IT’S BEEN NEARLY A YEAR NOW SINCE THE GLORIOUS NIGHT I FOUND out Bob Plant was my neighbor. That’s right, we here in Austin call rock star Robert by the more prosaic “Bob” – because that’s how he likes it.
How do I know this?
I heard it during a cab ride down South Congress. Wayne, my new customer, was a hockey-playing Austin newbie by way of Boston when he was invited to his friend’s Travis Heights backyard barbecue last year.
“So I’m standing there next to the grill,” Wayne told me as my jaw began to drop, “and all of a sudden I notice the old guy watching the meat cooking next to me. I didn’t realized it was Robert Plant until he stuck out his hand and introduced himself with a thick British accent –
“Ello, mate. I’m Bob. We live across the street.’”
You know Bob P. is feeling pretty comfy in Austin when he’s showing up unannounced to his neighbor’s backyard barbecue.
The first time I heard Bob was living in Austin, the news came from a trio of UT grad students. The 3 Ph.D candidates, all of them studying to be history gurus, had been getting their drink on at Crown & Anchor before I picked them up for a ride home. I don’t recall how the subject came up, but before long they were telling me about some photos the bartender had been showing them on his phone.
“The guy had pictures of Robert Plant with his 2 pomeranians at a vet’s office up here in Hyde Park,” the future Civil War historian said all too calmly.
“No!?” I blurted out in disbelief, if not a little rudely. “Robert Plant’s bringing his dogs to my neighborhood vet?! Bullshit! You sure those pictures weren’t Photoshopped? Plus, what’s one of the greatest rock stars ever doing with a couple pomeranians? You ever been around a pomeranian? Yappy little fuckers.”
“I think they were springer spaniels,” pointed out History Wiz #2.
“I thought they were more like shiatsus,” countered History Wiz #3.
“Either way,” said the aspiring Civil War buff, “they were not the kind of dogs you’d expect a guy like that to be showing up with at your local vet’s office.”
“Although,” History Wiz #2 pointed out, “in his defense, the dogs did have a bit of the rock star big hair.”
The budding historians went on to tell me that Bob was dating Hyde Park’s favorite songbird, Patty Griffin, and that’s probably why he was in our ‘hood.
Thanks to the internet, the next day I found out that the man responsible for some of my favorite music ever lived less than 5 blocks from me. Don’t worry, I’m not stalking the guy.
But I’m not gonna lie. We did see a sudden spike in the number of walks we took around the neighborhood.
I continued to believe I had a rock icon living a few blocks away until I heard Wayne’s story about bumping into Bob P. at that Travis Heights barbecue. In the months since, I’ve had at least a dozen customers in my cab share their stories of seeing Mr. Plant at various spots around town.
A Westlake guy in his 50s – old enough to discover Zeppelin when they were the biggest band in the world – spotted Bob shopping at Whole Foods.
A girl who works at Fado said Bob comes in sometimes to watch soccer. (“Biggest head I’ve ever seen on a human being,” she laughed. “Just massive.”)
One of my regulars, Bailey, saw him more than once walking his dogs around Travis Heights. (Don’t recall her take on the breed.)
We heard from a waitress at Quality Seafood that Bob came in with Shawn Colvin a few weeks ago – only to be bothered by a gushing fan during dinner. (C’mon, lady. Leave Bob alone!)
Last June I told my visiting musician friend, Colby Logan, that Bob was living in Austin. Not more than 2 hours later, Colby sends me a text: “Just saw Robert Plant” (He and his wife spotted Bob P. rolling down South Congress in a blue convertible.)
Apparently everyone in Austin has seen Bob around town except me.
I do, however, feel somewhat qualified to regale townies and tourists alike with Zeppelin trivia and all these stories of Austin brushes with Bob. Plus, I’ve got my own insights and opinions on Bob and the band after working on an ill-fated Led Zeppelin documentary project a few years ago for Spitfire Pictures.
I was hired by Spitfire to come up with a fresh concept and pitch it in a document called a treatment. (Part blueprint, part sales pitch.) For close to 2 months I immersed myself in Zeppelin. Listened to nothing but Zeppelin. Read everything I could about Zeppelin. Watched as many of the existing Zeppelin documentaries that I could stomach, a little daunted by the fact that there were nearly 20 of them. (Give us a FRESH idea, damn it!)
After several weeks of full Zeppelin immersion, I came up with my spin. I wanted to tell the epic Led Zeppelin saga through the story of John Bonham. Bonzo was a complex family man/party beast who lived in the English countryside with his wife and kids before – and after – he became famous. When the offer came to join this hot new band with the great Jimmy Page from the Yardbirds and acclaimed session musician John Paul Jones, Bonham turned down the gig. It was only at the urging of his good friend, Bob, that Bonham joined Led Zeppelin.
And we all know how that turned out.
After all my research, I got the impression that the ’70s rock god Robert Plant was – despite the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll veneer – not all that different from Backyard Barbecue Bob: a good guy, with a good heart and a relentless conscience.
It’s no wonder that Bob, of the 3 surviving Zeppelin members, is the one who doesn’t want to get the band back together. Because for all their fame and success, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some guilt, shame and heartache forever linked with those days too. Shame for the way they treated some of the women they blew through . Guilt for talking his best friend into a life and a lifestyle that would eventually kill him. And heartache not just over the loss of his good friend Bonzo in 1980, but also for the sudden death of his young son, Karac, 3 years earlier when the band was touring the U.S.
For all the glam and glory of those days, there was also plenty of darkness and suffering. So you can’t fault Bob for not wanting to re-trace those steps with a Zeppelin world tour that would have half the planet buzzing with anticipation.
I admire the guy for having the balls to say no when the whole world wants him to say yes. I admire the fact that he’s trying new things. Sticking to his guns. Living in the now. Moving to Austin for love.
But staying because he loves Austin.
So let’s give the man his space.
This past weekend I had the first Zeppelin album spinning in the cab’s CD player. We’d just left West Campus and I had the volume down low so as not to offend the UT kids in the backseat. It wasn’t long before the girl sitting behind me spoke up.
“I LOVE Led Zeppelin.”
“YOU love Led Zeppelin?”
I’m always a little shocked when anyone under 30 loves Zeppelin. Even though I know I shouldn’t be. Good music is good music. Even if it was made 2 generations ago.
“I grew up with Led Zeppelin,” the girl said. “My dad loved Led Zeppelin. It was on ALL the time when I was a kid. This right here is a slice of my childhood. Turn it up.”
I cranked up the volume just as Jimmy Page was kicking off his blistering guitar solo on “Whole Lotta Love.” For a split second I considered talking over the music, asking the girl if she knew that Robert Plant lived in Austin, telling her about my strangest Bob story yet.
But I came to my senses. Bit my tongue. Cranked it up a little more. Then let the ride down Guadalupe – trying to time all the lights before making that left onto 7th St. – tingle my ears and rattle my soul with the blazing genius of Plant and Page and balls-to-the-wall Bonzo.
That strangest Bob story yet occurred a few months ago. It was a Saturday night and I was driving 3 people to a party in Travis Heights. As we slowly rolled down Annie St., I gestured to the intersection ahead and said in my best tour guide voice – “And on the right, we have the street where the great Robert Plant now lives.”
From the backseat a familiar voice piped up.
“I just played tennis with him last week.”
Dixie had recently become a BobCab semi-regular. The first night I picked her up she wasn’t feeling so great. Her husband of several years – the guy she’d been with since she was 18 – had just moved out of their house that day. A few days before that she got the news her dad had brain cancer.
So if anyone deserved to play a little tennis with Bob Plant in Austin, it was Dixie. (And who knew the guy played tennis? Springer spaniels and tennis – the man is full of surprises.)
“Yeah, we played doubles,” Dixie casually continued, as if she was describing a new friend from boarding school. “He played with my mom. And I played with my friend, who’s friends with him.”
I didn’t want to be THAT guy and grill her for info. But a few quick questions and a short ride to the Travis Heights party left me with a few interesting Bob tidbits:
* In addition to that blue convertible Colby saw him driving down South Congress, apparently Bob also drives a Crown Vic. I know. I couldn’t believe it either. I drive a Crown Vic myself. And my name’s Bob. And I moved to Austin for a lady. Geez, it’s like we’re living parallel lives here.
* Bob’s go-to grocery store is the HEB on Oltorf – “because the Mexicans don’t recognize him in there.”
* Apparently Bob’s made several attempts to get his Texas driver’s license. But every time he goes to the DMV and gets in line, he loses patience after 10 or 15 minutes and leaves. “I told him he should go to the Georgetown DMV,” Dixie said. “He’d have 3 or 4 people in front of him, be in and out in no time.”
A few weeks ago, after hearing yet another brush with Bob story, my girlfriend asked me: “Have you thought about what you’d say if you did see him?”
“If I saw him out living his life I wouldn’t say anything. I’d glance at him real quickly, then turn away and act like I didn’t notice him. Then I’d muster up all my strength and willpower to make sure I didn’t turn back around and stare.”
But if I bump into Bob at the DMV – whether it’s in Austin, Georgetown, even Pflugerville – I’m definitely gonna offer to let him cut in line.