Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Robert Plant The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin by Dave Thompson

It came up last Christmas, one of my guests asked the question that comes up too often: "What the hell is wrong with Robert Plant? Why won't he do a Led Zeppelin reunion?" It seems so easy, just sing the old songs, make a big pile of money and everybody gets to go away happy. So why won't he do it? It doesn't help that Plant tends to answer the question with a series of non-sequiturs: I don't want to be singing cabaret; I want to move forward with new material - even as he spreads the old liberally through his set lists &tc.

In his new book, Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelinby Dave Thompson looks at Plant and examines the man through the lens of his history, and the effect it has on Plant today. There are two major events in the Plant narrative, the death of his son Karac in 1977 and the death of his best friend from youth, whom he brought into Led Zeppelin, John Bonham.

On Karac Thompson writes:

His (Plant's) lifestyle, he knew, had already placed his marriage under incredible strain—the months he spent away touring, leaving Maureen to raise two children on her own. Now there was just one, and Plant could not help but wonder whether things might have been different if he had been at home.

and on John Bonham:

It was John Bonham who sat next to him on the hastily arranged flight back to London, and then for the drive up to the farm. There the boy was buried, at a funeral where Bonham was the only one of the singer’s bandmates or management to even bother attending... Now, the very person who had stood alongside him throughout that terrible night, providing much of the glue with which he repaired his shattered psyche, had himself been taken away.

Those two quotes represent, as much as anything does, the thesis of The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin. Those two events, presented as they are above, explain so much about Plant's decisions, including the one not to re-unite Led Zeppelin in any long-term way. Thompson delves into what makes Plant tick far more deeply than into what Plant does or says, using the former to explain the latter. It's a good thing that he does such a good job of examining Plant the person, because he gets far too many of his facts wrong.

Details like what year Page and Plant played Glastonbury, what they played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction or the heretofore unheard claim that Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja actually rehearsed with Plant, Page and John Bonham before turning down the job of bassist in Led Zeppelin and John Paul Jones was brought on board. Furthermore some of his opinion statements, such as the tone of Zeppelin's songs come from Plant's lyrics or that the last five albums in Plant's career - Dreamland to lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar - are the best set of five he has done, including say Led Zeppelin II through Physical Graffiti, are laughable.

But Thompson isn't after the facts of the case, so much as explaining Plant through the lens of those facts. The fact he got a date wrong here, a song wrong there doesn't do unrepairable damage to the book. Neither does the obvious fact that Thompson's trying, for reasons unknown, to tear down the mythology of Led Zeppelin and raise the myth of Robert Plant in it's place.

In fact, Thompson's conversational writing style, of which I have been a fan for a long time, makes The Voice that Sailed the Zeppelin a thoroughly enjoyable read. I did not always agree with Thompson, and he gets some of the basics wrong, but Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin by Dave Thompson is one of my favourite of the Led Zeppelin books out there. It's well worth the read.

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