A Journey to the heart of Led Zeppelin
Martin Copland-Gray goes on a pilgrimage to the grave of the loudest drummer in the world and the heart of the greatest Rock’n’Roll band ever.
I’ve driven down this road more times than I can care to mention. It twists and turns its merry way through farmlands, up and down hills lined with wild hedges and past horses grazing silently in the fields that line the road.
Large trucks from a nearby haulage depot hurtle along the winding road without a care for the smaller vehicles traversing the single route between the two Worcestershire towns at either end. I’m in the heart of the countryside and yet I’m only 5 or 10 minutes from the market town of Bromsgrove where I grew up.
There’s a turning left before the brow of a hill and as I turn the steering wheel the CD moves onto a beautiful acoustic number. A gently strummed guitar mixes effortlessly with a mandolin as the singer speaks of smokes, drinks and girls with flowers in their hair.
The sun begins to shine and so I lower the window to breathe in the welcoming smell of sunshine blended with freshly cut grass. The song provides a fitting soundtrack to the beautiful afternoon unfolding down the lane in front of me.
It makes me feel nostalgic and a sense of yearning for a time when the summers were definitely warmer, the girls wore their hair in cascades of curling gold and to paraphrase Mr Weller ‘..days lost their names and time slipped away on the tide’.
There’s no sea where I’m going but there is a view and I’m looking forward to experiencing it again. The road winds up a hill into the tiny village and I hear the tyres crunch on the gravel as I pull up beside the small stone church overlooking the valley below.
I turn off the engine and climb out of the car. As I stand with my hand on the open door I breathe in the clean, warm air and realise that I am a country boy at heart. I live in a big city and I love it. It’s where I need to be at this point in my life. But when my days begin to draw to an end I will pack up my city life and head back to the countryside where it all began.
I close the door of the car not locking it, this is the countryside remember, and walk through the small wooden gate of the churchyard. Nowadays, I know exactly where I’m headed but on my first visit nearly three years ago I took some time locating the place of my pilgrimage.
That was a September Saturday in 2010, 30 years ago to the day when the heart of the biggest and best Rock n Roll band of all time was laid to rest in this tiny village. The grave stone reads simply – JOHN HENRY BONHAM…He will always be remembered in our hearts.
On that first visit, as I stood in front of the array of drumsticks, badges and flowers that adorned the grave stone the tears flowed freely. But why though?
It’s not as if I knew the man. I’d never been to a Zeppelin gig and I was a mere 12 years old when he died. Add to that my knowledge of Zeppelin music stretching to Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love and that’s it!
By the time I was standing in front of the grave for the first time I was a confirmed fan with their albums on continuous playback on my Ipod. I loved it all but at the time Led Zeppelin IV was my favourite (as I type it’s Physical Graffiti!). The closest I’d come to seeing them in concert was a gig by the fabulously named Fred Zeppelin at a working men’s club in Bromsgrove. However, fate was to bring me a touch closer to the magikal world of Led Zeppelin.
I’d been offered a part in a play at the Rose Theatre in Kidderminster. I was supposed to be having a break from theatre stuff but it was a lead role and as the Artistic Director pointedly remarked, if I agreed to do it I would be handed the directorial reins on a play I was nuts about. So I said yes!
Rehearsals came & went and suddenly we were into performance week. All had gone well. It was a farce called Stage Struck and our audiences had loved the broad humour and the campness of the lead character I was portraying. We’d reached the Friday night and several friends were in the audience.
At some point during the second half, as I prowled about the stage, pointing a gun at my friend Sir Bob (he’s not a real Sir you know) whose character was being held hostage by mine I looked out into the audience.
Now I’m a professional actor and anyone will tell you that professional or amateur sometimes your mind does wander. As I continued my dialogue I noticed another friend Lou sat a few rows back. Oh I thought, it’ll be nice to catch up with her after the show. The thought itself came, went and I continued with my lines. All of this happened in seconds without breaking stride. Had I cared to look at the person sat next to her I may well have stopped in my tracks and required a prompt.
In the bar afterwards with Lou, Rich, Stu and others there was excited talk. “Did you see who was in tonight?”. “Was it him?”. “Yes, he often comes here you know”. “And he was sat next to me” said Lou “He had rock star hands”. “Who did, the Pope?” I ventured, trying to be funny. “No” she said. “Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin”. I nearly dropped my drink right there and then. “He was tittering at your performance” Lou continued. Well, I could have died quite happily at that point.
Apparently he was up for the big Wolves/West Brom derby match the day after and had decided to take in a show the night before. In the interval he’d complained about the bar prices going up since his last visit. According to the bar manager, dear old Percy Plant had exclaimed “Well that’s it, I’m going to have to go out on tour again!”. A Midlands boy at heart! Perhaps that’s why he didn’t hang about after the show.
I smile at the memory of this as I look out and above the grave stone at the view stretching into the hazy distance. So why was I feeling these emotions for a wild man of rock who I’d never met and who was called ‘The Beast’ by his band mates and road crew for his hellish on-tour behaviour. Don’t tell ‘The Beast’ they used to say if Bonham was in a particularly violent mood.
Perhaps it’s because I know what it’s like to be a long way from the ones you love and those who know you the most. Or maybe it’s the sound of those unmistakeable drums that hit you to your very core. Listen to songs like Ten Years Gone, The Rain Song & When the Levee Breaks and you’ll understand what I mean.
If the sound of a guitar can pluck your emotional heart strings then the beat of Bonham’s drums pick up your heart and literally batter it into submission. No-one hit is as hard as JB and I doubt they ever will.
He missed his family and the quiet life a million miles away from the Rock n Roll excesses of debauched nights at the Continental Riot House and other such places on successive American tours in the 70’s.
He succumbed to all that was on offer – drink, drugs, and girls. In a way, who wouldn’t? I’m not condoning that kind of behaviour but when you’re young, from Redditch and it’s handed to you on a golden platter how do you turn it down? You can say “What happens on tour, stays on tour”. But when you’re in the biggest rock band on the planet and fodder for the tabloids nothing is off limits.
Perhaps he took his frustrations out on the drums or maybe that’s why he drank as much as he did? My own father is a recovering alcoholic and I know only too well what it’s like to be around someone in the control of the demon drink. The mood swings, the violence and the same drunken ramblings being replayed over and over again.
Being the son of a father who drinks is one of life’s most difficult jobs. As a given you look up to them more than anyone in your life. To see that person who you love so dearly become a monster right before your very eyes is a hellish thing.
That’s why I have the utmost respect for Jason Bonham and what he has been through. It must have had such an effect on him and yet his father’s music still means so much to him. Just watch the concert film of that O2 gig back in 2007 dubbed Celebration Day and you’ll see what I mean.
Jason plays from the heart, a heart almost as big as his Dad’s. Watch his reaction at the final curtain call as his bangs his heart in recognition of the ecstatic response from the crowd. He freely admits after the show he collapsed in a flood of tears. They were very big boots he had just filled. Something that at one time had not seemed remotely possible.
As I walk back through the churchyard to the car I feel sad at the loss of a great musician, a devoted family man and a local boy to boot. But my heart can’t stay that way for long and he wouldn’t want it that way.
I slam the car door shut, start the engine and slide the CD into the slot. The sound of the drums startle some birds in a nearby oak tree and as the golden god begins to sing “It’s been a long time since I rock n rolled” I pull the car off the gravel and head back down the country lane.
I’m glad I made the journey today, after all I’m a local boy just like he was and no matter where you go it’s always good to come back home. As they say, home is where the heart is.
All words by Martin Copland-Gray. More work by Martin on Louder Than War can be found here.