TC New York -- Jimmy Page and Robert Plant do like to talk.
Given their historic reticence around the press -- an understandably tight-lipped response to all the years in which Led Zeppelin had to endure both sneering reviews and sensationalist profiles -- this is not their most celebrated trait. But here they are, hunkered down in a posh suite at the Essex House on a cool, October afternoon, nattering away about everything and anything -- including the fact that they're really too tired to be doing all this talking.
"I'm knackered," sighs Plant as he sinks gratefully into an overstuffed chair.
"We only got in last night," adds Page, suppressing a yawn.
Worse, it was only just beginning to get busy for these two. After a globe-spanning round of interviews, they had rehearsals in England with their new band, followed by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January. Then, after a few more weeks of rehearsal, it would be off on the world tour that started Feb. 25 in Florida (and brings them to the USAir Arena Wednesday and Thursday).
Still, that doesn't stop either from holding forth at length on such varied topics as Otis Rush, Julian Cope, Oum Kalthoum, Ibizan football cheers and market etiquette in Marrakech.
In fact, the only subject they don't bring up is the one most of
their fans can't keep away from: Whether or not the Page/Plant pairing constitutes a Led Zeppelin reunion.
Ask the question directly -- "Is this a Led Zeppelin reunion?" -- and Plant offers a neat dodge. "It's whatever you saw when you watched the film," he says, referring to the MTV special, "Jimmy Page/Robert Plant (Unledded)."
But after all the talk over the years of a Zep reunion, the issue must be difficult to avoid.
"Only if you discuss it," answers Plant, frosting slightly. "I mean, we're going to talk to you about our music now, and our ambitions now. But they are very present tense and future tense.
"I'm sure that we could do 'Black Dog,' but I don't think it should be done in the same kind of hedonistic, macho approach which I employed [with Zeppelin]. For me, at my point in time now, I don't have to cavort around, selling the song like that. It's inappropriate, it's hackneyed, and it's been done to death. And not only by me."
Perhaps that's why the Page/Plant "Black Dog" has traded that testosterone bluster for an arrangement built around a reconfigured guitar riff and a didgeridoo drone. Or why many of the other Led Zep oldies they're performing sound almost nothing like the originals, from the exotic, Egyptian-flavored rendition of "Kashmir" to their tart, hurdy-gurdy-driven treatment "Nobody's Fault But Mine."
It's worth noting that the stylistic distance between Page and Plant's "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and the Led Zeppelin version is really no greater than that from Zep's to Blind Willie Johnson's original. Likewise, the duo's current interest in Moroccan, Egyptian and Indian music not only dates back to the Led Zeppelin era, but is plainly audible on some of the old albums.
Still, these two have only so much patience for the Led Zep legend and its most obvious trappings. "Stairway to Heaven," for instance.
"Perhaps we could do 'Stairway' on a dance mix!" jokes Plant at one point. "That'd be good fun. Nobody'd get married to it anymore. In fact, all the people who got married to it are probably divorced now."
"Even the ones that wrote it are divorced," adds Page, laughing wickedly.
True, but not from each other. Because at its heart, what this project is ultimately about has less to do with the Led Zeppelin legacy than with the pleasure Page and Plant have in working together.
"When we decided to get back together and see what would happen, Robert had called Martin Meissonnier in Paris, who made up some tape loops for us of North African drums," Page explains. "Which was pretty evocative stuff, really. It was good to be working with these sort of rhythms, which didn't involve a normal drummer as such, with bass drum, snare and hi-hats, and all this sort of thing.
"It was pretty instant, actually, as far as getting inspiration from these things, because that's exactly what they were -- inspirational."
Two of the songs inspired by those loops ended up in the MTV special and on the subsequent album, "No Quarter." But once started, Page and Plant weren't about to stop. "We went on from there to work with the rhythm section, Charlie Jones and Michael Lee, [who] had been with Robert for what, two years, isn't it? We wrote stuff there, but then we started to embark upon this course of action by bringing in Moroccan drummers and electric hurdy-gurdies, and sort of reinvestigating the old numbers."
They also spent some time recording in Marrakech, Morocco, both with Meissonnier's drum loops and with local Gnawa musicians. "You have to get the picture that the Jamaa l-Fna in Marrakech is a square, one of the most renowned squares in the whole of the world for story-tellers, soothsayers, musicians, jugglers, fire eaters, and blokes with snakes," says Plant. "I mean, the whole place is a mayhem of artisans of one kind or another. I'd been there many times, and been intimidated into emptying my pockets of dirham, because as soon as musicians are playing, a kid runs over with a hat and asks for money and stuff.
"So we thought we'd reverse the process, take our loop and our music, and set up and play. And see if we could get any dirham out of them."
And? "We got a lot of claps."
"Yeah, but there might have been people going 'round with hats, you know," suggests Page. "I should think Rex [King] probably was, yeah. And Bill [Curbishley]," teases Plant, referring to the duo's managers.
"I mean, the local people going 'round with the hats," says Page, laughing. "I'm sure there was a bit of that, because we had these speakers up on stands, with the loop coming through, and the P.A. as such with the vocals. And at one point, the speakers started to move back into the audience. Hurriedly, people ran in and rescued them. So I'm sure, if a speaker was going to disappear and be sold off at the other end of the square, some stray hats went around."
There probably won't be any stray hats or disappearing speakers on the Page and Plant tour, but there will be a fair amount of musical exoticism. In addition to the core group -- bassist Charlie Jones, drummer Michael Lee and ex-Cure guitarist Porl Thompson -- the road company includes hurdy-gurdy man Nigel Eaton, mandolin picker Jim Sutherland, keyboardist Ed Shearmur and singer Najma Akhtar, as well as an Egyptian string and percussion ensemble and an assortment of symphony musicians. "The Song Remains the Same" this isn't.
Even so, it doesn't look as if Page and Plant will ever entirely escape the Led Zeppelin legacy. In fact, a Led Zep tribute album, called "Encomium," will arrive in stores Tuesday.
"I was asked if I would do a song," says Plant of the project, "and I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to do a duet. I'd like to do "Down by the Seaside." I'd like to do it in E minor, and I'd like to do it as slow as humanly possible.' "
So he called Tori Amos. "I'd met Tori a few times, and I really, really love her," he says. "She flew into London, and we just busked it for about half an hour. I played guitar, and she played piano, Michael and Charlie played brushes and upright bass. It was cool. And I'm really proud of my guitar playing, because it's really fractured, somewhere between the solo of, maybe, 'Down by the River,' by Neil Young.
"But it goes on a bit. It's like seven or eight minutes long. We got a call from New York, saying, 'We love the tune, but do you mind editing it?' Ha! Where would you begin to start putting the knife to it? It's amazing. 'Well, it's a bit long,' they said, 'We've got to fit it in with Rollins and Poor Non Blondes,' or whatever it is."
So who won? Plant isn't one to tell tales out of school, but suffice it to say that the version of "Down by the Seaside" on "Encomium" runs a full seven minutes and 49 seconds. Apparently, Page and Plant didn't dub their album "No Quarter"
Who: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
When: Wednesday and Thursday
Where: USAir Arena
$ Call: (410) 481-SEAT