From his successful US tour last month and the release of his latest solo work, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, in September, 2014 has been a productive and successful year for Robert Plant. In fact, the past few years have been kind to the renowned “Golden God” of rock. He received accolades for his recent musical ventures, such as his work with Alison Krauss, which earned him numerous awards including a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2009. Two years ago, he and his Led Zeppelin compatriots were recipients of Kennedy Center Honors. So it’s no surprise that Plant is just as much a hot topic now as he was during the wild and raucous days of Led Zeppelin, and as such, it’s no surprise that a new book has been written chronicling his life.
Dave Thompson’s newest rock biography, Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin, sets out to enlighten music lovers on the life, inspiration, and aspiration of the legendary vocalist and songwriter. One may think that the last thing the world needs is another book about Led Zeppelin. Much like other hugely successful bands of the Sixties and Seventies, such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the legend of the band has been repeatedly rehashed in many a volume to capitalize on its enduring appeal.
This book, however, is a refreshing change of pace, as Thompson’s focus on Zeppelin’s frontman offers the reader a detailed account of Plant’s life before, during, and after his time with the band. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Thompson’s book is not only penning an alternative perspective of Led Zeppelin’s history, but painting a rather humanizing portrait of Plant, who is usually regarded in the rock area as a hyper-masculine, overtly-sexual Viking conqueror.
For those looking for exciting tell-all gossip and juicy aspects of Robert Plant’s supposed exploits while touring with his hard-rocking group, look elsewhere. While Thompson does touch on some of the now well-known rumors and myths that have followed the band to the present — it would be impossible to completely omit such sordid stories from the band’s narrative — he prefers to focus more on Plant’s personal history before and after Zeppelin, as well as the process of making the music while he was in the band. There’s even a delicacy in Thompson’s approach on other, more sensitive subjects, such as the death of Plant’s young son Karac and the conclusion of his marriage several years later. Thompson’s writing is clearly more about offering an explanation to fans as to the hows and whys of Plant: how he grew up, why he became enamoured with blues and early rock, how the mythology of the Black Country and England as a whole influenced his future writings, and why he has been able to maintain musical integrity in the face of the neverending demand for Zeppelin to reform.
The Plant we discover in this book is perhaps a quieter, more reserved, and more sensitive figure than the image created of him throughout his career, no doubt in part to Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, who Thompson presents, including in Grant’s own words, as having a keen sense for knowing how to build the notoriety of the band, for better or worse. Rather than ravenous and animalistic, Plant is suggested to be the more laid-back and down-to-earth member of the band. That is not to suggest that he didn’t indulge from time to time in the rock star lifestyle, but Thompson urges the reader to see beyond such excesses and see the passionate personality of the man behind the spine-shattering wail and soulful lyrics. Plant comes across as poetic, intellectual, and calculated, but more importantly as a man whose musical projects are the product of his own ambition and interest rather than the will or demand of his audience.
The structure of the book itself veers from the typical chronological order that we have come to expect from biographies and memoirs. Rather than follow a beginning-to-end timeline, Thompson has divided the book into alternating chapters, starting with the death of Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and the start of the Honeydrippers, Plants first solo project. The next chapter travels back to Plant’s birth in 1948 and his early childhood. The book continues this back-and-forth fashion and concludes, full circle, with his current activities as of last year and returning to the death of Bonham, and thus the death of the band.
This presentation, as if trying to piece together some kind of puzzle that can only be examined with such juxtaposition, is one of my few issues with Thompson’s book. While I understood that Thompson was attempting to tie together past and present in such a way as to relate the story of a man whose pre- and post-Zeppelin life are intrinsically connected, I failed to see any real benefit in such organization. Plant’s roots and influences have been evident throughout his career, both within Led Zeppelin and without and it does not necessitate a reordering his life to see that. If there is any benefit to Thompson’s order, it is more to ensure that the reader will open themselves to the solo-endeavors of Plant rather than simply putting down the book after the chapters recounting his time with Zeppelin have ended. Thompson rightfully wants the reader to acknowledge Plant’s contributions to music outside of the context of his biggest claim-to-fame, as well as the reasons why a Zeppelin does not need to be on Plant’s agenda as his career moves forward.
The only other potential gripe I have with this book is that some passages were difficult to read, merely in a grammatical sense, and one wonders if this book was expedited through the editorial process in order to have a release that would best coincide with Plant’s latest album and subsequent US tour. Nonetheless, Thompson’s book is well-researched and clearly written by a fan for fans. While Thompson has written several books on various music acts, it’s evident that he writes about what he loves, which accounts for the numerous sources and careful consideration put into telling Plant’s story. Much as how the passion Robert Plant has for his influences surfaces in his music, so too does Thompson’s passion for the history of rock music come through in this biography.
(Cover photo via Q107.com)