Still Driven

If it’s not irony enough that Cadillac uses a thirty-year-old Led Zeppelin song to peddle a mesmerizingly ugly new car, consider this: That commercial’s ubiquity means you’re a lot more likely to hear Robert Plant‘s voice while flipping channels than while tuning a radio dial. Not that Zeppelin doesn’t echo constantly through the arid canyons of classic-rock radio. Not that Plant’s old band doesn’t continue to exert a monumental force on fledgling four-on-the-floor outfits and high-school notebook doodlers on at least two continents. But whereas it has indeed been a long time since the average Caddy driver rocked and rolled — and Cadillac has arguably never accomplished either — Plant’s latest album is the work of someone who doesn’t require an advertising séance to stay in touch with his inner bare-chested screamer. Dreamland is at least vital and exotic enough to make it into a Jaguar ad.

For the record, Plant, 54, drives an Audi S8. And he tends to race along listening to a Charley Patton boxed set (or other staples such as Primal Scream, the Youngbloods, the Five du-Tones and Gustav Mahler) rather than, say, Black Sabbath. Because, notwithstanding any gripes you might have about hearing “Rock and Roll” erupt behind scenes from a luxury-sedan-narcotized midlife crisis, Plant is anything but commercial in his tastes — the most elegiac of which are reflected deftly on the alternately ethereal and forceful Dreamland. And he’s unapologetic about his commercial.

“When it comes to corporate decisions,” Plant says by phone before a soundcheck in Grand Rapids, Michigan, “there are several ways of looking at it.” Reminded of Coca-Cola’s 1988 ad incorporating Plant’s then-current hit “Tall Cool One,” Plant says that, contrary to longstanding reports, he has no regrets. “I drank so many cans of Coke in my childhood that I deserved to get something back,” he jokes before aligning that frame of mind with Cadillac’s recent spots. “There’s a lot of fifteen-year-old kids who don’t know who [Led Zeppelin] were,” Plant says. “If I were listening to that piece of music for the first time, I would jump up quickly and say, ‘Who the hell is that?’ The music is a lure, and I want that lure to work.” Not for Cadillac but for Zeppelin, for Plant’s legacy.

“Isn’t it amazing? Cadillac was deemed the exquisite mark in the United States, driven by wise men, senators, bishops and potentates. Now you’re appealing to the fat, nauseous underbelly of self-abusers from the rock generation who are now middle-aged.”

Plant told Spin recently that he’s never read Hammer of the Gods, Stephen Davis’ infamous Zep tome purporting to catalog the excesses of rock’s most revered debauchers. Listening to the singer’s crisp English accent politely dismiss David Bowie’s new album (“It’s not organic”), announce a longstanding disdain for “Living Loving Maid” and drolly recount a visit to a New Orleans piano bar with Jimmy Page as though the pair were rock’s Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, just a couple of slightly sodden ne’er-do-wells, it’s hard to picture a man who did anything more than tickle that nauseous underbelly.

Maybe that rejection of personal mythology has something to do with what makes the otherwise legend-courting Dreamland so powerful. The disc’s eight covers — from the sepulchral backward-guitar parts of Tim Rose’s Celtic “Morning Dew” and the ceremonial congas pulsing through Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” to the throbbing bass that turns Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness” into a hymnlike recessional — also include numbers by the late Skip Spence and the even later Tim Buckley, two of rock’s most spectral figures. (Though Spence died only recently — Plant met him for the first time just seven years ago — his post-Moby Grape songs never seemed to originate from an earthly plane.) Perhaps not coincidentally, these are two examples of talent that has lasted in spite of a strong self-destructive impulse. Taking over “Song to the Siren” and “Skip’s Song,” Plant sounds not possessed but omniscient. In this crystal-ball psychedelia and black-hearted folk, Plant finds survival.

“I hear in these songs an America that had a vast array of popular music, a vast array of heart and soul,” Plant says. “When ‘Song to the Siren’ came out, maybe you’d hear that on the radio alongside Solomon Burke and Ravi Shankar. But these aren’t standards. I’m not taking some soft golden-circle route to middle age.”

Burke just released his own new album, with songs written for him by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. Like Plant’s Dreamland, Burke’s new music has largely been consigned to NPR and the middlebrow ghetto of piggybacked recommendations. Plant seems to understand that what now becomes a legend most is apparently self-boutiquing.

“I thought [Burke’s] album was good but just a little plain, which is a shame,” Plant says. “I really want Fat Possum [the indie that issued Burke’s disc] to do well. I like what’s going on with that label. It’s different from other coffee-table world-music labels.”

Plant says he thinks “every day” about his own future on a major label. “This is my first adventure at Universal,” he says. “I have a relationship with [label exec] Doug Morris that goes back to knowing him under Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic. But it’s different for them to find a suitable format to play my record and market it.” He pauses and asks only half rhetorically which of the smaller labels is profiting with rosters not dominated by bombastic rock acts and lip-glossed teen pop.

“The fact is, a lot of people have to stop working,” Plant says. “I was in one of the biggest-selling bands in American history, but I don’t care where I play. I only want people to come and know that I’m a good singer who doesn’t fuck around with average musicians. It’s a credit that Dick Dale is still working in front of kids in small clubs. There are guys who do just keep going. It’s just a question for me of how to get this music across to people who would really love to hear it. It’s strong, emotive music, an absolute celebration of North African psychedelic sounds mixed with 25 percent Zeppelin.”

Plant has been on tour the past two months with the Who, a jaunt that began just a few nights after that band’s founding bass player, John Entwistle, was found dead of a heart attack in a Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel suite. Lately, the Who has earned scathing criticism for continuing the tour — and some of the best reviews of the second half of its career. Since the tour began (Grand Rapids is one of Plant’s final stops opening for Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey), the singer has commented frequently about his own ambivalence toward both the Who and the audiences that seem to crave nostalgia more than musical deliverance.

“You know what it reminds me of?” Plant asks. “Me and Page went into Frankie Ford’s club in New Orleans once. He sang ‘Sea Cruise’ and had a big hit with it in ’59. We kept putting money in the big brandy glass on his piano and saying, ‘What about this song and this song?’ He kept looking at us, and he said, ‘Who the fuck are you guys?’ We said, ‘We’re vinyl junkies, and we like what you did. Now stop playing ‘My Way’ and start playing ‘Alimony.’

“You’ve got to ask where the future is, though,” Plant continues. “And there’s no future right now. Just a constant cycle of repetition. There’s no future tense playing with the Who. Elton John tells me he’s a prisoner of being an entertainer, and I tell him to take two years off and play boogie-woogie piano. I don’t think I could hack the entertainer thing. I don’t make moves in my career or with my muse now without considering where it may or may not put me. The criteria for all things is absolute and total commitment.”

Whether you hear it as a tribute to the Moorish roots of Led Zeppelin III or a valentine to the blues and folk songs in his own jukebox, Dreamland is Plant’s most unified, graceful solo recording. It also reaffirms his desire to exist apart from Zeppelin and his ’90s reunions with Jimmy Page as Plant refashions himself as more rock classicist than classic rocker.

“I don’t know how many singers from megabands would make an album like this,” Plant says. “I feel particularly bright and sparkly right now. You can only get this sound when there’s a lot of love in the air. The music was paramount, and every band member’s contribution was crucial. I know I sang real good, and I didn’t have to write these. I brought these songs back and camouflaged them. Other guys have tried this, but they don’t have solo careers the way I do. Mick Jagger’s probably the greatest example,” Plant adds, pointing out that Jagger’s 2001 Goddess in the Doorway never made it over the threshold.

“I’ve been treading the boards since 1963, but I’m still a young man in many respects. But I’ve had my time,” Plant says with convincing modesty. “It’s not about wanting to be loved wholeheartedly. People thought Zeppelin had lost the thread every album, so I learned that you can’t expect that kind of constant love. This album is the right currency for me right now. It’s not that it’s dark and brooding. It’s just intense. And this band is stunning. It’s imperative that you come see us play.”

Maybe it’s the crisp elocution again, or maybe it’s the fact that the invitation is being issued so earnestly. But Plant is smoother than a ride in a Caddy, and his new album of horse-drawn mysticism has more going on under its dark hood than plain old rock combustion.

Categories: Music