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To be a rock and not to roll

Bio traces Led Zeppelin god's stairway to debauched heaven, foray into bluegrass and widely respected decision not to cash in on history

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Wong Maye-E / The Associated Press files

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Wong Maye-E / The Associated Press files

The straightforward title could not more accurately describe the contents of this unauthorized bio of the original hard rock god and lead singer of Led Zeppelin. Quite a story. What a life.

Author Paul Rees, a former editor of two influential British rock music magazines, Q and Kerrang!, gives us a three-act play describing in plentiful detail Plant's typical postwar life. It begins with his birth in West Bromwich in England's industrial midlands, through his partnership with guitar legend Jimmy Page in the Yardbirds and the ensuing worldwide madness of the Zeppelin years, continuing to the immediate present with Plant turning 65 last August.

What makes Plant notorious are his years in Led Zeppelin. What makes his life appealing is what he did with that fame and infamy after the rock-star ride ended. Unlike the other classic rock has-beens and nostalgia acts, he has refused to reconstitute Led Zeppelin for the requisite reunion tour and merch-selling bonanza that would result in an easy several hundred millions of dollars added to his considerable present net worth.

That singular decision places him high in the pantheon of those still clinging to any shred of the 1960s idealism on which rock music was then based.

Led Zeppelin ruled rock from the late '60s through the mid-'70s. Bigger than the defunct Beatles, they outdrew the aging Rolling Stones and sold more than 70 million records in North America alone. The first four albums cranked out from 1969 to 1971 represent a prodigious artistic output with songs like Whole Lotta Love and Stairway to Heaven defining the heavy brutal fantasy machismo of the hard-rock genre for all time.

Zeppelin's legendary tours, shielded behind mob-style security, epitomized the cliché of rock touring -- debauchery, hard drug and alcohol abuse and bacchanalia that spiralled into "a non-stop orgy of excess and violence with no fear of reprisal or thought for the consequences."

The band eventually came apart in the wake of declining musical inspiration, infighting between the members and tragedies that included the death of Plant's five-year-old son from a viral infection and of drummer John Bonham of self-inflicted alcohol poisoning in September 1980.

A brief press release by that year's end said they could not imagine continuing without Bonham and were dissolving the group.

Plant, to this day an inveterate womanizer who loves the spotlight, poured himself into a solo career with occasionally brilliant results. His 1984 release, Honeydrippers Vol. I, was an inspired pub-rock flirtation with '50s rock 'n' roll. Walking to Clarksdale reunited him with Zep-mate Page and Mighty Re-Arranger also reprised the bombast of Zeppelin. The Grammy Award-winning and critically acclaimed Raising Sand showcased a collaboration with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss that is as dazzling as it is original.

At least that's the story so far. Plant was quoted in a 60 Minutes Australia television documentary last February as saying he was waiting on Page and John Paul Jones in order to kick off a reunion. He blamed the problem on their being Capricorns: "They don't say a word," Plant told the interviewer. "They're quite contained in their own worlds and they leave it to me. I'm not the bad guy... I've got nothing to do in 2014."

Rees opines that this was just Plant's way of teasing and leading on the vivacious young female interviewer. You have to hope so.


Jim Millican is a Winnipeg freelance writer and boomer music fanatic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A1

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