanding of that record. Describing the lack of activism in British hippies (who had no Vietnam to radicalize them) Wall mentions the Oz obscenity trial in 1971 concerning cartoon Rupert Bear's sexual exploits, and he quotes commentator Andrew Marr as saying, "A teddy bear with a stiffy: it rather sums up Britain's answer to revolution." Now that's context – loved it.

Where this contextualization wavers is in the second-person sections. When Wall wants us to understand what a person (Peter Grant, say, or John Paul Jones) was thinking, he puts in an italicized passage addressing the reader as "you". This is a tough sell at the best of times, because "you" find yourself being ordered about by the book and resenting it. That is, if you can figure out who you are.

This means they misjudge you, seeing only the smooth surface. You know this but are unconcerned. Let others say and do what they will, what's it to you? Ideal material for 'unsung hero' status, over the years most people will see only the bass guitar you carry…

Aha! Bass guitar! I am John Paul Jones!

It doesn't help that the "you" sequences are out of sync. As the narrative advances to the present day, "you" are still talking about the time "you" first met the others, "your" session-man days and "your" first tours.

Most of these sections are in "authentic" accents, so there's lots of swearing when you are Peter Grant - lots of nice well-turned prose if you're JPJ. The first is quite wearing, but what's wrong, really wrong, with second person is the overall tone. It's the tone of a whiner. The person who says "you" when talking about himself is almost always a whiner. In my inner ear, these myriad passages all sound like Have Your Say commenters. "You work all your life, scraping and saving, don't you, and these immigrants come over here, take your job and draw the fuckin' dole, don't they?"

And that's the bitter, regret-filled tone the remainder of the book takes. It begins by telling you that Led Zeppelin was magic, Peter Grant was wonderful, Jimmy Page was clever, and then it begins a kamikaze power-dive into the toilet bowl. Drugs are not so much mentioned as dwelled upon at length. Groupies, whips and violence are mentioned prominently. Jimmy Page's interest in the occult is parlayed into a deep, inescapable trap that ultimately dooms him to suffer forever. Robert's car accident is shown as fated, inevitable in some way. The violence at Oakland in 1977 is foreshadowed. Bonzo's death is made to seem fitting, part of some cosmic plan. And when Led Zeppelin are broken up, Mick Wall starts to put the boot in 4rlz. Everything Page does post-Zeppelin is bound to fail, because Kenneth Anger's curse is on him. Robert has been given the magic gift of determining the future for Page, because his "no" to a reunion is more powerful than Jimmy's desire to bring it off. Mick Wall revels in Robert's power, rolling around in it, clutching it to his chest like a lover and describing it over and over in rapturous terms. The power to frustrate Jimmy is elevated to supreme importance. Wall even suggests that the times Robert has said yes to a post-Zeppelin project were solely to slingshot his own solo work into the stratosphere, making Jimmy the unwitting creator of more power for Robert. The last few pages, detailing the O2 show and after, end with a call for demons to attend Jimmy Page for evermore. More Jimmy-humbling, Wall seems to be saying. More power for "you", the golden god, the midlands brickie made good.

Here's an example of the depth of his 20-year friendship-based insight into Jimmy Page:

Inviting me up to the Old Mill House one day – the same house in which John Bonham had died – he showed me around…."Do you like this sort of thing?" he asked, pushing at a button on a control panel placed in the arm of a couch. The wall opposite the couch began sliding back to reveal another wall behind, from which hung three or four large oil paintings. "What do you think?" he asked. I walked over and had a better look. Thick polychromatic splodges of oil on dark, brooding canvas; what appeared to be a series of bodies twisted in torment, as though in hell. “Weird,” I said. “Heavy . . .” I turned to him, waiting for some explanation, but he merely stood there, smiling , saying nothing…I felt I had failed some sort of test. (p. 429)

I guess. They sound like some of Crowley's paintings. Everyone knows he collects them. What's all the Dr. Evil imagery about? This, the story of the "evil" snake ring and tens of other comments all add up. Wall does not want us to like Jimmy Page. Why not?

It seems churlish to review the book based on a cod-psychoanalysis of the writer, but I don't think the book can be read in context without hearing where the writer is coming from. We know that Mick Wall was Jimmy's friend. He says so himself. It seems that the very act of writing a book is regarded as disloyalty by Jimmy Page. Page has had a hard time trusting journalists in the past – they hated Led Zeppelin from before day one, as admirably outlined in publicist Danny Goldberg's fascinating and readable book, Bumping into Geniuses (Gotham Books, 2008). To have his long term friend turn on him in this fashion must have angered Page beyond belief. As soon as Jimmy learned Wall was writing a book, he cut Wall off.

I appear to have lost the 20-year friendship of Jimmy Page (how dare I try and write a better book than the bog-awful Hammer Of The Gods), Robert Plant (he'll change his mind when he sees it) and related friends. (Mick Wall's blog.)

Wall seems to have over-reacted, in a giant attack of Sour Grapes, deciding Jimmy is worthless and his friendship not worth anything.

Mick has particularly harsh things to say about Page, even though he was once very close to the guitarist. The two fell out when Mick decided to write his book about Led Zeppelin. Initially, the rock writer attempted to persuade his old friend to get involved. But Page refused and has even threatened to sue over the contents of the book. “It has been made plain through mutual friends that I’ve burned my bridges with him,” says Mick. “But you know what? I’m 50 now. When I was 30, 35, even 40, it was very important for me to keep those doors open with Jimmy. But now it’s far less important. I’ve had 20 years of talking to him and I don’t really need to talk to him again. (From the Sunday Mercury.)

The article goes on to say;

Mick even claims Page… has squandered his immense talent and now rarely plays guitar.… “These days he’s far more likely to have a remote control in his hands. From what I’ve heard from mutual friends, he just sits watching football on the telly. Tragic, really.”

"Squandered"? The man who played on about 60% of Britain's hit singles in the early sixties, formed one of the best loved bands in the rock catalogue, wrote some of the best selling songs of all time, arranged and produced six of the best selling albums of all time, and is a consistent top three guitarist in all professional guitarist polls? What the hell do you have to do to fulfill your potential in Wall's world?

Wall appears to be consumed with that jealousy the perpetual hangers-on develop. They realize eventually that the validation they are receiving is because they are in the same room with handsome, talented, successful, rich, skilled people. These qualities, however, do not rub off. Self-esteem issues develop and the only way to save face is to get out, and cash in. If it means losing the artist's friendship – and it often does - they proclaim loudly like a LOLCAT, "I toataly MENT to do that!!1!"

Well, thanks, Mick. I bought the book, so it works. But it really is just Hammer of the Gods on Viagra, though, mudsharks, drugs and big airplanes, with a side helping of the sourest grapes.


Casey said...

I wish I'd read your post before I bought my import copy.

I was going to pass -- I'm 34, and have consumed an embarassing amount of Zep ephemera, but I figured I at least needed to close the loop.

But as a professional editor and part time psychonaut, I cringe Wall's ignorance of basic sentence structure (I thought the education system was better in UK?) and his perpetuation of those ludicrous rumors regarding Crowley's metaphysical orientation.

When is someone gonna write a Zep/Page bio with a proper understanding of the philosophical underpinnngs of the Western Yogic Tradition?

Peromyscus said...

I don't know, but I'd love to read it if someone did.

Jason Russell said...

Thanks for the review....I can probably save myself some cash.

Achilles said...

Thanks for the review.

Having just finished reading Mick Wall's book I have to admit being somwehat deflated. The book started so well with scene setting and context (that line about the Oz trial is a good one!). However the analysis seemed to deteriorate about half way through. I totally agree with your take on the latter part of the book (post Bonham's death) which seemed incredibly negative and frankly the occult stuff seemed grossly hyped.

Having rediscovered Zep recently (with the O2 reunion and a photo exhibit here in Sydney of their famous '72 tour) - I guess I was looking for the detailed history of the band and their music, but found the analysis (particularly re the occult, curses etc) contrived and unconvincing.

Anonymous said...

In the re-print paperbck they still fuck up over the how the west was won cd ,its a three disc set not two ,how can someone so knowlledgeable on zep get something so simple like this wrong!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Just read this review after reading the book and wish I had read yours first. I agree with everything you wrote, especially regarding Wall's cruel words about Jimmy in recent years. I was struck by the vitriol in the epilogue and needed to find out if I was alone. Thankfully, I see that I am not. Also, I adore the photo of the band at o2 that accompanies your post regarding the rehearsal tapes. Love. It.

Peromyscus said...

Thanks, Anon! I was going to reread the book, but it seems I was on the right track the first time.


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