Posted on November 13, 2019
by Steve Janowick
“No way he’s only 20-years old, dad! He looks like a crazed, 40-year old mechanic or something…”
That was my young son’s reaction as we watched a video together of this “crazy looking mechanic” during his drum solo from a 1969 concert.
Sweat soaked, hair whipping and thrashing, arms flailing like frenzied tentacles, he was a man possessed behind that kit. A grizzled, hardened beast with a thumping right foot and lighting fast hands, he wasn’t just playing the drums, he was assaulting them, attacking them, ravaging them with a fervent fury so utterly violent and powerful that he looked more like an out of control mad man than a disciplined timekeeper. But there was calculation and control in all that chaos. Precision in the frenzy. Poetry weaved throughout the mayhem.
And therein lies the duality and complexity of the late great John Bonham.
Beautiful and brutal, his playing was the life blood that flowed through the heart of, arguably, the greatest rock band of all time. There wasn’t anything this cat couldn’t do. He could be delicate and swing like the greatest of Jazz technicians. His slow grooves were so guttural and primal that he could get a paraplegic to start moving his feet. His signature triplets with a single bass were the envy of all his contemporaries. And he could certainly pound the skins with a speed and rage like no other before or since. But no matter the style or technique, there was always one constant – he always kept perfect time to ensure the rhythm section of his band was the tightest in the business.
Beautiful and brutal, Bonham was a loving family man first and foremost. A hard-living, roughneck, meat and potatoes kind of guy from the Birmingham hill country who was most content at home tending the farm with his wife and two young children. But life on the road often pulled him away from that pastoral existence, and the internal longings that followed plagued him with serious bouts of depression which sometimes brought the beast out in him.
Bonzo the wild man was that beast.
His reputation as a hell-raiser is still legendary to this day. When that switch inside his head flipped – you better watch out! That Mr. Hyde persona could manifest itself at any time, especially after several pints, and turn a hotel room into shambles or an adversary’s face into mince meat.
Sure, Bonham was the classic mean and reckless drunk who tried to exercise his demons through a bottle (and eventually lost the battle after downing 40 vodka shots and suffocating on his own vomit) but he was also a very loving man that his family, band mates and fans adored. And that rigid dichotomy is what made him so complex and interesting as a musician – and a man.
He is, simply put, the most talked about and influential rock drummer of all time, and as I watched my son’s big, curious eyes watching Bonham bring it home on Moby Dick, I knew that a new generation was in the midst of appreciating his greatness and adding to the folklore of…
The beautiful and brutal timekeeper.
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