Today Jimmy Page, leading light of Led Zeppelin, turns 70.
When I was in high school (1973-77), Jimmy Page, not Clapton, was God. Page and Led Zep were everyone’s reference point for “great rock band.” I’d have to say that Page was, if not my first “guitar hero,” then my first idea of what a guitar hero was.
In a way he was my first. Because I can remember, when I was ten, talking with a kid on the school playground because I heard him imitating the guitar sound in “Whole Lotta Love”: “whole lotta love—rrrrrrrrrrnnnnnn / whole lotta love – rrrrrrnnnnn.” This was spring of 1970, and my older brother had a copy of the 45. So me and the kid (Mark Gunzulu) talked about that song, which was a bit of a puzzle. It didn’t seem to add up to a song but was rather a series of segments, and the single was edited down, cutting out the length of the really weird segment, which FM would play and which anyone who had the LP (we didn't) could hear. The segment that gets me, to this day, is the guitar break. Still, it didn’t really make me crazy for Zep or Page. But thanks to Page and Zep, two ten year olds were standing in the playground of Our Lady of Fatima discussing a song that references anal sex. Any self-respecting Beavis and Butthead would have to snigger at the phrase “every inch of my love,” but I was still a bit naïve.
Anyway, none of this mattered to me too much at the time, not til I became a teen, at least. When I was 12, the song that overwhelmed all others, in rock guitar regard, is today’s song: “Black Dog,” released by Atlantic Records as a 45 in November, 1971, and instantly a must have.I didn’t really know what this song was “about”—what’s more, I was a bit put off by Robert Plant’s singing on the song and by most of the words I could catch—“big-legged woman ain’t go no soul,” what the fuck?—except for the lyrics I misheard as “Light the skies all burning red / Dreams of you all through my head.” I liked that part. Mostly, though, this song was nothing but an excuse for Jimmy Page’s riffing and soloing, with fanatical accompaniment by John Bonham on drums. And yet, with all the weird ah ah ahs, the song recalled “Whole Lotta Love”—they both sound like Plant’s ready to have an orgasm any second. The latter was an experience that I’d had somewhere between the release of “Love” and “Dog,” thank you very much. And that made the song both more exciting and more embarrassing, while also making it clear that sex, and not just lovey dovey stuff, was something worth singing about. Led Zep, what with the “squeeze my lemon, feel the juice run down my leg” lyric, were a major purveyor of raunch for white Catholic kids in a dull suburb nowhere near a major city. I tended to shy away from that kind of “rock’n’roll” thing, anyway, but. “Black Dog” was A-OK with me.
“Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move / Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.” Such lyrics (I knew nothing about the blues except through guys like this) approached idiocy to my mind and yet there was no denying the bodily jolt that opening gave me. And I loved the delivery of “All I ask for when I pray / Steady rollin’ woman gonna come my way.” Yup. And that “watch your honey drip” part, well, when the girls you’ve been going to school with since age six turn twelve and thirteen . . . you tend to notice. And “Black Dog” was pretty much how you felt about it, at times anyway.
In fact I used to hear a more filthy lyric than is actually present in the song, so there. That was one of the great things about Plant’s singing. It really didn’t much matter what he was saying. For some reason he’s just the right voice to go with Jimmy Page’s playing. In most rock bands, I tend to speak of the singer and “his axman,” but in Led Zep, it’s Page and his voice-man. And that, right there, is enough to make him a major guitar hero.
Happy birthday, Jimmy, and thanks for the memories.