Led Zeppelin listened to each other and found rock-and-roll’s most magical formula

Maybe you know this one. It’s March 1975, and Led Zeppelin is in the middle of conquering America, rock-and-roll and the future, so Robert Plant slips out onto the balcony of his Sunset Strip hotel room with a proclamation for the traffic puttering down below: “I’m a golden god!”

Thirty-seven years later, John Paul Jones remembers another hotel balcony. Same tour, different city. Plant is out on the terrace, sucking up all the oxygen and sunshine, jittery in his jeans, wanderlust humming in his bone marrow. Jones points to a building on the horizon and brags, “I walked there this morning.”

(AMY SANCETTA/ASSOCIATED PRESS) - Led Zeppelin bandmates, singer Robert Plant, left, and guitarist Jimmy Page, reunite to perform for the Live Aid famine relief concert at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia in 1985.

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Plant’s chest hair wilts. A golden god can have all the money, women, powder and pills he desires, but he can’t walk down the street and explore. Wearing the right hat, his less-conspicuous bassist can. Jonesy gives his front man a squeeze on the shoulder. Not an exultant Led Zeppelin moment by any stretch, but one that captures the two elements that make any novel worth reading and every Led Zeppelin album worth owning: empathy and adventure.

Across the ’70s, the members of Led Zeppelin spent countless afternoons like that, champing at the bit in their chandeliered cages, yearning to burst into sold-out arenas where they could triumph as the greatest rock band on Earth. They lacked the glamour of the Rolling Stones but had all of their lust. They couldn’t eclipse the humanity of the Beatles but had all of their courage. Of any band that ever made rock-and-roll — that gloriously imperfect American music that so many British groups hurled back across the ocean in unbelievable shapes — Led Zeppelin was the most perfect.

“Everyone was a superstar,” says guitarist Jimmy Page. “The key was that we played as a band.”

Where other rock troupes shook the landscape by grinding tectonic egos, the Led Zeppelin members listened to one another. Cue up their music today, and you’ll hear amplified thunder, snowflake balladry, drum fills that feel like your bones snapping in ecstasy, odes to the pleasures of the flesh and the mysteries of the universe — but you’re ultimately hearing the simple magic of four men listening to one another.

“We knew when to shut up and let somebody else lead and enunciate,” Plant says. “So for every big, strong, flamboyant moment, there would be, within it and around it, some kind of subtlety that set us apart.”

Apart and above. Trailing only the Beatles, Led Zeppelin became the second-highest-selling rock band in history, even more popular after they broke up than when they were together. The death of drummer John Bonham in 1980 brought the music to an unexpected halt, sending Jones, Page and Plant in disparate directions. But the three will reconvene at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington this weekend, where they’ll be feted for songs that exploded rock’s possibilities, for concerts that devoured superlatives, for albums that have sold an estimated 300 million copies worldwide and for their ability to listen.

Every band is its own first audience, and at Led Zeppelin’s first rehearsal in the basement of a London record shop on Aug. 19, 1968, they knocked themselves out.

Jones remembers walking down the stairs with only one concern: “The first thing you think is, ‘I hope the drummer is good.’ ”

‘We had no fear’

Page handpicked each of them. A bassist he’d met on the session circuit, a maniac drummer from the Midlands and his howling childhood friend. Time to see what they’re made of. The guitarist called for “Train Kept A-Rollin,’ ” a mutilated jump blues his recently disbanded Yardbirds used to play.

What came out was the sound of four men hitting some cosmic lottery. The colossus behind the drum kit would one day be recognized as the greatest rock drummer of all time, but for now he was shoving his pals off into the unknown, a place where Led Zeppelin would eventually redraw the grand contours of rock-and-roll.

“It was our job to explore,” Page says of his band. “And we had no fear.”

At Manhattan’s Four Seasons, the 68-year-old’s soft eyes search the hotel-suite carpet for other memories. His hair has faded into snowy strands, cinched in a ponytail, and he scootches around in his chair whenever he gets excited, which is often, because Jimmy Page likes talking about Led Zeppelin. He speaks briskly and affectionately, more like a scholarly superfan than the band’s founder.

He’s also Led Zeppelin’s self-deputized custodian and has spent big chunks of 2012 preparing the band’s back catalogue for re-release. And when he finds time to play the guitar, brawny little riffs — not unlike the ones that delineated Led Zeppelin’s extraordinary musculature — still materialize beneath his fingers. “They sort of visit you like new friends,” Page says.

Raised an only child in the town of Epsom, southwest of London, Page took up the guitar as a tween, found session work in London’s recording studios and eventually ran off on tour with the Yardbirds, a mythic rock group that launched kindred guitar gods Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. The experience stoked his taste for high volumes and bold improvisation, two envelopes he would push in Zeppelin.

But Page’s jumbo-size ambitions were initially dismissed as pomp. In an early review, Rolling Stone took a club to Page’s “weak, unimaginative songs.” Other adjectives used in the magazine’s now-infamous review of “Led Zeppelin I”: “prissy,” “dull,” “redundant.”

“Led Zeppelin was always the people’s band — they were never the critics’ band. That, I think, was part of their allure,” says Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. “When it comes to the majesty of rock, there’s no band that comes close. . . . They set the standard in songwriting, in musicianship, in aura, that really lit the fire under millions of young aspiring musicians.”

Page would probably second that. He calls Led Zeppelin’s nine studio albums “a textbook” for the generations that have followed. “If you want to learn anything about Led Zeppelin, don’t read any silly books,” he says. “Just listen to the music.”

Then his mouth curves into a sad smile. Like any Zep fan, he seems heartbroken by the fact that there probably won’t be any more of it.

Better not ask

It’s a chilly Tuesday morning in October, and the members of Led Zeppelin have gathered for a chilly news conference to promote “Celebration Day,” a concert film of the band’s 2007 performance at London’s 02 Arena. Many suspect that the stately one-off reunion gig, held in honor of the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, will go down as the band’s official farewell. A scrum of journalists has assembled at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to ask why.

Plant parries the first question about Led Zeppelin’s non-future with a non-answer. “We’ve been thinking about all sorts of things,” he says. “Then we can’t remember what we were thinking about.” He calls the reporter a “schmuck.”

Undaunted, a second schmuck approaches the microphone to ask why the band won’t reunite. Crickets ride a tumbleweed on the arctic wind. There’s a third attempt. Plant tries to vaporize this guy with stone blue eyes. “Think about what it takes to answer a question like that in one second.”

Page and Jones keep relatively quiet as the conference descends into the ninth circle of awkward. Jason Bonham, the 46-year-old drummer who filled in for his late father at the 02, cuts the tension sweetly, explaining his motivations for the gig: “I just wanted to impress my mates, my dad’s friends.”

When it’s over, the room fills with sweaty-palmed applause. The tattered reggae of “D’yer Mak’er” dribbles from the P.A. speakers. Photographers yip and yap for the band’s attention, their cameras chattering like android cicadas.

Plant poses for just a few seconds and is the first to walk offstage, face knotted, as if in a hurry to scrape something off the bottom of his boot.

‘My eyes are so wide open’

Before you ask anything about broken levees or misty mountains, Robert Plant needs a place to sit. So the towering 64-year-old grabs onto a sofa and drags it across the empty events room at Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel like he’s taking a loaf of bread out of the cupboard.

He still has some sun on his face from a recent road trip to Big Bend National Park, down on the Mexican border, where the weather and the people are very warm. It’s a seven-hour drive from Austin, where the singer lives part-time and as quietly as possible. “I keep away, mostly, from the cliche or self-congratulatory stuff,” Plant says. “I just go out and find the world.”

His curious heart was beating fast at age 17 when he stepped onto a U.S. Air Force installation in Scotland to perform with Listen, one of a handful of groups he fronted before joining Led Zeppelin the day before his 20th birthday. “I was trying to sing blue-eyed soul,” Plant says of his rookie seasons. “Trying to squeeze my throat and do that, ‘Oooh, baby.’ ”

This gig was different. Surrounded by American soldiers dropping American coins into an American jukebox that spit out American songs, Plant’s world suddenly felt vast. “I didn’t realize how much of a wanderlust I would develop,” he says. “My eyes are so wide open, and I write because of that. I write, sometimes, with an eternal and wondrous naivete, because there are so many things I don’t know.”

That naivete felt acute in the early days of Led Zeppelin. The band’s youngest member had the most to prove as his fellow alchemists transformed gritty Americana into electric futurism. “We were taking aspects of the Chicago blues, and we were pulverizing it,” Plant says. “We didn’t have to show it a huge amount of respect.”

With Page, Bonham and Jones often brandishing their instruments like heavy weaponry, Plant continuously struggled to find a place to set his high, keening voice. He says some of Led Zeppelin’s most exquisite moments — “The Rain Song,” “Achilles’ Last Stand,” “The Song Remains the Same” — would have been better off without his singing.

“The last thing I wanted to do was get in the way of some beautiful playing,” Plant says.

For Plant, the group’s finest balancing act came with “Kashmir,” perhaps the most expansive rock song ever recorded, an eight-and-a-half-minute opus inspired by trips to Thailand, India and Morocco. “Just listening, and hearing, and smelling, and the occasional taste of fear in the back of your throat” — Plant snaps his fingers as if to wake himself from the reverie — “it’s magnificent! I think we did very well traveling and eavesdropping on other worlds.”

And when Led Zeppelin ended, Plant was the most eager to move to other worlds.

“I can’t stand to see the grass grow under any artist’s feet,” he says. “I want them to constantly create and re-create. So I suppose I became quite analytical.”

That meant forcing himself onto alien turf, from a series of brittle pop solo albums in the ’80s (“I’m not embarrassed by them, but I think they’re cute,” he says) to 2007’s “Raising Sand,” a gorgeous folk collaboration with singer Alison Krauss that won album of the year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

“He is all about the next tune, the next arrangement,” Krauss told Rolling Stone in 2008. “He is about tomorrow night’s show. And when we get to tomorrow, he’ll be about the next one.”

The further along he goes, the stranger the old songs feel in his lungs.

“I’m not there anymore,” Plant says of his relationship to the Zeppelin songbook. “I could be somewhere else with them, but who knows where that would be? . . . A new world has to beckon. We’re all too long in the tooth to just lean back on the old stuff for another day.”

‘I was just a small part of that’

In the roaring ’70s, he’d try to get a new haircut before every tour. Today, anonymity comes a little easier.

“I still get people coming up to me saying, ‘Do people ever tell you you look like John Paul Jones?’ ” the 66-year-old says, grinning. “ ‘Yeah, yeah. I get that a lot.’ ”

The eternally modest bassist could vanish into the wallpaper at Led Zeppelin’s flashy live concerts, but his contributions coursed through the music like blood. While his mates preened and bashed, he supported their most breathtaking maneuvers with subliminal melodies, rhythms and textures, anticipating whatever sound might pounce into the air next.

“I’ve always said that Led Zeppelin was the space between all the members,” Jones says, tracing an imaginary square on the Bowery Hotel room tabletop.

As a child, Jones owned a radio that could pull Radio Algiers out of the air, an invaluable resource that supplemented the steady diet of jazz supplied by his parents, who were vaudeville performers. After countless young Sundays spent improvising on the organ at church, Jones found work as a session man in London’s recording studios, where he first caught Page’s ear.

“I gave up a hugely lucrative career to join Zeppelin,” Jones says. “I was at the top of the session world.” But it was boring. He remembers his boss seeing him off: “You’re either a fool or a rich man.”

It turned out to be the latter. In 1968, Atlantic Records approached Led Zeppelin with a record-setting advance, and the group would soon bask in the freedom that came with being a bestseller.

“We had a manager [the storied Peter Grant] that kept everyone away. The label weren’t allowed to come near us,” Jones says. “I spoke to Ahmet [Ertegun] afterward, and he told me, ‘We weren’t allowed within 20 paces of you.’ ”

With a pipeline of cash and no leash, Zeppelin spent endless hours in the studio, mapping new territory. And to Jones, everything was new territory. Even today, launching into “Stairway to Heaven” for the 10,000th time feels like a crusade.

“You have to approach it like this is the first time you’re playing it,” Jones says. “What does the room feel like? What is the dynamic? Is the tempo a little bit quick?”

“The instant we started playing, it felt like a band,” says Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, Nirvana and Them Crooked Vultures, the supergroup he persuaded Jones to join in 2008. “He’s a musical giant and he makes other people sound great. . . . You couldn’t be in that band without really reaching for something great. And that’s what it was like every night. We never had a bad show.”

Grohl is one of many collaborators Jones has buddied up with since Zeppelin, a sprawling cast that includes R.E.M., Diamanda Galas, Brian Eno and Chris Thile. With every partnership, Jones says he tries to stay out of music’s way — and that makes receiving the Kennedy Center Honors feel a bit odd. You can’t hang a medal on the sounds that fill a room.

“As a member of the band, I’m immensely proud,” Jones says of the recognition. “But personally, it doesn’t quite touch me as much. It’s Led Zeppelin that got the award. It’s not me. I was just a small part of that.”

Zeppelin lives

Today, the Viking appetite that once bound Led Zeppelin together keeps them apart, chasing different sounds down different paths.

Page is tweaking material for a new band he hopes to assemble next summer. Jones is chipping away at an opera he plans to premiere in 2014. And Plant’s Band of Joy — a new group that recycles the name of one of his pre-Zep groups — has just recorded a dozen new songs that the singer says “are so powerful and heavy that I’m frightened of them.”

So why’s everyone so afraid of a world with no more Led Zeppelin? Nobody’s taking the music away. It’s physically etched into our vinyl platters, proudly cemented in our digital playlists, forever wrinkled into our collective brain tissue. And it still sounds so unapologetically alive.

Maybe that’s why Page talks about Led Zeppelin in the past tense, but about the music in the present.

“Wonderful stuff, isn’t it?”

Yes.

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