From its launch in 1968, Led Zeppelin figured to be testing the dubious proposition that heavy metal could be lighter than air. Yet through the mellower-than-thou ’70s, rock’s fiercest foursome was more than buoyant: Led Zep sold some 40 million LPs worldwide, set concert attendance records all over the planet, made a state-of-the-art concert film, The Song Remains the Same, and recorded such classic songs as Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love and Kashmir. The group’s eighth studio LP, In Through the Out Door, hit No. 1 its second week after release.
Then, frighteningly, everything came crashing to earth. During rehearsals for an upcoming U.S. tour in September 1980, drummer John Bonham, 32, was found dead one morning, having suffocated on his own vomit after consuming massive amounts of alcohol.
It was a tragedy from any standpoint, of course. But for Zeppelin’s charismatic lead singer-lyricist, Robert Plant, 33, the loss was shattering. He had known “Bonzo” Bonham back in Birmingham, England as a teenager. Their blues-rocking Band of Joy led to their teaming up in London with guitarist-composer Jimmy Page and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones in Led Zeppelin.
Three years before Bonham’s death Plant’s son, Karac, had died at age 5 of an undisclosed infection. In 1975, while vacationing in Greece with his wife, Maureen, Plant had escaped an accident that totaled his car with only a fractured elbow and ankle. Plant had come back before, but Bonzo’s death signaled more to him than the end of Zeppelin.
“It was one of the most flattening, heartbreaking parts of my life,” he recalls. “I had a great, warm, big-hearted friend I haven’t got anymore. It was so final. I never even thought about the future of the band or music.”
As weeks went by, though, Plant’s survival mechanisms exerted themselves. Eventually his thin, bluesy quiver of a voice was fronting a back-to-basics band named the Honeydrippers in obscure clubs all over England. Musically, at least, Plant never looked back. “I was able to step out of whatever I had created—or had been created on my behalf by the public,” he says. “The Honeydrippers were all leather jackets and sweating, tourin’ in a van, 300 fans jam-packed, some a yard away, no embellishments. And no ads using my name. I went out and stifled whatever cries there were—not the least of them from myself—for Zeppelin material. People don’t want to let go of something they loved so much. It’s a shame to say goodbye.”
After “deprogramming” Zep, as he puts it, Plant went into a studio in Wales to cut his first solo album last spring. “My intention was to go in the complete reverse direction from sliding into obscurity,” he says. “After the end of Zeppelin, I didn’t really see anything. But as time went on, I started to pick up the pieces.”
The product of his revival is Pictures at Eleven, an LP featuring such U.K. standouts as drummers Phil Collins and Cozy Powell and guitarist Robbie Blunt. Working with those new musicians and dealing with production hassles that Jimmy Page had handled for Zeppelin was, Plant says, “like my first contact with the outside world.” The LP, entirely written or co-written by Plant, bears unmistakable Zeppelin markers, including monster sales: With neither a single released nor a current tour, Pictures has already gone gold (500,000) and reached the Top 10.
Plant isn’t trying to resurrect Led Zep, he insists, even though such hard-cutting rockers as Burning Down One Side on Pictures evoke memories of the group’s urgency: “We’d hit town and we were hot and we knew we were hot and everybody knew it. You could implode with joy.”
The post-Zep Plant has shorn the curly blond locks that once bounced on his shoulders onstage—but not any of his effervescent self-mocking wit. “Of all the hair that ever was, it was some of the best, but it had had its day,” he says. “The screaming, ga-ga, standing there chest bared—those were clichés. They were my clichés, but it was time to put them in the drawer and close it.”
The bond to the past remains Plant’s wife of 13 years, Maureen, who maintains the home front in England’s Midlands region. “The home life is still ticking,” he affirms. It also includes son Logan, 3, and Carmen, 13. “There’ve been moments of bliss and splendor, moments of artistic torture for us,” he marvels. “Maureen’s kept it all intact as a little unit with her resilience, determination and guts.”
Plant plays on a local soccer team on Sunday and jokes he has become “one of the most sought-after right wings in amateur soccer in England. I’m very keen to get up bright and early, play squash, do a few sit-ups, keep the belly right and go for it,” he notes. But could the heavy-metal master ever find inner peace through aerobic dancing? “I didn’t realize American women actually choose records to work out with. I find that amazing,” Plant grins. “I suppose if it leads to more maneuverability in the art of lovemaking, well, I’ll go along with it.”
Plant drinks “occasionally, in celebratory moods, but the vices people might associate with me are nonexistent. You can see right up my nose and through it.” His sweetest highs, and part of his ability to weather emotional storms, still come from expeditions en famille through Morocco with its ambience of serenity, which stimulates Plant’s romantic imagery. On one recent jaunt, he recalls, “The sun was setting, Maureen was in the car as the cool of the night began to drop. I got out of the car, started running around a soccer field—really just sand wetted down hard with water—with these young Arabs I had never met, and I was shouting ‘switch the play’ in English. They were looking at me like I had gone mad.” On another visit, to the village of Goulimine in the Sahara, “The women hennaed Maureen’s hands and taught her to cook for five hours. I had a Moorish bath, drank some beer and sat in a little heap and watched the world go by. I have a great affinity and yearning for those places.”
Such places never were—never could have been—on the Zeppelin flight pattern. “There’s one thing in rock you can never achieve,” Plant muses. “If you want people to take you for what you are, you’ll have a hell of a time blistering your way through all their preconceptions. Perhaps the only way I can come to terms with that frustration is to go to places where the people haven’t a clue as to who I am supposed to be, but can read me for who I am.”