“If I played guitar, I’d be Jimmy Page,” is a lyric from a Beastie Boys song. I always thought it was clever, but since I always wanted to be a drummer, I thought I’d have the line, “If I played drums I’d be John Bonham.”
The closest I got to being like Bonham was the dad-bod and beard I’m sporting now. But this isn’t about drummers, it’s about guitarists. Arguably, one of the best in rock history.
Stevie Ray Vaughan often ends up on lists of best guitarists. Another Vaughan is on the list of best San Diego guitarists. His name would be Greg Vaughan. If you’re in town and get to see him in one of his many bands, you should (his most recent one is Electric Warrior, which is a T. Rex tribute). Nothing funnier than when he did a tribute band that combined Depeche Mode and Black Sabbath songs. But I’m not here to talk about his prowess on the six-string, but a story he shared on his facebook page. It was written by a guitarist named Jeff Curtis, and the story was in my wheelhouse for two reasons. First, Led Zeppelin is one of my favorite bands. Second, it involves getting Jimmy Page’s autograph. And anybody that has tried knows...he doesn’t sign. In fact, he has the distinction of being the only guy that hasn’t signed at his own book signings!! He had a stamp he would put into the book you purchased when you went up to the table and met him. Who does that?
Anyway, this story blew me away, so I reached out to do an interview with him. This, after Page refused to comment on the story (okay, I’m lying with that part; I never even contacted Page for a comment. I just thought it would sound cool if I was refused a quote from a guitar god). First, I’ll share Jeff Curtis’ story, in his own words. It will be followed up with my annoying questions pestering him about autographs and hanging out with Mr. Page.
A GUITAR CASE STORY
After 47+ years, I can finally share the following story:
In June, 1972 I went to see Led Zeppelin perform at the Nassau Coliseum here on Long Island. There was one particular roadie, Mick Hinton, John Bonham’s drum tech, who I had said hello to the previous year, when the group played in Madison Square Garden in 1971. After the latter concert ended, I went up to the row of seats behind the stage at the coliseum and yelled down to him again. He seemed to recognize me from the 1971 concert and yelled hello back. On a whim, I asked if I might come down and help them pack up the equipment. To my complete surprise, he says yes. “How do I get down there?” He then picks and tosses a guitar case to me! I walked down, past two security checkpoints with the case in hand, up onto the stage, and handed it back to Mick. After the few minutes it took to pack up the drums, he says to me, “You can have that.” I was speechless, to say the least! “Where will the guitar go?” He took me over and showed me Jimmy Page’s number one Les Paul guitar in its brand new anvil road case. The case I was given was being discarded that night since its back was crushed and no longer afforded protection to the guitar. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
So began my decades-long possession of a genuine rock n’ roll artifact. But I also realized from that point onward that it was something I couldn’t talk about. While there have been a small handful of friends over the years who were aware that I had it, I had kept this a deep secret over the past 47 years in fear that someone might either burglarize my house or worse, threaten me in order to steal it. For this reason, I had decided a couple of years ago that I no longer wanted the guitar case.
Despite its certain significant monetary value to a collector, I had also decided that I wouldn’t ever sell it since making money off someone else’s fame is simply against my principals. I decided that I would find a way to personally return it to Jimmy Page. But how to accomplish this? How would I get in touch with the right people to set up a meeting?
Back in July, I went to see the “Play It Loud” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Jimmy Page’s number one Les Paul guitar was one of the instruments on display. I got the idea that maybe I could be put in touch with his people via the exhibit’s curator. A few days later, I called the museum and spoke with the curator’s assistant who asked me to send an e-mail with photos, which I did. About two weeks later, I got a call from a gentleman, Perry, who works with Jimmy. He asked to set up a meeting to personally examine the case and take several more detailed photos. About a month later, I received word that Jimmy wanted to meet me and have the case returned.
So, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in a hotel lounge in New York City, my two daughters, a close friend and I had the pleasure of a 1-hour sitdown and conversation with Jimmy, with him finally getting the guitar case back. When I opened it up, the look on his face was priceless: “What memories this brings back!” “Thank you so much!” In person, he is a genuinely warm and very welcoming gentleman. We talked about Led Zeppelin, he asked about my musical influences, asked my daughters what type of music they enjoyed and various other topics. I gave him copies of both my CDs, which he said he would listen to. He also had brought me a special limited box set edition of “Led Zeppelin 2” and signed its book as well as another book I had brought with me. I can honestly say that after the first few minutes, my nervousness completely disappeared and it felt like I was talking with an old friend. Nevertheless, the experience of having had the opportunity to sit down with the very person whose music not only greatly influences my own but also inspired to me to initially pick up and learn to play the guitar almost 50 years ago is something that I will never forget!
Thanks so much Jimmy and thank you Perry! Mission accomplished.
Now, I got a hold of Jeff and we had a conversation 8 p.m. San Diego time, but it was 11 p.m. when he was driving home from a gig in New York. I had to ask, “Did you play any Zep songs in your set?”
He chuckled and said, “The Rain Song.”
I asked if that was his favorite tune and he said it’s hard to pick one particular favorite. He continued, “I like all their work. Maybe a handful I don’t like that much. The first five albums I enjoy the most. There are a couple of tracks off Physical Graffiti I like. To me, the first four are the core, and they really established themselves. With Houses of the Holy...they went in a different direction.”
JEFF CURTIS: I like Kashmir. It’s a great composition. The sound that he was getting...I guess my favorite albums are II and IV. If I’m in an acoustic mood, the 3rd album. I like “That’s the Way” quite a bit.”
JOSH BOARD: Yeah, so do I. Great song. Before meeting Page, did you have a guitarist you liked more?
JEFF CURTIS: I can’t say there’s anyone I liked more than him. You have to understand, every guitarist is different, and you compare things different. I enjoy Hendrix. I like Pat Metheny’s work a lot. My hero is Michael Hedges. There’s a guitar player from France I like. Jeff Beck is really good. More recently, I like Eric Johnson’s work, and Steve Morse (Kansas, Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs). It all depends on the genre and what era I’m talking about.
JOSH BOARD: A lot of your friends probably asked why you didn’t ask for an insane amount of money for the guitar case, or suggested you could’ve sold it on eBay.
JEFF CURTIS: First off, a very small number of close friends even knew I had it. None of them knew I was looking to get it back to him. So that conversation never really took place. I was aware of the fact that it could probably command six figures. I looked online, and saw that Page is worth $200 million. But why should I profit off someone else’s accomplishment and fame? I’ve owned it for 47 years. I’m 64-years-old and I’m not going to be around forever. My daughters wouldn’t know how to handle selling it.
JOSH BOARD: Well, if it will make you feel better, if you have regrets about not selling it and making money...or if your daughters ever do...it probably wouldn’t have gotten six figures. My friend owns a company called Rock Star Guitars, and he’s sold Hendrix guitars for six figures, and basses that John Entwhistle (The Who) played. And, there was a case that equipment went in, that Ray Manzarek of The Doors owned. He even wrote a letter talking about how Morrison would smoke joints sitting on top of it. I think that sold for less than $10,000. Sure, Page and Zep are huge, but so are The Doors. A guitar Page played is different than a guitar case.
JEFF CURTIS: I don’t need the money, whatever it would’ve sold for. Even if it was 20, 30, or 50,000. I did okay in life and I’m comfortable. And I don’t think it’s right to do that. Something about the memorabilia business. Let me clarify. Once someone has died and is no longer around, that’s one thing. But if they are alive, to go about selling it. I’d rather meet him and return it. And have the chance to tell him when I heard Led Zeppelin II, 50 years ago, it inspired me to want to pick up the guitar and learn it. When I contacted the curator and then heard from Perry, who works with Jimmy, he told me I could Google him to see he really has worked with Page for over 30 years. Previously, I thought about trying to contact Page when Jason Bonham’s band played in town. Another time, through his daughter that does photography.
JOSH BOARD: Speaking of photography, you’d also need photos to show that Page had this case if you were trying to sell it.
JEFF CURTIS: I have seen the guitar case in one book -- Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page, and another photo of it during a soundcheck picture. But after I got in touch with Perry, he came to my house and took photos and printed them out. Two days later, he was having lunch with Jimmy and I got a text. It told me to save the date of September 15th at 2 p.m. to meet Jimmy Page. He told me they have heard from people before claiming to have his guitars and things, and it never turned out to be the case. They just sold him a bill of goods in an attempt to meet him. I was in the hospital recovering from what I’m being treated for, which I won’t go into, since it’s irrelevant to the story. I brought a close friend and my two daughters and we made the 25 mile drive to Manhattan. Perry told me he only comes to the States every few years.
JOSH BOARD: That’s weird. I thought I heard a while ago, that he had a place in Florida or a girlfriend there or something.
JEFF CURTIS: I don’t know. But...we went in and got to sit with Jimmy for an hour and just chit chat. He was very warm, and a welcoming gentleman. When I took it out of the bag, he was like a kid in a candy store. I pointed out the imprint from the bridge of his guitar. He thanked me so much. I told him I was relieved to get it back to him and grateful for the opportunity to get it back to him. He brought me a limited edition of outtakes, it was #32 of 30,000 copies stamped on it, and he signed it for me, and signed a book I brought.
JEFF CURTIS: He brought a CD of Zeppelin IV, but Perry told him no, and that this was my day. My friend was a little bummed that he didn’t get it signed or a picture with him, but he was still happy he got to be there. At first, Perry was mad I brought him, because it was just supposed to be me and my daughters. But I told him I had Leukemia and I needed him, in case he had to drive us back if I wasn’t feeling well. But Jimmy did shake his hand when he left. We talked about my musical influences. I told him I thought John Bonham did funk drum beats, and we went into detail about that. He said Bonham used to sit and listen to James Brown records. He asked my daughters if they played instruments. They don’t. I brought two of my self-produced CDs and he promised he’d give them a listen.”
JOSH BOARD: I’m guessing Jimmy didn’t ask Jeff to sign the CDs, but I’m sure he’ll listen to them. I was at Comic Con when a young filmmaker asked Kevin Smith (Clerks) if he could give him a DVD of a movie he made. Smith said sure, and as he walked up to hand it to him, the crowd started laughing. Smith admonished the crowd, saying “You think he was goofy for asking, but ya know what? I’m actually going to watch it.”
JEFF CURTIS: He did ask about the artwork on the CD, which was done by the wife of the friend with me. After a few minutes talking to him, it was like talking to an old friend. Perry told me later that if he had felt uncomfortable, it would have only lasted a few minutes. He thanked me for how I handled myself.
[At this point I’m thinking...yeah, but...would it have killed Page to sign one more CD for your friend? It’s one thing if your friend brought his entire collection of Zep records, but he and his manager could’ve assessed that at the time. For example, I was working at a radio station when Brian May came in for an interview. I brought all my Queen albums. He signed 3 or 4 and said “Do I have to sign them all?” And so he didn’t. Another time, I met someone that paid $5,000 to have lunch with Paul McCartney. I was going to attend that same event (in the early 90s), but couldn’t justify that price. A buddy of mine said if I brought every Beatles and Wings album, had him sign them all, and then sold some...it would shoulder the cost. I opted not to go, but someone I met years later went and had that same idea. Well, aside from selling the ones that were signed. He brought six Beatles records, and after Paul signed one or two, he looked over at his assistant, and signaled him over with a head nod. The assistant rushed over, saying, “This isn’t supposed to be an autograph signing, just a lunch with Paul.” So, he paid $5,000 to have two Beatles albums signed. Sure, I’m off topic a bit, but the point is...Jimmy could’ve signed one CD for the guy and, if he was worried the guy would sell it, personalize it. Now, back to the interview.]
JOSH BOARD: If he wanted you to just send the case to him, and he was going to pay for postage and maybe give you a mere thousand dollars or something, would you have done that?
JEFF CURTIS: No. It was something where...I wanted the meeting. But Perry told me he had to come to the States for business and the timing was perfect. Especially since I was between hospital admissions. It was like this was meant to happen. There was a brief discussion about the fact that it might just end up being a phone conversation with me and Page, so...I’m glad it worked out this way.
JOSH BOARD: Did you think about asking for a signed guitar in exchange? Perhaps a sunburst, Les Paul signed...for this guitar case that he has so many memories touring the states with for the first time?
JEFF CURTIS: No. I’ve been around the business for a number of years, and I know how all that works.
JOSH BOARD: I only asked because...when I interviewed Joe Walsh once, he said he’s surprised by the amount of people that ask if they can have his guitar. He says, “Uh, no, you can’t.’ I explained that regular folks probably think the record company or guitar companies, will just give you guitars left and right. The same way NBA players give away their shoes. Nike will just give them new kicks.
JEFF CURTIS: I met Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top). He owns about 800 guitars. I know Steve Vai and Satriani. We actually went to high school together. Vai has a lot of guitars. I didn’t want a guitar from Page I wanted to meet him and have a picture with him. I thought we’d have maybe 15 minutes, and it ended up being an hour. I certainly didn’t expect him to bring me a gift from England. It’s a testament to what a gentleman he is.
JOSH BOARD: Now that you have Page on that book, you need some other Zep members. Have you gotten any of them before?
JEFF CURTIS: I met Robert Plant, and he seemed to have a bit of an ego. I have no desire to get his autograph. Most people in this business are down to Earth and they want to be treated normal. And no matter what your notoriety is and how you got there, whether that’s from performances and compositions...their fame derived from what the people listen to them perceive them to be. Just because you play guitar and that makes people happy or react a certain way, doesn’t give them the right to be a**holes.
JOSH BOARD: What other bands or musicians have you gotten autographs from?
JEFF CURTIS: Stanley Jordan, Satriani. Here’s a funny story. I went to high school with Satriani. He was a year younger than me. We grew up in the same neighborhood. He played a concert hall in New York five years ago. I hadn’t seen him in like 19 years. After the show I talked my way backstage and go down and the first thing he says is “Jeff! How are you?” I gave him a big hug and blah blah blah. I brought something for him to sign for a co-workers son that is a fan, and he signed it. I’ve also met Steve Morse. In 1972 I met Jeff Beck. I said to him “What would the one piece of advice be you’d give to someone at my stage that’s just starting out?” He looked at me and thought about it, and finally said, “Play only what you like.” Anyway, I’m just not a big autograph person, so there aren’t other signatures I really want.
JOSH BOARD: Did you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’d say to Page? He’s one of the best guitarists, from one of the best bands in rock history. There are a million things you can ask.
JEFF CURTIS: The main things were that I wanted to make sure he understood how I acquired the guitar case, and appreciated having it, and wanting to give it back. And giving him my two CDs, a photograph, and number four...his music. The 5th thing was that I wanted to tell him my favorite composition is The Rain Song. My friend showed me the tuning he used, and a variation of it he did in 1996. I wanted to ask him about the tuning for it. I asked where he got that and he said he just made it up.
--At this point, Jeff told me a terrific story about talking about the various tunings of the guitar during The Rain Song. There was talk of the key of A, but on the album it’s in G, and moving two strings, and getting the bottom end. It was all over my head, as I can only play three songs on guitar. But I figured I wouldn’t transcribe all that into this story because only the hardcore guitar players will get it.
All that being said, after the interview, I thought about how Jeff was worried about someone breaking into his house and stealing that guitar case all these years. Yet now that he has a few signed items from Jimmy Page...I’m considering a flight to the East Coast with a locksmith friend of mine ;-)