Two different interviews with Robert Plant were aired on BBC radio on June 5, and both were about Kent Nerburn’s book “Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder,” which Plant promoted the day before on stage at Hay Festival.
The first interview, which aired on BBC Radio 5 live during the day, included a long answer from Plant when asked how he came to discover Nerburn’s book:
“I found it in a very highly esteemed, historically renowned bookstore in Denver, Colorado and I’d been touring for maybe a couple of months. I was carrying around various books, I’d spent some time, obviously years and years, travelling as a sort of musical tourist in the United States.
But I took to living there for a while down in the south, in amongst all the sort of immigrant, European culture that I experienced, I went on a sort of quest to try and see just exactly what had been going on before the Europeans moved through and before the Texas rangers and before the rounding up of the remains of the great Comanche empire and shoving it into an inhospitable part of the south, around Fort Sill in Oklahoma, actually.
I started trying to track down what happened, the change of power, the hierarchies, the push through to the west coast by the European travellers and the whole frontier spirit. I was constantly amazed by what I was reading about the tenacity and the wisdom and the guile of the original fathers of the new world.
I was at an end of a book, which is quite practical and was giving me lots of dates and stuff like that and I picked up Kent’s book in a particular part of the store and flicked onto the front and onto the back and the inside cover and I started going ‘my goodness, this is somebody who has actually, as a European stock, European-blooded guy, he’s been around these people enough to express the words that I can’t quite get out.’ The kind of embarrassment, the guilt, the adventure and, at the same time, the whole idea of being so uncomfortable with getting too close to something that’s so profound that you just feel like some sort of spaceman trying to even comprehend what these guys carry with them, the way they touch the earth.
So I picked the book out and read it and read it and at the end of the book I said ‘I’ve got to find this guy and see what’s going on.'”
Plant was also asked about his relationship with silence, which Nerburn says in his book is important to Native Americans.
“It’s a treasure,” Plant said. “I don’t really do it great service. Since Kent and I have met I spend quite a lot of the time babbling and enthusing and being the same RP that I’ve been for many years. But I do find my silence. I live close to the Welsh borders and I know the special places to go, to be, to actually recharge.”
“I do come from an absolute mass, a myriad of sound. I think also in performance, in the journey I’ve taken, it wasn’t really about sound and the mesh of sound and the level of sound. It’s about too much and at one point in time, early in my time up there on the stage, there was just so much. And it was almost like it was every second had to be filled with some musical comment. The dynamism came later, but in the early days insecurity and nervousness leads like most Western communications, far too much noise.”
Host Nihal Arthanayake asked Plant whether Nerburn’s book helped him to find silence. “I had already in my dotage from about 1975 or 6, well maybe even way back because in the early days in musical form and creativity we did spend quite a bit of time up in the mountains and in Wales and just reaching for what you can find in silence, what you find within yourself. It’s got more and more fluent, my time in silence since. I’m very pleased with that.”
Later on in the interview, Plant was asked whether Nerburn’s book had changed his opinion of America:
“I didn’t need to read the book. I’ve been through, once you get off the freeways for the last, I don’t know, 49 years, there have been many, many times when I’ve come into close contact by going to see physical beauty, for example the four corners between Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
It’s a particularly remarkable place with Monument Valley. It’s a tourist attraction but to get there, if you take a highway up through from, this is like a geography lesson I do apologise but I’m a main subscriber to the Rand McNally road map. I went up through from Chimayo in New Mexico and I was making my way to the four corners. I went up from this arid, beautiful country, topographically, of New Mexico, into higher land, which was Apache land. And I went through green forests and arboreal splendour and cattle herds and stuff like that, not herds but there was a farm. It was agriculturally sound.
And then, bit by bit, I made my way to this famous four corners where the four states meet and I got to a town called Kayenta and there it’s a Navajo town. I could see that there was nothing ever going to grow there. There was a couple of supermarkets and a Dairy Queen and some burger stand and stuff. I saw the pain in people and I saw what a poor diet does, what being left in the corner selling trinkets on the side of the road, how demeaning and how ridiculous it is. I’ve seen a million instances like that from when I was 20 years old to now across America. And not just in the United states, by the way, but everywhere where we’ve been, more or less. Good intentions are wondrous and the world is full of wonderful people and good intentions, but the weight of empire, it’s all around us.”
Arthanayake asked Plant what he sees as the difference between wanting to adopt traditional ways and cultural appropriation:
“I think it’s all one melange, really. When I first went to the United States I was flabbergasted at the distance between our culture and the survivalists of the Native Americans. But, again, in the circles where I was working and singing and the people that I was meeting from Janis Joplin all the way through the whole music world, I’d never seen so many feathers, seen so many Navajo bracelets. The amount of squash blossoms and the amount of pinyon that was burning in caravans.
We were all looking for clues and in our innocence as kids, basically, we were breaking the structure of the European slog and trying to create a better world and we were leaning towards people who have got an ideology. There were books around then, there was an amazing story about a guy called Ishi who came into Seattle in about 1909 and they claimed that he had never actually come anywhere near the European expansion. It was a fantastic, fascinating book. Chief Joseph, who took his people on a journey to try and escape the slog, so many words of wisdom.
We as kids and as musicians sat in circles just exchanging another culture’s rhetoric against the background of Vietnam and the extremes of politic wherever it might be. I think the whole thing just slid and I can’t feel bad about the fact that I was looking for clues.
I think a lot of white kids were looking for clues and the previous generation had gone through some terrible stuff. My parents had gone through stuff where their worlds all stopped at the age of about 19 and then tried to kick back in by the time they were about 26. There was so much austerity and suddenly for me, coming from the West Midlands and being a part of that huge musical explosion, to have beauty and will and hope. I don’t know who I looked like. I’ve seen some pictures. I don’t know where he went. I’ve still got some of the clothes. It was all in there and we were kids who wanted something that was different to where we’d come from and what we were being told so we were looking to those people for some kind of help.”
Presenter Sarah Brett ended the interview by asking Plant what the “Any time now…” message on his website means. Does it mean that new music is coming? “My dear, of course,” Plant replied. “What else would there be but more new, beautiful adventures?”
The second Plant radio interview that aired on June 5 was part of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row show. That was much shorter, but here’s an interesting quote from Plant:
“I’m always looking for this clue, and occasionally through music I do find it. I definitely found that book was a companion and now I have a real life walking, talking American companion who is a spectacular raconteur for a people who need to be heard and the story needs to be heard in the UK, definitely.”