Plant returns to his roots

August 23, 2002



Though his status as a rock icon is undeniable, Robert Plant has always been inspiring for his reluctance to live in the past, even as he acknowledges his inescapable history as a part of Led Zeppelin.

Plant is touring this summer in support of a strong new album, "Dreamland," that finds him covering heroes such as Tim Buckley (the epic "Song to the Siren"), Tim Rose ("Morning Dew") and Skip Spence ("Skip's Song"), reclaiming those classic psychedelic folk songs as something new, fresh and vital.

I spoke with Plant from his home in England before the start of a U.S. jaunt that brings him to the Tweeter Center opening for the Who on Saturday.


The Who, Robert Plant* 7:30 p.m. Saturday* Tweeter Center, 19100 S. Ridgeland, Tinley Park* Tickets, $32.50-$152.50* (312) 559-1212


Q. You've always loved that particular period of late-'60s, early-'70s psychedelic folk music, and that feeling really permeates your new album.

A. It's very natural, very organic, and I guess it had to happen sooner or later. That period definitely had a sort of cause and effect on popular culture at the time, with the social circumstances and American youth being dragged into the Vietnam War unwillingly. While I guess there was a national determination to stop the spread of communism into the Southern Hemisphere, it doesn't really mean that much to a kid from Chicago in 1967.

Q. We're kind of in a period like that right now, aren't we?

A. You ain't kidding, yeah! We don't have the kind of hysteria here [in the U.K.] that you guys are prone to, but it's very much on everybody's mind at the moment, how much public opinion is indifferent to the way [Prime Minister Tony] Blair leads us occasionally.

Q. Every time I hear Kashmir mentioned in the news, I can't help but think of the Zeppelin song.

A. The song was written on a road in the deep south of Morocco heading toward the Spanish Sahara. It was because I always thought that Kashmir was the amulet--the sort of reward at the end of everything. If I was finally at the end of all my tethers, I could always go to Kashmir, which of course now is the one thing I just can't do. Though I'm less likely to be at the end of my tether now than I was when I wrote it!

But people say to me, "Why have you done a covers album?" And I really don't treat it like that. I think it's more likely that we would be considered covering stuff in parts of my career when I was just blatantly exhuming old blues. Because we weren't really crafted to play blues. It may be an idiom, and it's always been a form of entertainment--a panacea, I guess, at the time in Mississippi--but what people are doing from middle England ... Well, I think that following this sort of course in American music, I'm a vinyl junkie, I collect records, and I just wanted to do this. I've been away from the process of writing my own material for a long time.

Q. One of the things a great vocalist does is take a song and put his own interpretation on it.

A. Somebody told me the other day when I was in New York before I came home to England that Rod Stewart was down the block cutting an album of covers. They call them "standards." Now I wonder what that could mean? Would we say that he's got nothing to write, or would we say that he's reached that point where he wants to become Vic Damone? Or maybe he's just doing something he always wanted to do, because he was for a while Sam Cooke. So I'm with him all the way, so long as it's not too schmoozy.

Q. With your choice of material--the Tim Buckley song or the Skip Spence song--are you kind of illuminating where "Led Zeppelin III" came from?

A. That came much more from Leadbelly and British Celtic folk music. Especially because a lot of it was conceived halfway up a mountain in Wales. But no, these songs are so stirring, I don't think there have been too many songs that have got the kind of composite effect of "Song to the Siren" that I've ever heard. Maybe "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is a little bit more commercial, but the lyrics are nonsense lyrics, whereas with "Song to the Siren," it's just such a pretty song. What a shame that these are not the days when songs like that can actually touch the collective soul. They're just left for critics and musos and vinyl junkies and the pervading remainders of my followers to go, "Yeah, that's a great choice!"

Q. Well, Nick Drake was used in a Volkswagen commercial and it became a hit, and I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

A. I think what it does is it opens it up to people who like it and say, "What the hell is that?" And then they discover Nick Drake. Kids in Illinois are like, "Can I get a copy of 'Bryter Layter'?" And then it's all OK. You've got one more color in your musical library, which I think is good.

Q. But the critics' retort is that the song "Pink Moon" will now forever be associated with this image of the car driving down the highway, as opposed to the image you might have had in your head the first time you heard it without the commercial.

A. I don't think it works quite like that. In England, we had Etta James singing "Hoochie Coochie Man" on some commercial, but the effect and the power of her vocal transcended any sort of four-month advertising campaign, and sold a lot of records at that time. Same with Nina Simone. She's got a career both in retrospect and in the present tense due to TV commercials.

Q. Have you guys been getting crap for selling Led Zeppelin's "Rock 'n' Roll" to a Cadillac commercial? For so long, you had a reputation of refusing to license the band's material for that sort of thing, and some fans feel betrayed now.

A. The thing is, who would have thought in 1968 when we were in Olympic Studios spending 36 hours of our time together, that we would have opened up the sort of chapter of British rock music that we did? But you know, all those generations later--and this is now 34 years later--when I hear American radio, and I hear what is now passing off as being kind of contemporary noise-generated testosterone angst, it sounds to me like they're all tiny, weenie little Pearl Jams popping out of a machine. And therefore I was wholeheartedly in favor of sticking that thing there. Because I wanted some people somewhere who'd never heard Zep to go, "What the f---'s that?"

It's the time for that now, because there are some amazing bits of Zeppelin that are not gonna be exposed otherwise. And I don't want it to be just classic rock--heritage rock--because it never was. We were out there on the edge, and we affected a lot of people along the way, because [guitarist Jimmy] Page and I spent time in North Africa, because we recorded in India with some dodgy orchestra thrown together by a friend of Ravi Shankar's. OK, I mean, it's not "Smoke on the Water," it's another thing, Zeppelin. That's the key to the door for some really substantial pieces of music which are now not coming out of another generation.

Q. Ultimately, it's radio's fault for being so damn narrow. Why can't you play a Zeppelin song into a Moby song into a Macy Gray song?

A. Exactly! And why can't you play a Robert Plant song into a Moby song into an Afro Celt Sound System song into a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song? You can't do it because radio is controlled by the sponsors, and we know all the stories. So basically it is that the options and the networking are such that it's too late. You know what it takes to stay on contemporary radio now?

Q. A lot of payola under the table.

A. Yeah! But also, I know there are some bands that have been around as long as me, some famous guys that I saw playing at the Nassau Coliseum with Britney Spears and some other people, doing like 16-minute showcase things, where they're kind of miming and stuff. And they want to do that because staying there is better than being righteous.

Q. One of the things I've always found inspiring about your solo career is that you're adamantly anti-nostalgia. You don't look back; you move forward. But you're touring with the Who, and they're doing something very different. It's very much an oldies set.

A. I didn't realize, really. I mean, my manager manages me, Jimmy and the Who, and a couple of more acts, and he's a great guy. Pete [Townshend] and Roger [Daltrey] are good guys, supportive, but I don't think we're stablemates like in the old days. People get to a time in their lives when they've served their time and they have their own viewpoints on everything, and traveling around with them is not really what I expected in a way. I have a position, and my position was, "I can either play where I played last year in Chicago [the Riviera Theatre], or I can play to a lot more people." People come in to hear very, very popular songs, and even when the Who do stuff that's not quite so popular, people vote with their feet and go and stock up with a little bit of alcohol.

I didn't realize that that would be the way. The thing is, I like tales of derring-do, and I didn't realize that this was going to be the way it is. But when I do the Zep stuff, it goes down a storm. When I do some of this other stuff that good, really good radio plays, it goes down OK. But it definitely isn't a Zep crowd--it's somewhere in between. It's a nebulous area of people who buy, I don't know how many CDs a year, but it's a different scenario.

Q. So you're not stuck in the past, but a lot of these people are?

A. Well, it's their choice, and I don't blame them. Really, when you think about what they're confronted with, if you move the dial around and keep pressing that select button, there's some good public radio ... there used to be a program in Chicago called "Blues Before Sunrise."

Q. It's still going on WBEZ, and it's an excellent show.

A. Yeah, that's right! I put it on one night about midnight and I couldn't go to bed! I had to stay up and sort of just sit there on the carpet in my hotel room. As I'm wandering around with a Charlie Patton box set in my car ...

Q. So you're saying it takes work to ferret out good music today. But didn't it back in 1968, too?

A. Yes. When you think about it, when we were leaning heavily on the Wolf and Muddy Waters, it was almost like, not as if they were a generation away, but like worlds away. Of course they weren't. I've just been reading a thing in this month's Mojo about Son House. Charles Shaar Murray's put together this amazing piece about the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, when Al Wilson and John Fay got together and found Skip James, and they found Son House, who was working as a bartender in New York state or something like that. And they get him to play, but he can't remember all the bits and pieces. He can't remember, "Going to the race track to see my pony run." He just remembers that he made some records. And they teach him again, and he gets it again, and off he goes.

Now that is way back, if you like. But in Zeppelin, we thought that the Wolf was obscure, and of course he wasn't, really! There were so many different layers to the cake, and now unfortunately there's very little left to tour on in that world that's substantial, having come to Chicago that many times thinking that was where it would be. There ain't much left.

Q. One of the things that struck a lot of people here is that when John Bonham died, Led Zeppelin stopped--despite the fact that tickets had already been printed for the Chicago Stadium show. The Who took two shows off and resumed their tour after John Entwistle died. From time to time, someone will say, "Why doesn't Zeppelin tour with Jason Bonham on drums?" But you've never even considered it.

A. Not even counting Jonesy [bassist John Paul Jones] and Jimmy, Bonzo and I went back too far. We were just testosterone dummies crashing through British subterranean music, and we didn't have any time for anything except for doing it good. When I was 32 and Bonzo paid his last respects, I hadn't reached the point where I thought there was nothing left to do in life musically. And if bands carry on, they have to make the choice as to when and why and how and what they're getting out of it. I think that questions like that, they pop up now and again, but whoever asks those kind of questions, they're usually quite lame reporters and they know what the response is and it's just another few more words which brings them up to their required editorial. I mean, it is show biz, after all. Nobody here is inventing penicillin. This is just something that you do if you don't go to a ball game.

Q. Except that occasionally you come across something like that Buckley song, which has a deep emotional resonance that can literally change your life.

A. Absolutely, I believe in that! And I believe that that was a period where people were sincerely and wholeheartedly connecting with a kind of inner being that was not American or Romanian or Israeli or Palestinian or Afghan or Vietnamese or nothing. It was just the heart that's underneath it all, and it's such a beautiful, delicate thing.

Q. And a lot of your music has had the same impact on people.

A. What to say? "Dreamland" is where I want to be. I love the sort of wild, infidel noise that we make, and f--- it!

Q. It always strikes me when I see your solo performances how much fun you seem to be having up there. And that's not true when you see the Stones or the Who today.

A. I have to say that I really empathize. I feel for Peter and Roger. Because once the wheels start spinning, to actually put the breaks on would be incredibly difficult, and I think that they're feeling it at different stages quite deeply, and I'm sure that half the time that they play, they don't want to.

Q. Which makes it sound like work, which is exactly what everybody was trying to get away from when they started playing music in the first place.

A. Exactly, yeah.