There’s no sugar-coating the death of John Bonham. The wild Led Zeppelin drummer choked on his own vomit after downing 40 shots of vodka in 1980, a demise that brought one of rock’s biggest bands to a premature end.
His son, Jason (pictured above in October 2012), started following in his footsteps — both as a rock drummer and as a drunken rabble-rouser. When he turned 32 in 1998, he felt it was only natural that he should die at the same age as his father.
“I would be the party animal, wanna smash things up or throw a TV out the window because Dad had done it,” Bonham told me in 2010. “Just past that 32 stage, I very much nearly drank myself to death … I remember thinking it was kinda funny: This is my year.”
But with the support of his patient wife of 20 years, Bonham got back on the straight and narrow. He hit the road with Foreigner, toured and recorded with his own band, and launched an authorized multimedia tribute labeled “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.”
Bonham led a band whose faithful covers of such songs as “Whole Lotta Love” and “Dazed and Confused” were interspersed with his heartfelt recollections and old home movies. On tunes such as “Moby Dick,” Bonham played along with concert footage of his father, replicating his monster drumming style.
I interviewed him in a West Hollywood hotel, a very cool chap. But I never got to see the show, which annoyed me. I had already met Jason and his sister, Zoe, when Led Zeppelin received a lifetime Grammy Award in 2005, and then I bumped into their mother a few years later backstage at a Robert Plant concert.
WHAT WAS THE GENESIS OF THE LED ZEPPELIN EXPERIENCE PROJECT?
After the (Led Zeppelin reunion show in 2007 at the) O2, where everyone was anticipating what was going to be next, I spoke to various managers. Even U2’s manager mentioned to a friend of mine, there’s no way this is just going to be one show. No way. They’ve gotta do more. And I was under that illusion too. To cut a long story short, no. Soon after, it was decided. Robert had said to the rest of the guys when they had their annual meeting, “I don’t really want to continue. I thought it was great and I really enjoyed it, but I want to leave it there.” So then I got a phone call from Peter Mensch who was looking after Jimmy after the time, and he said, “We don’t know in what form it’s gonna be, but Jimmy and John Paul would like to get together and see what happens.” There’s missing one so I was like, “Maybe we can just convince him to come back once we start.” So that took about a year going backwards and forwards, not that many times but enough times to feel that this was fantastic.
THERE WAS ACTUAL PLAYING GOING ON?
Yeah, Jimmy had some ideas, John Paul had some ideas. Even I got asked if I had any ideas I wanted to work on. Very cool, great times, had a wonderful time. The press then on a daily basis would write whatever they wanted to write, negativity: “This project cannot go on, it can’t have Led Zeppelin without Robert.” I never once thought it was ever going to be called Led Zeppelin, to be honest with you. So I don’t think that helped, really. In the end they just said, “Let’s just put it on hold for now.”
DID YOU REHEARSE WITH DIFFERENT SINGERS?
There’s certain singers they’d be in the press said they were there. I would never acknowledge or disacknowledge on the grounds it might incriminate myself!
WASN’T STEVEN TYLER THERE AT SOME STAGE?
He reportedly said that he was there! … But it was a great time. I had a really, really good time. It really just made me feel like child.
I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH YOU’VE KEPT IN TOUCH OVER THE YEARS, BUT I ASSUME THEY’RE JUST LIKE FAMILY FRIENDS?
They kind of are, but with the years that go by and pass and pass and pass, you don’t see them very often. I see Robert, but not Jimmy or John.
THAT’S BECAUSE YOUR DAD AND ROBERT WERE PALS FIRST?
Yeah, and in England where we actually live, Robert still lives in that area. Jimmy and Jonesy live down south. But also I got older and became a fan of the band, whereas before I was, whatever. I really did become a fan of the band. Jimmy made a comment one time, we were coming into the dressing room after the O2 and there was a big line of people outside waiting to get in, and I saw the Edge come walking into the dressing room. And I was going, “My God, it’s the Edge! U2! The Edge!” And Jimmy goes, “Cool man, you’re in the band now.” Great fun days. And then everything stopped.
WHY DID THE THREESOME NOT WORK OUT?
I was told they couldn’t agree on who would sing, or what it was going to be, or what we were going to call it. I don’t think the negativity that was written on a daily basis helped. So they just kinda said, We’re gonna put it on hold, hiatus, for right now.
THAT’S THE CURRENT STATUS?
John’s always busy. I think he was doing a night gig when we were doing that. He’s just really, really busy. And he even came to L.A. and did Them Crooked Vultures straight away. Mum always said to me, “Can you do this? Can you do one show and walk away from it?” I was, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” It was hard to be in the biggest band in the world for that short time, and then not. I’d kinda given up other things, and now what am I gonna do? It was really hard. In my nine years of recovery from alcohol and drugs, it was the testing time. Now, let’s really see how committed you are not to drink. There was a time there that was like, C’mon you’ve gotta have at least one drink now. No, I didn’t. I was just miserable for a good year … My kids, the English sense of humor is very cruel, they said, “Dad that was yesterday, now you’re back to being a nobody again.” Out of the mouths of babes. I didn’t want to do anything.
And then the last thing I thought I would be doing was, “Do you want to do this Led Zeppelin cover band thing?” I’m like, Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be kidding me! It wasn’t until I got another project going, which was the Black Country Communion, that I said I’ll listen to these guys that want me to do the Led Zeppelin thing, because I have to remind myself I do love playing those songs. But I was still kind of against it, so they said, “Come and see the (Beatles) show Rain before you make any decision.” I see Rain, and then saw the way they were using the screens and using timelines to show periods of just different eras. I missed the last half of the show because my brain was going (he motions extreme cerebral activity) …
From a year ago, we started talking about how it could be done, because I didn’t want it to be just I go out with some guys and play Led Zeppelin songs. I wouldn’t be able to do it with conviction. I’d be lying to everybody if I was just going through the motions. It wouldn’t be right. So I really had to get in there and feed the creativity side, go in and make somewhat of a journey of a part-storyteller, part-musical journey, but incorporating my childhood and how much Led Zeppelin had been a part of my childhood from a very early age, from traveling with my dad as a kid to getting to play with him, losing him at 14 and then eventually the dream come true: you’re taking your dad’s place at a momentous event at the O2 Arena. So it was a helluva journey and a pretty heavy one at times. So I wanted to try and add some of that to the show without it being depressing.
I want it to be a musical journey, a celebration of dad’s life, how he taught me, and just using some old home movies. I’ve got some stuff of dad when he was a kid on his vacations with his family. It’s like watching the Kennedy home movies, and they’re all well dressed down on the south coast of England. He’s driving a little boat on the lake. And you’re going: That … became … that. The Bonzo of Led Zeppelin, this powerhouse (is) that little boy. There’s some funny stuff I’ve got to me make people laugh just in case it gets too heavy, of myself (including outtakes of his appearance with his father in The Song Remains the Same) … I still get very emotional watching dad’s interaction with me.
IT’S GOING TO BE QUITE THE EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER FOR THE AUDIENCE
Yeah, within reason. We’re plotting it out now. The music that fits in between each segue is right. Somebody said — I never looked at it like this — “You’ve got some balls to rearrange that song, haven’t you? You’re messing with a classic, you’re rearranging a Led Zeppelin song and you’re not in the band.” But it’s the name of the thing. This is “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.” I’m not going to go out there and clone it with wigs and outfits. It’s an experience and it was something that I worked on. Everything in the show is there for a reason. It’s something I did either with them, or I did with Jimmy and John Paul, that we talked about that possibly could be done. For me, it was unfinished business. If I could put it into the show, little things that we were trying and doing … it’s gonna be fun.
HOW DOES THE SHOW DEAL WITH YOUR DAD’S PASSING?
We all know … my father died by choking on his own vomit after 40 hits of vodka. Yeah, it’s common knowledge that that happened. People don’t have to be reminded again. I will say there will be a point where you know in the show where it is, through one of the songs, a little saying that I talk beforehand. I have to narrate it now because I know on the night I’ll get emotional with the music in the background and the song playing. It will bring back that moment. I’ve tried it a few times in the room and I pressed the music and start to talk, can’t get the exact –, because as I describe it I start going back there. I’m back to the room I was in … I’m going back there now!
SO THE GIST OF THE NARRATION IS I REMEMBER WHERE I WAS WHEN I HEARD ABOUT MY DAD?
No … not that heavily. It’s a story about Knebworth in 1979. I missed the first week. I was racing my dirtbikes which I loved. I’d done a soundcheck on the Wednesday before and did “Trampled Underfoot,” which was great. We rehearsed in the week on the jukebox and dad said, “When you get to this point in the guitar solo Jimmy’s going to make it longer than usual and he’ll put up his hand up and turn and that’s the thing: Change. OK, 13 years old. He wanted to go out front and listen to his drums. That, to me, was one of the nicest things he actually said. In an interview just after, he mentioned it and said it was the first time (he had) ever seen Led Zeppelin live, which was really cool. So with that story, there’s a song called “Ten Years Gone,” which has always been for me such a great teary intro. It is now, for me. I was sitting at the side of the stage, looking at Dad. He looked over and smiled and gave me one of his winks. Little did I know, I was never ever going to watch him play drums again. Never.
We had one last family vacation. They didn’t come as often as they should. It was like every three years we used to go the south of France … just after the Europe tour in 1980, because I never went out to any of those shows, and then came back from vacation. That was one of the great stories where dad disappeared. He was looking for a Chinese restaurant, and he sent his driver Matthew, who still works for the family now, back to England to an Indian restaurant to fill the car to freeze 25 madrases and 25 curries and fill the back of the Rolls-Royce with ice, and load all these curries into the back, and drive back. No eccentricity there. Meanwhile he found a Chinese restaurant with Oliver Reed, who then invited his pal Peter Sellers to come and join them, and dad called Ringo and got Ringo to join them, and they started a food fight and got arrested. You can imagine the guy in the cell and he’s telling his superintendent, “I’ve got the drummer with the Beatles, I’ve got the drummer from Led Zeppelin, I’ve got Inspector Clouseau Peter Sellers, and Oliver Reed.” Have you been fuckin’ drinking? “No! they’re sitting in the cell now!” That was that rat pack. They were only early 30s.
YOUR DAD WAS 32 WHEN HE DIED. WHEN YOU TURNED 32 WAS THAT A MOMENTOUS OCCASION FOR YOU?
Yeah. Well for many, many years, and I’ve realized now and Jimmy tried to remind me of that time — I tried to emulate the wrong John. I would be the party animal, wanna smash things up or throw a TV out the window because Dad had done it. And because I lost Dad at an early age where we hadn’t gone through adolescence, I hadn’t got to the stage where … “I hate you! I’m leaving! I’m gonna take the car regardless of whether it’s got a boat on the back!” (Looking at his wife, Jan) Like she did to her father … We never got to that. I look now when I’m playing with Mick Jones and Foreigner, and he’s got kids — he has many, many problems sometimes. I see him having to deal with things. I never got to that stage with my dad. A lot of my friends have got teenagers. I’ve now got a teenager, so my daughter can wind me up. My dad has always been held so high on this dad pedestal. People say, “Aren’t you sick of talking about him, doing this?” No, as I said, I miss the guy on a daily basis. I’m 44 years old now, but I still feel that he’s got older. I see Robert and I see Jimmy, and I’ll try to imagine how dad would look now.
I’M LOOKING AT YOU AND TRYING TO IMAGINE HOW HE WOULD LOOK!
The great thing dad had. Dad didn’t have that (baldness) gene, where I took after my mum’s side the baldness.
THAT’S MY EXCUSE TOO!
I’d lost my hair at 32. It had already gone. Dad’s hair was still very, very thick. But his brother was bald. He had the good hair gene. I’m hoping my son’s got that one, because I said, “Look after it. You won’t have it for long.” These days it’s very in. We can thank Jason Statham for that one, just need the abs of steel to go with it.
YOU TALKED ABOUT NINE YEARS OF RECOVERY
Just past that 32 stage, I very much nearly drank myself to death in those things. I remember thinking it was kinda funny: This is my year.
WERE YOU MARRIED WITH KIDS ALREADY BY THAT STAGE?
Yeah. We’ve been together 27 years. I’ve been married 20 years, and been together 27. I’m very, very, very lucky, I am. A fantastic wife that really saw through thick and thin. Maureen Plant … when she saw us together Jan, my wife, she said: “Jan, you were one of the good ones, you stuck through it, you saw it to the end, you got the benefit.” She went, “I wouldn’t say that. He’s a miserable bastard!”
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2010, 2015 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING