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Idol Chatter

Robert Plant on Success, Getting Panned by Rolling Stone, and What ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Means to Him Now

"I'm a little wary of repetition," says the former Led Zeppelin frontman. "And no matter where I play, I've got to feel really good about it, because the bird is on the wing"
Illustration by Mark Summers

W hen I reach Robert Plant on the phone, it’s a few days before he and Alison Krauss play Glastonbury. Plant has just arrived back in England in a great mood and describes his day so far in his very Plant-like way: “It’s summer solstice — it’s magnificent,” he exclaims. “I was able to experience the very first rays of the sun this morning and the sound of a female blackbird. So it’s a wonderful day.”

Plant and Krauss released their second album together, Raise the Roof, last fall, and they just hit the road for a string of dates that run through Sept. 12. The shows touch on the new record, as well as their first collaboration (their Grammy-winning 2007 outing, Raising Sand) and folky reworkings of tracks by Plant’s first big band, Led Zeppelin.

Since Zeppelin disbanded in 1980, following the death of drummer John Bonham, Plant has kept his spirits up by following his own muse. He has indulged moody pop and supergroup R&B, reunited with Jimmy Page on the No Quarter album, and indulged his folkier interests with Krauss. Although Zeppelin have reunited a few times over the decades, Plant has always been reluctant to dwell too long in the past.

For Rolling Stone’s Last Word column, Plant reflected on this journey from golden god to more mercurial, always-moving artist.

You recently reunited with Alison Krauss for a new album and tour. Since you’re someone who could do anything with your career, how do you choose what to do?
I feel that I’ve been on an ambitious decathlon from the age of 17, when I put my first cuts out on Columbia, to now. I really like the possibility of the challenge, and I think that Alison and I had made many overtures about how nice it would be [to work together again]. Then the opportunity finally arrived to discuss where we both felt we could go with reinterpreting other people’s music.

You perform songs by the Everly Brothers and Calexico, but you’ve been doing cover songs your whole life, going back to “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” What do you get out of doing covers?
Raise the Roof as a collection has grit. It’s not supposed to be an endearing selection; it’s a little more rough, particularly with the Bert Jansch pieces. The whole deal is, “How do you actually take these songs, show them respect, and give them a new place?”

I tried it in the Eighties with the Honeydrippers, but that was a slam dunk because I was working with Ahmet [Ertegun]. The Honeydrippers was an adventure which spoke for itself, really, whereas these two collections with Alison and T Bone [Burnett] have far more of a quest, and in that quest comes the weave of the songs within the collection, how they interlock even with different keys and how you would be taken from one piece to another piece. There’s a kind of, for me, an alluring element to that aspect.

One of the things I liked about seeing you and Alison live is the way you harmonize. How do you connect when you do that?
We kind of watch each other when we’re singing, and you can more or less tell. I’m still slightly impish, so I might hold one syllable of a word a little bit long, and she hangs on with me, and she doesn’t know when it’s going to end, that particular syllable. So if you are able to watch, the eyebrows tell everything, like she’s asking me, “Why am I doing this? Why are you fucking about like this?” It’s great. And so I have this license where I can actually get away with it, and I’m singing alongside a monster singer who has great demands of how my harmony fits under the songs that she selected.

How do you get in the right frame of mind for a concert these days, compared to the old days?
There was a panic of responsibility in the Seventies, believe it or not. There was nowhere to hide at all in a four-piece band, and so there were great days and there were days that weren’t so good, and I would have to push through. Our itineraries were pretty demanding, and sometimes it really would take it out of my voice. A lot of what I was singing was really at the top of my capacity, right at the sharp end of what I could ever possibly do with the keys that we were playing music in.

By 1980, that whole idea was long over and gone. From then on, I made a lot of departures, and I have no embarrassment about them. They were all rather silly adventures, but they kept me thinking, or just falling upon melody. Today, I’m three days off playing at the biggest festival in Europe [Glastonbury], and I’m going be pretty melodic.

How do you define success?
By the smiles on the faces of the people I’m working with, the demeanor, my own demeanor. It’s crucial. My whole deal is entertainment is fine so long as the person that you’re entertaining most of all is yourself. I’m a little wary of repetition, and no matter where I play or what I play or how it works, I’ve got to feel really good about it, because the bird is on the wing. Time is flying by. If I’m going to do this, I’ve got to get the best out of it that I can.

After all these years, how do you calm people down when they meet you and treat you like their idol?
I’m flattered when people are kind, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. So what do I do? I’m a guy who got older. And the thing is I can still do all the shit that I could do before, because occasionally through these shows I let it rip for a minute, and I know very well that that’s as much as we need to do of that, because that’s it. So when I meet people, depending on their personalities or the excitement or their disappointment, it’s just another meeting in another place. I’m a pretty public person. I mean, I don’t have to go in the telephone booth to get changed and come out with no shirt on. That might be a bit risky now. But you just keep moving and take everything as it comes around the corner.

One fan recently posted a photo of meeting you in a bookstore. What have you been reading lately?
I spent three years living in and around Austin. I realized that the country there has been grappled with by the Europeans. But I just didn’t get how people were able to take such a beautiful, vast wilderness and surround it with wire and fencing and posted signs, and I knew that once upon a time there were different people moving through those places.

I’m reading a book called The Captured, by a guy called Scott Zesch, and it’s basically the story of abduction of kids on the Texas-Indian frontier and how these German children became some of the most prolific and passionate Comanche warriors, looking back at their society and finding no place for themselves. So even when they were repatriated many years later from the people who have become their families, the transition and the attempts to get back into the Western way were very haphazard.

Zeppelin still had life in its lungs in 1978, but in 1878, there were German kids who were just not going back to society as we know it, as the Texans pushed west. I mean, my grandfather was born, like, 10 years after these events. It’s so recent, and it’s such a torrid story, the whole deal. It’s a very tragic part of the history of America.

You’re from England’s “Black Country.” What’s the most Black Country thing about you?
The self-deflating humor. Sometimes I collide into people that I knew when I was at the local town hall, watching Gene Vincent or Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, and usually they’re charmingly abusive, which I love because it’s great. They celebrate success for about 10 minutes, and then the rest of the time it’s success is, what, gone to the wrong person or whatever. I love that.

You famously made a deal with your onetime wife that if you hadn’t “made it” by age 20, you’d give up the music business. How did you know when you’d made it?
It was when I went to the first rehearsal with the Yardbirds, and I was 19, soon to be 20. I had suggested to Jimmy Page that the drummer that he’d lined up was just nowhere near the dynamism of … John Bonham was a totally different thing altogether. And so once John’s wife finally gave him permission to come to a rehearsal — because Pat always said, “Keep away from Plant, because you’re just going to end up broke and in trouble” — so when the two of us drove down to London in John’s mum’s van, which we borrowed, in that room, on that afternoon, when we kicked in with a bunch of songs that nobody really knew, “Train Kept a-Rollin'” … I knew that I was in a room full of giants, really, and that was it. By 1973, what happened in that one room had exploded into some of the most adventurous non-rock rock that you could ever wish to find, and it was just the sum of the parts. Those guys were just insanely good. And it was as if everybody had just been waiting for each other with whatever happened prior to that. It was just like, bang!

When the first Led Zeppelin album came out, some reviewers (including Rolling Stone) panned it. Is there anything to learn from negative press?
Absolutely nothing. It’s bullshit. Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. The guy around Rolling Stone was not very happy at all.

What are the biggest lessons you learned from Zeppelin’s notoriously cutthroat manager, Peter Grant?
Always tell the truth to everybody that you work with. I have an exaggerated personality; I’m enthusiastic to the point of tedium for people. Peter Grant could have conducted the whole thing in a totally different way, especially as the success developed and we became more and more of an attraction. But he was straight down the line, and he was an inspiration for that reason. He was tough, and of course everybody’s got a story. It wasn’t all pretty, but the bottom line was he initially gave me and Bonham confidence because we knew he was watching out for us. So what I learned was to keep it straight with the guys that you work with. Just let everybody know what’s going on, how it works, what the deal is, what’s around, what’s happening, and keep it open.

Is there any advice that you wish you had gotten when you were younger, when you look back now?
Don’t say “I love you” to so many people [laughs]. I’m just kidding. I can’t look back and complain or be smug now. I feel OK about stuff.

With Led Zeppelin, you sang a lot about sex, and some people associate Led Zeppelin with debauchery and sexism. How do you feel about that aspect of the band now?
This morning I was playing that YouTube clip of Howlin’ Wolf having a showdown with Son House; it’s a black-and-white clip of “Meet Me in the Bottom.” And I’m thinking about Robert Johnson, and I’m thinking about all the various artists that I listened to, whether it was Memphis Minnie, “I Want to Be Your Chauffeur,” Muddy Waters, “Got My Mojo Workin,'” and it was loaded with innuendo, everything. It was almost like showtime. And it didn’t just stop there. With rock & roll singers, it was almost pantomime, and it’s a thing of the past now. It was another time, and there was nothing sort of malevolent or base; it was just part of the time.

Does it bother you if people would be looking at Zeppelin that way?
I’m the same too, in a way. I just look back and go, “How did all that happen like that?” The criteria of the time was such. It’s not a copout; it’s just these days are different, and I think I’ve spent so much time now listening to people like Wilco, Low, or Calexico, and I’m listening to the lyrics and the abstraction and all sorts of things because I got older and older and older. Obviously, I was developing all the time with what I felt and what I was surrounded by. I didn’t have to sing R&B stuff because I was able to write stuff. Although sadly some of it was … there were maybe one or two too many well … hobbits [laughs].

How do you feel about your Tolkien obsession now?
I can see from this window the hill where Tolkien used to sit and look out over the landscape, and that’s the Shire, and the village just below it is called Bagginswood. I was living in a dream then, talking about C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. And of course it brings hoops of derision into everybody who picked up a guitar or got near a microphone by 1980. But I was a kid.

I was 22 when I wrote “Ramble On” with Jimmy, so what do I know? I know a lot more about Tolkien now, because it’s still alive on the Welsh borders. “The Battle of Evermore” is not over. Far from it. And the thing about “Evermore” is … I said to Alison, “I’m embarrassed by this.” She said, “But you can’t be embarrassed, because it’s a young person’s moments by living in an area which is like that, which resonates that period.” But of course that’s oblique, really, because that period is right now too. It’s all the same thing. It’s just that I was obsessed by Louis Spence and C.S. Lewis and the whole idea of the Inklings and the people that used to meet with Tolkien in Oxford and try and wish that they could revive the spirit of what had happened at the turn of the 20th Century. “Bring it back. Bring it back.”

Do you ever feel sad that the last time you’ve appeared in public with Jimmy Page was at the “Stairway to Heaven” trial?
I think I may have seen him once since then. As a matter of fact, I’m hoping to see him tomorrow, because I’m going to London, and I’ve got a really good record by Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son, that I want to give him for old time’s sake.

My interpretation of your “Stairway to Heaven” lyrics is that you were speaking out against selfishness. Do you feel like people ever got the point of the song?
I have no idea. I mean, it was such a long time ago. I used to say it in Zeppelin, “This is a song of hope.” And it’s crazy, really, because it was gargantuan at the time. The musical construction was, at its time, something very special, and I know that Jimmy and the guys were really, really proud of it, and they gave it to me and said, “What are you going to do about this?” So I set about trying to write something which I suppose drops into the same idiom as something like “The Rover” later on, or maybe “Rain Song,” something where there’s some optimism and reflection from someone who was really not [old]. I was 23 or something like that.

And so what do I think now? When I hear it in isolation, I feel overwhelmed for every single reason you could imagine. There was a mood and an air of trying to make it through. The world is a different place. Everybody was reeling from Vietnam and the usual extra helping of corruption with politics. There were people who were really eloquent who brought it home far less pictorially and did a much better job of reaching that point. But I am what I am, and as my grandfather said, “I can’t be more ‘am’-erer.”

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