Advocate Interview: Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience

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Drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin legend John Bonham, filled in for his dad with the three remaining Zeppelin members (at 2007 reunion tribute for Ahmet Ertegun). He’s also done session work and live gigs for other serious players, including Paul Rodgers, Slash, Foreigner and Joe Bonamossa, and rocked out over the years with various bands of his own.

Bonham spoke to the Advocate by phone from a Los Angeles hotel, where he says his dad once threw televisions out the windows. He’ll pay tribute to Bonzo's legacy tomorrow night with his band at the Webster Theater in Hartford.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

What is it about the music of Led Zeppelin that continues to resonate with today’s audiences?

For me, when I was younger, I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now. One of the main things I felt in doing the show was to go back and re-listen to it all again. And I realized that the music is timeless. The generation-to-generation thing, from grandparents to great-grandchildren, we are handing it down to our kids. My son is 15, and when he’s listening to it with his friends they think it’s some new cool new band. And when you really put it under the  magnifying glass, it was only 11 years’ work, a short time, really. I think of U2 as a new group.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures in touring was meeting these people who said, "Do you know how great your dad is? How great your dad’s band was?" It was just my dad, and it was just his job. If anything, I resented it because it took him away from me. I was 14 when he died and my dad was my hero, and he has continued to be all through my life.

I love representing my family. And to put it out on the road, it’s just another pleasure to play. I feel closer to him when I play his music. It’s a very personal show.

I went to a session with Chaka Khan. She’s a huge John Bonham fan, and she said she wanted to play drums because of my dad.

A lot of people think of Led Zeppelin as being about power, volume, real heavy stuff. But there’s that whole strain of Celtic music, folk music, acoustic textures. How do you deal with that whole softer side in this show?

It’s a valid point. I say if you are a real Zeppelin fan, you know they are more than “Whole Lotta Love,” “Black Dog,” and so on. They were all a blues band at first: “You Shook Me,” “The Lemon Song.” There’s also “Thank You” and "The Rain Song." The real fan knows that Zeppelin were just wonderful musicians who just wrote what they felt. I think after Led Zeppelin II, of course the record company wanted them to do another Led Zeppelin II. Can you imagine them doing Led Zeppelin III? They had these acoustic shows. But they gave them a tease, like “Immigrant Song.” One of the most underrated albums is Presence. “Tea for One,” for me, is just one of the greatest guitar solos.

Tell me something that some people just might not know about your father as a musician and as a dad.

It’s kind of strange. Right now I’m staying in a hotel that my dad made famous for throwing televisions out of the windows [laughs]. He wasn’t like that at home. It was Bonzo the musician and John Bonham the father at home. He was very much a Gemini. And it was very disciplinarian at home. He didn’t take any shit. It didn’t make him any cooler that he was a musician. People say, “Really? You didn’t get to just have free rein?” There were times where there were some people asleep on the couches, but other than that it was very normal.

Tell me a little about the show.

We had a format when we started the show. I tried to say that it’s my Led Zeppelin experience. I kind of had certain experiences in my life the first time I played certain songs or jammed with them. There’s also a number of songs that fans wanted to hear. The main thing was we rehearsed the whole of the songs and wanted it to be the ones we played the best. It’s got to be natural. It’s got to be a good version of a song. If it doesn’t quite suit the band... We occasionally do “The Rain Song.” I couldn’t believe the response. It’s as if we’d played “Stairway to Heaven.”

There are about three songs or four that Zeppelin never did live. I never set out to do it deliberately... I love “When the Levee Breaks,” but it’s got to have dad as the main groove. I play along … It’s me playing with my dad. You’ve got to have that boom...bah! But you also have to be careful not to be too Vegas. I say, “Let’s get the Thunder God down here,” and everybody is dancing, screaming. Everybody’s up.

I love listening to the isolated tracks on YouTube of your dad playing “Fool in the Rain.”

If you get a chance, check out him playing “Whole Lotta Love.” I played it for Chaka Khan, and she said, “I knew he was funky!” He really was a jazz drummer. Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, those were his heroes. Another huge influence was James Brown’s drummer [Clyde Stubblefield]. He loved James Brown.

I make people watch his fills in that early “Dazed and Confused” clip from the DVD over and over, just to watch the first time he enters.

He only had a drum a kit for four years at that point... What he did before that was he’d hit the pots and pans. My grandmother got him a snare drum when he was thirteen. When he went round to the pub to see the big band guys, one of the drummers let him get on his kit. When he pestered his mom enough, she said, “Okay, we’ll get him one.”

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