This may not come as a surprise, but Jimmy Page didn't set any behavior rules for band members on his first post-Led Zeppelin solo tour in 1988. He told them: "Listen, if you stir it up, it's your fault. I'm not going to tell you you can't drink. I'm not going to tell you you can't party." In this message, Jason Bonham, 22 at the time, heard not responsibility but freedom. He drank. He partied. He stirred it up.
Then, like his father, John Bonham, the famously excessive Zep drummer who died in 1980, Jason crashed. "At one point, Jimmy said to me, 'I think you're trying to impersonate the wrong John.' And I was. Any way I could find a resemblance to Dad, I would take it," recalls Jason, now 48, who replicates his father's music in the Led Zeppelin Experience. "
Jason's father, as Page hinted with his "wrong John" remark, became famous in Led Zeppelin for two crucial reasons. The first was his unique drumming style, powerful enough to sound like he was banging tree trunks together and funky enough to anchor the off-kilter rhythms of Zep classics such as "The Crunge" and "Whole Lotta Love." But "Bonzo" was equally renowned for his alcoholism, and biographies such as 2001's "A Thunder of Drums" are packed with stories of him out-drinking the heaviest of drinkers. He died with the equivalent of 40 vodka shots in his system.
Early on, Jason Bonham was mostly interested in the drumming part of his father's legacy. By 17, he was in a band called Air Race, opening for superstars from Queen to Meat Loaf. (He put out a solo album in 1990 and has toured over the years with a namesake band.) The surviving Zeppelin members — Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones — invited him to join a 1988 reunion. Later, he was Zep's drummer for its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1995 and a one-time-only O2 Arena show in London in 2007.
While prepping for the 2007 show— later captured in the "Celebration Day" DVD — Bonham was playing familiar Zep songs exactly as his father had played them. Page, Plant and Jones had to stop him and instruct: "Don't worry about being John. Just be Jason." Today, in the Led Zeppelin Experience, he interprets the old songs in a looser and more improvisational way.
On the phone, Bonham speaks in an enthusiastic rush about his favorite Zep album ("Houses of the Holy"), favorite song to play live ("Over the Hills and Far Away") and favorite recent addition to the Experience set ("Traveling Riverside Blues"). (The band reproduces the first four Zeppelin albums over two shows in St. Charles.) "You could see them three nights in a row ... you never knew what could happen in the middle of one of those songs," he says. "We try and keep that element in our show."
During "Moby Dick," which contained his father's most famous drum solo, Bonham performs with footage of Bonzo on a video screen behind him. "He's now the kid and I'm the old man," he says. "And that's a really bizarre thing to notice."
But Bonham is most poignant when he talks about how hard he has worked to achieve sobriety and overcome that unfortunate portion of his father's legacy. In 2001, he portrayed a drummer in Mark Wahlberg's "Rock Star" movie; as he told a reporter later, the director asked him to play an "alcoholic rock star," which meant he needed no acting experience to take on the part. A year later, he was in rehab.
"I said, 'You know what, I need to do this.' And my wife said, 'I will help you once, and once it will be,'" Bonham recalls. The Who's Pete Townshend, himself a recovering alcoholic, visited Bonham in treatment and was his "go-to guy." Afterward, Page told him: "In the early days I thought I lost you." Says Bonham: "Some of my friends never thought this day would come."
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles
Tickets: $30-$95; 630-962-7000 or oshows.com
Knopper is a freelance writer.