On July 30, 1980, I got fired from my job at Misc., a small clothing store in downtown Pittsburgh. Since then, I had been sitting at home, listening to the radio and collecting unemployment. Once a week or so, I would put in a job application, just so my benefits wouldn’t be cut off. I knew that in a few weeks I would hear from the Washington County Board of Assistance and get a good paying state government job.
Each day, I would write down in my day planner the names of the Led Zeppelin songs played on WDVE. Each song brought me closer to November 6, the day when I would finally see Led Zeppelin live and on stage. I considered it a good day when the local rock station played ten songs during the daytime hours, my prime listening time.
On September 25, 1980, I was listening to the radio and straightening up the house. WDVE played one Zeppelin song, then another. The second song was followed by even another song. How strange, I thought. Usually, the most songs that they ever played by one artist were two. What was going on? After the third song, the deejay broke in and announced that John Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin, had died in his sleep at Jimmy Page’s house in England.
I froze. Dead? Bonzo was dead? My head started to hurt. It couldn’t be true! I felt a sense of loss, almost as intense as when my father had died five years earlier. After all, I felt like Led Zeppelin were members of my family. They were the big brothers who had helped me make it through college, who woke me up each morning with a song, who put a smile on my face when things went wrong. So how could one of my brothers be dead?
I had to talk. I had to talk to someone who would understand. There was only one person that I could call, my friend Kathy. Kathy and I had become friends when we discovered that we shared a love of Led Zeppelin. Kathy still worked at Misc., but I had to talk to her, even if it meant talking to the bitch that had fired me. Sometimes, they played WDVE in the store, so maybe she already knew.
I dialed the number and Kathy picked up the phone.
“Kathy, have you heard?”
“No. What about Bonzo?” I could hear the dread in her voice.
“He is dead. He died last night at Jimmy’s house.” My voice was starting to crack.
“Call me at home when I get off of work.” Kathy’s voice was getting shaky too. I remembered that the manager eavesdropped on employee phone calls.
When I got off of the phone, I started to cry. I knew instinctively that my dream of seeing Led Zeppelin live had died with him. I thought back to 1977, when I had held my Led Zep concert tickets in my hand. I cried when I mailed them back to get a refund after Robert Plant’s beloved son Karac had died. Now it was over. I would never get the chance to see the band that I had fallen in love with in 1974. Watching “The Song Remains the Same’ would be the closest that I would ever get to Led Zeppelin.
When Kathy got home from work, I called her and we cried together. We had been ecstatic a few months earlier when the Pittsburgh tour date had been announced. We had been at work that day, and we had hugged each other and jumped up and down for joy in the middle of the store.
“I wonder if they will break up?” Kathy pondered
“I’m sure that they will. They won’t be like the Who and just replace him with another drummer. Can you imagine Zep with another drummer?”
“I feel so bad for his family,” Kathy said.
We talked about the “Moby Dick” segment of “The Song Remains the Same,” with Bonzo dancing around with his wife and little Jason playing the drums.
Kathy and I had both lost our fathers, so we knew what it was like.
After I hung up with Kathy, I listened to the radio again. WDVE had been playing nothing but Led Zeppelin since the announcement had been made. Listeners had been calling the station all day, talking about the band and offering condolences. It seemed like the whole world was mourning.
That night, I cried again for the brother that I would never meet. A few days later, my Aunt Elizabeth gave me an obituary she had cut out of the local paper, the Washington Observer-Reporter. She shook her head sadly. “I’m so sorry that Led died,” she said. “I know you really liked him.” I had to smile. Even though none of my relatives understood my love of rock and roll, Aunt Elizabeth’s comments touched me deeply. On October 21, I was offered the job that I had been waiting for. On December 4, it was announced that my band was no more.
Thirty-two years have passed since the fateful day of John Bonham’s death. Bonzo’s son Jason is now a successful drummer in his own right. I am so proud of him, as if he were a member of my own family. In October 2012, I hope to see him perform in “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience,” his tribute to his father. I still have the Led Zeppelin scrapbook I started in 1980, filled with the articles I had cut out of Creem, Circus, and Melody Maker, and many more during the 70s. Led Zeppelin is now just a memory, but the music will always be alive, powered by the beat of Bonzo’s drums. And I will never forget the rock and roll band that stole my heart and lifted my spirits during my darkest days.
(Portions of this essay were featured on the website “On This Day in Led Zeppelin History” on September 21, 2001, Vol. 4 No. 55)