Robert Plant's Absolute, Invaluable Journey
I’ve met Robert Plant four times. First as a punky grade-schooler, sitting cross-legged on my friend’s worn-out shag carpet, carefully slipping LPs out of their dust jackets for fear her older sister will wring our necks for touching her records. Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin IV, I, II. Aside from not leaving fingerprints on the pristine black vinyl, there were other rules, too. The music was best played as loud as possible, the lyrics must be memorized and analyzed—“a hedgerow is a row of shrubs…” — and, when we got old enough to have boyfriends, this would be the music we would totally make out to.
Not a few years later as a preadolescent, I met Robert Plant again. This time, thanks to MTV. There was no way to make a cognitive connection between this man and the one who screeched about the ice and snow. The names were the same, but the man was different. The one in the video with the dust and tumbleweeds had transcended from one life — filled with epic success and all the lore that went with it, actual death-defying feats and horrific personal tragedy — all to be catapulted into 1983. In a year where Flashdance and its theme song both held the Number Three spot on their respective charts for the year, Robert Plant gave us the uber-sultry, raw and uncompromising “Big Log” where he refused to be put inside any preconceived best-frontman-of-all-time tidy package and confessed he was on the run. That’s the moment, with his signature soul-baring voice, when we knew we’d follow him and his post-Zep musical odyssey absolutely anywhere.
Flash forward nearly 40 years, and he’s sharing that journey with us. Digging Deep: Subterranea is Plant’s new anthology of his solo career. It kicks off with “Rainbow” from his 2014 tenth solo album Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar. It’s a clangy and bangy and loud and wonderful road-trip-freedom tune that — fair warning, if you don’t know it — is likely to be your new favorite. “Rainbow”’s innate optimism assures us that whatever wandering Plant’s embarked on in the past many decades — and there’s been a lot of wandering — you’re in for the best ride of your life. It reminds us straight off that this is an artist who refuses to fit inside any Top 40 typecast. Thank God. If you were introduced to Plant in a way similar to how I was — Led Zep fanatic, Honeydrippers devotee, a dabbling of solo stuff here and there, safely obsessed with the duets — understand that you don’t know the full capacity of his craft. His evolution has been meteoric. It’s time for a reintroduction, and this anthology does just that. It’s time to hear the whole story.
The fourth time I met Robert was on the phone for this article. The first thing I learn, because he tells me, is that he’s growling. When I ask him to explain, he actually, amiably, growls: “Grrrrrrr….”
I tell him I know what a growl is, but why was he growling?
But I get it. A master creator creates, he doesn’t talk about creating. I’m sure Picasso grumbled over doing press, too. Besides, think of the span of his career (Led Zeppelin I came out in 1969, for crying out loud.) How many freaking interviews can one guy do in a lifetime — and then one more?
Plant’s mind is in forward mode. It’s the only way to do what he does, constantly discovering and rediscovering musical styles and sounds, pairings and collabs we wouldn’t have previously imagined but currently can’t get enough of. He won’t credit himself as much as he should, because his love of and admiration for musicians may just actually be as huge as his love of music.
He explains that he’s knee-deep in new inventions musically. There’s a lot of new thought processes going on.
When you listen to the anthology, you know this is true. It’s inspired by his podcast Digging Deep, where Plant tells the stories behind his songs, the main focus is the post-Zep days.
For perspective, keep in mind that Plant’s dear friend and bandmate John Bonham died suddenly in 1980, devastating and disbanding Led Zeppelin. Plant admits he was adamant to push on musically. His debut solo album Pictures at Eleven was released in 1982. To create the anthology he’d have to revisit those early years and songs and all the anguish that went with it, including, as he puts it, “visiting them with a completely open mind, not having played a lot of them for a really long time…sort of cavorting into them.”
By the time Plant had released Pictures at Eleven, he’d been essentially reborn musically. For a man who enjoys “shifting forward”, it’s tough to look back. Though he admits to resisting the idea of a podcast at first, for fear it would be “too egoist”, he says, the great thing about Digging Deep, for Plant and fans alike, is the revisiting process. As he puts it, to “look at these songs and see what the story was around them…because I was like a babe in arms in 1981 when I started crafting Pictures at Eleven. I knew how to be a frontman…in the ‘70s. But the beginning of the ‘80s was a totally different zone for all of us musicians from the previous time. There were new musicians, there were new thought processes. And there was a new way of dealing with relationships. We had to keep pushing to the left and to the right of a common language for a certain kind of eloquence or a certain skill…I was trying to mix it up.”
The podcast, he explains, “started becoming interesting…because I was able to revisit the people who really made these things work. My enthusiasm was crucial, but their contributions to me in a new time were enormous.” The anthology was the natural next step.
“It’s certainly not a ‘best of’,” he says. And he’s right, it’s better. What he describes as “a collision of time and ideas” is almost like walking through a fine artist’s museum — if it were curated by the Mad Hatter. And this is the best fucking tea party in town. The work is so varied and sometimes screams of Plant’s pivots and curves and other times is just a catchy tune you forgot you loved. It’s musical archeology, a story of bold discovery, all linked with a signature singer and undeniable heart.
I asked him how he’d made his choices for the collection.
“I have no idea,” he admits, adding that he viewed the tracks as their own characters. “A reference to some emotion or some power or some energy. They’ve been lying side-by-side with their old comrades for 20 years, 30 years. How are they going to feel when they come face-to-face with something 20 years younger? Putting something from 1982 with a song from 2006, or putting a Band of Joy track next to an enlarged emotional moment from Rockfield Studios, from that to Peter Gabriel’s place [Real World Studios]…all very different crew members, different participants, different links in the magic…and so then it all takes on a whole different personality when it’s a new bedfellow lying on each side of it. So, the context is crazy. It’s a mind bomb, really. I’m really pleased with the fact that they do sometimes live really usually well together. And sometimes it’s like a real curve. As is the journey.”
The fourth “bedfellow” on the anthology is 1988’s melodic “Ship of Fools” from Plant’s fourth solo album Now and Zen. It precedes Plant’s breathtaking cover of Toussaint McCall’s “Nothing Takes the Place of You”, inarguably one of the sweetest and soulful songs of the ‘60s. “There’s a huge catalog of blues songs that have affected me over a period of time… some of the intentions and lyrics from the songs from that era — the 1960s, ’63, ‘64 — are out of this world. They’re just part of the dream machine, really. I think that whole idea of melancholia, the angst — wherever it was these songs were being written, it was obviously for a different mentality, and probably for a different age group. But those were the songs that hooked me in, big time. I was just lucky to be in Austin, Texas where you could go into the studio at 10:00 am and come out at noon…with that.” The song was recorded in 2013 for the film Winter in the Blood, but it hasn’t been released until now. “It’s overwhelming, really. Quite emotive, to say the least. How great is that?”
He teases that he’s knee-deep in a new arsenal of “evocative” tunes sure to “stretch that kind of emotion back into the room” and I lose my nerve to beg for a Honeydrippers second album. “I guess I wasn’t born yesterday and I was surrounded by various songs, when I grew up, that I never actually let go of.”
Plant has had a long-lasting love affair with the American South, and the blues has influenced his musical style from the very beginning. We talk about a specific place we’ve both been, Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, co-owned by Morgan Freeman and attorney Bill Luckett, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, known for keeping great blues traditions alive. “I’ve been in very good company there,” he says, noting he’s been frequenting the Northern Mississippi area since the 1980s. “I remember going to Clarksdale a long time ago, when it was just a room in the corner of the library downtown…of course it grew and grew and grew, but now it’s sort of the mirror of that period.
“I take the road to Sonny Boy Williamson’s resting place. Invariably, when I get out of the car, this happens every time, some force of nature meets me. It could be, like, three of four small homeless dogs come and try to bite their way through my ankles. Maybe a swarm of wild bees sees me and makes its way towards me as I hop back into the car.”
Plant continues: “It’s likely that he’s not finished with everybody yet…. Such a remarkable character, a force of nature, such a cool player…I guess he sends them out from the trees and the hedgerows…maybe next time I’ll just be on my own…maybe I’ll make the whole journey there and back to Clarksdale without finding any birds in the air that come out to greet me.”
“You feel that deep connection to nature, though, don’t you?” I ask.
“Yeah. Oh, yeah,” he says.
“Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?”
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I try to interact with it all on the Welsh borders.”
His remote home in Wales keeps him immersed in nature, aware and connected. “I’m never happier than I am at the Western Sea, if I haven’t said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times in songs. If I look out this window I know that just two hours away there’s a place where I can feel much more than I do here on land.
“These are tough times,” he says, contemplative, “really tough times for all creatures.” We agree.
“You know people consider you the greatest living rock legend of all time…?”
I say this, though I’m not idiotic enough to believe that he is going to agree.
What followed was laughter, his laughter, so hard and loud I’m quite certain it shook the hills.
It would have been easy for Plant to have fallen into a trap, adjusted his crown, and, with that frame of mind, never made any decent music again. At his core, that’s just not who he is. “I’m the perpetual student,” he explains, which is the exact opposite of a man who considers himself “greatest” or “legend.”
“Whatever the terminology was, in 1971, Led Zeppelin was an electric folk group, and I quite like the idea of that. Last week I was pretty close to that place where Jimmy [Page] and I went all that time ago and started writing ‘That’s The Way’ and stuff like that.” He’s referring to Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales where Plant and Page wrote and recorded several tracks for Led Zeppelin III, released in October 1970. “Anybody who has the gall and the perfunctory to give part of their limited poetic and musical mouths to the world, I think really…you have to keep it light and not get carried away. It’s just part of the whole journey. You know…when Bonzo and I met in 1968…I said what we were was almost an electric folk group — and then we were something else. And then we started listening to The J.B.’s and Alphonse Mouzon and spent time in New Orleans — and then we were something else. We were the guys behind a track like ‘The Crunge’ or ‘Trampled Underfoot.’ And so, Zep could become that, and Robert Plant can be a contributor to the same principles. And carrying on from 1980 onwards, I think I’ve been pretty agile. I haven’t been around for any length of time in anything at all, really, because I think it’s always remarkable…the more open you become as a sort of…contributor…the windows swing open and fresh air comes in. The color of the whole thing will change constantly, and it has done for me.”
“But the idea of being a rock singer and that’s the end of that…it’s pretty debilitating, really, because that means there’s no room for Saving Grace [Plant’s folk/blues band that debuted in 2019], there’s no room for me and Alison Krauss [their 2007 collab Raising Sand garnered them two 2009 Grammy Awards, including Best Album], there’s no room for the Band of Joy—there has to be room for everything. So, I was fortunate in my musical partnerships.” As another example, the anthology features he and Patty Griffin’s fun cover of Charlie Feathers’ classic “Too Much Alike.”
He admits that by the time he’d created his sixth solo album Fate of Nations, released in 1993, he was looking back at the early ‘80s “embarrassed” by the music, thinking to himself “how the hell did that happen?” It’s an admission that’s likely to hurt fans’ feelings, though quite normal for creators to view their early work and cringe, much like a teen reviewing their grade school class photos, embarrassed by the dorky, big-tooth grins and glowing enthusiasm. Through his podcast, Plant has revisited these songs properly and loves them for what they are, though still with the caveat “well, I wasn’t David Byrne, or even heading towards Dinosaur Jr., but I was affected by music then and I wanted to be a part of that with my contribution and with these new friends I was developing along the way. So, now I look back at those songs and I think, ‘well, that was pretty good.’”
The early work, as he puts it, is so “sparse, it’s really naked storytelling. There’s no confetti there. You’re not using fairy dust at all. What happened was…I was alone at the studio with an engineer a lot of the time, just moving things around. This was long before we could physically, manually with a laptop, turn songs upside down. We were slicing tape, moving things around…like everyone was doing at that time. I would never have known anything about it, had I stayed in the ship, I would have just been probably, lovingly, institutionalized. I have a number of passports I’ve worn out, diving into different environments and different countries. Different liaisons. It’s been an absolute, invaluable journey.”
For now, the journey has taken him to the hills of North Wales, where Plant has a cottage. “When I said I was growling…I like to get out of the way and stay remote…” He doesn’t like “speculations” and “ragtag conversations of news footage”, and no one could blame him one bit. All around him “the seasons are making themselves known, the changes are here again…everything’s turning golden and rustic, it’s beautiful.”
He tells me our conversation is the longest he’s had while he’s on hold, surely with the persistent urge to move forward, much like the rest of the world, in these unprecedented, unpredictable times. “And here I am on a beautiful, late golden afternoon…so pretty…and looking to the West, of course.”
When I ask a standard, but given the current climate, relevant question, what advice would you give musicians looking to have a lasting career?, he answers: “Keep it light. Keep growing. Keep moving. Keep listening all the time. There’s some spectacular music out and about, and these influences will definitely affect what these kids of the new generations will do. They’ll look back at me and they’ll say, wow… he must have been a musician, too.”
“Do you have a dog?” I ask.
“I do,” he says.
“What’s your dog’s name?”
“Arthur,” he says, and you can hear the glow in his voice. “He’s a Lurcher. He’s a runner, he’s a gypsy dog. He’s a cross between a Greyhound and a Bedlington Terrier. They’re bred by the travelers to avoid a trip to the butcher. They bring back rabbits and stuff, you know. Arthur is a pacifist and he’s not doing anything like that. He’s been with me for twelve years and he’s pretty much my most predominant companion.”
“I don’t know what we’d do without our dogs,” I say.
“No, I really don’t,” he says. “I have no idea.”