I used to think that Robert Plant ruined it for everybody.
One could argue that rock music does not have a single, universally-beloved figure, for lack of a better term. Nobody can agree on The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones; some people never liked Elvis or Bob Dylan; Nickelback may be the most hated band to have been certified platinum. The rock niche of music appreciation may forever lack consensus, but, there is one near-to-universal-as-possible truth. You may not like them, but you can’t deny Led Zeppelin.
I’ve asked random strangers, “Hey, do you like Led Zeppelin?” and the responses have run the gamut from:
“They’re the greatest rock band of all-time!”
To my personal favorite: “Yeah, he’s OK.”
Only on the rare occasion have I heard someone say, “They suck and I despise them.” Keith Richards and Pete Townshend have both said they hated Led Zeppelin’s music – but liked and respected them as individuals. According to Townshend, that bias is based at partially on competition; The Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin were each at one time the biggest band in the world.
Fair enough. But if you like rock music, at the very least, you appreciate Led Zeppelin. To deny them is saying you don’t appreciate the taste of fresh, clean water. They are rock music, more so than any other band before or after them; they defined what we all know today as Rock Music.
Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s sweet; sometimes it’s tender, sometimes it’s tuff. The Velvet Underground may have released their “Rock n’ Roll” before Led Zeppelin IV, but the two were light-years apart. At that point, there was rock n’ rol; and there was rock.
Rock. No rolling. Well, maybe every now and then. But Rock.
Zeppelin arguably consisted of three of the world’s finest rock musicians…and Robert Plant.
Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones were among the best at what they did, no question. Plant, on the other hand, was certainly one of the best rock front men of the era; but sometimes he… “Does anybody remember the laughter?”
For a long time, this put me in a catch-22 situation, viz a viz dive bar conversations about music. You can still love the band and have grumbles about Robert Plant. Not his talent, maybe his voice, sometimes—but it’s him: Robert Plant the Golden God rock star; the guy every rock singer from 1969-forward wanted to be.
At some point in my life, I could no longer listen to Zeppelin without thinking about the concert film The Song Remains the Same (1973), which is not quite as bad as Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Opera (1979) – more cringing, fewer chuckles.
As a true Zeppelin fan, I’m an odd ball; my favorite album, Presence (1976), is their least popular in terms of everything—sales, criticism, airplay. Ask an Average Joe to name a song off Presence and he pulls “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” out of thin air? We will be fast friends, guaranteed.
In the end, Robert Plant is an inimical performer, but that didn’t stop a phalanx of next-generation front men from aping his routine.
This why for the longest time I believed that Robert Plant ruined it for everyone—everyone being front men of rock bands – which by the way, is not nearly as easy as Plant made it look. And I was the front man of a series of bands from 1989-2006.
If he hadn’t have come along and created the Golden God character, perhaps we would not have seen questionably embarrassing lead singers like Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, David Lee Roth, David Coverdale, Bret Michaels, Vince Neil, Axl Rose, Jani Lane, E-T-C. Honestly, I like music by all of those guys, that’s just me; I’m into transsexual birthday party clowns – none of whom could actually sing, by the way.
And it all started with Plant.
From 1999 to 2008, I worked at a few upscale restaurants in San Francisco.
Wait tables in any big city for nine years and you’ll probably meet some famous people.
By far, the best thing about waiting on famous people is when they surprise you. Sometimes it’s in a good way; when [famous actor] leaves a $200 tip on a $300 tab.
Sometimes it’s not so good; when [notorious infomercial salesman] turns out to be an even bigger douche than he appears to be on TV. You get a story out of it, at the very least.
Years earlier in Chicago, I once valet-parked [superstar athlete’s] car, which was the first and only time I ever drove a Lamborghini—never been so scared to get behind the wheel of a vehicle in my whole life; and also, waited on some pro baseball players.
Playing in a band, I got close to some relatively famous people, but the highlight of my life was meeting Cheap Trick and getting their autographs on my 30th birthday.
In S.F., I started as a food runner at fancy place in the Financial District. As a lowly food runner, I didn’t actually take [A-list comedic actor’s] order, but he seemed to be slightly more comfortable talking to me as opposed to his server. After the shift, I told my friend, “They must beat [Hollywood actors] within an inch of their lives on those movie sets, because [famous actor] had less on the ball than Muhammad Ali.” It was my first week; I was still green.
Not long thereafter, I brought Neil Young‘s entree to his table. “Mr. Young, it’s a pleasure to serve you this Chilean sea bass in a shitake mushroom bisque.”
While training to be a lunch server, I was nearly fired after an experience with [big rock star and his drummer]. In general, the biggest sin you could possibly commit is to forget that you are a food runner in a ridiculously over-priced and over-rated eatery, and they are big stars. Don’t do that.
Meanwhile, I moved to a different restaurant frequented by the rich and famous. I met dozens of household names, and for the most part, everyone was nice, or nice enough. Only on the rare occasion was somebody a dick, so it was cool to be in their rarified presence. And then after so many years, we became jaded.
“Oh, you waited on [A-list actress] last night? She’s either borderline retarded, or really, really high, isn’t she?”
One Tuesday night in July 2005, it was getting close to closing time and I was working a section that was more or less the dumping ground for people without reservations. This was the kind of joint that didn’t say “No” to anyone or anything, period. My section was essentially one super-long picnic table, however, cut from one massive piece of exotic hardwood, and one of the coolest tables I’ve ever seen. Anyway, my diners had cleared out and I was idling in back near the dish room, arguing with one of the bussers.
As I was headed to the bar to cash out, the on-duty manager walked past me and said “Set the family table for 12, now. Thank me later.”
I spun around and said, “What?”
“Just do it.”
This manager wasn’t the power-tripping type. He never stuck me with late night scraps if he could avoid it. He had my respect, as did almost every manager we ever had there. So I grumbled under my breath and caught my busser by the scruff of the neck.
“Para los doce.”
Ten minutes later, Robert Plant, followed by ten members of his band and crew, walked into the dining room and sat down. They had arrived via limo following their sold-out performance at Oakland’s Paramount Theater. Plant was touring in support of his latest release, Mighty ReArranger, with his backing band, Strange Sensations.
My first thought: Man, he’s taller than I thought he would be.
Plant is listed at 6 ft. in cowboy boots, which he was wearing. His ensemble was very very suburban rock star dad mixed with Nashville songwriter. No kidding, he was wearing a gray t-shirt with some wolf or bear face, tucked into his tight jeans. Also, turquoise belt buckle? Check. There was something very angular and asymmetrical about his posture, as if he’d had a bad automobile accident (or several) and will never walk completely straight or upright for the rest of his life. Hair? Grayer but still there, all of it. Plus two or three day goatee—how would I know the last time he shaved? He had a light beard.
Fortunately, I didn’t drop to my knees and bow at Plant’s feet. This is what being professional is all about, haha. You never let any of your personal anxieties get in the way of getting the job done.
Plant took a seat at the head of the table and got my immediate attention. The next 15 minutes were a blur; I remember making eye contact as he told me how to run the table (in terms of ordering and whatnot), and I felt as if I was looking into the eyes of a wise yet familiar magus from ancient times.
Seriously, I have never experienced that before.
“Holy Christ! All that nonsense about Golem and the Evil One was actually true!”
This guy isn’t old; he’s ancient, possibly prehistoric. From another planet. He had the most knowing expression I’ve ever encountered.
At the 15-minute mark, with food coming to the table and wine in every glass, I walked away and posted up at the barista station to resume my observation. A few minutes later, my presence was requested at the bar. I was gone for maybe a minute.
In that time, Plant took a bite of food and immediately winced while raising a hand to his jaw. He then sort of masticated a bit and casually removed the food from his mouth, setting it on a small plate. He examined the food for a few seconds, returned his hand to his jaw, and then, as if he heard something, stood up, pulled out his chair, got down on his knees, and went under the table. That’s when I came around the corner and saw him on all fours.
My immediate reaction was to scream “No! What are you doing!” but what I did was get down on the floor next to him, pull a lighter from my apron, click it, and say, “Did you lose something?”
At that point, one of the crew members came over and got down on his knees and R. Plant said, “I’ve lost a crown.” Not more that two seconds after he said that, I felt a small piece of metal under my hand. “I think I found it.” I don’t remember exactly what R. Plant said but it was something along the lines of: Great, now I know where it is. While I was horrified and concerned that we, meaning the restaurant, might be fucking destroyed for causing Robert Plant to lose a tooth, he was actually kind of happy-go-lucky about it all. Like, yeah, crown came out!
Meanwhile, my manager heard about the commotion but he didn’t need to find me, I was already looking for him.
“What happened?” the manager said, bracing himself.
“He bit into something and one of his crowns fell out,” I replied. “Landed on the floor. We found the crown. He’s cool.”
“British dentistry,” the manager quipped. Pause. “You’re sure he’s cool?”
The manager adjusted his glasses and lowered his head. “You know, I gotta call [the General Manager, the big boss].”
“I would assume so.”
It wasn’t long before I was on the phone with the G.M., retelling the story without contradiction. [The G.M.] paused for a moment and said, “Dr. Larry [one of the owners] is a dentist.”
Right, I’m gonna go get Robert Plant and put him on the phone.
As it got near midnight, most of the other diners had cleared out, not without a few gawkers to come by and ask for photo ops and autographs, which Plant handled with ease, grace, and I might even say a certain amount of enjoyment. He seemed to light up when someone approached. By now, the band and crew were all jawing in their British accents and they had spread out down the table.
Plant got up, asked for a toothpick, and then took a seat at the far end of the table and put his legs up on an empty chair. I walked up and said, “Mr. Plant, is there anything I can get for you?”
“Oh bollocks [or rubbish], call me Robert.”
“OK. How about another drink?”
“No, thank you. M’ leg up here on this chair and give my back a rest.”
“Is that a result of the 1975 crash in Greece?”
He sat up a little bit, shook his head, and made eye contact. “Right, it was Rhodes, actually. Tiny island.”
“There’s one thing I’ve read a lot about but never quite understood.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, all the music guides say you recorded the vocals to Presence—which is my favorite album by the way—in a wheelchair, as a result of an accident you had in Greece.”
“Sit down, what was your name?”
Despite the fact that we [employees] really weren’t supposed to sit down on the job, what transpired was a 10-minute conversation which started with several additional questions about Presence (he was genuinely surprised it was my favorite. Quote: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that!”) and ended with him saying (paraphrased):
The whole [music business] is completely rigged and if I were you [independent musician], I would just do whatever the fuck I wanted, and completely ignore everything and everybody else. If your work has some sort of marketable value, something the suits think they can make money from, they will let you know.
You bet I took that home with me.
As a coda, the next morning, Dr. Larry fixed up R. Plant’s dental situation and I’m told everyone was happy.
When it was all over and I had time to reflect, I felt ashamed and humbled for ever having any qualms with Robert Plant. He was and still is, the coolest rock musician I have ever met and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the music he has so willingly given us.
And I admit I was wrong, Robert Plant really didn’t ruin it for anybody.
He made it possible.
 It was (to the best of my knowledge, still is) almost mandatory for American rock radio stations to have a certain time of day set aside to play a block of Led Zeppelin songs, almost always called “Get the Led Out.” Live 105 in S.F. used to get the Led out at 7:00 p.m. sharp, Monday thru Friday. Meanwhile, and I’m a slacker for not seeing this one coming, there is a Zeppelin tribute band (audaciously self-described “The American Led Zeppelin”) with the same name. Click on this link and thank me later. You know, God bless anyone in tribute bands giving it their all and following their dreams but look, fellas, this is Led Zeppelin’s dream. Get your own gig.
 Despite what it says on the Wikipedia page, Robert cleared up this bit of disinformation. He was in fact confined to a wheelchair for the majority of the sessions, however the wheelchair didn’t fit through the door into the vocal booth, so he said, right, get me a crutch. So his assistant would wheel him up to the vocal booth and he would then limp over to the microphone and prop himself on the crutch. That’s how he recorded all of his tracks, the performance of which he described to me as “a desperate cry for help.” He also talked about the disparity between the previous record, Physical Graffiti (1974) and Presence, describing the former as having a “celebratory mood” while the latter was “dark and twisted and not at all a pleasant record to make or listen to at the time,” although conceding that it has aged quite well. A lot of the stuff he told me about making the record I already knew from my own independent study but you really cannot put a price on hearing it directly from the source.