Jack Hamilton: Robert Plant's Second Act

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[Jack Hamilton is a writer and student in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard University.]

If Scott Fitzgerald was right and American lives are bereft of second acts (and somewhere he tires of hearing that quoted), British rock stars have eagerly picked up our slack. From the cockroachish longevity of the Rolling Stones and The Who to the tireless re-makings of David Bowie and Elvis Costello to the lucrative rushes to the Starbucksian middlebrow by Elton John and Paul McCartney: if these figures haven't aged uniformly gracefully they've at least managed to not fade away, to borrow from their adopted lexicon.

Recently we've seen one of the most unexpected reinventions of all, that of former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, one of music's most recognizable voices who nonetheless spent the better part of 25 years following his band's 1980 breakup on a quixotic search for himself. In late 2007 Rounder Records released Raising Sand, a collaboration between Plant and the sumptuously talented bluegrass musician Alison Krauss. Sparkling reviews and unexpectedly robust sales finally culminated in Raising Sand being awarded Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammys, and last month Plant released his own sequel of sorts, Band of Joy, a gorgeous, 12-track collection of far-flung cover songs rendered in his newfound wheelhouse of rootsy Americana....

The great irony of Led Zeppelin is that a band so deeply, even pathologically obsessed with African American music was perhaps more responsible than any other for refiguring post-Hendrix rock music as the seeming birthright of white men. It's a dubious achievement that wasn't entirely their own fault but one for which they shouldn't be entirely let off the hook, either. Perhaps the two most indelible Western associations with black music have been eroticism and violence, the sex informing the fear that in turn enhances the sex, and if you think the Brits have been exempt from these fantasies then Mick Jagger has a bridge he'd like to sell you. Zeppelin elaborated this to epic proportions: theirs was a vision of the blues that simultaneously mystified and coarsened the music, abstracting it to a feverish realm to swing like some phallic metronome between the phantasmagoric and the pornographic....

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