Thursday, January 3, 2008

Crawling out of the woodwork

Randy Marlin has a one-of-a-kind set of Led Zeppelin collectibles. They fit on a shelf and stand less than a foot tall. And they look really, really cool.

They’re wooden figurines of Led Zeppelin’s stage setup. The artist behind them, Robert Karr, made new pieces throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s and added them to Marlin’s collection.

“Today I’m known mainly for my World War I aircraft paintings,” said Karr, who lives in Westminster, Calif., where he exhibits and sells mostly aviation artwork.

But lately, he’s inadvertently started to carve out a name for himself in the world of music fandom based on some work he completed decades ago.

It all began in 1973, when Karr placed a small classified ad in Rolling Stone magazine. “I think the ad said something like, ‘I carve rock people. Send 10 cents for more information to’ [an address],” Karr recalled. “That was it.”

The first person to respond to the ad was Randy Marlin, who was only 15 at the time.

“A guy who advertised that he carved rock musicians? Well hey,” Marlin said, “I thought that was pretty cool.

“Seeing as how I was a big-time Led Zep fanatic, I wrote him and asked if he would carve me a Jimmy Page figure,” said Marlin.

By that point, Karr had seen Led Zeppelin in concert once. “I first saw them in May ’69 at the Rose Palace in Pasadena, third on the bill under Elvin Bishop and Julie Driscoll...they played two sets that night,” he said.

But Karr identifies himself as a casual Led Zeppelin fan, compared with his younger sister -- “an absolute fanatic!”

After Karr made the first Led Zeppelin figurine for Marlin, the teen became a repeat customer whenever his budget would allow.

Marlin takes the story: “Over the next 7-8 years, he carved/constructed this Led Zeppelin stage setup as you see. Everything is handmade using lightweight balsa wood, nylon, fabric, plastic and other assorted doodads. ... The entire stage is about five feet long.”

Asked about the precision in his work, Karr replied: “I gathered all the research and reference I could, from the various rock magazines; instrument/equipment manufacturer catalogs; going to music stores and measuring the various instruments and equipment. All this stuff was really model building, everything measured and scaled. In this case, it was 1/8th actual size: 1 1/2”= 1’. In this scale, a six-foot-tall man would be nine inches tall. The Zeppelin figures are a little shorter because I don’t think they were quite that size in real life!”

Wait a minute -- those green things sitting in various places all over the stage setup...

“Yes, those are miniature Heineken beer bottles,” said Marlin.

It was in June 1977 that Karr attended his second Led Zeppelin concert, at the L.A. Forum.

“I also saw Page with the [1983] Ronnie Lane benefit show with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton,” he said.

In addition to the acoustic Led Zeppelin setup shown here, a separate electric stage setup of the band -- also made by Karr in the 1970s and 1980s -- is in Marlin’s possession.

Karr was also making miniature rock statues for other customers. In 1974, Karr made a model of Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for the Doors, as featured on Manzarek’s Web site. Karr’s own site now includes his story of producing a Cheap Trick stage setup commissioned by the band’s Rick Nielsen.

Marlin recalls that in his correspondence throughout the 1970s, Karr kept him up to date on other rock figurines he was building. “Back when he was doing this for me, he told me he became friends with someone in the Fleetwood Mac office and ended up doing an entire Fleetwood Mac stage setup for each member of the band,” said Marlin. “Pretty amazing talent.”

The artist corroborated this story. “What kept me busy for years was Fleetwood Mac,” he said. During the Rumours era, “I did five complete sets for them -- one for each member of the band, plus a bunch of other figures of people associated with them -- road manager, head office girl, etc.”

Karr has since made his living with other forms of art. “My days of building rock ’n’ roll models sputtered out in the early ’80s,” he said. “The last couple of years have brought all sorts of these olds works of mine back to haunt me.”

It’s only in “the last couple of years,” he said, that reminders have sent his classic rock statuettes crawling out of the woodwork, so to speak. First, “Manzarek’s people asked for the story of that figure,” he said. “Then I heard one of my old buddies from the Mac office died, which caused me to start wondering about some of my old work. Then somebody told me that a few of the Fleetwood Mac figures turned up on eBay. Then just recently I heard from Randy Marlin. … Must be something in the air!”

Every now and then, the two worlds collide. Karr said the image of a zeppelin airship, a recognizable symbol for German warfare, is featured on the cover of the latest book he was commissioned to paint.

He also offered some little-known trivia about the artwork inside Led Zeppelin’s second album. “The centerspread of LedZep II,” he wrote, “is based on a photo of Jadgstaffel 11, one of the most successful German fighter squadrons of 1917-18.”

As for Karr’s most ardent customer in the Led Zeppelin world, Marlin isn’t giving up his habit of collecting figurines of his favorite band. “I just recently got in touch with Robert Karr to see if he would do some more work for me,” he explained. “I want to get a new Jimmy Page figure of him playing the Les Paul Sunburst with his violin bow. That would be cool!”

While Karr didn’t indicate whether or not he is willing to accept new customers in this line of work, he did reflect a little about the price of the figurines he crafted so long ago. In the 1970s, he charged upwards of $15 per performer. Drummers cost extra.

He recalls a separate “price list for amps, keyboards and other weirdness. I can’t remember their prices! Today it would be much more!”


  1. Where's the "on this day in Led Zeppelin history" for John Paul Jones' birthday tady?


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