“English radio was so neutered, and the whole idea of there being a youth culture was abhorrent, so they kept rock ’n’ roll off the radio,” Plant says. “My mom tried to smother me in her voluminous skirts. I wasn’t allowed to look out and beyond.” Inevitably, however, the protective bubble around Plant burst.
“I didn’t play with many kids until I went to school — and there wasn’t a kindergarten in the early ’50s — so I wasn’t really equipped for life out there amongst the lords of the flies,” Plant remembers, his voice soft and wistful. “I think I got pushed around a lot.”
To survive, he toughened up. He displayed bravado during an audition for a school band by singing Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” and a strutting frontman was born. But Plant is the first to call his own bluff: “Underneath it all, I think, possibly, I’m a lot more fragile than I might come across.” He didn’t know it then, but those formative rough-and-tumble years gave him the fortitude for the many challenges — both professional and personal — that lay ahead.
When the singer joined Led Zeppelin in 1968, the axis of his world spun faster than most people’s. During the blur of the next 12 years, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page (guitar), John Paul Jones (bass, keyboards) and John Bonham (drums) became the era’s biggest band. (They also became every parent’s worst nightmare: Led Zeppelin not only sounded like Vikings coming over the horizon, but they also often acted like a band of marauders during their hotel sojourns.) With their mix of blues, rock, funk, folk and world music, the group never made the same record twice. It’s a progressive principle that stuck with Plant. “If you’ve got imagination and a tiny bit of romanticism, you have to keep mixing it up,” he says.
But Plant’s world stopped spinning in 1977, when his 5-year-old son died from an illness. Compounding those dark years, his bandmate Bonham died in 1980 as a result of heavy drinking.
Plant admits that mortality is often on his mind, especially now. The final track on Band of Joy, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” is the latest in a series of songs he has sung about death, including “In My Time of Dying,” “Fixin’ to Die,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Based on the 1867 poem “The King’s Ring” by Theodore Tilton, “Even This Shall Pass Away” chronicles a dying monarch’s growing realization that fame and fortune are ephemeral.
“That’s why I chose to do it,” Plant says. “People laugh at me and go, ‘With all your money!’ And I say, ‘I forgot I had any.’ The thing about the king in ‘Even This Shall Pass Away’ is that he lived it. I’ve never lived it, you see.”
Plant isn’t being disingenuous; he has a reputation for avoiding ostentation and for tempering his ego. As such, the prospect of more glory and greenbacks isn’t a big driver in his career. “He’s not wrapped up in his own world,” says Band of Joy’s Miller. “He’s grounded.”
Francis Dunnery, a former guitarist for Plant, adds, “If you hang around Robert for five or six days, you’ll see how insane his life is. Everywhere he goes, he gets mobbed. But he’s managed to retain his fundamental character throughout it all.”