The recent spate of sexual harassment and assault accusations against numerous male celebrities and politicians, some of which date back many years, may revive the controversy around the affair of Lori Mattix and Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page. Backgrounder: one of the most successful rock groups ever, Zeppelin’s offstage exploits were not well publicized in their prime, but five years after their 1980 disbandment, Stephen Davis’s bestselling tell-all Hammer of the Gods revealed their sleaziest episodes – one of which was leader Page’s 1972 dalliance with a fourteen-year-old Los Angeles fan, Lori Mattix (spelled Maddox in the book). Since then, many in the vast Zeppelin audience have struggled with the story. This is not just another cool tale of rock ‘n’ roll excess but a serious matter of personal morality and criminal law.
As a medium largely performed by young men and largely consumed by a teenage market, some hint of sexual danger has always hovered around rock music. Off the top of my head I can think of three separate songs titled “Jailbait” (by Aerosmith, Motörhead, and Ted Nugent), while in 1958 outrage erupted around Jerry Lee Lewis’s marrying his thirteen-year-old second cousin Myra, and again in 1984 over middle-aged Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s relationship with Mandy Smith, also thirteen, whom Wyman briefly married a few years later. Beatle insider Larry Kane has reported that in 1964 he helped cover up a potential scandal when two tween girls spent an (apparently innocent) night in John Lennon’s Las Vegas hotel room. The combined effects of fame and a cult of idealized adolescence have made the rock culture fraught with illicit temptations.
Lori Mattix was almost unknown when Hammer of the Gods made her a minor (in every sense) legend in Led Zeppelin lore. In the account she gave to Davis – possibly for a fee – Mattix emphasized the romance of her fling with Page, claimed the guitarist met and reassured her mother, and never suggested anything other than consensual activity. In later interviews, she has added that she and Page were “madly in love” and that they shared “the most beautiful thing ever.” Jimmy Page himself has never commented on his time with Lori, nor on any of his paramours of the era, although his occasional partners Pamela Des Barres, Bebe Buell, and Catherine James have all issued their own salacious memoirs. Now in his seventies, Page has been linked with several long-term companions, most of them significantly younger than him.
The obvious controversy around Lori Mattix and Jimmy Page’s tryst is that Page was committing a felony. Lori was four years below the 1972 Californian age of consent, while at twenty-eight Page was far richer, more powerful, and more mature, and thus liable for more severe prosecution had public complaints been raised. (He incidentally had a common-law wife and toddler daughter back in England.) Although Lori was a willing participant – and she has admitted to other rock star lovers, including David Bowie and Ron Wood – Page’s judgement in pursuing a juvenile is of a different order than the familiar charges of his drug use, hotel destructions, or occult practices. Today many still are uneasy about this aspect of the Led Zeppelin mythology: a Goodreads reviewer of my 2007 unauthorized Page bio, Magus, Musician, Man, wrote that “The Crowley and Luciferian-ish stuff didn’t bother me too much but the seeming ephebophilia [attraction to adolescents] was unpleasant to read about.”
As a rock music buff, the Lori Mattix account doesn’t lessen my love for Jimmy Page’s art, but as a citizen of the post-Clinton, post-Weinstein world, and as a father of young daughters, it’s not something I can blithely shrug off. Of course, many longstanding social taboos were being jettisoned in the 1960s and 70s, for better or worse, and the handful of people in Page’s position were then afforded a creative, financial, chemical, and sexual license few of them could responsibly handle. Their female followers, trying to seem sophisticated, were even more naive. What would a fourteen-year-old and a twenty-eight-year old see in each other, and who around them could have imagined their liaison was a healthy one? “You know,” Lori Mattix told Stephen Davis, “[my mother] knew I was doing it anyway, so she figures if I’m gonna be doing it, who better with?” Insofar as Lori seems to have emerged undamaged and unlitigious from her Page connection, the issue may be laid to rest, yet I can’t help but recall a passage from Vladimir Nabokov:
What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic – one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon…I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.