Monday, August 15, 2011

Robert Plant-Rock God

I have a friend who hates Robert Plant. Anytime I post something on facebook about the brilliance of Sir Robert she tends to chime in with negativity and bullshit about how the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger are superior. I probably shouldn't let it bother me, she is a Morrisey fan after all, but it literally eats me up inside. At this point in my life I'm OK with people slagging on Led Zeppelin (some people are just fucking idiots), but to diss on Robert as a solo artist? It's just mind blowing to me, no English Rocker has aged more gracefully and explored more musical vistas than Plant.

When I'm in my 60's I don't want to just look like Robert Plant, I want his curiosity. Most guys from his generation continue to mine the tired old schlock of their youth, Plant just grows, and in a lot of ways, gets better. Anytime I get the argument that "Jagger is better" I just think of how ridiculous Jagger looks, prancing around like he's 25 with his lips puckered outward. The Rolling Stones have released some truly great records, and have some of the best singles in rock history, but the last thirty years of their career has broken no new ground. It's the same old shit over and over. Plant refuses the big payday of the same old shit and constantly moves forward. In short he's the coolest Mother Fucker in rock music, which makes him the coolest guy on the planet.

When Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham the rock world assumed that Robert Plant would have a very successful solo run aping the sound of Led Zeppelin. Robert's run has certainly been successful, but the man has gone out of his way to make sure his solo output sounds nothing like Zeppelin, hell for his first ten years as a solo artist he refused to even play Zeppelin tunes. The guy certainly didn't try to cash in, that's for sure. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the occasional dislike of Robert bothers me so much, the guy isn't the cash-grab rocker that we are accustomed to.

For several years in the 90's I was kind of resentful of Plant because he refused the giant cash grab. I wanted a Zeppelin reunion* in the worst way possible, and Plant was the only obstacle amongst the remaining the three members and the son of John Bonham (Jason). What I didn't realize at the time was that Plant was exactly right in refusing the full-on reunion. We should want our artists to progress, to grow, to try new things. It's certainly comforting to just here the same old hits over and over, but real artists don't do that, karaoke machines do.

Plant's post Zeppelin journey has four distinct chapters:
*"Tone Poems" his first three solo albums and in some ways "The Honeydrippers" project.
*"Less Self-Indulgence" the middle three records that balanced rock music with his more experimental side.
*The Arabic/Indian experiment and reunion with Jimmy Page
*Fully realized greatness

My least favorite Plant era is the earliest one, featuring the albums Pictures at Eleven (1982), The Principle of Moments (1983), Shaken and Stirred (1985), and to a lesser extent to the Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page one off project The Honeydrippers Volume One (1984). In some ways this was Plant's most successful period, three consecutive platinum records and one gold album towards the end. Musically it was a complete liberation from Led Zeppelin, and the music on those records almost turned Plant into a New Wave artist. Instead of producing the balls to the wall rock most familiar to Zeppelin audiences, Plant's first solo albums were full of synthesizers and keyboards. The records kind of feel neutered in a way. One rock critic once described the contents of them as "tone poems," a term that's wormed its way into my lexicon.

There were some highlights during this period, and when the "tone poems" worked they became near classics. Big Log and I'm in the Mood (for a Melody) from Principle were pretty successful on the charts, but Plant's best record from this period has to be the Honeydrippers project. The other albums from this era of Plant just don't sound "fun," the Honeydrippers were a rollicking good time, and the vocal performance is just out of this world. To this day Sea of Love just sounds so sexy and Plant so unbelievably awesome that it nearly drives me to masturbate. Plant indulging in his love American R&B is an indulgence I wish I could hear more of twenty odd years later.

This first era of Plant crashed and burned with the release of Shaken and Stirred. S&S followed the hit filled Pictures and the fun of The Honeydrippers and lacked the sense of melody that made those albums so successful. It's almost like Plant completely forgot what a catchy chorus was on this record, and as a result this was the only Robert Plant project to ever end up in the bargain bins at the record store (for those of you who remember what those are). It's not horrible by any means, but an artist can get just a little bit too self indulgent, and that happened on this record. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, the guy released four albums in four years, I was bound to not like one of them.

Surprisingly Plant rebounded just three years later with the three times platinum Now and Zen (1988). Zen still contained a lot of the stuff that doomed S&S but it also contained some true rock gems, and some of Plant's strongest solo material. I used to think that it was kind of a sell out album because of tracks like Tall Cool One**, a tune that deliberately aped Zeppelin, but other than that one track, it's Plant being Plant, but this time with melodies and a smile. It's almost like he made an agreement with his audience "I'll give you a couple of rock songs and some sparkling acoustic stuff, in exchange you'll let me do whatever the hell I want on four or five tracks." Whatever happened, it worked and Zen remains his most successful solo record.

Plant's next solo album repeated the formula found on Zen to even better results. The rock songs really rocked, and contained some of that Honeydripper vibe, but mixed with some modern rock guitar. Manic Nirvana (1990) found Plant confident and in the mood to rock without sounding like a cliche. Hurting Kind remains one of Plant's most danceable tunes, and finds the King of the Hair Ringlets in fine form. It would have been so easy for Plant to go the route of other 70's survivors like KISS and David Coverdale (of Whitesnake) and ape the hair band route to riches and glory, but Plant refused to go down that road. Sure go ahead and hate the guy because he was never mopey, but don't accuse him of selling out. Stuff like Tie Dye on the Highway spoke more to Plant's eternal hippiness than LA rock excess.

While I like Plant's first five and a half solo albums, they do little to prepare the listener for the mind blowing greatness that is Fate of Nations (1993). From the opening Kashmir-like grandeur of Calling to You, to the acoustic beauty of 29 Palms and the Tim Hardin cover of If I Were a Carpenter this is the best album of Plant's post-Zep career (and better than several Zep albums). The first inklings of Plant's growing infatuation with world music begin to creep into the songs, and there's this aura of spirituality over the whole endeavor. The mysticism is obvious on tunes like Great Spirit but pops up on other tracks like Promised Land. It was with the release of this album that Plant also began playing reworked versions of old Zep material in concert, notice how I said "reworked." The guy doesn't accept the same old, same old. You got the feeling that Plant was truly comfortable in his own skin on this record, and when he sings "I'm going home" on 29 Palms it sounds like something straight out of his soul.

(I had to stop writing for a second so I could sing along to 29 Palms. This song just takes ahold of me in the way few tunes do. The foot is tapping and the hands are playing the old air guitar. If you want brilliance in a five minute pop song, this is it. I'm not ashamed to say I've cried a few times while caught up in the beauty of it***.)

After Nations Plant teamed up with ex-Zeppelin mate Jimmy Page for two albums (one live and one studio) and a couple of tours. The results from this collaboration are mixed. The "Unplugged" event No Quarter (1994) is a near masterpiece, featuring reworked Zeppelin material infused with Arabic and Indian sounds. Plant insisted on using actual Arabic musicians, my bellydancer wife can tell you who all the Egyptian drummers on the album are. This is another one of those instances where the refusal to respect Plant as an artist and innovator just pisses me off to no end. No Quarter Kashmir with the real strings and Egyptian drums is daring and brave rock and roll (isn't that what we want in our "artists?"), and as I type this I'm shaking sand out of my sandals that could have only got their from the greatness No Quarter era Kashmir.

Even the stuff that shouldn't have worked, like the Arabic version of Gallow's Pole, just kills, and in that specific instance, improves upon the original substantially. Throw away Zep tracks like That's the Way are rebuilt as essential listening. The soundscape experiments like Yallah and Wonderful One don't quite measure up, but at least they are interesting.

Not as good was the studio album that resulted from the Plant/Page reunion. Walking Into Clarksdale (1998) attempted to wed Plant's love of Eastern sounds with feedback and meaty Page rock guitar. It has moments, Most High and Shining in the Light come instantly to mind, but it lacked the experimentation and daring of No Quarter. Have you ever heard of a rock band going and recording Egyptian inspired versions of their most loved songs? No, you haven't.

When Plant got back to recording as a solo artist when the Page collaboration puttered out he returned with an album of mainly covers. Dreamland (2002) isn't entirely directionless, but lacks the urgency of Nations, and even Clarksdale. There are a few electric moments though, Darkness, Darkness is rather chilling and features a strong vocal performance. The Tim Buckley penned Song to the Siren is gorgeous, but as a whole it's a mostly forgettable record. Perhaps the "highs" of the records preceding this one set to high a standard in my mind.

The followup to Dreamland, Mighty Rearranger (2005), mines the fertile grounds of Fate, and even adds some new elements, there's practically a techno bonus track at the end, and there's some "funky" stuff in there as well. The world beats are still there, but there's also angry rock and roll (the F-you to George Bush that is Freedom Fries), and from a Pagan perspective there's not a better song in the Plant solo catalog than Dancing in Heaven ("sing a song of the ages, giving voice on this beautiful night, feed the flames in high places, from the Earth to the giver of light"). Rearranger is an amazing mix of acoustic tunes, rock, and the wanderlust that has made Plant's solo career so damned interesting.

Plant's probably most well known these days for his more recent foray (and Grammy winning) trip into Americana that was the Raising Sand (2007) collaboration with Allison Krause. Raising Sand is just another chapter in Plant being Plant and doing whatever the hell he wants, and doing it better than anyone else. There's the sound of the Honeydrippers era on tracks like Gone Gone Gone and near gospel/Johnny Cash stuff like Your Long Journey. No rock star has aged with more grace and dignity than Robert Plant. Instead of going for one last Whole Lotta Love inspired shriek, the guy finds a fiddle and T-Bone Burnett and makes the best Americana album of the last ten years. The harmonies with Krause are just amazing, and when you listen to this album you realize you are listening to something timeless. This could have been on the radio in 1948 or 2008.

One of the most remarkable things about Plant is his continued tinkering with the Zeppelin catalog. This morning I was watching to a Plant concert on the Palladium cable network and was shocked at how much I preferred his 2006 version of No Quarter to 1973's original, or even 94's No Quarter album remake. It's more of Plant going forward. This past January I saw him on tour for his latest album, Band of Joy (2010), and my favorite moment of the night was an Americana soaked version of Ramble On. (The live version below, is not quite the same reworking of the track, hell, in some ways it's better.) It was still the same song from 1969, but reborn in an Appalachian flood, and it sounded just as vital in the now as it did nearly forty years ago.

As the years roll by in my own life, I've begun to look more and more to Plant as a role model. Like Plant, I want to continue to grow and progress. While my own journey might be more "spiritual" than "musical" there are similarities. Both paths can easily lead to "foot in the mud syndrome," that refusal to move forward and to simply coast on past laurels. I want to be like Plant, I want to always push the envelope and not waste my life stuck in late adolescence like Mick Jagger. Let Plant be my guide, the only true rock god to constantly reinvent himself and his music in the process.

*There have only been three official reunions, and all of them involved no pay out to the band. The three in order were: Live Aid, Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Show, and the O2 Event in honor of former Atlantic Chairman Ahmet Ertegum. That's it. As you read this The Who are gearing up for another tour next year, now featuring two original members!

**And also the only real embarrassment in the Plant closet, it was featured in a Coke commercial. No one's perfect.

***I cry a lot while listening to rock music, it just means so much to me. I'm a "true believer" in a lot of ways, this stuff is a part of my soul. I'm lucky to have married a woman who shares that passion with me. Ari and I have also decided if that there's ever a chance that Robert Plant might want to knock her up we want to take it. I'd much rather raise Plant's baby than my own.)

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