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Dad's Drummer Boy

Jason Bonham keeps Zeppelin spirit aloft with tribute show
by: COURTESY OF MSO, Jason Bonham says his tribute show

At one show on his current tour, Jason Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, had a moment that summed up the contradictions of his life.

'I just had the strangest thought,' he says. 'I wish my dad was here to see this - but if he was, I wouldn't be doing this.'

Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience - which combines live music and video footage, including home movies, for a tribute to one of history's most storied bands - rolls into town Nov. 26 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It's a critically acclaimed multimedia extravaganza that owes its creation to rock 'n' roll triumph, then tragedy.

Thirty years ago in September, Bonham's father died after a night of heavy drinking. In an instant, the pop music world lost one of its most talented, innovative, boisterous and, at times, controversial figures. It was such a shock to Zeppelin itself the band broke up, reuniting only to play large concerts, including 1985's Live Aid, twice since 1980.

While the world lost a celebrity, Jason, then 14, lost his dad.

'I think at 14 you don't really understand death,' Bonham says during a phone interview from Tulsa, Okla., where the Experience was set to play recently. 'You don't really get it. I was never ever going to see him again.'

Gone was the down-to-earth father who taught him how to play drums, a relationship famously immortalized in a scene from the Zeppelin concert movie 'The Song Remains the Same' showing toddler Jason playing the drums just before the movie cuts back to John Bonham's percussive opus 'Moby Dick.'

Gone was the father who had forbidden him to ride his motorbikes when he got in trouble, the dad who was a cheery friend to farmers and postal workers around town who'd say, 'Hey John, you've been banging the drums again?' at the local pub.

'He was a regular guy, he just happened to play drums in Led Zeppelin,' Jason recalls of his father.

He only realized the magnitude of his father's fame - to date, Zeppelin has sold more than 200 million albums - after his father died.

'We didn't live any of that kind of lavish rock 'n' roll lifestyle,' he says, adding that he remembers his house being a little bigger than those of his relatives, all the better since it was a place the extended family could gather for holidays.

Jason hints at his own spiritual beliefs, forged over a lifetime he admits has been spent pursuing 'his (father's) approval.

'I believe one day I will see him in a better place.'

After John Bonham died, Jason says the other three members of Zeppelin - guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant - were concerned for him. But he singles out Plant as 'the first one to reach out to him.

'When I was 15 he used to pick me up from school,' Bonham says, noting that Plant later let him jam with the studio band he used to record his second solo album 'The Principle of Moments.'

Bonham proudly notes his tracks served as guides for the album's primary drummer, Phil Collins, who told him 'you're the guy who did all the hard work for me!'

'Phil was a big part of my life in looking for the heroes after dad passed,' Bonham says. 'Phil Collins is one of the sweetest and funniest guys I've ever met.'

In fact, Bonham says he 'pursued him like a weird stalker fan' for a while, but Collins always had a kind attitude to his inquiring nature. It's a characteristic Bonham notes is rooted in the fact that he's hungry to learn as much as he can about the music world his father inhabited.

To illustrate, he recalls rehearsing with Plant, Page and Jones for their 2007 reunion show in London, a show that briefly resurrected hopes the Zeppelin might fly again, hopes later quashed by the band.

He relentlessly asked his father's band mates for information about how John Bonham played this, what he was doing when, that kind of thing. Finally, Jones had had enough, Jason says.

'No more questions,' he told Bonham. 'Just chill.'

But Jason, who laughs as he tells the story, can't just chill.

'For me they were filling in all the gaps.'

For someone born into privilege, Bonham has taken a decidedly different route than a lot of celebrities' kids who seem to have no moral or emotional center.

Think about it - when's the last time you've seen Bonham on some wretched tabloid show or photographed doing something stupid in public?

OK, he was on VH-1's 2006 'Supergroup.' But at least he and Ted Nugent, Sebastian Bach, Scott Ian and Evan Seinfield actually did something creative, which is more than you can say for the casts of many reality shows.

Indeed, Bonham has aggressively pursued his own rock 'n' roll career, both as a session drummer and as a live musician, playing a couple hundred shows with Foreigner - 'Waiting for a Girl Like You' was his wedding song - as well as playing in several of his own projects over the years, including his current group, the heavy, bluesy Black Country Communion.

He's recorded with everyone from Page and Slash to Joe Bonamassa and Healing Sixes, and he's even been in such movies as Mark Wahlberg's 'Rock Star.'

Yet, despite having become his own man - in fact, he's now a good decade older than his father was when he died - it's clear he still struggles to reconcile who he was with who his father was. But it's a struggle he seems to relish, not run from.

For example, he says, it all came together on Dec. 10, 2007, the day he played drums with Led Zeppelin in London. He admits to feeling immense pressure by 'the size of the event.'

'I still wanted to play the Bonham way,' he says, recalling Page, Plant and Jones urging him to 'take chances' and inject his own style into the band's repertoire.

'That's a big thing to do in a show like that, to suddenly become Jason,' he says, chuckling as he notes he would take drum fills his father did on later songs, from such albums as 'Presence' and play them on songs from earlier in Zeppelin's catalog.

'Well that drum fill he did in '75, I'm going to put a fill on a song from 1968,' he remembers thinking.

Now, as he shares his own memories of John Bonham with audiences via the touring show, he says he gets a little choked up wondering what his father would think about all this.

'I have a 14-year-old boy now, and I see in his eyes that he wants to please me and see me say 'good job' and 'well done,' ' he adds.

Then again, it's not all seriousness. He's looked out on audiences and seen many a father or mother with children in tow, and he knows how those children feel when they cringe as Mom or Dad starts shaking around to 'When the Levee Breaks.'

'I tell them, 'Don't worry, my dad was in Led Zeppelin' - and he still embarrassed me!'