JOHN BONHAM 33 YEARS GONE…
John Bonham 33 years Gone…
Along with millions of fans worldwide, today I will have some quiet reflection on the tragic events of September 25th 1980 – but as I always say…so much has gone but so much remains…
In keeping with recent posts, here’s some further personal DL Reflections – this piece originally appeared in TBL 27.
JOHN BONHAM REMEMBERED 33 YEARS ON -
The Optimism, the Irony and the Agony
Dave Lewis reflects on the personal impact and aftermath of the events of Thursday September 25th, 1980
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 Tom and I 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 go 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 already 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 stone’s 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.
The next 48 hours passed in a blur. I was too upset to go to work until Monday. I did somehow manage to turn out for soccer on Sunday morning. I couldn’t let my team mates down and got through it (we won 10-1 but it mattered little). My world had turned upside down. Zeppelin had been so much a part of it for so long and it was gone.
There was no way it could continue without Bonzo. I did not consider them carrying on from the moment I heard the news.
The was grief from all quarters. Obviously for John’s family, the group and their entourage. Selfishly I guess also for myself – matters were further compounded on a personal level as I was undergoing the aftermath and fall out of an intense love affair that had dominated the last few months. The lady concerned re appeared that weekend worried after the catastrophic news knowing I’d be upset. It gave me false hope we might rekindle the affair. That was definitely not on her agenda. Not good….
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. At that time I’d never attended funeral in my life. 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 road crew member and future Plant 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.
Above -special notices sent by fans to Sounds…
Looking back there was little sharing of grief with other fans. This was of course pre Internet days and even though I was in contact with a lot of fans, I think we all found it hard to take in. I also initially found it difficult to play any Zep at first. It was all too painful but eventually there was solace in the music. That above everything still remained.
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 all these years later, 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 got better.
The positive reaction to TBL 5 did motivate me to continue with the magazine into 1981 but it was very hard to keep the enthusiasm going knowing the very subject matter of the magazine was now history. It was never going to be the same and dealing with fragments of solo careers, separate entourages etc – ultimately that wore me down. Issue 6 came out in the August – I didn’t plan to stop producing it and looking back I dearly wish I’d kept going.
Motivation levels were low and though it’s hard to believe now, surprisingly Zeppelin became very unfashionable in that era. The magnitude of just what they had created would not become apparent until much later in the decade and beyond- by which time I’d produced the A Celebration book and got the magazine back in print for the very belated (ten year interval!) issue 7.
I tried to find something to fill the void before all that – turned my hand to playing in a band as I’d long harboured a notion to become a drummer myself (more irony!) but it never really got off the ground.
By the time Robert had got his solo album together in 1982 it was evident my desire to chronicle their work separately was still very strong.
This thing wasn’t going to go away. There was Coda, Pictures At Eleven, The Firm, JPJ’s Scream For Help etc to assess. My first book, a best of Tight But Loose compendium The Final Acclaim was published in the autumn of 1983. Within all that I got married. Luckily the good lady knew what she was coming into!
The real turning 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. And of course part of the reason it does so is the contribution of John Bonham. In the intervening years his ground breaking 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 legacy.
Take a look at the official 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 sheer percussive drive of Sick Again and Rock And Roll at Knebworth.
…and remember him this way
John Bonham was the driving force behind the sound of Led Zeppelin and he will never be forgotten.
Dave Lewis – September 25th.
(Extracts from Music Is Life To My Ears –The Dave Lewis Memoirs (TBL Publishing – work in progress for future publication)
Emotional Update….Wednesday September 25th 2013 – 11am
I have to say I’ve been in tears again this morning after reading this piece sent to the TBL comments by Deborah Bonham…..
This is so beautiful – for all the years I’ve known you I had no idea you’d shared a night with John and talked to him regularly – I’m sure you must have told me but for some reason I had not retained it. I am so glad you got to hang out with him and see that loving caring side to John – he really was a beautiful man it’s just that continual touring, the industry, depression on missing his family on very long tours and alcohol got the better of him sometimes whilst he was away and as you say there have been very ugly things written – maybe some if it warranted, much of it not though and I question what any of us would be like at that age with that responsibility constantly away from home.
I can tell you that at home he was very very different and loved nothing better than to get on the tractor on the farm and have a pint in his local pub, he would also always get on the drums during any family parties which were regular – when he was home we always had big family get togethers.
As you know, everyone who met him like that will say what a beautiful unassuming friendly man he was. I am so happy you saw him like that and it’s brightened my day reading this. I want to take this opportunity to thank you personally from my heart for all your support to Led Zeppelin – their music, the band over the years and now the memory.
But especially for the support you’ve shown me personally and in my music with my band and all of John’s family – it’s so easy for us to get caught up in our own grief – please know that I’m with you with yours – I know how much you loved him too.
Much love to you and all at Tight But Loose
It prompted me to give Debbie a call and I’ve just spoken to her to thank her personally for the above…..on this day of all days, to read those comments is emotional; immensely heart warming uplifting and inspiring…
As I just explained to Deb, whenever I have been lucky enough to be in the company of the Bonham family over the years – be it John, the late Michael and mum Joan…Pat, Jason, Zoe and of course Deb, there I always this incredible warmth - it was there at the Led Zep Conventions Debbie and her family came to way back. It’s always there with Pete and co at Deb’s gigs…especially when Deb sings those beautifully plaintive words in the song The Old Hyde…
“I will be waiting with my arms open wide… for when I see them, when I see them again…”
That warmth for me is intrinsically linked to what John’s personality brought to Led Zeppelin…
They are a very special family…
As I said, so much has gone and so much remains….
… and what remains is a deep love for what has gone before and continues to flourish in so many ways…despite the passing of the years since that bleak September day 33 year ago.
Sincere thanks again to Deborah for taking the time to comment on this day when all our thoughts are of her brother John Bonham who continues to bring such joy in the music and memories we hold so dear…
Always loved…always remembered…
Here’s some visual reminders of John Bonham’s percussive brilliance…
John Henry Bonham 1948 – 1980 – Always loved…always remembered….
Until next time…Keep listening, keep reading…
Dave Lewis/Gary Foy – September 25 , 2013.
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