Caught on Tape: Jimmy Page and the Plane Truth

Written by Caught on Tape, Music

In this week’s edition of Caught on Tape, Steven Rosen journeys back to 1977, and his time spent in the eye of the Led Zeppelin hurricane.

jimmy002_silverdome-april1977[1]Chicago, Illinois, April 1977 — I knew what I was in for ten seconds after Guitar Player said to me: “We want you to interview Led Zeppelin.” My head filled with the clarion call of screaming guitars and in a moment of epiphany I saw it all: Jimmy Page would be my touchstone. Every story I’d ever written or ever would write would be measured against this one.

“Screw this up,” I also remembered muttering to myself, “and the closest I’ll ever get to another guitar player is looking at his picture on the cover of an album!”

I silenced the voice and plodded ahead. GP had only made one cursory call to Zeppelin’s record company offices in New York, and had left the rest up to me. I contacted Swan Song immediately. The baton had been passed and I ran with it like Forrest Gump.

“Run, Rosen, Run!”

What I thought would be a sprint turned into a marathon.

The next seven months were devoted to making phone calls and leaving messages. Dealing with Zeppelin’s demands and strange requests became a daily ritual. In many ways, they may have been testing my resolve, some sort of acid test meant to reveal just how truly motivated I was.

I never wavered. But it didn’t take long to realize that the Zeppelin juggernaut was a take-no-prisoners machine. Swan Song wanted control over every detail of the interview.

They were adamant about all terms and conditions; any refusal represented a potential deal breaker. None of this really surprised me because I knew that Jimmy’s relationship with the press was openly hostile. He didn’t like them, had never trusted them, and after being crucified in print on multiple occasions, rarely did interviews at all.

If the guitarist’s handlers insisted that I jump through burning hoops, that was fine with me. A cover story? No problem. No discussion about drugs or black magic? My lips were sealed.

I finally received their OK. Janine Safer, Swan Song’s publicist and my point person there, gave me the news. She told me that I’d be staying at Zeppelin’s hotel and be allowed on their private jet. I would be granted interviews with both Page and John Paul Jones. A full access score.

Several days later, I flew out to Chicago from Hollywood and met up with Zeppelin two weeks into the first leg of their 11th US tour.

Janine was waiting for me at the O’Hare Airport. In limousine luxury, we drove back to the Ambassador East Hotel. The black stretch’s bar was fully stocked and the publicist mixed a couple of Stoli vodka/tonics for us. We made a little small talk and she laid out standard operating procedure.

Zeppelin would be based in Chicago for the next several weeks. They’d fly out to the various concerts on their custom Boeing 707 and then return to the Ambassador East. Be in the hotel lobby 45 minutes before any departure. Never be late. That type of thing.

More than anything, though, she repeated this final caveat:

“Never,” she said, and held her cut crystal cocktail tumbler aloft in emphasis, “speak to the band unless they first speak to you.”

Jeanine didn’t have to worry. I not only didn’t talk to anyone in Zeppelin for the next three days, I never saw anyone from the band. If I hadn’t known that Led Zeppelin were staying at this hotel, I would have sworn someone was playing a trick on me.

I was a prisoner in a gilded cage. The Ambassador East was one of the finest hotels in the Windy City, but I couldn’t even walk outside for fear of missing a call or a knock on the door. I had access to 24-hour room service and a regally appointed deluxe room complete with a king-sized mahogany poster bed and a huge color TV. What I didn’t have access to was Jimmy Page.

A gaggle of giggling groupies had set up base camp in the hotel lobby. They were there virtually 24/7, anxiously waiting to see or talk to Zep. Not unlike me. They’d seen me in the hotel and assumed I was with the band. I told them I was doing interviews with Jimmy and John Paul, though by then, even I was coming to doubt my own story.

I invited them up to my room and ordered room service for everybody. If I wasn’t going to do an interview, I was going to eat myself stupid on Zeppelin’s dime. It became a daily ritual and just about the only diversion that kept me from going stir crazy.

After three days of hanging around, my room phone rang.

“Jimmy will see you now,” Janine’s voice informed me.

I gathered up my cassette player and tapes, microphone, pages of typed questions, and found the elevator. Two huge security guys accompanied me. You never walked anywhere within Zeppelin’s perimeter without benefit of escort.

I tried to put all those months of negotiations and preparations behind me. I focused on the moment at hand. One of the security team knocked on Jimmy’s door. Janine answered. I entered, was introduced to the guitar player, and we shook hands. We walked back into a separate sitting room and I began setting up my gear.

While plugging in the microphone, I glanced up and saw a huge hole in the wall; massive chunks of plaster littered the floor where a completely destroyed telephone also sat in pieces. I looked up at Jimmy, briefly, and he noted the concern on my face.

He told me the ringing of the phone bothered him, so he took it off the hook. There were busy signal noises and that perturbed him even more.

There was a sense of paranoia in the way he talked about the “voices on the telephone” and the “silence being disturbed.” The explanation was a bit disjointed but a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on a countertop connected the dots.

“There was nothing left for me to do,” Jimmy said, wearing a strange little grin, “but pull the phone out of the wall. And just carry on.”

We did. We talked for nearly an hour about everything from his earliest sessions to the use of a double neck in “Stairway to Heaven,” and how that song became the cornerstone of what he described as the Guitar Army.

During our conversation, Jimmy took several swallows from the bottle of Jack. He did concentrate on every question, however, and at one point, he even interrupted himself mid-thought.

“This is important, getting all this down. We’re going to do this right.”

Jimmy had fallen into his own moment of clarity, the same way I had experienced mine seven months earlier. He understood the importance of what we’d be doing.

Five minutes later, I asked him about one of the tracks off the first Zeppelin album. He mentioned using the Les Paul. I cautiously countered, “Wasn’t that the Telecaster?” He sat there for a moment, concentrated, and nodded affirmatively. A couple of times the conversation wandered into a no man’s land and needed to be dragged back onto track.

I didn’t know if this had to do with the Jack Daniels or if Jimmy had simply forgotten. With the number of guitars he’d strummed, that would have been entirely possible. Whatever the reasons were, that moment of clarity was lit and extinguished all in the span of five minutes.

Jimmy had no memory problems whatsoever when he talked about the development of feedback. And pointed out one of its sources.

I returned to my room and checked the tape. Though we had ventured into murky waters from time to time, what I heard coming from the tiny 2” tape player speaker absolutely floored me. Jimmy had been intense and funnier than hell. It was the gospel according to King James.

Another hour of one-on-one time, and I’d return to Guitar Player a conquering hero.

Thirty minutes later, my phone rang for the second time that day. I had been instructed to be in the lobby in two hours. Zeppelin were flying to St. Louis and performing at the Blues Arena there. I was downstairs in 15 minutes.

The girls were there, of course. I probably would have been shot for breaking silence but I told them the band were coming down in a little over an hour.

I had been regaling them with stories about Page when he exited the lobby elevator. The women ran up to him and the rest of Zeppelin and tried to get autographs and pictures. The phalanx of bodyguards kept them at more than arm’s length, and weren’t exactly gentle with their movements.

Everyone jumped into a cavalcade of limousines that caravanned out to a private tarmac at O’Hare Airport. Caesar’s Chariot, Zeppelin’s private jet, awaited them. Leased from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for $2,500 per day, the retrofitted jet accommodated a bar, private bedrooms, and a Hammond organ. Two stewardesses had been (seemingly) plucked right off the pages of Playboy.

Janine pointed to a seat and I buckled myself in. We taxied, took off, and climbed to cruising altitude. I was still seated when Bonzo walked by. He drank straight out of a JD bottle and was so drunk he could barely walk. Grown enormous due to alcohol consumption, Bonham shot me a look that said, “I would kick your ass just because I can.” He was terminally angry. There was no excuse too small for him to lose his temper. He screamed at the stewardesses, who acted like they’d encountered this before and just ignored him.

Though there was no real reason for his anger, there may have been some contributing factors. The kickoff date for the Presence tour had been postponed for one month because Robert Plant contracted tonsillitis; then, two days into the rescheduled shows, Page fell ill. Manager Peter Grant suffered through a terrible divorce. And looming over everything was the memory of Robert’s nearly catastrophic car accident two years earlier.

Vacationing on the Greek island of Rhodes, Plant and family had been buzzing around in a rented car. Wife Maureen was driving when she lost control and skidded on a narrow lane. The car plummeted over a precipice, struck a tree, and crumpled. Robert suffered a badly broken ankle and elbow.

So, even though everyone had tried to forget, memories lingered. All the excess and opulence could not wash away this cloud of depression. There was a sense of disenchantment that hung over everything.

No one wanted for anything, but nobody seemed content.

Janine came over and told me the all-important follow-up interview might be happening in a few minutes. I figured she was joking because we were only about 30 minutes away from reaching St. Louis. But I knew Zeppelin politics; I had endured it for three days running. When the press liaison informed me that there were 15 minutes to be squeezed in during a flight ending in about 20, I heeded the instruction.

I was accompanied to the rear of the plane. Safer was on point, a monster of a security guard followed her, then me, and another enforcer brought up the rear. Even on a plane, you didn’t walk around without a chaperone.

I greeted Jimmy and it was hard to tell whether he recognized me from a few hours earlier or not.

I sat down and cranked up the tape machine. I had to hunch over because it was almost impossible to hear what he was saying above the shrieking white noise of the jet engines. He talked in a whisper anyway and if you compounded that with a thick Hounslow-tinged English accent, you were lucky to catch every third word.

We revisited his sessionwork. “Beck’s Bolero” had been one of the more important dates he’d played on because the lineup of that band almost became the original version of Led Zeppelin.

It felt like I had just sat down when one of the security crew grabbed my shoulder. I turned around and understood that my time was over and we were about to land.

That was the final time I met with Jimmy. Two days later, I’d sit and speak with John Paul Jones. But I never did assemble what I had originally envisioned as The Great Jimmy Page Interview.

The response from the magazine was pretty overwhelming, and the feedback from people who ultimately read it was tremendously positive.

But I knew I had missed it.

Epilogue: Two months later, Zeppelin were in Los Angeles to play an unprecedented six nights at the 17,000-seat Inglewood Forum. I attended several shows. One evening while backstage, I ran into John Paul Jones. He had seen the Guitar Player piece and told me he was really happy with the story.

I asked him if Jimmy had read it. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

I wasn’t surprised.

Interview Clip 1
Interview Clip 2
Interview Clip 3

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