Truth be told, I’ve never been a Led Zeppelin fan…something about that dude’s voice. But Robert Plant undeniably sits atop the Mt. Olympus of “Rock Gods.” Led Zeppelin sits there as well. Zep was as big as it gets growing up and, like ‘em or not, they achieved a stature that few bands can ever hope to attain. The press wasn’t particularly kind to them in their day, which seemingly only enhanced the mystery, mystique and allure of the band. So I felt, given the band’s well-documented appetite for hedonism, debauchery and excess, hearing these tales from Plant’s perspective would simply provide a good read.
Led Zeppelin fans should note, as Robert Plant; A Life states, that his career in that band takes up less than half the book. Plant acknowledges, “I was a young man when Zeppelin finished. I thought I was washed up (at 32).” Bitten early by the blues bug, we get young Rob growing up and diving headlong into performing at the tender age of 13, forming musical relationships over the years that would last to this day. We get the highs, lows and the in-betweens of his solo career, reaching a peak with his groundbreaking record with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (where we’re also clued in to the origins of that record’s title) and the misfires and successes in following it up.
It is Led Zeppelin, however, that defines Plant, who in full-bloom, was “pushing my chest out, pursing my lips and throwing my hair back like some West Midlands giraffe.” The band gelled quickly, growing into a powerful unit that particularly shook up the West Coast, where the “audiences and musicians were so fucking blasé,” according to tour manager Richard Cole, “that when Zeppelin got there it was like a rocket being shot up their arses.” (In fact, Cole supplies some of the best parts in the book.) Ironically, Los Angeles, particularly the infamous “Riot House,” would become the band’s second home.
The problem is that we don’t hear enough from Robert Plant directly and little to nothing about those sensationalistic, famously bacchanalian exploits as well as the tragedies that led to the demise of Led Zeppelin — and therein lays my main criticism of the book. It’s a fairly glowing portrait and makes the Led Zeppelin front-man extremely likeable from all angles – but key moments of the dark side of Led Zeppelin are too-easily glossed over. The famous “mud shark” incident isn’t even mentioned and Plant’s numerous conquests are written off as “Robert always had a way with women,” “his libido seemingly unchecked,” as he “strutted through many a young girl’s fantasy.” Really? How…Shakespearean. And that’s about as salacious as it gets for the focal point of rock and roll’s most hedonistic group, save one infamous meeting with the Plaster Casters which is recounted in detail, although, again, not from Plant.
Yet the substance abuse problems of Richard Cole, Jimmy Page and John Bonham, amongst others, are much more freely discussed and detailed while Plant’s forays into the spoils of success are obliquely recounted. Maybe it’s best to read this book along with the legendary Hammer Of The Gods, and Richard Cole’s book Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored and imagine that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The absence of Plant’s voice is a shame, as he can be quite eloquent and insightful. The death of old mate John Bonham comes and goes in a page and a half or so, yet is heartbreakingly summed-up by Plant thusly: ”Bonzo saved me. And while he was saving me, he was losing himself.” That only made me want to hear more directly from him and unfortunately, things like the death of Plant’s young son Karac are recounted entirely through friends, although Plant’s remorse and guilt over the loss is returned to several times in the book.
Through it all, however, you get a definite sense of Plant; a true “seeker,” especially musically, and a hippie down to his core. He even references David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” at one point, talking about one of his more shorn solo looks. Those solo years are particularly well-represented and enlightening in the book and showcase Plant’s insatiable thirst for finding “new” music, no matter where it leads him or his career.
Given that, I was quite surprised to find at the end of the book that this is not an “authorized” bio and perhaps that explains why much of Plant’s input is referenced from interviews and conversations from years gone by. It’s not a bad book; in fact, it’s a damn good read. It just feels…a bit tidy, perhaps incomplete. It’s a Cliff Notes version of an epic tale. And Rock Gods simply aren’t this shiny and well-scrubbed.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevejreviews