NEW YORK - Outside of being the title of his newest release, "Mighty Rearranger" serves fairly well as a neat synopsis of Robert Plant's career evolution.
After all, of all the blues mutations that form rock history, it was Led Zeppelin's witch-brew of sweltering plantation angst and black magic world psychedelia that was the most compelling. Compelling enough, at least, for many musicians to sit back on their couches in a pool of their own congratulation and slowly dissolve into the self-parodies that the rock gods have coupled with infamous expressions of their distaste for longevity.
Yet despite his documented reunions with Jimmy Page and, congruently, his Dylanesque willingness to revisit his pantheon of hits in a live context, Plant, 56, has never been much for what he calls "the old pals act." He might, however, be less sensitive about the issue than some think.
Weeks before sitting down with Plant in a small, velvet-colored room in the offices of Sanctuary records, I'm issued a series of warnings about Zeppelin questions, as well nebulous allusions to a curmudgeonly distaste for journalism in and of itself. Yet the Plant I encounter - turning an album over in his hands with wide-eyed, boyish admiration for the record stores he had plundered during his stay in New York, giddy over an opportunity to catch "Monty Python's Spamalot" - is decidedly less imposing. He talks uninvited about the Zeppelin days in equal parts easygoing self-deprecation ("We had every Spinal Tap moment imaginable") and quiet reverence, and calls his Honeydrippers outings with the man he calls Pagey "a mistake, like singing in a karaoke bar," only to immediately double back and suggest that they might do it again, "only wilder this time."
"The past is dissolving into the right place for me," he says, grinning, "moving back out of the main picture. Things are coming into really good focus."
Surprisingly tall, facial features a bit more haughty with age, Plant speaks with equal enthusiasm about his upcoming U.S tour, while lamenting the fact that it will prevent him from "watching the first almond trees blossom in the Atlas mountains," which is indicative of the spontaneous romantic poesy he will launch into while discussing his affection for North African music.
"Morocco came as a kind of, as a gift really," he says over a cup of coffee. "A friend of mine was a singer in a band, and he'd been to Marrakech with his wife in about 1971. He said, 'You've got to go to Marrakech. You've just got to see this place.' Marrakech is quite tidy now. But then, it was an incredibly romantic place to be. It was a cowboy town, great, very exciting. I went there, and I walked into the markets, with a guardian, a guide - because the hustlers are so vivid, you know - with my wife at the time, who is Indian. And I'm walking along, and suddenly I'm completely bowled over by the sound. The smells, the colors, the powder-blue sky. The sounds that were around me were amazing. And that was it. I was done for then. And you know, English singers, really, most of us just wanted to be blues men. We just wanted to play, we just wanted to be in that era. It was like a bunch of cowboys trying to be Howling Wolf."
Sitting between the excesses of the '60s and the convoluted debacle of the '80s, it was a trip that Plant at one point called a reintroduction "to the basic theory and principle of music."
"Well, I suppose theory and principle is a bit of a swanky way to say that," he laughs between sips. "That wasn't the right term. It's just a country which has no commercial gain from music - it's just music, there's no structure, there's no business, there's no mechanization of selling stuff, there's no record companies. You make cassettes, and the cassettes are sold in the medina, or in the markets, for a dollar, whatever it is. There's no royalties. So when you go to the desert and you see these people, they carry this music, they use it for everything. For telling the story of what's going on, for shrouded information about political conditions, for all the things that the troubadour would have used in the Middle Ages.
"I mean, they'll have a stage with no lights. It's just this fantastic weave of stuff. And I've been through everything. We were the first people to use lasers, you know, and we had explosions on stage. And I'm sitting on the top of a sand dune in Timbuktu with a big bottle of clear Martinique rum in me hands, and I'm like,... THIS IS AMAZING."
Over the bubbling electronica of the song "Tin Pan Valley" from "Mighty Rearranger," Plant whispers, "I live on from a glory so long ago and gone." Lamentations of "late night conversations filled with 20th century cool" ultimately give way to the proclamation "I've found a new way out" before the song ironically bursts out of its futuristic atmosphere into a quintessentially Zeppelin, riff-heavy workout between Clive Deamer's shuddering drums and some of the first real vocal histrionics on an album that leans more towards controlled intensity.
Plant seems to appreciate the absurdity of being one of the few rock demigods to be alive amid his own accrued mythology, treading lightly around the debris of anthologies, tribute bands and a "heavy metal" legacy that becomes more fractured with each subsequent death trip.
He speaks purposefully about "taking the challenge of being relevant rather than some 50-year-old jukebox," and believes that it's possible for an icon to have a past, present, and future like anyone else.
Thus, with the Led placed firmly in a subconscious from which it emerges in all the right moments, "Mighty Rearranger" finds Plant still walking what he calls the "fantastic, straight beautiful diagonal from the desert of Mali to Clarksdale, Mississippi." Embroidered with the singer's perpetual folk fascination, the album builds off his Moroccan obsession while maintaining the sex and swagger, light and shade of Zeppelin's deep blues, working less to juxtapose those sounds than to cleave into what Plant sees as a shared soul.
"I heard the blues in the musical scales of Morocco," he says. "Especially in the country music from the mountains, I heard the blues. I heard it, but I didn't know. I was going, 'Why am I so emotionally attracted to this music?' I mean it's not because the people were great people, although they are great people. It's not because I knew what they were saying, because I hadn't got a clue what they were talking about and still don't know. So I just started collecting cassettes in the medina. And I got it. I mean, I got it, but couldn't play it. I couldn't sing it. So gradually over the years I've tried to make it so that I sing me, and the music accosts and seduces. It kind of becomes a hybrid between rock 'n' roll and desert music."
He pauses, smiling again. "But those guys have just got it down, it's amazing. And in the middle of it all, they plug these instruments that we use, called a gimbri, a three-string, catgut-driven granddaddy of the guitar. They plug it into an old amplifier that's powered by a car battery, and then they put the thing behind their neck and play, like Hendrix. Amazing.
"There was one guy I knew, Ibrahim, who played in a band and worked in Algiers. He never heard the blues. So when he first heard John Lee Hooker, he could not believe it. He said, "But this is what we do."
Later that evening, standing at the exit of the building, he talks about a series of small club dates he will perform in the ensuing weeks to preview the album and warm up for the summer tour. Plant asks if I will make the New York gig, and I say I will.
"It's not Madison Square Garden," he says almost apologetically. He is silent for a moment, then, looking up, smiles a slightly fractured, vulnerable smile. "But one gets tired of singing into the darkness."