Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stairway From Heaven: Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience

Jason Bonham says he's glad Led Zeppelin disbanded after the death of his father, drummer John Bonham.

The Who delivered a rock ’n’ roll line for the ages in the 1965 hit “My Generation” when Roger Daltrey sneered, “I hope I die before I get old.”

Indeed, many rock legends have fulfilled that wish over the years, including both members of The Who’s rhythm section, drummer Keith Moon (in 1978) and bassist John Entwistle (in 2002).

But what happens to rock bands when one of their members passes away? When it comes to traversing the “Stairway to Heaven” question, it seems like there really are two paths you can go by. Most bands adopt the “He’d-want-us-to-carry-on-without-him” mantra and forge ahead after selecting a replacement. Certainly bands like The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Metallica, Def Leppard, Lynryd Skynyrd, Styx and Boston have enjoyed varying degrees of success after replacing original members who died.

That is their right and it’s a stance that’s understandable and easily justified.

However, I must admit, I’ve always fostered a tremendous amount of respect for the way Led Zeppelin handled the death of drummer John Bonham, who died while the band was rehearsing for a North American tour in September of 1980. Despite still being at the top of their game, the members of Led Zeppelin released a statement saying they simply could not continue on without Bonham and disbanded the group.

Indeed, the three surviving members have only reunited to perform publicly on four occasions, and three of those featured Jason Bonham, John’s son, sitting in for his late father. The last of those events — the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at 02 arena in London on Dec. 10, 2007 — even spawned reports of full-fledged reunion with the younger Bonham in the fold. That much-anticipated tour never materialized.

Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience in concert. (Randall Michelson photo)
 So, when I participated in a national teleconference call with Jason in late April as he was preparing for his Led Zeppelin Experience tour, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to delve into his unique perspective into the question of bands carrying on after a member’s death — seeing as how he was not only a surviving family member but had also subsequently performed in place of his father.
His insight didn’t disappoint.

“Well, definitely I love the fact that they stood by their word,” he said. “It was a respect thing, very much so. It was wonderful. When they finally came out and said, ‘We cannot continue on without our friend and colleague, John,’ it’s one of the hardest things to listen to, one of the last-ever things of Led Zeppelin broadcast was that statement.

“And many years later, after the 02 [reunion concert in London], Robert [Plant] said to me, ‘Jason, as much as you are your father’s son and you play like nobody else, for me when I revisit these songs it’s not just revisiting the song — it’s revisiting the whole bunch of memories.’ And he adds, ‘For me, Led Zeppelin was with John on drums, not Jason.’ He says, ‘I hope you don’t hate me for that.’

“I said, ‘No, I get it.’ and there’s a whole bunch of fans out there which are actually OK with it now. Which in one thing is great and in another thing, you know what, I did it the once and I said to him, I only wanted to do one more show, and he said [sarcastically], ‘Yeah, you did.’ So we did that and I just hope that maybe that sees the light of day eventually.”

Jason’s fondness for the other members of Led Zeppelin was obvious during the hour-long conversation. But he appears to have forged a special bond with Plant.

“I would say I speak to Robert more on a regular basis than I do to Jimmy [Page] and John [Paul Jones], but I find that there’s still kind of that closeness when we see each other,” he said. “It’s like we haven’t been apart for years. It’s like we carry on the conversation where we just left off, that’s how it has always been.”

Another comment shed further light on their relationship.

“There was a big interview with me on a TV show in England, and it was about drummers all over the world, and I was quite open about what it was like growing up with dad as a drummer,” Jason said. “Robert suddenly went, ‘You know, I just forgot what it would be like for you. I really did, you know, having missed having a hero around to grow up to and him being gone for so long.’

“I think about this more now, when I make certain decisions in my life, now that I have my own family, and my son is the same age that I was when I lost my dad. So it’s a tough one to be in that situation when you haven’t got the advice of a father to give you. So I sometimes miss him there. I miss him when I go, ‘Dad, what should I do?’ And what I said to Robert was, ‘Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I call you because you are the closest thing to dad for me.’ ”

One of the highlights of the Led Zeppelin Experience show for Jason is when he drum duets with his father via video.

“We didn’t have two drum kits in our house,” he said. “So when I get to do this these days it’s, you know, really for the first time ever that we actually get to play in tandem together because, sadly, we never did in real life. We never actually got to experience that.”

Jason has read interviews where his father said one of his dreams was to have his son play next to him at Royal Albert Hall. It wasn’t until the first Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience tour was under way last year that Bonham realized the first part of “Moby Dick,” in which he solos with his dad, features footage from his father’s original appearance at the venerable English venue.

“So, in essence, I actually get to fulfill one of his wishes as well as mine, to play with him,” Jason said. “It’s kind of a twist on things but, you know, I try and give it a ... make it as real as possible. There’s no fake in the show. You’re there, you’re exposed to all the elements that could go wrong, but it’s heartfelt and that’s what makes it very unique.”

Jason had many interesting things to say. Here are some other excerpts:

On how each night of the show offers a different personal journey for him: Each night’s a different feeling, and a different experience to the people coming. The people that come share stories with me after the show as much as I share stories with them during the show. And that’s been one of the key elements of keeping this thing going — the story, the fans, the letters I get and receive and it’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience for me. The tour is something that I will treasure because I’ve learned so much about my father, more so then I ever imagined I would know from just the moments where people met him in their life and captured, photographs of them together and, yeah it’s been very special.

"The song choices will always be a key part of this because I listen to what the fans say, but I also want to keep it as true as I can. We’ll never do a song we don’t think we can do well, so if for some reason there’s certain songs we don’t do in the show, we probably haven’t tried it yet or we have tried it and it wasn’t up to standard. We’ll only do the best ones we can so they sound the best."

On what he has been able to take away musically and personally from the Led Zeppelin reunions he has performed in: "What I managed to take away from the last one was the element of 'wow' because I was at an age where I was just honored and humbled to be up there. I was such a fan at this point in my life that I always felt that early on, I’d taken things for granted. When I got the chance to go up there and have a go at it was a very special time. Just to play with those guys and to play their songs and to do the show that we did at the O2, it was a very special moment that I will treasure forever. Being in the rehearsals and hanging with them and getting to know them as adults. You know, I always knew them when I was a young kid, so to relate to them on another level now, in another element was phenomenal.

"I felt like a journalist because I barricaded them with questions. I was like, 'Oh yeah, but you know this in 1977, well now, what did you really think when you did this and, you know, did you know at that point you were really special? And if so, how special did you really think you were, and did you kind of ... ' and they were like, 'OK, one question a day from now on,' ha! But it was a great moment, let me say that. I treasure it very much and I’ve had the greatest privilege to play with them more than once. When I look back at my wedding video, you know, it’s hard to believe but yes, they were there, and they got up and jammed on the local band’s equipment, and we did some Zeppelin songs, so that was very bizarre."

On Led Zeppelin mythology and whether his dad had ever offered any insight into Page's supposed deal with the devil: "We never talked about it to be honest with you. That whole side of him it was never brought up or even talked about in the British press. So, it was of a bit of a far-fetched thing which they probably wouldn’t deal with. I mean, I’ve talked to Jimmy many times about that home and I said, 'Have you ever been there?' And he goes, 'I went once, kind of freaked me out.' So he didn’t own it any longer, but I never really imagined him being that guy anyway. I mean when you see him with children he’s just way too sweet. He’s not that guy.

"Yes they had bad luck at certain times, but they had success and the price of fame, you know? It’s a similar tragedy and success story that Def Leppard had, from the moment 'Pyromania' became such a huge entity, the next thing you know the drummer lost his arm. They finally get themselves through that period, then they make another fantastic album called 'Hysteria.' It sold millions and millions and millions again, even more than 'Pyromania' and then their guitarist died. There’s another great band from England with a double-barrel name that seems to have had the success and the tragedy.

"There was a lot of success and tragedy in Led Zeppelin when you think about it — in ’77 when Karac [Plant] died and then my dad, you know, three years later. But, you know, I wouldn’t say the deal with the devil thing was anything. And I’ve been around the boys enough to know."

On the personal nature of playing these songs every night and putting everything into the performance: "You have to take everything in consideration when you’re performing these songs to make them feel believable because if you’re getting out there and just go through the motions, you know, you might as well put the wig on and the dragon suit and go out and do it."

On why the reported reunion tour with Led Zeppelin after the 02 arena show in 2007 never materialized: "Well, I was very much under the illusion ... that we were going to write an album and we were going to put together a new project. Whether it be under the banner of Led Zeppelin, which I doubted, but it was going to be a new project that would feature Jimmy and John Paul and myself. In winter, like early December of 2008 when it kind of came to a halt, which was a hard thing for me to get over for a while. You know, I had just played the concert of my life. Playing with them was a great point, one of the greatest points of my life. Then when I got the call to come back and do some work with Jimmy and John Paul in the writing environment, it was fantastic. I believed it was eventually going to continue on and be whatever it was going to be.

"But, you know, who knows? There are a lot of things I will never understand and it’s purely, as I say, you’d have to ask them. But on my end, I enjoyed every moment. Anybody would when you get a chance to again. You get the phone call from them to go and jam and in a writing element and go over ideas. It was fun, a lot of fun."

On his memories of Steven Tyler auditioning to replace Plant in the Page-Jones-Bonham project: "My memories of Steven coming over, I had no idea he was coming because the guys knew that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut half the time because I felt like I’d got the golden ticket, but I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody. I remember having an incident ... which is one of the reasons I don’t take it anymore, I used to have trouble sleeping touring on the road and I’d been given an Ambien by my doctor. All I remember was I kind of got woken up after only going to sleep for two hours to do a radio interview. I did it and thought nothing of it, and then suddenly to have my email alert, come up with all these different emails going, 'Oh, my ... what did you say?' I’m thinking, 'What did I say?' I didn’t say anything bad. I had no memory of telling the world that I was working with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones again. So they weren’t going to tell me that Steven was coming in. Believe it or not, I’d just tied a bunch of scarves to my cymbal stands on the weekend prior to being there on a Monday. So he must have thought I knew, but I had scarves tied around all my drum stands and obviously that was the thing that Steven did then. When he came in, he sounded great. I remember him being brilliant. I was a big Aerosmith fan. I remember him getting on my drum kit and playing, and then he got on the keyboard and played a bit of “Dream On” and, you know, I enjoyed it immensely.
"He kind of went for it the first day, but then when he came back in a couple of days later it was good. I mean for me, my take on it is it sounded like Steven Tyler singing Led Zeppelin songs. You know, there was no mimic, there was no mime. He was Steven Tyler singing Led Zeppelin songs and there was something quite cool about that."

Note: To read my main preview story on Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience, with quotes and content not contained in this blog entry, click HERE.