Robert Plant is blond, charismatic, and quite attracted to women. His tastes run from blues to bluegrass. He also used to sing in a band called Led Zeppelin. These and many other dating-site-worthy insights are ripe for the plucking in Robert Plant: A Life, a new biography of the rock icon by veteran British music journalist Paul Rees. But that’s about all there is to the book. Following the formula laid down by so many other Q/Mojo alums, Rees sticks to the facts, stuffs the empty spaces with irrelevant historical detail, and sketches the edges of a portrait rather then working in fine detail.
A Life is an unauthorized bio, but “unauthorized” doesn’t excuse this lack of depth. The book contains no fresh conversations with its subject, his family, or his best-known bandmates. Instead it’s a collation of stale, previously published interviews and chats with low-level hangers-on and childhood chums. This worm’s-eye view doesn’t do Plant justice; not only is he the frontman of one of the most beloved music groups of all time, he remains a mystique-shrouded man whose life story borders on the mythic. Rees captures the timeline of Plant’s early life as a middle-class kid in the English Midlands following World War II, and almost taps into something profound when he begins talking about Plant’s early obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien—whose The Lord Of The Rings was inspired by the bucolic countryside Plant grew up around. Such tantalizing threads are brushed aside as A Life barrels through Plant’s rise through the ’60s rock scene and his tenure as the golden-god lead singer of Led Zeppelin.
A third of A Life focuses on Zeppelin, which seems about right for a book that covers Plant’s life as a whole. That third, though, reads like an abridged edition of every other Zeppelin bio ever written, from Stephen Davis’ Hammer Of The Gods on down. On a strictly technical level, Rees does a competent job; his narrative flows smoothly and seamlessly, and his prose is sedate and unobtrusive. But that same description applies to his analysis of Plant’s life and music. Too much attention is paid to what was going on around Plant at the time—not personally, but globally. The fact that the Watergate scandal was breaking just as Zeppelin began its 1972 U.S. tour has nothing to do with anything. Yet the book is peppered with such pointless context, all of it intoned with an empty sense of portent. Even when Plant’s own life becomes tragic, as with the death of his 5-year-old son Karac in 1977, it’s delivered dryly and from a cold distance.
The most glaring deficiency is a lack of discussion about what made Plant famous in the first place: his pipes. Plant bears one of the most potent, singular voices in rock history, but that’s not made clear from reading A Life. Brief snippets of clichéd descriptors—up to an including Plant’s “banshee wail”—are all that Rees can muster. About as much attention is devoted to Plant’s lyrics. Granted, Plant has rarely been recognized as a profound lyricist, although there’s plenty of room for that debate to be had in these pages—only Rees doesn’t seem concerned with such things. The book is a trim, swift, economical read; accordingly, it just flutters by. Even when the details of Plant’s recent resurgence—thanks to collaborations with Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin as well as a semi-triumphant Zeppelin reunion concert in 2007—add some zest to the shopworn narrative, Rees manages to exercise restraint. Plant’s story, however, deserves anything but.