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24 September 2010 8,822 views 16 Comments

This is a special entry of my regular DL Diary posting. It’s been something of a strange week here. It was a privilege to see Jason perform on Monday and talking to him about his Dad in this week of all weeks was pretty emotional. Thinking about the events of thirty years ago has weighed heavy on my mind. It does to use the old Earls Court adage ‘’seem like a lifetime but a second’’. Aside for the events of 30 years ago, my mind has been drifting back to the 1992 London Zep Convention which with Debbie’s involvement, became something of a Bonham family occasion with Mum Joan, Zoe and the late Mick all in attendance.  In a letter afterwards Debbie said ‘’The Convention was the best! I can’t tell you how proud it made us feel. For me to stand up and acknowledge that John was the best (something I never got to tell him when he was alive) was a sheer honour.’’  Those that were there will know how it felt that afternoon when Debbie performed a heart rending Old Hyde Farm. Lovely memories.

So tomorrow we will toast his memory and remember the golden times, the memories and great music. Next week I’ll be distributing TBL 27 so get ready for some essential Zep reading –including Jason’s thoughts of his Dad 30 years gone.

What follows here are my own personal reflections on the events and aftermath of  September 25th 1980. The full version of  John Bonham Remembered 30 Years Gone  can be seen in the forthcoming TBL magazine.

The Optimism, The irony and the Agony

I was just turned 24 years old and so far 1980 had been a rollercoaster year for me for many reasons.

Back in the early autumn it’s fair to say Tight But Loose, the Led Zeppelin magazine I had established in late ’78 was on something of a roll. It was turning into a very exciting year on all things Zeppelin. Issue 4 had been issued in April – the first A4 size issue with professional printing. I’d built a strong rapport with their Swan Song office managed by Unity MaClean and in the summer I’d been lucky enough to view five of the Over Europe shows at very close quarters.

I’d spoken to John Bonham a few times during the tour – and on our last night in Munich as we all revelled in a night club, John wrote down his phone number and told me to call him when we got back in the UK (That piece of paper written on a German hotel note pad page with his name and number on remains one of my most treasured possessions). I remember vividly him giving us an affectionate big bear hug as we left the club that night.

On Thursday July 24th I phoned him at Cutnall Green. We had a long conversation. John was very happy with the way the Europe tour had gone and was now looking forward to a holiday. He told me there was a group meeting due the next day to discuss what was to happen next. He said to call during August for more news. During that second call in late August, John strongly hinted they would be returning to America in the autumn.

When the first dates were announced in early September I’d already made up my mind to go. I was planning on the Landover/Philadelphia dates. I was constantly in touch with Swan Song that month and on Thursday September 18th I visited the office to take in some early text of the forthcoming Tight But Loose issue. Jimmy Page was at the office that day and I spent over half and hour with him one on one in the inner sanctum of their plush interview room. He talked enthusiastically of their plans and showed me a model set up of their new lighting and stage rig. The model was complete with a miniature representation of each of them on stage. I asked him about the ongoing chronological live project and he told me he had been looking at some footage to go with the tracks. He also said that the outtakes from the last album were still under consideration to use in some format. An album and UK dates in 1981 were also planned.

I wrote down hurriedly the content of our conversation that early evening and one quote stands out: ”I feel there is a lot more to do simply because this band thrives on a challenge – you’ve only got to look at Presence for that”

The following Tuesday I phoned Unity at Swan Song for the latest news. Unity informed me they were commencing rehearsals in Bray Studios later in the week. Excitedly I took down notes on a piece of paper as she told me all this. I still have that note – a reminder of the optimism of that time. Unity told me there may be a possibility for me to attend rehearsals the next Tuesday. Now that would be something very special.

Tight But Loose 5 was to be an Over Europe special with a 10,000 word report of the tour formulated from the five gigs I’d witnessed. I’d been working on it fairly non stop since August and it was nearly complete. I spent the next two days finishing up the lay out – these were the days when I cut it all in myself scrapbook style to be printed. On Thursday September 25th (with huge irony) I finalised the opening editorial which I’d written on September 22th – it was the last piece of the magazine. ”By the time you are reading this” it stated, ”Zeppelin will be mid way through a 4 week trek across the US” It was all ready to go. I was ecstatic and with good reason.

The mag was ready to print, there was a chance I may even get to see them in rehearsal the next week and America beckoned in October.

All that optimism and hope would evaporate over the next few hours.

The first call came just after 7pm. Carolyn from Newcastle, one of the initial Tight But Loose subscribers told me the shocking news she’d just heard. John Bonham had been found dead at Jimmy Page’s Windsor home. I refused to believe it. ”How can it be?” I explained ”They are in Bray rehearsing” .

I said I’d make some calls. I was in my bedroom so I turned on the radio and waited for the 7.30 news on Radio One. Surely if it was true it would be a lead item. It wasn’t and for a few seconds I hung on to the hope it was all a mistake. Then it happened:

”This news just in. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham has been found dead….”

I just couldn’t believe it. I rushed down to my Mum and Dad in a state of shock.  The phone was constantly ringing from other fans and even a couple of radio stations in America wanting confirmation.  Later I met up with my fellow Bedford Earls Court vets Dec and Tom also both shocked and stunned. I spent the night at Dec’s finally going to sleep around 4am.

In the morning in a daze I walked the two miles home stopping in a newspaper shop (further irony – the shop is a stones throw from the house where years later I would move to). There in all the papers was the devastating news in cold hard print. The Daily Mail had a picture of Bonzo on stage at Earls Court on the front ….

I sat on a nearby bench and cried.

There was no way it could continue without Bonzo. I did not consider them carrying on from the moment I heard the news. I rang Unity at Swan Song on Monday. She was very supportive and informed me they all felt the magazine should go out as soon as possible. I wrote a new editorial which was one of the most painful things I’ve ever written.

I did think about going to the funeral but decided against it. It was just all too much. The press reaction was another difficult factor to deal with. I had several calls to give quotes out. There was a terrible story in the Evening Standard stating Page’s occult interest as the reason for their bad karma. They ran a picture of tour manager Rex King captioned as Bonzo which showed their ignorance of it all.

Overall the press coverage in the music weeklies was somewhat muted. There were no big four page tributes or special supplements. I think it gave them the opportunity to brush Zep under the carpet and concentrate on the new wave acts they were now all championing.

Life for all of us had to go on.

The next few weeks saw the distribution of the magazine and I was in constant contact with   the Swan Song office. I visited a few times over the next few months – one very weird afternoon on Friday November 14th when they had just come back from Jersey.  All the roadies were in the office having been informed it was over though that was all being kept secret for the moment. Everyone there just seemed without a purpose.

And of course officially on Thursday December 4th came the inevitable statement.

Looking back to that bleak September day 30 years on, it was a life changing turn of fate for all of us. Looking at my diary from those times I think I went through something of a minor breakdown during the weeks and months afterwards. There were some dark days though gradually things did improve.

Though it’s hard to believe now, Led Zeppelin’s reputation took a serious dip in the early 80s. The changing musical canvas diluted their achievements – a situation not helped by the often confused state of the respective solo careers of Page and Plant. The real tuning point was perhaps again ironically Live Aid. While it was so apparent by the performance that it could never be Led Zeppelin without Bonzo – the whole chaotic drama of the occasion threw the whole Zep legacy back into the spotlight.

I think that was the moment we all knew it still meant something – and would continue to mean something to subsequent generations. The 1990 Remasters re issues were also a crucial turning point – suddenly Led Zeppelin were everywhere again and over the past two decades their true legacy has been rightly recognised and is now firmly cemented for all time.

One of the integral reason’s for their longevity is the remarkable contribution John Bonham made to the band. In the intervening years since his passing, his groundbreaking percussive skills have been rightly acclaimed, imitated and sampled.

Much has been written about John’s life in recent years. Perhaps too much of it in my view on the ugly side of his character. He was no saint for sure but his insecurities were often fuelled from a deep desire to be with his family.

It’s the immense musicianship that he brought to Led Zeppelin that will ensure his own lasting legacy.

Take a look at the DVD footage of John…. on stage tearing through Moby Dick at the Albert Hall, the pure joy of his intro and sparring with Jimmy during The Ocean at the Garden, the intense concentration during In My Time Of Dying at Earls Court, the smiles and pure elation of Rock And Roll at Knebworth.

…and remember him (always) this way

Dave Lewis

September 22nd 2010

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  • Ian said:

    Dave – some of your best writing ever, sorry I’ve taken so long to get around to it. As someone who was in primary school in 1980 the chapters on Bonn Scott, Ian Curtis, Bonzo and John Lennon were all closed before I was truly aware of them. So I came to the music with a different outlook, one person’s lost hero is another’s golden martyr. The feelings of those times will never leave you and those emotions stretch to anyone who followed Nirvana or Michael Jackson.
    Keep music real and keep it TBL

  • Mark Harrison said:

    After seeing a rejuvenated Led Zeppelin play in Europe that year, those ghastly events were a terrible shock. Although my shock and grief pales into insignificance compared to what it must have been like for John’s close family and the rest of the band.However I would think they can still hold on to the fact that John is still so highly regarded by one and all. There can be no doubt he is seen as the template for drumming and one, others can only hope to emulate.He stood alone and still does
    It was a honour to say his name on Saturday the 25th.

  • Colin Sheil said:

    Beautiful piece Dave – will never forget where I was when I heard the news – brings it all back ; incredibly, as you mention the UK music press response at the time was disgraceful , ie almost non – existant. It took until the late 80’s for the true legacy of Zeppelin to be properly acknowledged.

  • Hunt said:

    Dave – Most poignant and moving… A tearful time, a dreadful tragedy, but the love of millions bears a redemptive reverberation down through the decades. And thank you for your compassionate and much needed refutation of the uncharitable who would presume to judge the man:

    “Much has been written about John’s life in recent years. Perhaps too much of it in my view on the ugly side of his character. He was no saint for sure but his insecurities were often fuelled from a deep desire to be with his family…”

    As if none of us have any excesses or vices!? May we all be forgiven!

    Here’s to John Henry Bonham – May his memory be eternal!

    – Hunt, Louisville KY

  • Debby Franz said:

    Oh, and by the way, I can think of no other band more deserved than Led Zeppelin for rising above all of the critics and naysayers, especially during that devasting time of the passing of John “Bonzo” Bonham, they ALL remain an absolute Class Act.

  • Debby Franz said:

    That was a very touching piece. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Chris Wright said:

    Dave, that was a fantastic account of a very sad time for all of us. I was only 18 and Zeppelin were the biggest stars in my universe, a huge part of my life. Suddenly and without warning it was all over. We’ve seen some interesting projects from the surviving band members down the years, the odd attempt at a reunion too. But the simple truth is that Bonzo was incomparable, therefore unreplaceable. Not only did we lose Bonzo on that terrible day, it was also the end for Led Zeppelin.

  • Steve Jennings said:

    ‘tight but loose’

  • Mikael said:

    Beautifuly writen Dave. Great tragic story. Crank upp the stereo and play Moby Dick from Bath festival-70.

  • Tatan Taufik said:

    Great notes Dave, I was only 14 when I read the local Indonesian paper on Bonzo’s passing. No internet during those days, so information was hard to find especially overhere. Lucky enough over the years I managed to see Page/Plant/Jones concerts including their 2007 reunion…

    Thanks for keeping the spirit alive!

    Best regards,

    Tatan Taufik

  • Tim Coffey said:

    That was a beautiful piece, Dave.

    I was 11 years old when, reading my local newspaper, I learned of Bonzo’s death. With the article was a picture of him from what I later learned was from the 1973 US Tour. Up to that point, I’d only heard Zeppelin’s output up to “Houses of the Holy”. Within 5 years, though, I’d heard it all. Bonzo’s unmatched.

  • John C said:

    That’s a really touching write up Dave. If I remember rightly it was on the BBC 6 O’clock news when I first heard the tragic news,I remember that horrible numb feeling, followed by a huge surge of emotion – it was a lot to take in for a kid of 15.
    As you rightly said, focus on the happy times – the man was human (super human when he played). Remember him for two things, a family man, and a wonderful musician – “Fool in the Rain” – the whistle, Jonesy’s piano, and then enter the man, those timeless shuffle triplets – MAJESTIC.
    Thank you John

  • ledhed58 said:

    Absolutely, he was not a saint, but none of us are… I am not perfect either, But God bless the man, he was and always will be the best… He is a very large part of the reason that the name of Led Zeppelin is spoken with reverence by 15 year olds…They are just as well known now as they were at thier peak…. The Hammer of the Gods still swings…Peace…

  • Tom Cory said:

    That’s a fantastic piece Dave – I look forward to reading the extended version in the upcoming magazine.

    Unfortunately I can’t make it tomorrow but I shall be going out in the evening to raise a few pints in memory of him.

    As you say, we should all remember the good side of John tomorrow – that being that he was one, if not the best rock drummer of all time.

  • Ian Robinson said:

    I was playing snooker with my mates, full of high spirits, then wham, not so much brought down to earth but sledgehammered.
    Big man, you will never be forgotten

  • Jim Sloane said:

    I remember being told the news at work by a colleague who knew I was int Zep. What a sad day it was – I can recall how devastated I felt.

    Ramble on !

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