Long before Robert Plant became famous for his collaborations with Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin, professionally and romantically, respectively, he sold a billion records with Led Zeppelin. When that gig dried up in 1980 he went solo, and that led to this phone interview in August 2002 when Plant was on tour with a new record called Dreamland.
The covers-heavy set, his first solo outing in nine years, included songs by Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan and Jesse Colin Young. He called just before heading out to soundcheck for a gig in Grand Rapids, MI. The above photo is from the show I saw him play at the Greek in Los Angeles in September.
The conversation – and that’s really what it was – was relatively superficial, which matches my personality. A bit longer, a bit deeper would have been nice. Which is something no woman has ever said to me. (Transcribed for eddiel at royal-orleans.com)
IS THERE A THEMATIC CHORD AMONG THE VARIOUS SONGS?
Not really, they’re just little vignettes. What there is, if anything at all, is a mood link. The whole album I tried to — with the aid of the guys who work with me — tried to make it into something that would be inherently a kind of psychedelic trance weave, a blend of styles going from the pre-Sahara with the Tuareg and Gnaoua players, who I’ve worked with in the past with the aid of Justin Adams and his contacts with those guys and his constant work with them, and then with the kind of Portishead connection, try and get a little bit of a spook element. Each member of the band adds to this pot pourri, which ends up as quite a great chemical collusion.
IS THERE A DANGER IN ROMANTICIZING THE HIPPIE ERA THAT YOU HAVE DRAWN A LOT OF THE SONGS FROM?
I don’t think so. If you like, the whole sentiment of those times is now fit only for advertising yogurts and stuff that goes on on the beach with bunches of girls dancing with tie-dyed t-shirts on. But there’s a lot more to it than that: youth culture developing a responsibility and the musicians echoing that at the time, with all the crises and Vietnam and the mishandling of municipal and town activities in America in the ’60s. I felt it was a really strong period and I thought it was a very eloquent time. It was interesting to see popular music culture taking on a conscience and a melody so that people were — with the aid of Dylan and so many of his apostles — really bringing some messages home. There’s no danger in going back into that realm again because there was some particularly beautiful stuff. I don’t suppose many people who’ve actually picked the CD up really even related to that, because if you weren’t there you wouldn’t get the message.
YEAH, UNTIL I HEARD YOUR CD I’D THOUGHT “SONG TO THE SIREN” WAS BY THAT BIRD WHO DID THE VIDEO-
I DIDN’T KNOW IT WENT BACK ANY FURTHER THAN THAT (TO JEFF BUCKLEY)!
That’s right. 4AD (Records), (Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie of) the Cocteau Twins. Mind you, that was a great record in the middle of all that muted pap music. You suddenly got that, echoing out along with the beginnings of the Jesus and Mary Chain and stuff. It was really good. (Returning to the original question). Yeah, I don’t think there’s any danger in it all. I think it was a wonderful time, and I don’t know whether or not people who are 10 years younger than me would even have any idea that the whole sentiment of the record comes from that chronological shift.
I GUESS YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL ABOUT TAKING MUSIC OUT OF CONTEXT A LA USING “KASHMIR” FOR THE NUN RAPE SCENE IN BAD LIEUTENANT
That was used without our permission and taken out of the film after that … Page and I, just south of Goulimine (Morocco) in the pre-Sahara, ended up being manhandled into that. Bit sad really. (I laughed, but didn’t really understand)
ARE YOU PLAYING MOST OF THESE SONGS LIVE?
Yeah. A selection of them, along with some Zeppelin stuff and some other solo stuff from different times.
I READ SOMEWHERE THAT YOU WERE SUFFERING WRITERS BLOCK. WHAT’S THE DEAL THERE?
Not really a writers block, I just thought I’d written enough. That might be the same thing. I just thought, “Oh no, let’s do something where I don’t have to really write, just express.” I don’t know how many albums I’ve written on or contributed to, but there’s probably upwards of about 130 songs and that’s a lot of songs. In Zeppelin we did some blues stuff, we did some Muddy Waters, some Willie Dixon, some Howlin’ Wolf, some Robert Johnson touches, and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” came out of some pot somewhere else. There’s a lots of bits and pieces. It’s just that in Zeppelin we didn’t do any interviews, so nobody had the opportunity to ask questions about it, and nobody was really that au fait with where we got the stuff from anyway.
DO YOU GET A PERVERSE KICK OUT OF PICKING A SONG (“ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE”) FROM ONE OF BOB DYLAN’S LEAST-LOVED ALBUMS (DESIRE) AND MAKING IT YOUR OWN?
I don’t see it as a least-loved album because I think it’s a fantastic record. The abandon on the record is sensational. One cannot do that anymore, and one cannot do so much. There’s so much now that’s gone in the fruit-free, ramshackle troubadourean motif of music. If you turn the radio on, once you’ve got through the commercials, 75 percent of the time you’re presented — whatever station you’re listening to — with some kind of digitally recorded, squeaky-clean, insubstantial mess. Unless you get Flaming Lips or White Stripes or something that’s coming through and actually having a pop at things.
THOSE BANDS HAVE YOUR SEAL OF APPROVAL?
Mmm. Yeah, definitely. Well, you know, people are going out and trying to invent without aiming straight at the weak insubstantial underbelly of the next rock generation. I mean, Linkin Park, is that really what rock became? Is it Eddie Vedder’s fault. When I first heard him I thought Eddie Vedder was actually Eden Kane from Peter Sarstedt, these two singers from England, and I said to Pagey, “Listen to that, that’s Eden Kane!” And he said, “Wait a minute, he hasn’t recorded since 1962.” Is that the mark of some kind of crumbling icon when you start popping at other groups? It’s not really professional. It’s just not my taste. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, I just don’t get it.
AND IT’S AWKWARD WHEN THEY GENUFLECT TO YOU!
Fuckin’ hell. I don’t blame ’em!
THIS IS WHAT YOU’VE GIVEN TO US!
There was quite a lot of variety in Led Zeppelin. Never mind the lifestyle. Feel the width. (Again, I laughed, cluelessly)
WHY DID YOU PRINT THE LYRICS FOR “SONG TO THE SIREN”?
I just think that the whole plan and artistic motif of the lyric and the whole idea of some of the more nebulous but interesting aspects of my life relate to that. It’s one of the greatest, most amazing songs, I think, lyrically. The whole movement of the thing is beautiful. So I developed an artwork based on it. I just made the whole thing work around that.
WHAT ARE THE PARALLELS TO YOUR LIFE?
Well, exactly what the song says. I’ve lived that act. It’s no great big deal, but it’s just a beautiful way of putting it — very succinct, and it’s ambiguous enough to make it exceedingly good listening.
WOULD YOU ACCEPT A KNIGHTHOOD?
Ha! No, I’m afraid not. I am already the Golden God. How can I step down that far? I have nothing to do with royalty, I’m afraid. Ever since (Celtic leader) Vortigan brought over (Jute mercenaries) Hengest and Horsa to help stop the Picts moving down through the north of Britain — he brought Germans into the country — and we were pushed back into the hills of Wales, and I’m afraid that I can only be the Golden God, or I am Arthur, King of the Britons. (He accepted a CBE in 2009, four years after Page received a lower-ranking OBE.)
DO YOU THINK JIMMY WOULD? SIR JAMES PAGE?
Lady James Page!
I GUESS YOU GOT A KICK OUT OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS MOVIE?
I live on the Welsh borders and it is all there anyway. If you go to a tourist information place, you just buy a book, Welsh Myths and Legends, the Mabinogion, and it’s all there. It’s just something that I’ve grown up around. The fact that Tolkien actually stretched it out and gave it some purpose in a contemporary time for kids to get into is great.
YOU STILL HAVE A GOOD 30 YEARS LEFT. WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO ACCOMPLISH?
I need a really good second service.
I THOUGHT YOU WERE A GOLF PLAYER, FOR SOME REASON
No. Fuckin’ hell, no … Middle management. No, the second service needs to improve. Yep. A bit more nimble on the footwork, metaphorically so, of course.
BUT MUSICALLY, I GUESS YOU’VE RAPED AND PILLAGED EVERYTHING-
-Now, here’s the thing, I’m going to Timbuktu in January. I’m going to a festival that’s run by the Malian government, bringing in some Tuareg rebel tribesmen and there’s enough music there to keep me going for life. It’s really quite amazing and it’s quite a long way from here. There’s lots to do. I’d like to write a big rock anthem again. I just need to have a listen to Korn a bit more and then I think I might get the idea of how to do it.
YOU AND EDDIE VEDDER WOULD MAKE A GREAT PAIR
Well, we wrote “Going to California.”
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ESSAOUIRA MUSIC FESTIVAL (IN MOROCCO)?
No, I haven’t. I’ve been to Essaouira a lot. Jimmy and used to go in the ’70s to the Marrakesh Festival of Folklore, which took place, ironically, in the hottest time of all, in the dust bowl, inside a big casbah in the medina in Marrakesh. I managed to blag passes by saying I worked for the NME. Of all the people who wouldn’t be working for them, a member of Led Zep had to be. But this was in the time when they still were interested in us. And I used to take my Nikon and go and photograph the various tribes, and it was really good. But as all things Moroccan have to be underneath it all quite funny and there’s a kind of stupid humor about so much Moroccan stuff, which makes it really an endearing and enjoyable place to be, along with everything else, they put the stage right over a beautiful lily pond right in the middle of the casbah, which was some kind of artistic arrangement so that it people could look at it and it kept them feeling cool – another good Islamic idea. But at night time, when the dancers were playing and they were illuminated with microphones set up and they were playing, ten thousand-thousand frogs sang. Every night. And the frogs were amplified coming through the PA. And the frogs were louder than the musicians. So there was that sort of mild hysteria in the audience while the various tribes from the Atlas were doing their best to impress. The frogs won the day. Anyway, I must fly to soundcheck. What can you do in Grand Rapids?
I DON’T KNOW. I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHERE IT IS. DO YOU MIND IF I ASK ONE MORE QUICK QUESTION? IS THERE A SMIDGEN OF REGRET THAT OZZY OSBOURNE IS NOW THE MOST FAMOUS HEAVY METAL GUY IN THE WORLD (THANKS TO MTV’S THE OSBOURNES)?
No, because heavy metal needs ambassadors … There’s so much irony to the thing that in the end it’s massive entertainment.
ARE YOU A FAN OF THE SHOW?
I don’t watch it, no. I managed to watch about three or four minutes. Knowing Ozzy from way back and knowing Sharon from more recently … What does that say about the people who are watching it? At least Ozzy’s got some kind of “he who laughs last” thing, even if he might not be laughing quite as loud.
NOTE: Out now, my memoir: Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.us
Copyright © 2002, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING