Plant--The Hardy Perennial of Heavy Metal

Singer Robert Plant is your typical humble legend--when it comes to Led Zeppelin anyway.

You'll never catch him crowing about his old band, which split up eight years ago. Nor does Plant, now a solo performer, turn peacock when it's mentioned that he was considered one the great singers in rock history during Zeppelin's heyday.

Even a question like "What made Zeppelin so great?"--an opportunity for him to pontificate about the virtues of this revered English band--elicited only a modest response from the witty, chatty singer.

"I can't say we were innovative--that's the wrong word," said Plant, who performs Monday at the Pacific Amphitheatre and Tuesday at the Forum. "What we had was chemically very interesting. We were using an old formula. It's just the way some of the chemicals reacted together--they fizzled and popped in a different way. When we were together that's what happened. But great? I don't know about that."

Today, strangely, Zeppelin is bigger than ever. Metal-maniacs still love the band, and its music is still a blueprint for metal musicians everywhere. The band's 1971 classic, "Stairway to Heaven," is one of most popular songs in the history of rock radio.

Led Zeppelin--Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham--called it quits in 1980 after the death of the irreplaceable Bonham. But the current edition of heavy-metalmania has swept Zeppelin, the granddaddy of the genre, back into prominence.

Two recent Zeppelin reunions at benefit concerts have fueled the resurgence of interest in the band--the first at Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985 and the second at the recent Atlantic Records show at Madison Square Garden, which featured Bonham's son, Jason, on drums.

All of a sudden Plant, 39, is considered hip by a new generation of fans. "These kids start fawning over me and screaming, 'A legend, a legend!' " Plant said, laughing. "I look behind me to see if they're referring to somebody else. But no, they're talking about me.

"Me a legend. . . . That's really funny."

Plant is on tour promoting his current album, "Now and Zen." He started making solo albums in 1982, with "Pictures at Eleven," followed by "The Principle of Moments" (1983) and "Shaken 'n' Stirred" (1985).

Scour any of his first three albums in search of anything Zeppelinesque and you'll come up empty. They're also low on passion--a quality Zeppelin had to spare. For most of his solo career, Plant wasn't going forward with that rag-tag rock--just away from Zeppelin.

"I was just trying to do stuff that was far removed from Zeppelin," he said. "It wasn't commercial but I wanted to be commercial--on my terms. I was on some kind of mission to make mildly obscure music, but at the same time be a success on the pop platform."

Since then, he's aborted that mission. "Now and Zen," sprinkled with Zeppelin references, has more energy than all his previous solo albums combined. Jimmy Page even plays guitar on the songs "Tall Cool One" and "Heaven Knows." Still, compared to old Zeppelin material, "Now and Zen" is mellow pop. However, it's his biggest solo album yet, selling more than a million units.

Plant has simmered down his raging vocals. "I can now sing with different texturing," he said. "On a song like 'Heaven Knows' (from the new album) I can sing in a low register, with shading. I would never have tried that with Led Zeppelin. It would have been lost."

Plant's new band, including keyboardist Phil Johnstone, bassist Charlie Jones, guitarist Doug Boyle and drummer Chris Blackwell, is rather slick and somewhat sedate but is still superior to the outfit Plant worked with on his first three albums. Personality conflicts and ego clashes forced Plant to scrap that band in 1985.

The big news about Plant's current tour is that he is finally including some old Zeppelin material in his shows. "I feel comfortable about my past now," he said. "I don't have to consciously deny it anymore. The Zeppelin material is part of the spectrum of my career. I deal with it as such. The new songs are still the main part of the show."

But he still won't sing "Stairway to Heaven" on tour.

"Definitely not," he said. "I won't go that far. I'd break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show. I wrote those lyrics and found that song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971, but 17 years later, I don't know. It's just not for me.

"I sang it at the Atlantic Records show because I'm an old softie and it was a way of saying thank you to Atlantic because I've been with them for 20 years. But no more of 'Stairway to Heaven' for me."

Plant was just as negative when the inevitable question about a full-fledged Zeppelin reunion came up. "It's nothing I want to do now."

Right now, the closest thing to a Zeppelin reunion is the Plant-Page collaborations on the "Now and Zen" album and the rocking tune, "The Only One," which they co-wrote, and Plant sings, on the Page's solo debut album "Outrider," due out next week.

Plant and Page worked together on a different kind of project in 1984. When he was still in flight from Zeppelin, Plant sang pop-rock versions of R&B; classics in a group called the Honeydrippers, featuring Page and Jeff Beck. The big hit on the mini-LP "The Honeydrippers, Volume One" was the remake of "Sea of Love."

Will there be a Volume II?

"Maybe," Plant replied. "I like to think the Honeydrippers are alive and well somewhere in a lounge in a Ramada Inn in Wisconsin. But if I actually did it again it would have to be much more earthy--maybe with somebody like Brian Setzer (formerly of the Stray Cats). But if the Honeydrippers do come back, it won't be for many a moon."

Zeppelin's legacy is contemporary heavy metal. Talk to any of today's metal musicians about their roots and you'll most likely get a discourse on how Zeppelin influenced their music.

Lately, the echoes of Zeppelin have been as deafening as the quartet's music. Even those rowdy rappers, the Beastie Boys, ripped off Zeppelin riffs for one of their tunes. Leading the list of bands that have borrowed from Zeppelin are Whitesnake, the Cult, Jane's Addiction, Mission U.K. and, of course, newcomer Kingdom Come.

From Plant's sarcasm at the mention of Kingdom Come, it was evident that he has nothing but scorn for this new Zeppelin knockoff. "A bit of stealing is OK, everybody does that," Plant said. "But mimicry is horrible and absurd. It's a joke. It's both funny and sad in a way, that they have to do that. But it's a bit of Americana."

Regarding the rumor that Plant was considering recruiting that band's guitarist, Danny Stag, for his band before Kingdom Come made it big, Plant replied, "Him, are you kidding? He's too old for my band. Besides, he has no hair."

The same way that Zeppelin is inspiring hordes of rockers today, Ray Charles inspired legions of singers, Plant included, in the '60s. Recalling his days as a fledgling singer in Britain, Plant said reverentially, "I just wanted to be Ray Charles. I wanted to sing 'Yes, Indeed' and 'Drown in My Own Tears' the way he could. There was this unique blend of church, soul and sex in his style. People don't mention the sex too much in his style."

Plant tempered his bluesy style with shades of the psychedelic rock flowing out of San Francisco in the late '60s. "I was affected by what people like Arthur Lee and Moby Grape were doing on the West Coast," he said. "I diluted the blues approach lyrically and emotionally with that West Coast sound. My vocal style was Anglicized.

"Blues didn't reflect what was going on in contemporary society. There were more comments to be made on a social level. In my music, that's what I wanted to do."

After Plant joined up with Page, Jones and Bonham in 1968, he blossomed into the greatest blues-rock screamer of that era. "I used to just holler like crazy," Plant said. "I had to get my voice out there above the sound of Page and the rumble of the rhythm section. I sing differently now. I don't yell anymore. I don't have to."

Age is creeping up on Plant, who'll be 40 in August. Is this scary for someone who grew up thinking that just turning 30 was tantamount to becoming senile? Plant is philosophical about it all.

"So I'm a little older and I have a few more lines on my face," he said matter-of-factly. "That doesn't matter. I can hold my own sexually better than I could when I was 20.

"Besides I know where I'm going in my life now. When I was younger I didn't know who I was. Half the time I didn't even know where I was."

Even touring, which is supposedly more of a chore as you get older, doesn't turn Plant off. In fact it's just the opposite. "I don't mind going from hotel to hotel,' he said. "There's the comforting thought that there will always be a lobby full of smiling, beautiful young ladies. It's not all downhill from now on, you know."

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