Wednesday, October 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Robert Plant: A Life



The Golden God, one of the prototypes for just about every hard rock and heavy metal lead singer who has ever strutted across a stage in his wake, Robert Plant is still a slightly mysterious and private person. Certainly more open, less guarded, and not as intensely private as his former Led Zeppelin bandmate and songwriting partner Jimmy Page, Plant is nonetheless an intriguing figure who has spent the bulk of his life and career doing all that he can to distance himself from his old band's legacy, whose music and impact are ironically the very reasons for his current fame and reputation. In Robert Plant: A Life, author Paul Rees has attempted to tell the story of the enigmatic rock icon's life and career from his humble middle-class beginning in the Birmingham area through his halcyon days in Led Zeppelin and his rebirth as a restlessly searching and critically acclaimed solo artist always looking forward as he seemingly keeps his past at arm's length.


Author Paul Rees is a well known music journalist who has interviewed some of the biggest names in rock music over the past thirty years, as well as serving as editor of both Q and Kerrang! magazines. For his Plant book, he drew upon numerous interviews conducted with Plant over the years, as well as more recent firsthand accounts and discussions he'd had with some of Robert's closest friends and associates, some of them dating back to his schooldays in the Black Country. Starting at the very beginning, Rees tells the story of the young boy who was born in 1948 and had a comfortable and stable upbringing but who was bitten by the music bug at an early age. It was the arrival of American artists like Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly that hooked the young boy, as well as his discovery of American blues music. Much to the chagrin of his parents, Plant began singing in local rock and blues bands, causing his once promising academic career suffered. He was further smitten by the psychedelic and folk sounds coming out of the American west coast scene in the mid-1960s, slotting bands like the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and Buffalo Springfield, as well as folk musicians like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez alongside with his beloved blues and traditional English and Celtic folk music in his personal catalog of influences. There was even a short-lived and ill-fated dalliance with a recording contract with CBS Records that came to naught. By 1968, Plant was playing regular pub gigs around the Birmingham area in the Band of Joy (which included future Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) when Jimmy Page was tipped off to his vocal style. Page and manager Peter Grant were planning on creating something new out of the ashes of the Yardbirds and first things first, they needed a singer. He and Plant hit it off musically, if not in terms of their personalities, and after bringing Bonham and John Paul Jones into the fold, Led Zeppelin was born. The rest is, as they say, history and I won't rehash it as the book does a fairly good job of giving the basic story of the band; I and others have also written on it extensively, so it's not worth dwelling on further here.


What Rees does do is show how Plant seemed to grow more disillusioned with the monster that Led Zeppelin became as they got bigger and bigger and the experience grew to be more about the excesses of life on the road than the music they created. In particular, he hated what his friend Bonham turned into, as well as the way Page exerted an iron grip over the band and started to resent Plant's ascension to equal status after his initial years as the understudy. Coupled with how the latter half of Zeppelin's career was marred by tragedies such as Plant's car accident, rampant drug addiction throughout their camp, and the twin horrors of Plant's son Karac and friend Bonham dying, and it's not hard to see why he came to resent the entire experience after the band split in 1980. The book takes approximately half of its page length to get to the end of Zeppelin's career; the remainder deals with Plant's subsequent life and solo career. The portrait painted is of a restless spirit who is insatiably curious and hungry for all different types of music and how to incorporate them into his own sound, a stark contrast with Page who has seemed to have been trapped in the shadow of Led Zeppelin over the last few decades. This wandering spirit extended into Plant's personal life, where his long marriage to wife Maureen ended in the early 1980s, upon which he subsequently took up with her younger sister (whom he had long been rumored to have had a thing for in the 1970s according to many in the Zeppelin camp). The book further traces his career through his two disastrous mini-reunions with Zeppelin in 1985 and 1988, the two albums he made with Jimmy Page (No Quarter and Walking Into Clarksdale, the tour for the latter album having been attended by yours truly), and the successful and critically acclaimed run of albums he's made over the last decade, spearheaded by his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Kraus, Raising Sand. The final Led Zeppelin reunion, in 2007, is also discussed in detail and unsurprisingly, it is revealed that Plant really didn't want to do it and only agreed because of his admiration for recently deceased Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, to whose memory the concert was dedicated. Again, Plant is described by those around him as restless, a man who doesn't seem to want to escape his past so much as to just continually never revisit it.



While the book is, on the whole, enjoyable to read and interesting, it does tend to focus too much on Led Zeppelin (and Jimmy Page in particular) in certain spots. This is understandable as, to Robert's eternal consternation, the spectre of Zeppelin hangs over everything he does. Also, Plant's complicated and tense relationship with Page is central to much of his life and career. However, there are certain extended passages where it seems Rees spend too much time on Page's side of things, sections which feel like they would sit more comfortably in a book dedicated to him rather than one about Plant. Another noticeable aspect is that, while the author has done his work interviewing many of Plant's friends, families, and associates, there's very little directly from the man himself. There are numerous passages where the author mentions "Plant told me..." or "I was with Robert at a restaurant when he said..." but more often than not, the narrative relies on other common sources of information or firsthand accounts from longtime associates and friends like Ross Halfin, Benji LeFevre, Richard Cole, and others. While it doesn't make the book any less enjoyable, it definitely makes it feel like a completely unauthorized account. Many of the best unauthorized biographies can still feel like they are authorized given the amount of research and primary source material that goes into them. Robert Plant: A Life falls a little bit short of this, but it's still a valuable and worthwhile read for any fan of the legendary singer, even though the new information revealed tends to be of the small tidbit variety rather than anything too revealing. There is another recently published biography on Plant, entitled Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin, that I will be reviewing at a later date. Until I do so and can make a side-by-side comparison, I'm glad to have read Paul Rees' book as I feel I understand Plant a bit better than I did before.

MY RATING: 7/10 



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