Q&A: Brad Tolinski on the Wizardry of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin's chartered plane,
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin's chartered plane, "The Starship," 1975.

Jimmy Page, the mastermind behind Led Zeppelin, is famous not only for his production prowess, but also for his interest in the occult, his heavy recreational drug use and his prickliness with press. Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski must have worked some rock journalist wizardry to get the intensely private guitarist and producer to share intimate details of his life and the stories behind his musical inspiration.

In "Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page," Tolinski shifts the focus away from the band's wild escapades and paints a nuanced portrait of an enigmatic rock star, drawing from twenty years of interviews. With Tolinski, Page discusses the spirituality of guitar soloing, the gear behind Zeppelin's most beloved recordings and his memories of life on the road. He recalls fearlessly crawling out on to a ninth-floor air-conditioning unit just to get a better view of New York City at night, but he also shares how nervous he felt to meet Elvis Presley for the first time.

Tolinski's conversations with other musicians, such as Jeff Beck and Jack White, as well as with less obvious sources -- such as fashion designer John Varvatos and astrologer Margaret Santangelo -- are woven through the book to create a lush and fascinating biography. We chatted with Tolinski about asking the right questions to invite this living legend to tell his own story.

You mentioned that you had your first conversation with Jimmy Page in 1993 -- long after Led Zeppelin disbanded.  Did you ever get to see them play live?

I saw them play, thank God, on the Houses of the Holy tour in '73. I was in junior high. I grew up in Detroit and I saw them at Kobe Hall, and they played there two nights. It was really funny -- when I interviewed Jimmy decades later, I told him how I went to that show and he said, "Which night?" That blew me away a little bit. I wasn't sure which night it was, but I had this strong recollection that he and Robert were screwing around with theremins. When I mentioned that, he said, "Oh that was the second night."

Were you nervous the first time you met him in person?

Being editor of Guitar World, I'd been used to meeting a lot of famous guitarists, but I think I was a little nervous because I did hold him in such esteem as a musician and a player and a producer. Plus, he had this reputation of being difficult, and I knew I had to do a cover story. Being familiar of his other encounters with the press, I sort of knew what to avoid and what questions he would respond to.

How do you prepare for an interview when you can't really predict which way the conversation will go?

When I put together questions, I tend to think thematically. I think a lot about what it is that I want to find out. You know, you can go anywhere with somebody. I think a lot about where I want to go. It's like doing a dance. The other person definitely feels more comfortable when you're taking the lead and you're moving in a direction that they can understand. You can get more thoughtful answers that way. I'm not really part of the mainstream journalism community -- I'm more interested in talking to musicians and finding out the truth, rather than catching them saying something embarrassing. I want to know about their art. I feel like a lot of music books go in for the caricature. With Jimmy Page, I wanted to know about the music and not about his escapades.  Oddly enough, I think whatever Zeppelin was up to might not be so wild by today's standards. I think any band on the road these days gets into more mischief than Zeppelin did.

In the book's acknowledgements, you thank Greg Di Benedetto, the publisher of Guitar World, for serving as your "wingman" on interviews with Jimmy. Do you normally bring a buddy along on interviews?

I've brought a wingman on an interview several times. It's sort of a weird thing to do, but there are always moments when I want to collect my thoughts about where the conversation is going. It's good to have someone to chat with the artist while I'm rummaging through my own mind about where to take the conversation next. It's nice to have someone bop in and ask a couple of questions. Sometimes what's really funny is that the artist really likes talking to the other person. I've done some great interviews with Eddie Van Halen, for example, but he doesn't really like the interview process. He becomes vaguely annoyed with me, so he starts talking to the person I brought along.

That's such a great tactic -- it diffuses the one-on-one pressure a bit.  So, what made you want to write about Jimmy Page?

As a musician and a guitarist myself, I not only loved his guitar playing but also the whole sound of Led Zeppelin, and he was the producer and sort of the mastermind behind it. It didn't really sound like anything else, and part of that was the technical studio wizardry, which has become quite common since then. Jimmy was the first person to take the drums and put them up in the front of the mix. That's standard now, and in many ways, he was a big influence.

One of the book's best surprises is that the last chapter is an astrological analysis of Jimmy Page. Are you into astrology?

Shhh, [laughs] I'm not supposed to admit that! I mean, I do have my occult proclivities, if you will.  When you bring that up, people always think you're a little flaky -- which is why I always empathized with Jimmy's restraint on the subject. Jimmy's really an authority on what he calls "comparative religions." He really knows his stuff when it comes to the occult -- astrology, magick spelled with a "k" -- and I know my stuff, too, so we were able to connect a little bit there.  I could go there with him and not ask him stupid questions. I thought the idea of doing an astrology chart would just be fun, and this astrologist's reading gives sort of a summation or a validation of everything that's gone on before in the book. It was a little risky because people scoff at this kind of stuff, but Jimmy literally wore his astrological signs on his sleeve. If you want to understand him, then here's why those symbols are on his clothes.

And speaking of clothes, I loved the conversation with John Varvatos about Jimmy's iconic style.

The reason I got John Varvatos is because I didn't feel qualified to write about fashion myself. There were certain parts of the book that needed things filled in.

You also interviewed Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company about working with Jimmy, and you asked him if Jimmy ever seemed like "just a regular guy." He implied that Jimmy is part wizard.  I have to ask the same question -- does he ever seem like a regular guy to you?

No, [laughs] I don't think he's interested in cultivating the idea -- even with his friends -- that he's a regular guy. He isn't a regular guy. And most artists aren't. To hope that they are is somehow just wrong. I don't want my artists to be normal people. I want them to be eccentric and different and larger than life. I think the current state of journalism is to knock them down a peg, but why?  Why would you not want to believe in Santa Claus? I love it when the people I interview are eccentric and odd. Hey, I'm a little weird, too!