When it comes to writing books about the rock gods from the 1960s and 1970s, it’s hard to find a fresh approach to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. With this particular offering — one in a series of collected interview books from the Chicago Review Press that include Coltrane on Coltrane, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Bowie on Bowie… you get the picture — Hank Bordowitz has combed through every interview given by Led Zeppelin (as a band or individually) from 1968 through 2012 to select 50 of the best, most representative of the bunch. For a group famously hesitant of interaction with the press, it can’t have been an easy feat; that tenuous relationship sometime peeks through in the interviews presented here. But the end result is interesting and comprehensive, a unique look at Led Zeppelin’s rise to fame and beyond.
It was an obvious choice to arrange the book chronologically, beginning, appropriately,with a great quote from a 14-year-old Jimmy Page about his skiffle band and aspirations towards biological research. (Can you picture him with a lab coat on, peering through a microscope? Yeah, me neither.) Things just run on smoothly from there, into interviews from the earliest post-Yardbirds years right on through John Bonham’s death and into more current interviews. Early conversations featured Jimmy Page heavily, as would be expected from the only famous-in-his-own-right member (at least to the general public; everyone else had made names for themselves on the English session circuit) but it’s hard not to be enthralled once Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham have a chance to speak up. This is especially true of Plant — to hear him go off about the band’s late-’60s run-in with the “Plaster Casters” might be worth the price of admission by itself.
But really, the highlight for me has to be the rather odd but fascinating Jimmy Page “interview” (if you can call it that) by famed Beat poet William S. Burroughs. Burroughs meanders a lot — there’s a rather long interlude about a soccer riot in Lima, Peru, and something about the Loch Ness monster and Aleister Crowley — but the article itself is such a product of its time and shows such character that it would have been an absolute crime if it hadn’t been included. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall on that day…
There’s a good deal of variety to be had, which makes for a breezy read. Shorter pieces are paired with longer ones, conventional interviews with lengthy profiles, all selected from outlets the world over. Most of the selections come from well-respected rock magazines– Creem, Crawdaddy, MOJO, NME, Billboard — but the occasional bit from from an influential newspaper like The Globe or Mail, or from a rather niche publication like the U.S. military daily paper, Stars and Stripes, are enlightening and show the (surprisingly) broad appeal that Led Zeppelin had.
In contrast to a traditional biography or autobiography, there’s no spin here, no after-the-fact editorializing to get in the way of the truth of the story (apart from whatever was written in the original articles, if anything). The only thing of consequence added to the words as they appeared in their original publications are editorial notes at the beginning of each interview to provide the background to the time and place in which the interview was conducted. It’s worth noting, for example, that Led Zeppelin III had only recently been released to a less than stellar reception before the Fall 1971 interview with the Georgia Strait, or that that night before the July 1973 interview with South Florida’s Zoo World, Zeppelin broke the world record for largest concert attendance with 57,000 attendees, a record they had held from the night before that in Atlanta where they’d played for 53,000. Details like that make the interviews come alive, setting the tone and providing the context that only the most rabid of Zeppelin fans possess. It’s a nice touch, and a necessary one for the bulk of us.
This is about as unvarnished a glance at the Led Zeppelin phenomenon as there can be — it’s literally Led Zeppelin talking about Led Zeppelin — which makes it fascinating in and of itself. That said, someone with little to no knowledge of Led Zeppelin’s career probably isn’t going to pick this book up. It’s not an intro course; it’s for the diehards. But even for me — a moderate fan at best who came across the band by accident of birth and her father’s record collection — there was a lot to be learned here. Long-standing myths are debunked, legends are brought to earth, and stories set straight. It’s the kind of thing you can’t always get from a post-hoc analysis of Led Zeppelin’s career, which would be hard to get if you wanted to find these articles yourself. Fortunately, if this is your bag, you don’t have to do that. Hank Bordowitz has done the legwork: he’s tracked down these interviews, curated them, and put them together in a easy-to-handle package that makes for a fun read and great reference.