By: Steven Rosen
By 1977, less than ten years after their formation, Led Zeppelin had attained the status of Earthbound Gods, living, breathing mortals endowed with the power, prestige, and panache of political leaders, athletes, cinema’s most gifted performers, and even the world’s holiest religious figures. We, the commoners, the ticket buyers, the album listeners, had bestowed upon this musical quartet the abilities and unique gifts normally set aside for saints and saviors, for kings and queens, for philanthropists and researchers, battle-hardened soldiers and all the other selfless individuals trying to make a difference.
We knew they were able to break down walls with one simple guitar chord because we heard and witnessed it – our eardrums bled with the sheer sonic vitality and volume of their live concerts and we felt consecrated. Their lyrics were heaven-sent and hours were spent unraveling the nuances and sublime content they delivered – and once interpreted, we experienced enlightenment and felt certain the key to the universe was now ours.
All of this by way of preamble in attempting to explain that trying to interview Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham in this year, 1977, was akin to splitting the atom, walking through fire, or drawing a Royal Flush. Impossibilities all. You had a better chance of taking the Pope out for pizza or playing Mahjong with Madonna.
This foursome did not need the press – and in fact loathed the Fourth Estate. They rarely granted an audience with the media and when they did it was a typically tongue-in-cheek, surface conversation that related nothing of importance or insight.
And this is where our story begins. I had been writing for Guitar Player magazine for about four years when the editors hatched the idea of doing a seminal piece on the group. As one of their main freelancers and someone the higher-ups knew had vast knowledge about the band, I was tagged. In fact, the first story I wrote for the magazine turned into a cover on Jeff Beck (which would lead me into a major morass down the line but we’re not there yet), and thus, was certain I had the chops and chutzpah for the assignment.
Even staffers voiced disapproval – they wanted the gig. But it was my time, my moment. After receiving the call, I burst into a cold sweat, started trembling, and generally tried to keep my heart from bursting Alien-like through my chest. My career in journalism was still in its infancy. I was an inexperienced boot-camp graduate plucked from the ranks and dropped into the heart of a major battle and told, nay ordered, to overcome the enemy and come back with heads on poles; a second year med student inserted into an operating theater and commanded to perform the most complex operation ever imagined.
With responsibility comes glory, and one evening filled with epiphany and revelation, I realized, “If I pull this off, I return the conquering hero. My stock value rises and I’m elevated to the king bullfrog in the phonetic pond.” Guitar Player made some preliminary calls to Swan Song in New York but it was left to me to close the deal. I phoned for months, speaking with Janine Safer, publicist, Sam Aizer, head publicist, and on the rare occasion when he’d answer the phone, label vice-president Danny Goldberg.
I called …and called … and called … and … the main response was the band’s handlers were working on it, trying to put it together, obtain the consent of the band to allow a journalist to tag along. I never gave up; I had my calling and I was going to sit in front of Jimmy Page or trash my career in the attempt.
I knew that Jimmy rarely, if ever, spoke about his on-hands magic – his work in the studio, his guitars, et cetera, and Jonesy was a shadow figure who virtually never spoke to the media. And I sensed that they might never again sit for such an interview. This was important shit here, I had an obligation to make it happen, and I’d do anything to put those voices on cassette.
I had my work cut out for me: only the year before, in 1976, Led Zeppelin was voted the Best Group in the Circus Reader’s Poll. Page kicked Jeff Beck and Brian May a couple pegs down the popularity ladder to maintain his spot as Best Guitarist.
Robert Plant was voted Number One Male Vocalist; Plant and Page had a lock on the Best Songwriting team, pushing Elton John and Bernie Taupin down a notch. And on and on and on … I was trying to break into Fort Knox, extract Einstein’s secrets of relativity. In essence, I was smashing my head against a wall so impenetrable I could feel the blood dripping into my eyes. But it felt oh, so good …
And then one golden day, there’s a magical call from their office and the voice relates a message: “The band has agreed to allow you access. You’ll fly to Chicago, stay in their hotel, fly on their plane, and do the interviews.” My legs turned to Styrofoam beneath me, my heart beat a reggae rhythm, and my brain filled with so much uncertainty, incredulity, and simple primal fear, I’m not even sure I uttered a response. That feeling of ‘beware of what you wish for’ had found wings and flown straight into my psyche.
I informed Guitar Player, who were obviously enthused, and began my own preparations. Listening to every Zeppelin album, reading every book and article I could find, I was going to be ready. More than ready – tuned to a fever pitch, ready for any situation that might present itself – I was entering the den of the demon, the lion’s lair, and the abattoir where journalist bones were piled like ancient runes.
Ten pages, single-spaced. No room for error. Page and Jones, the two members with whom I’d break bread, didn’t have a chance. Dates, guitars, artists, all there on those perfectly typed sheets of parchment.
In January of 1977, before embarking on this tour, they hired and re-fitted a custom 707 jet. No airport terminals, no waiting in lines, this fabulously appointed flying fortress afforded the band the lofty isolation and anonymity they had previously been unable to avoid. All major airports are outfitted with separate and secluded hangars to deal with privately chartered jets.
And it would be aboard this luxury liner that I would run headfirst into a situation I could never have imagined. All my preparatory work, the pages and pages of questions, had readied me to solicit answers from them – but nowhere on these typewritten sheets was there the answer I would so desperately require.
I flew to Chicago and checked into Zep’s ground zero, The Ambassador East Hotel. This was the base of operation. With a state-of-the-art jetliner at their beck and call, the band would limo it to the awaiting plane, hop on board, and fly to the various venues.
Traveling at 600 mph, the 707 could cover the distance from Chicago to Minneapolis or St. Louis in under an hour. They’d disembark, climb into a fleet of limousines, drive to the show, and reverse the process upon return. Truly a remarkable operation; D-Day, militarily precise, with 4-star general Peter Grant barking orders.
So, I’m at this upscale, very glitzy establishment, the Ambassador East Hotel, which is swarming with groupies and guys in Zep t-shirts, the hardcore fan hoping to catch even a glimpse of their heroes, and Janine Safer, my first contact, instructs me to “Stay ready.” Ready? For what? I had my notes, my $29 cassette player, and a pile of tapes. I was a pro, baby. Throw at me what you will. I had no inkling that what would be thrown would turn out to be a John Paul Jones right cross. Or very nearly.
Wanting to make my presence known and stake out my little piece of journalistic jungle, I gave the publicist four copies of an anthology Guitar Player had assembled called Rock Guitarists Vol. I. The cover story was that Jeff Beck interview I had written back in late 1973 and I thought the band might like to see the type of work I’d done, but, more than anything else, it was a peace offering. I come as a friend, I want to do an excellent story, and I’m as big a fan as any buxom, blonde babe cruising the hotel lobby.
I arrived sometime in early April during the first leg of the ’77 tour. If memory serves, I checked in on one of the band’s off days. I virtually locked myself in the room, not wanting to miss a call but after several hours I ventured outside, found a McDonalds and a donut shop and inhaled a week’s worth of carbs and empty sugars.
The next day the phone rings – there’s a show tonight, be downstairs at 4 p.m. I’m there at 2, ready, poised, terrified as a man can be waiting on something he can’t articulate nor even begin to conceptualize. I hear the squeals and hormonal hurrahs that can only signify one thing: the band is making its way downstairs.
I see Janine and an entourage I’m assuming is Led Zeppelin. Grant is hard to miss. I want to introduce myself but Safer shoots a cautionary glance my way and I back off. I’m herded into a limo by myself. I’d later realize that the band travels alone – typically Jimmy and Robert would have cars to themselves and Jones and Bonham sometimes shared, sometimes not. Peter always accompanied Page.
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We motor to O’Hare Airport, and drive around to the rear of the main terminals onto a tarmac where the jet known as Caesar’s Chariot (it was owned by Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas) patiently awaits.
On the fuselage, it bears the Swan Song and Led Zeppelin logos. The plane is fitted with huge, overstuffed-chair type seating. There is also a bar and private rooms for each member. I see the band but remain invisible.
Forty-five minutes later we’re in Minneapolis at the Metropolitan Sports Center. Again, I’m gently removed, placed in my elongated chariot, and driven to the show. There is a police escort, and upon arrival a cadre of security men set up their base of operations.
The band was monstrously magnificent but in all honesty I find it difficult to recall the show. I’m still waiting for an audience with them and it’s all but impossible to focus on anything else. We fly back to the hotel, I see their silhouettes as they slip into the shadows of their private suites, and I feign sleep for the rest of the night.
On the following day, sometime in late afternoon, my phone rings again. “Jimmy will talk to you now.” I hyperventilate, down three cups of coffee, and meet Janine down in the lobby. She escorts me into his room and there he is, sitting on the bed. But what strikes me is the gaping hole in the wall behind him.
There is plaster on the floor, a broken phone dangling like a man from a gallows pole. Jimmy rises from the bed where he’s been sitting, extends his hand, and seems more than gentle. I try not to eyeball the cavern and we arrange ourselves in preparation for our conversation. I test my cassette player and thank a thousand Gods when I see the tiny little sprocket wheels turning.
We begin. And Jimmy is open and generous with his knowledge, talking of days long gone, his early studio work, his influences, his inevitable and ultimate attraction to sound and harmony and the chronology of his musical life. I realize that I’m fulfilling exactly what I was sent here to complete; Page was reaching back and providing information I knew would have extraordinary import many years down the road.
I had the feeling he would never again sit for such an extensive and in depth rapport and, in all fairness, I was right. Many fans and followers thought this interview, which would appear in the July 1977 Guitar Player issue, represented the guitarist’s most focused and exacting exchange he’d ever offer up.
Indeed, some 20 years later, Robert Godwin, in his tome titled Led Zeppelin – The Press Reports, said, “In the same remarkable issue [that included the John Paul Jones interview] Rosen also interviews Page in expansive mood. For once he is prepared to talk about his early session work and various technical aspects to his performance techniques.”
My instincts those many years ago were right – Jimmy would never again expound in such detail about his work and in truth, as each year whizzed by, his recollection deteriorated.
Still, at one point during our dialogue, Jimmy stopped his train of thought. He uttered a statement speaking to the importance of what we were doing. How it needed to be captured and chronicled. But even by this time, Jimmy’s memory had slipped a bit.
He would cite a certain guitar he used on a specific track and I would, adopting the tentative posture a man would assume walking through a minefield, gently question him: “Wasn’t that a Telecaster you used and not the Les Paul?” And realizing his mistake, he’d acquiesce and we’d move on.
In that first sitting, we spoke for well over an hour. Nearing the end of our meeting, he addressed the damaged wall. He said if you leave the phone on the hook, it constantly rings; if you remove it from the cradle, that annoying busy signal repeats ad nauseum; so the only answer was a telephonic transplant. That is, tear the beast completely out of its nest. He smiled. This was a human response for a man who most probably looked upon a telephone as a Ma Bell devil out to curse him.
The conversation drew to a natural conclusion. I had Jimmy Page on tape, I had done it, and I was going to make history. This would be the most comprehensive and compelling talk he’d ever engage in … I was sure of it. At least for 24 hours.
I returned to my hotel room, rewound the tape, and with fingers crossed, pressed play. There he was, James Patrick Page, born on January 9, 1944, in Heston, Middlesex, England, talking to me. I was God, I owned the world, and this was just the beginning. We’d only covered about a page of notes and I could only imagine what I’d walk away with when I returned to West Hollywood.
Janine rang me the next day and said John Paul Jones would sit. Jonesy was remarkable. His room was filled with music books and his wit and sense of humor and true feelings of humility made him Page’s antithesis. He loved the band, it was his life, and this came out in his responses. It’s almost as if he wanted to protect the group from the angry and usually misplaced criticisms the press leveled at them.
I saw the Rock Guitarists compilation sitting atop a stack and was dying to know if he’d read the Beck piece. I’d find out later that night while aboard Caesar’s Chariot, cruising at 35,000 feet and wondering if I’d be thrown from a galley door. Truly.
John Paul would talk about anything – his early work, the evolution of basses he’d owned, working with Bonham, and a myriad other subjects. Three hours passed and he continued talking – about playing organ in church, about his father’s urging him to take up the tenor sax [“The bass will be dead in two years,”), and about the now oft-told tale about the first Zeppelin rehearsal.
There was another show that night at the Civic Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Same routine: be downstairs by 4, don’t be late, et cetera et cetera. Limo. Caesar’s Chariot. Short plane ride. Show. Gather backstage to hop in limo, board jet, and return home. During the flight, Janine finds me and tells me Jimmy will do another session. I am overwhelmed. Now I’m prepared, I’ve fired my first volley, I’m blooded.
I’m led to the guitar player’s sitting area where he’s surrounded by his cadre of security men, huge, muscled monsters who look at me like an unwelcome rodent. I adjust my tape machine and in unison, they all lean forward, just waiting for one untoward movement that would leave me, I’m quite certain, in a condition on the down side of healthy.
Mind you, we’re aboard a custom appointed jet, zipping along at a nifty 600 or 700 mph and the noise is almost overwhelming. Add to this the fact that Jimmy speaks in a relatively soft voice and in an accent not instantly discernible by a Yankee scribe.
So, I’m required to sort of lean in to him in order to hear what he’s saying and this brings grimaces of displeasure from the wall of human flesh surrounding us. But I manage and 20 minutes into the conversation, I feel someone grab my right shoulder. Hard. Viciously. Meant to interrupt and more than that, to inflict some pain. To make a point.
I think it must be a joke; it has to be a joke. Please, God, let it be a joke. The new guy, journalist, all that stuff. I rise, turn around, and John Paul is standing there and he is fucking mad. Hurt. Blood in his eyes … in his hand is the Rock Guitarists book I’d brought for the band. Instant calculations: did I, could I, have written something about Zeppelin in the Beck piece? Nah, I wouldn’t make that reference.
Except to say that Page and Beck came up together, The Yardbirds connections, and then it hit me. My breath falls out of me, my tongue cleaved to the bottom of my mouth. My younger brother had always warned me, “Be careful what you write … because it will come back to haunt you.” And here it was, standing before me, the dark shadow of the world’s most famous bass player.
“You fucker, you fucking liar. That’s it, no interviews. Give me the tapes.” Gone was the gentle soul with whom I’d spent almost an entire afternoon. He pushes the book at me and I read, terror rising in my heart. I see words like …”Page … failed to recreate … Zeppelin … reproduction of Beck’s past work …” An entire paragraph.
The huge wall of human flesh surrounds me. I think to myself that these tapes are mine and Jones has no right to them. And in an instant, I take a look at 22″ tattooed biceps around me and hand him the multiple hours of conversations.
Page is oblivious to the incident. Janine has heard the rising of voices and comes back to the compartment. I’m embarrassed and hurt and confused and I see my career flushed down the drain like spoiled milk. I sit in the back of the plane, keeping my eyes straight ahead.
Janine asks me what happened and I tell her – I tell her that this story was the first one I’d ever written for Guitar Player and I was trying to make a name for myself, trying to carve a niche in the world of rock journalism. I tell her that four years after I’ve written them, I believe none of them.
It was an honor beyond belief to be invited on the road with the band. I loved them, their first album. She instructs me, upon landing, to go to John Paul’s hotel room, and tell him what I just told her. I’m terrified. She says it will be OK.
We land, it’s now about 3 or 4 in the morning. I rush to my room, lock and bolt the door, and make an attempt to gather myself. There’s no doubt that I need to abandon the assignment and cut my losses. I compose a letter that I’ll shove underneath Jones’ door and then book the earliest flight out the next day.
I finish the apology, walk to his floor, and am going to slip the missive beneath his door but something inside me says to knock. I do, a voice responds, and I tell him it’s me. He pulls the door open, even more pissed than he was on the plane. I enter his room and try to explain what happened.
That the story was the first I’d ever written for GP, that I was trying to find my own voice. That I said things I didn’t believe. I was sorry, extraordinarily sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt him. This went on for some time. I must have touched some gentle cord inside him and he handed me back the interview tapes.
Early the next morning I boarded a flight back to Los Angeles. I didn’t know how to tell GP about what had happened so I didn’t. Ultimately, the story came out in the July ’77 issue that featured Page on the cover and the Jones story as the main feature.
A scan of the stories told me I had captured a rare moment and I was pleased with what was there. It was by no means what I had initially intended to retrieve from these musicians but GP was truly pleased with both narratives and I, too, felt content.
Two months later, Zep wound its way through Los Angeles where they headlined The Forum for six nights. Unprecedented. A day before their first performance on June 21, I attended a show for Detective at the Starwood club. Detective was signed to the group’s Swan Song label. I’m upstairs in the VIP lounge, relaxing. My brother is with me and when I look across the room I see Jonesy.
My blood freezes and I’m freaked. I tell my brother I see him and then, oh horror of horrors, he begins making his way over to me. I’m prepared – he’s there with a roadie but if he’s here to extract revenge, I’m ready. I steel myself and he’s in front of me and with my fists clenched at the ready by my side, he apologizes. He’d read my letter and was sorry for the way he acted.
There was nothing for him to feel sorry for, I tell him, I was an idiot and an amateur, and I wish I could re-write history. We hug. He’s seen the GP issue and is really pleased. I’m almost in tears but he understands. We share a drink and I realize how much a bigger man he is than I will ever be.
No one even comes in as a close second in terms of the difficulty obtaining an interview and once assigned, conducting said interview. To this day, I’m asked more about my 11 days on the road with Led Zeppelin than I am about my 25+ years talking to a thousand various musicians. I was lucky.
I’m sorry what happened with Jonesy happened but looking back on it now, it truly was an ending I never could have conceived or written. And I feel responsible for not having the balls to stay on the road and continue my work with Page.
I knew it would never come around again and it never has. I was in the right place at the right time but I only came away with part of the story. Still, there it is.
I’m probably still on the undesirable list for Zeppelin and its coterie – though Jonesy and I made up and I spoke with Richard Cole recently and he’s a new and changed man, sober and kind and full of gentle encouragement.
Page? I don’t even know if he remembers my name, remembers the 1977 cover of Guitar Player or, 10 years later, the 1987 cover story I wrote for Guitar World (when I flew down to Daytona Beach and endured three similarly slacker-type days trying to pin him down to an hour in a hotel room).
The difference now is, I don’t care what he thinks. I’m still here 30 years after our first encounter. I gave everything I had and if you can overlook my stupidity, my novice nervousness, those stories I wrote about Page and John Paul were damn good.
I may not ever be almost famous but I know I’ll be forever famous for almost becoming John Paul Jones’ unwitting sparring partner and Jimmy Page’s jawing partner.
The above story contains several references to the jet plane, Caesar’s Chariot, used by Led Zeppelin during their 1977 U.S. tour. This was not the same plane used by Led Zeppelin on their 1973 and 1975 U.S. tours, the Starship.
The original Starship, a former United Airlines Boeing 720B, was owned by singer Bobby Sherman and his manager, Ward Sylvester, who would lease the plane to various touring rock acts, such as, in addition to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, and Alice Cooper.
The last performer to use the Starship was Peter Frampton in 1976, after which it was permanently grounded, most likely due to chronic engine problems. For the 1977 tour, Led Zeppelin tour manager Richard Cole chartered a 45-seat Boeing 707 from Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas known as Caesar’s Chariot.