It was half past five o'clock, about one hour before better than half the televisions in the world would be tuned in to the spectacle of Muhammad Ali giving British heavyweight contender Richard Dunn a blood-spattered five-round drubbing in Munich, Germany. Plant pried open the glass sliding door of his room and coolly but politely ordered two young friends to leave. Outside, the sun still bounced brilliantly off the swimming pool but in the room its light was effectively blocked by the kind of thick, rubberized drapes that must have been invented by either an insomniac or a vampire. "Do you think we can get this done before the fight begins?" he asked, his eyes darting over toward the room's TV. No, he wasn't all that much into boxing, but watching Clay is another matter, said Plant, whose enthusiasm for other sports particularly soccer is well known. Clay? "Clay, Ali, whatever you want to call him."
He sat down on a severely rumpled king-sized bed above which a poster advertising the film "Tunnel Vision" had been haphazardly tacked on the wall and, reaching for the telephone, ordered a couple of daiquiris from room service. As we began the interview, Led Zep's golden boy addressed the tape recorder as if he were facing a battery of network cameras, instead of a lone disheveled journalist sprawled on a hotel floor.
Circus: When you came over to the States on your first tour, how readily did you find the band to be accepted by the audience ? Was it an anonymous grind at first?
Plant: No, because Atlantic had done a good job with the white label copies of the first album, getting them out to the FM stations a couple of days before we got to town. The reaction was very good. We weren't even billed the majority of the time. I remember the marquee that read 'Vanilla Fudge, Taj Mahal plus Supporting Act.' I didn't care; I'd been playing for years and I'd never seen my name up there so it meant nothing to me. But the reception that we got was something else again, and that was especially surprising because in some of those towns the albums had not yet reached the stores. Even so, after about the third number you could feel that the buzz coming back to us from the audience was different than what they'd given the other bands. The first gig was the day after Christmas in Denver and then we came back here to Whisky, where Jimmy and I were both chronically ill and only played one gig out of three we were supposed to have played. And I saw the GTO's and I saw everything buzzing around me. I saw the Plaster-Casters, and I saw rows and rows and rows of possibilities, you know? And I said, "Man, there's no end." The day will never come when I stop looking at what did Joni Mitchell call her album, Miles of Aisles? Just as long as you can look out there and get a twinkle. So that was it, that was the first tour. By the time we got to the East Coast, it was really hot. It was really surprising; it just devastated me. The antics, the tricks and just the whole world that I'd slipped into, after having to struggle back in the midlands of England just to play. And suddenly we were in places like Steve Paul's Scene, where the mini-Mafia would be kicking the tables over and chicks would be sleezing up to you and everything like that I mean, why stop ever?
Circus: When did you first get really caught up in writing for the band?
Plant: It was with the second album, when I got into doing "Ramble On," which a lot of people say is a sort of Lord of The Rings type of thing. By then I had developed a wanderlust and that song was really just a reflection of myself.
Circus: Was that the first writing you had done?
Plant: I wrote one song with the Band of Joy called "Memory Lane." It was really quite funny, something about a chick on the back of a motorbike with a chrome horse between her legs. I suppose it was an early version of "The Wanton Song." But I've never considered writing to be a problem; I've always looked forward to it, it's just that sometimes it becomes a challenge. I usually just leave the phone off the hook, send the flesh on its way and shut the door tightly. "The Song Remains The Same" is possibly one of the few songs that I don't think I really did justice to.
Circus: Your last album was recorded in 18 days. Why was it done so quickly?
Plant: It was really like a cry of survival. I didn't know whether I was going to be able to work with the band again; I didn't know if my leg would heal. We had planned to do a world tour, but obviously that was nipped in the ankle, so to speak. I was stuck in Malibu for a long while, and I said "Please, let me do something to do with music; let me do something or otherwise I'm gonna go balmy." We already had some ammunition from our trip to Morocco Jimmy and I had put together some epic sort of material, but every time that we started listening and thinking about the ideas that we already had put together, we shied away. We hadn't been back to England in nine or ten months, and consequently I don't think that we were in one of our more mentally stable periods not in a condition that enabled us to come to grips with what would be a huge accomplishment in our eyes. So we went to S.I.R. [Studio Instrument Rentals a complex of rehearsal facilities] to work on some things. And it was hard in the beginning- I had to sit in an arm chair with my leg up in the air while the band was on the stage. And I'd go into another room where Detective were playing and Michael Des Barres was singing, aping all of my movements and looking in the mirror at the same time.
Circus: Did he make any cracks?
Plant: Nah, I was making the cracks.
Circus: So you signed him to Swan Song Records.
Plant: Sure, we figured that if I don't go out on the road again, we'd just change his name quickly and send him out as me. But anyway, slowly and painfully we began working on the album and it gradually came together. And then we went straight to Germany; that was where we did the 18-day shuffle. We worked pretty much straight through. We didn't or at least I didn't go out at all at night. Normally after hard work we always take our rewards; but that time there were no rewards for Robert.
Circus: What do you think of Presence in terms of its musical accomplishments?
Plant: Well, there won't be another album like it, put it like that. It was an album of circumstances; it was a cry from the depths, the only thing that we could do. I honestly didn't know what was going to happen and neither did anybody else. If it had been six, seven or eight years ago, it would probably have been a good deal more raw. It was taken from the balls, you know; that was where it was coming from.
Circus: How about the film that's about to be released? Were you very actively involved with it?
Plant: Everybody was. We knew exactly how we wanted it, I mean, we knew the material so we knew just what should be illuminated at what point of the film. So all of us were equally involved with it there was no other way to do it, because we couldn't leave it to anybody else. It was a big thing for us to do, and I don't think you do it more than once.
Circus: Do you enjoy working with film?
Plant: Film people really puzzle me. I believe that music is the master; that is, it can bring you elation and sadness and satisfaction while the visual part of film is just the diversion. The attitude and antics of the people involved with film, the way they follow their own odd trips are really beyond my comprehension altogether. I could never imagine being involved in movies by myself. If I had to repeat the work on that film again, I would refuse to do it.
Circus: You would never be interested in doing any acting?
Plant: No, not at all. I don't premeditate how I act or react or motivate myself onstage. I know what to do, but I don't know when to switch what on; it's just a case of how I'm driven on by the people who are with me. If I weren't with the other three gentlemen in the band, I probably wouldn't be worth interviewing. Whereas the idea of the solitary man standing in front of the camera repeating himself time and time again to some irate lunatic sitting in a chair with "Director" written in back ‹yecch>, no thanks.
Circus: What were your travels in Morocco all about?
Plant: Well, I'd been there before with my wife Maureen and I'd started to touch beyond the usual clip-cloppity "This way mister, this way mister" kinds of places. I went back with Maureen directly after the Earl's Court gigs, which were the last gigs before the accident. I went straight off the beaten track. I'd had three days lying in the sun in a glossy hotel and then we just took a car and went. I had one friend in Morocco- he was a friend of the infamous Harold, who hangs around with us and a few other bands occasionally. As it happened, this Moroccan guy had spent 11 years learning the Koran to be a holy man but he turned out to be a hustler instead. He'd been to London and so he was a big deal locally, and he'd do things like get hold of a telephone in the Hilton hotel, cut the cord, and put it in his car‹so he'd be driving around Marrakesh pretending that he was talking on the telephone. A real gassy guy, always trying to sell you things even though he was your friend. It was with him that we went down to the Sahara.
Circus: Jimmy Page was along for some of that trip. Do you imagine that his music would be affected by it?
Plant: I'd imagine so. It doesn't manifest itself as a direct emulation of their music, but when you've seen it and felt it, it has an effect on you, just like a car accident has its effects too. Everything washes off on you, although some things aren't so immediately apparent as other things But I don't think Morocco is the most inspiring place that I shall ever go to. It's my ambition to go to Kashmir, and I'm saving that as the last trek. What I want to do is to travel north from India, but not singing Hari Krishna or anything like that. My old lady comes from India, and her uncle was chief of the Calcutta mounted police during the '40s. He can speak about 10 different dialects and he's a really great guy. In fact one of the times that I worked before the Zeppelin days, I had a job as a production control manager in a factory that he ran. I got the sack because I ordered enough steel to keep three factories going for about a year, but I managed to remain his friend and one day I'd like to take him with me and go right up through Kashmir and then stop. Then I'd like to just disappear for about four or five years. It's not a Marco Polo trip, it's just that I know that you can mingle; I know people who have lived in those places for a long time. Of course it's not wine and roses or even the spiritual aspect of life there that I'm interested in It's day to day experiences, and you have to work because as you work you become a part of society. There's so much to learn there, so much that we here in the West have lost.
Circus: Do you think you would be accepted into Kashmiri society?
Plant: I think so. I have a lot of friends in England who have done a lot of traveling over there. A guy who currently works for me escaped the police by virtually walking to Bombay from England; he just hitched and went and went and went. He'd take buses here and there and catch rides wherever he was able. He slept in caves in Hindu-Kush, came out covered with these big flies and had to jump in a ditch full of shit to get the flies off him. I mean, he just had the most amazing time; life and deathin the palm of his hand. He had to play games with the guards on the borders of India and Pakistan, where the borders close at six o'clock and there's nobody who's going to take any responsibility for your safety when you go through. There's that excitement, a little less of the expected if you compare it to going to Philadelphia, for example, and getting your rocks off. It's just my ambition to see if I can do it, to see if I've got it inside me to live with those people. I noticed when I was in India that just because we admired the people there, they looked upon us as idiots. Because they're scratching to get into Western society, and we were just trying to touch upon the pulse of the very things they were trying to leave behind. But I shall still go to the Roxy tonight, I haven't yet given up that part of my life. But the time will come when I will do that. And without a four-wheel drive vehicle, too. And no stimulants.
Circus: Don't you expect that it will be difficult to give up all those things?
Plant: I'll not give them up forever, I'll just soak it in and come back. Everybody will think I'm a complete loony by the time I return I've already declared myself this week as the Billy Graham of rock; I'm trying to clean up rock & roll for a week. But who knows what could happen up there after four years in the wilderness?
Circus: So what is it that you'll do when you get back from Kashmir?
Plant: Uh, become a Mormon.
Circus: Well, with the money you've made, they'll probably let you in.
Plant: All what money? You've gotta be kidding.
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