Birthday boy today is Robert Plant, lead screecher of Led Zeppelin. Plant’s vocals were an acquired taste to me back in the period 1969-70 when I first heard him. It’s an unmistakeable voice, no one in rock sounded like that. At times I used to wonder what Zep would’ve sounded like with a different vocalist, but that was around the time of the fourth and fifth albums—1971, 1973—then I gradually grew to accept it. Plant’s wail, his frequent “ooh ooh yeah yeah,” his mercurial intonations, and his hippy Tolkien-inspired lyrics made him a bit suspect throughout my teens. Still, his voice is one that simply belongs in the music of the Seventies—perhaps the only singer who could riff along with the sounds Page, Jones, and Bonham created on stage and in the studio.
I never saw them live. I would’ve felt too ironic about it. Had drummer John Bonham not died in 1979 and the band continued, maybe I would’ve caught them in their mellower years. As it was, Zep is a band I’ve enjoyed more in retrospect than when they were actually around. I’ve considered catching up with Plant, who has been releasing solo LPs since 1982, but it hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, the remastering that Page has undertaken of the Zep LPs—which are now being reissued on vinyl—produced CDs notably more potent than the later vinyl pressings I had of some of the records. So that my re-discovery of the artistry of Page has caused me to make my peace with Plant’s vocals. Of all the albums, I liked best Physical Graffiti as the (double) album that showed the band's full range but which also showcased Plant’s singing, often in a somewhat lower register and grandstanding less. That said, the essential LPs for me have always been the fourth and fifth and the acoustic side of the third much more than the first two. After Graffiti things drop a few notches, though In Through the Out Door (1979) gained significance by being the last Zep LP.
So, what song to choose in tribute to Mr. Plant? The obvious choice might well be “Whole Lotta Love” as that’s the first song I heard that unearthly voice sing. Another might be “Stairway to Heaven”—if only because of its showcasing of the Olde English sound that Page mastered and because its lyrics show Plant reaching for some kind of prog-rock profundity. And because the part when it finally starts rocking and Plant moves up to his best screech is one of the great moments in Seventies rock. But I chose instead to showcase a track from Graffiti. “In My Time of Dying” came close, until I re-listened to it and realized that Plant seems largely superfluous on the track—it’s dominated by Bonham with great guitar parts from Page. “The Rover” was another contender—because it has some lines I like more for their delivery than for their actual words—but “Ten Years Gone” is less pretentious. It seems largely heartfelt in its taking stock of a love that endures, though ten years have passed.
It’s a love left behind, and yet it endures. What I like is the way Plant evokes the recall of it all. “Changes fill my time / Baby, that’s alright with me / In the midst I think of you / And how it used to be.” That may be one of the most simple and effective verses of his career, and it’s delivered with a kind of shrug, which is to say this guy isn’t eating his heart out about it, and yet he’s got the power of recall and the imaginative clarity to remember what was and what could’ve been. He even starts the song with a kind of que sera sera reflection: “Then as it was / Then again it will be / An’ though their course may change sometimes / Rivers always reach the sea.” Which I suppose is a kind of fortune-cookie clarity about the fact that you will reach your appointed end, no matter what that may be.
But it’s not the little nuggets of wisdom that draw me to the song (to speak of Plant’s contribution—as opposed to Page’s, whose multi-tracked and layered guitars, including one part that feels very much like a jazz figure, make the song one of the more sonically complex on the album), so much as the way Plant puts across the very passionate bridge, a segment that seems to recall—ten years gone—a first time with a particular lady: “Did you ever really need somebody / Really need 'em bad? / Did you ever really want somebody / The best love you ever had? / Do you ever remember me, baby / Did it feel so good / Because it was just the first time / And you knew you would.” The way the music of that section matches to the words—a kind of surge of memory and pride and, yes, pain—takes the song to a different place. It’s a recollection of what seems a woman’s loss of virginity, so that the ten years since allude to the way experience saps away the special quality of such “first times,” no matter how good they were. The need and the want—of the first love—hover over the memory, and how good it felt to give in to it all. This is done without any of the sexual images or double entendres that one finds in certain blues evocations that Plant favors. It isn’t even particularly boastful, as the “do you ever remember me, baby” suggests that the rivers are indeed running on and what went down back there might not surge up again, for her.
There’s another small segment that matches to the “Changes fill my time” passage, but is slightly different: “Vixen in my dreams / A great surprise to me / Never thought I’d see your face / The way it used to be.” You gotta love that; especially the way Plant seems truly surprised when saying so. In a dream: the face of the “vixen” he’s recalling—or, more to the point, the look on her face, as a vixen. “The way it used to be”—its power over him, its provocation. Not expecting to see it again, then finding it in a dream. Most of the lyrics—about eagles and nests and “the wings of maybe”—are the usual Plant malarkey, but in the midst of it all he does manage to make some sincere-sounding noises.
Holding on, ten years gone