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Zen and Zeppelin - Now Robert Plant puts the old ghosts to work


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Since launching his solo recording career nearly six years ago with ``Pictures at Eleven,`` Robert Plant has seemed determined to put as much distance as possible between himself and his old band, 1970s British rock supergroup Led Zeppelin. True, flamboyant front man Plant teamed up with former bandmates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones on stage at Live Aid in 1985 (the group`s fourth member, wildman drummer John ``Bonzo`` Bonham, had died of an alcohol overdose in 1980), but the special-occasion Zeppelin flight was short-and final. As far as Plant was concerned, Led Zeppelin was heavy-metal history.

But wait a minute. Take a look at Plant`s new solo album, ``Now and Zen,`` his first LP in nearly three years. Aren`t those curious symbols on the album cover reminiscent of Led Zeppelin at its most mystic? And not only does guitarist Jimmy Page turn up on a couple of tracks, but also one cut, ``Tall Cool One,`` even features computerized samplings of some old Zep hits.

Somewhere along the line, Plant clearly has undergone a change of heart. That doesn`t mean that he`ll be reforming Led Zeppelin-or reprising ``Stairway to Heaven,`` Led Zep`s signature song, in concert on his upcoming tour. In fact, the very mention of that particular tune elicits a strangled screech from Plant. But these days, he`s clearly more comfortable

about returning to his musical roots.

``If anybody`s planning on hearing me do `Stairway to Heaven,` they might as well forget it,`` says the singer, whose tour will bring him and his new band to the Chicago area this summer. ``I`m never doing any of those bloody long songs again. But I might do another old Zeppelin song, if I feel like it.``

``Now and Zen`` manages to combine echoes of Led Zeppelin`s past with everything that `80s recording techniques have to offer, resulting in an album that gives a nod to Plant`s past glories yet is firmly grounded in pop`s present. According to the singer, who turns 39 this year, the catalyst for his new, more comfortable attitude about the Zeppelin musical legacy was working with a group of younger musicians that included keyboard player Phil Johnstone, who co-produced the album and collaborated with Plant on most of the songs. ``Working with these new people brought about a different perspective of my work up until now . . , just sitting down and talking to Phil several nights, really getting loose about my whole kind of analytical process,`` explains Plant, who hooked up with the new musicians ``through fate and luck`` and his music publishing company, who sent along one of Johnstone`s songs. ``His input was great, because he comes from the punk era, and yet he has a great love of classic pop music. So as a musical entity, he is very strong, and yet a little aggressive and crazy, which is what I desperately need-because I can`t work with the old brigade, which is a little boring, any more.``

As far as Plant was concerned, his attempts to distance himself from his earlier work with Led Zeppelin had been ``quite logical, really.`` Notes the singer, who worked with a blues band, the Honeydrippers, after Led Zeppelin drifted into limbo following Bonham`s death, ``I knew that I could never replace Led Zeppelin in the eyes of the public. And I knew, also, that I have got a lot to offer. So I figured that the best thing I could do was to distance myself as much as possible musically and yet still keep the theme of constant change: With Led Zeppelin, we would never do the same thing twice, and I have tried to keep that principle as part of my work.``But all of a sudden I was surrounded by young guys like Phil who were saying to me, `Come on, that was what you did really well.` And when I got back into the old shoes again, they fit real good. So I figured, why not take a look back and see the whole thing and take everything for what it was without spending so much time trying to put a value on it in contemporaryterms. There`s no point in denying all of it, so why not just get the symbols out and stamp them on the cover.``

As for the two guitar solos by Page, ``I just asked him if he would like to play on the tracks, which were already constructed before he came along,`` explains Plant, who will return the favor by appearing as a guest vocalist on Page`s upcoming solo album. ``All he had to do was play, which he did, admirably. ``To me, this record is a very healthy, exciting, musical departure, and it runs in its own pasture,`` adds Plant. ``It isn`t a part of the Led Zeppelin revival, and yet it is, to me, what Led Zeppelin should have been by now.``And,`` adds the irrepressible Plant with a wicked laugh, ``isn`t it a shame that all these Led Zeppelin impersonators don`t take the sound further themselves?``

Ironically, Plant is returning to the rock arena at a time when the band`s brand of melodic heavy metal and hard rock is once again riding a wave of popularity, with the lead singer of one hugely popular rock group-David Coverdale of Whitesnake, whose album by the same name has sold more than 5 million copies so far in the United States-seeming to pattern himself more

than a little after Plant in terms of appearance and stage style. Plant`s not only acutely aware of the situation, he isn`t shy when it comes to talking about ``David Coverversion,`` as he refers to Coverdale. ``I know the guy,`` says the singer. ``I`ve spent nights occasionally talking to him in the past. I find him a good man, but I feel that his integrity is now questionable. ``If Whitesnake was a real young band who had just seen `The Song Remains the Same` (a mid-1970s Zeppelin film rockumentary that mixed live concert footage and fantasy sequences) and decided, `OK, this is it, let`s imitate them,` I could understand it,`` says Plant, warming to the subject. ``There was a time, years ago, that I tried to mimic Elvis Presley. That`s quite acceptable. But David Coverdale`s nearly my age. He is of my genre, even if he was in a lot of substandard groups. Really, you shouldn`t do it to your own gang, you know. ``When I aped somebody, they were so remote, it was like they were millions of miles away,`` he continues. ``When somebody you know, somebody you`ve bought a drink for, suddenly comes out and looks like you and is you, you start wondering-well, maybe it wasn`t me who went out with that girl in Dallas, maybe it was him!

``Of course, he`s only been doing this recently,`` adds Plant with a laugh. ``Before that, he was (imitating British rocker) Paul Rodgers. Sure, I`ll probably bring the matter up next time I see him. But I shan`t even bother to say anything. I`ll let my right foot, which has scored a hundred goals, do the talking.``

And where will that right foot be placed? ``In my cowboy boot. No, look, I like the guy. I just think it`s time to have some fun with the situation.`` Plant, by his own assessment, is laughing more these days. ``I`m too close to me to really know for sure how I`ve changed as I`ve gotten older,``he says, ``but I do know that I laugh a lot more now, which is a great relief. I`ve got a sharper sense of humor. And I laugh at myself more, which is crucial.``

As for the more introspective direction he has taken with ``White, Clean and Neat,`` a quasi-autobiographical song on ``Now and Zen,`` the singer notes, ``I think that my focus has changed a lot. It`s not that I`m hellishly introspective, but I`m able to express myself a little clearer now. The subtleties are probably a bit better . . . .And things do get better as you get older. Like (sex), for instance.``

Speaking of that, Led Zep was legendary for its sex/drugs/rock `n` roll approach to touring, but Plant`s current lifestyle sounds downright sedate-at least to hear him tell it. ``I`ve been working on this album since January, 1986,`` says the singer, who is divorced and lives in London. ``I haven`t had much time to do anything else except play squash and tennis and take two vacations. I`ve been pretty much respectably tied up.``

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