Today is Jimmy Page’s 70th birthday, so I gotta wish him the very best and give him my respect, because he’s one of my favorite musicians in the universe.
I recently finished reading a new biography of Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall. And it has renewed my deep love for the band, which started way back in grad school. At that time, the ecstasy/pain of Robert Plant’s vocal in “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” set off alarm bells in my head and got me thinking I MUST come out of the closet as a singer-songwriter before it’s too late. It spurred me into action like no alarm bell ever did before.
Now, one big thing that stood out to me in that book was a comment by Jimmy Page about learning music: “Teaching myself was the first and most important part of my education…I hope they keep it out of schools.” (p.60, my emphasis)
This threw me for a loop, of course, because I often beat the drum for keeping music in the schools, and it’s always weird when you discover that one of your idols disagrees with you, even in an innocuous statement.
But how innocuous is it? Is this just something that any rock-n-roll rebel would say, or was there a deeper meaning behind it? Wall’s biography says emphatically that Page was not acting as a rebel in those days, if ever he did. Not in the sense of being reckless, or resentful towards authority. He never acted mindlessly. Page knew exactly what he wanted his music to be, and he hand-picked the very musicians, songs, and stylings that would give him what he wanted. He didn’t set out to go against the grain of what was already popular or standard; he simply had a unique vision in his head that he brought to reality with the help of his band-mates and his manager, Peter Grant.
That vision became Led Zeppelin, and it made him one of the most renowned rock musicians this world has ever seen. He is regarded as the 3rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, although I would rank him 2nd instead of Eric Clapton, with #1 remaining for the OTHER Jimmy of legend – Hendrix.
And how did he get to that exalted position? Not through school.
He played around on his own as a boy, listening to records of the greats of his own time and earlier. He goofed around as a teenager with his buddy Jeff Beck and eventually found his way into doing session work. According to Mick Wall, one of his sessions got a little nerve-wracking when someone dropped a piece of sheet music in front of him. Jimmy joked that it looked like “crows on telegraph wires” (p. 157). But that didn’t stop him from developing deft fingers and a keen ear – both essential for becoming a rock god.
And the thing is, because he didn’t learn music in school, he was free to listen, explore, experiment and discover it at his own pace. He tapped into history by studying blues and early rock-n-roll, striking gold when he heard Elvis. He saw the relationship between music and spirituality and explored it as far as it would take him, even into the occult. He followed his curiosity eastward to the ragas of India and speculated on how to translate that sound to guitar. He wondered what would happen if he played an electric guitar with a violin bow, if he alternated acoustic and electric guitar in a single song, if it were possible to create a reverse echo in the studio….
Who recalls this level of creative experimentation in their own conventional schooling?
If Jimmy Page had been put in a class at the age of 5 to learn about those “crows on telegraph wires” and what they meant, would he have become the same musician? Would he have become a musician at all?
Rock-n-roll was born out of questions: “What would it sound like if I put this chord progression together with this rhythm? What if I did this crazy thing with my guitar?” We can go further and say that ANY revolution in any genre of music was born out of questions – not answers, not pre-packaged explanations of how things were always done, or what was already proven to work. Our current form of mass education takes care of that just fine.
Page understood that the blues – the genre that gave emotional weight to rock-n-roll – was the genre of the unschooled, the vagabond, the oppressed…and the rebel. And the modern school system is not designed or intended to cultivate rebellion of any kind. Such an idea is anathema. Teaching implies authority to which the student submits, and enterprising free-thinkers will have none of that. We think that rebellion is in our animal nature, and thus it has to be tamed if we are to live civilly as humans. But that is a fallacy. Rebellion is NOT the way of our nature. If anything, it’s the way of evolution. The human brain evolved because it became obsessed with questions – “How else can we do this? What is possible with this? What if…?”
That’s not the brain activity of someone trying to conform to what’s already there. That is the mind seeking new territory.
This is, I think, what Jimmy Page was hinting at when he hoped people would keep music out of the schools. The way schools are now, anyway. As much I will bang the drum for music in the schools, I will bang just as hard, if not harder, to have creativity in the schools. That’s the thing we’re really fighting for when we advocate for arts education. Because if the most important thing you learn as a music student is how to play a Chopin Etude note-perfect, or that Mozart was a better composer than everyone else, you might as well stop taking those classes and lessons and start teaching yourself.
It sounds crazy, but that’s the kind of thing we have to do if music is going to be treated the way we treat math and science in the schools – as a bunch of answers waiting to be bubbled in. The great musicians, the visionaries like Jimmy Page and the rest of them, know better. For them, music without questions, without creativity, without the rebellious pursuit of freedom, is just packaged sounds. Way down inside, we all know we want the real thing.