By Jeb Wright
Drummer Jason Bonham admittedly inherited one very big pair of shoes to fill. His legendary father, John, kept the beat with Led Zeppelin until his untimely death on Sept. 25, 1980.
These days, Jason Bonham has a lot of gigs in his day planner, including touring with The Led Zeppelin Experience, where he pays homage to the band's vast catalog. He has performed both with and for Led Zeppelin’s surviving members. His most memorable gig with the band was a 2007 performance in honor of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun (which was preserved in the Celebration Day concert film and audio recordings). And his turn behind the drum kit for Heart's incredible performance of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" during the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors is as inspired as that of sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. (Seriously, if you haven't seen it yet, check it out here.)
A kind man, Bonham has learned to embrace his heritage and to celebrate his life on a daily basis. But the road he took to get to this point was not an easy one. For starters, living in his father’s shadow was no picnic. He also had to overcome alcoholism, the same affliction that ultimately led to his father’s death. But some self-realization and a stint in rehab have helped Jason Bonham get a sense of his place in the world: as his father’s son, as a musician and as his own man. An emotional man — teasingly accused by his Black Country Communion bandmates of being a crybaby — Bonham is at least crying tears of joy now, as he embraces a bright future: something that, in the past, he was never sure he could ever achieve.
In the interview that follows, Bonham tells how hard it was to replace some of the Zeppelin classics on the current tour, and what it meant to him to be invited to play drums with Led Zeppelin for “Celebration Day.”
Goldmine: You are doing The Led Zeppelin Experience. It was one of the most amazing concerts I have ever seen. What are you doing different this time out?
Jason Bonham: We had done the same show twice, so I thought that I wanted to do something different. There are a lot of people who have not seen the first show, so I have a big struggle in my head that goes, “The show goes so well; how can I take some of those songs out?” I really played a lot of mind games with myself. I asked the guys in the band what songs they wanted to learn, and they told me they didn’t have to learn anything, and that I just needed to pick some of the songs I wanted to do. The bass player, Dorian [Heartsong], told me that he had already learned all of the songs. He is a fan just like me. We added “Four Sticks” and we do “Out on the Tiles.” Zeppelin never played either of those songs live. We are doing “No Quarter” as well, and it works out beautifully. We are also doing “Fool in the Rain.” The drum groove on that song is one of my dad’s best. We tried it out in sound check and it was fantastic, so we put it in the show.
GM: You and the band are to be commended for your dedication. The power of these songs is intense; you feel the power of the songs in these shows. Do you, deep in your heart, realize how good this band is?
JB: Obviously, they have to be good. As much as I am very relaxed and easygoing, I am very hard on the guys when somebody screws up. I try to do it in a way that doesn’t ruin the night. The last thing you want to do when you come off stage is to be told all of the little things you have done wrong. I wait until the next day, and I play it in a way where I say that I want to get back to the way that it was like. You can get carried away. I don’t play my dad’s rolls exactly the same as the album, but, rather, I want to play with that live spirit, as if you were seeing them [play]. We try to get that great jam going, and the fills are different every night. Sometimes Tony [Catania] can go too far. It is not that it is bad, but I don’t want to lose the respect to the creators, and we have to remember how very lucky we are to be doing what we are doing. The music is fantastic. Every time I play “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” I get emotional. Tony, when he is having a really good night, can bring me to tears. I’ve never told him that, but he really can bring me to tears.
GM: I think as we get older and we realize the importance of music and art that is Led Zeppelin, then we respect it more. The legacy must be even more important to you now than it ever was.
JB: To me, when that kind of thing came, I wasn’t that easily persuaded to do The Led Zeppelin Experience. All of my demands were met concerning how I wanted to do it, so that I could make sure that it was done right. We didn’t know whether it would be accepted. Once we did our opening night, then I never looked back. The band plays great, and it really feels great to be doing this. We have the most fantastic band in the world. We are not trying to copy, but we are trying to give that same urgency that they had. If I can make the audience close their eyes and go back to a great time in their life, then I’ve done my job.
GM: For many years, you didn’t embrace Zeppelin. What has this project taught you about yourself as a person and a musician?
JB: I always accepted my dad and his music. There was always this fight where I wanted to exist, too. I am always compared to the greatest, and I get it, but I don’t think everyone else gets it. One person who went to see “Celebration Day” wrote this wonderful piece that brought tears to my eyes. This guy understood what was in my mind. Let’s face it, to be in that seat, the seat of possibly the greatest rock drummer of all time, when the entire world is watching to see if you are going to f**k up … it is intense. Everyone was looking for me to fail. This guy realized that, and then complimented me on the way that I played and how I handled the pressures. It was a special night.
For many years, I had problems with booze and drugs, and I was trying to replicate the other John. And that was the wrong one to replicate. I realized that the good one was the drumming guy.
GM: Have you seen the movie yet?
JB: I went to the New York premiere with Jimmy [Page], Robert [Plant] and John Paul [Jones] and did the press conference. That was a wonderful, wonderful day. Atlantic flew us all in to New York, and we all stayed at the same hotel, and we hung out in the bar together. It was so different, as we were all drinking coffee and tea, except for Robert. It was great listening to all of the different stories. I sat down at the press conference, and I had decided that I wouldn’t say anything until someone said something to me. The first question was for me. It was all a bit too much, really. This is the first product that has ever come out that says ‘Led Zeppelin’ and says ‘Jason Bonham on drums.’ I’m blown away by that. It shows a lot of trust from them. It is kind of heavy. My head goes, “Now the world will see me play.”
We all stayed through the entire movie at the premiere. It was an amazing feeling, because after each song you had the concert roar, but we also had the people in the theater roaring. I was in tears. When we left, Robert looked at me and said, “That was so f**king good. I forgot how good we were that night.” It was fantastic. When it came out last week and I was back home, I actually snuck into my local theater with my wife and sat in the middle of theater with my cap on and watched it again, so I could take it all in again. They were applauding in the cinema, and there was nobody there to acknowledge their applause. It was an out-of-body experience, and it really took my breath away. After every song, they applauded in the cinema. That is a strong thing.
GM: You are where you are supposed to be. You have come full circle.
JB: It has been a weird journey. There was a circle on the downward part, and I could have ruined everything. Now I am going back up the other side.
GM: Have any of the guys in Zeppelin seen your Led Zeppelin Experience?
JB: I don’t think any of them have seen it, but I’ve talked about it with Robert. He asked me about it. He asked me about doing “When the Levee Breaks,” and I sent it to him. That part of the show is really fantastic.
GM: You also just released the third Black Country Communion studio album, “Afterglow.” It is not an ideal situation with the band not touring, but you have really made a killer album.
JB: We did it in five days, which is outrageous. I was pleased to be writing songs again, which is getting back in the creative side of things instead of just being a drummer. I was that way in my early bands. I love music, and I love melody. My dad was the same way; you would never imagine that. His record collection was broad. He was really into all kinds of music. He loved rock and soul and all kinds of music; he was not just a rock guy, and neither am I.
GM: Have you accepted that BCC is not going to do a tour?
JB: I have not suggested this to the others, but my thing would be that we should, for the fans, go out and play — me, Glenn and Derek. We should just go tour it. We could get Joe to recommend a guitar player to go out with us; that way, he is still involved. If he can’t do it, then at least can we do it, and he can recommend somebody. I would love to be able to take this out on the road. We’ll see. If Joe can’t do it, then we should go out with someone else. Joe is a really nice guy, and I think if we asked him, then he would say, “Of course.”
GM: Talk about the song “Common Man.” Glenn told me that was your melody.
JB: Yeah, it ended up being a little too fast on the album for my liking, from my original idea for it, but it worked out OK. Track two, “This is My Time,” I was going to sing. It was going to be my singing debut, but in the end, I bowed out. I said, “You know what … I’m not ready for my singing debut yet.”
GM: “Common Man” in the intro sounds like “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.
JB: That was Joe’s take on that. My intro was going to be more like “Stay with Me” by The Faces. That was my kind of vibe. When I did “Common Man,” it was more like a Little Feat kind of vibe. Joe actually said, “ ‘Tom Sawyer’ it.” There is probably a version recorded where I even got on the tom toms and did that whole drum thing.
GM: Is there a chance of a Jason Bonham album?
JB: There is talk of a Jason Bonham album. I’ve always wanted to do an album with half the people I’ve worked with throughout my career — I am talking about people like Robert, Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck and Slash — and then do other songs with a bunch of guys that I’ve always wanted to work with. I am kind of thinking of doing a project that way. I’ve been working on some original songs with the band that does The Led Zeppelin Experience. We are going to start writing as an original band and see what comes out of it. It will be kind of Zeppelin-esque, because of the way the guys play and sing, but there is nothing wrong with that.
GM: I talked to Glenn, and he told me that he loves you, but he said that you are such an emotional person and that you cry more than anyone he has ever met.
JB: I think that may be true. However, Glenn may not cry more than anyone else, but Glenn moans more than anyone I have ever met.
GM: At least the tears you are crying are tears of joy.
JB: I’m going to sign a copy of “Celebration Day” to Glenn and say, “Don’t worry, Glenn, you won’t have to lend me any more money.”