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He's Marching to a Different Drummer

Pop music: Jason Bonham follows in the footsteps of his late father, 'Bonzo' of Led Zeppelin, but wants to use songwriting to make his mark.

September 17, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jason Bonham is his father's son.

The progeny of one of rock 'n' roll's most famous drummers, the late John "Bonzo" Bonham of Led Zeppelin, is a drummer too. But while he embraces his family legacy, Bonham, 32, wants to use songwriting to become his own musician.

Last year, he released a live album of 10 Zeppelin covers, "In the Name of My Father--the Zep Set," and donated the proceeds to charity. Instead of praising a good deed, critics blasted him for failing to forge a creative path and for milking the Zeppelin catalog.

Now, scheduled for release next month, comes a Jason Bonham album, "When You See the Sun" (MJJ/Sony Music), which features original songs written by drummer Bonham, producer Marti Frederiksen and lead guitarist Tony Cantania. The metal-tinged, hard-rockin' collection also includes new vocalist Charles West, a wailer who sounds a lot more like Soundgarden's Chris Cornell than Robert Plant. Also featuring bassist-keyboardist John Smithson, the Jason Bonham Band kicks off a new U.S. tour tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

Reached by phone last week at his home in Worcester, England, about 150 miles south of London, Bonham spoke enthusiastically about his forthcoming release and supporting tour.

"Right now feels like a new beginning for me," he said. "I'm finally getting into music that I'm a major part of. We're all new in the sense of songwriting, so to contribute ideas . . . the melodies and words . . . has been very gratifying."

Bonham praises Frederiksen for helping him gain the confidence to write material and even sing lead vocals on one new track.

"When we all first got together, I was very unsure of myself," said Bonham. "But Marti was very encouraging. He kept pushing me to toss out ideas, riffs and melodies, and just explore and experiment. Songwriting is a difficult thing, but it's not so bad when you remove the barriers you put up yourself."

Bonham hopes the new record will end--or at least lessen--the jabs from critics who pounced on him for allegedly exploiting his Zeppelin connection.

"There will always be Zeppelin influences in my work," Bonham said. "But I think 'When You See the Sun' has a sound and style of it's own. In any case, once fans hear my new music, they can make up their own minds."

Bonham believes the intent behind the "Zep Set" release has been widely misunderstood.

"When I first got the guys together, I said, 'Let's do a thing called the 'Zep Set' just to have some fun.' Then, record and radio people kept asking me to record it. I was hesitant because it's not my music, it's my father's. But I decided to go ahead, if all the money we made went to charity."

The band raised more than $20,000 for the Big Sisters of Los Angeles and the John Bonham Memorial Motorcycle Camp. Bonham subsequently created the John Bonham Scholarship Fund, which, in association with the Big Sisters of Los Angeles, will provide financial support to girls eager to advance their education in the arts.

"I'm not in this for the money," Bonham said. "My dad provided me with a great way of life, and he was very charitable man. I'm delighted to give something to those who may have lost their way, for whatever reason. Man, that was nearly me."

Bonham was only 15 when his famous father died in 1980 of alcohol-induced asphyxiation. The two had a close relationship, he said, citing time spent together jamming, racing speedboats and dirt bikes. He had his own drum kit at age 4, but it was no match for the thrills of a Kawasaki.

"We were both into motocross," Bonham said. "My dad would wake me up at 6:30 on weekends, brew some coffee and make some sandwiches for us. Then we'd spend the day racing together. I know he had this reputation as being wild and irresponsible, but I never saw any of that."

Now, Bonham and his wife, Jan, have a family of their own: a daughter, Jaz, 4, and a son, Jager, who turns 1 on Oct. 7, also the release date of Bonham's new record.

Even as he tries to make his own mark, Bonham understands he can never really escape the long shadow cast by his father.

"I take pride in my heritage," he said. "I read an article where Jakob Dylan refused to talk about his father, [Bob], at all, and I thought, 'How strange.' I mean, I would never be able to do that. My name is Bonham, and I'm proud of it."

Unlike his father, though, Bonham wants to do more than be the drummer in a rock 'n' roll band.

"I'd like to eventually be known as someone who emerged as a songwriter," he said, adding that the bands Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden and the Foo Fighters have inspired him. "I know my dad wanted to write songs too, but he never really did. Someday, I hope people will remember me for being more of an all-around musician."

As he works toward that goal, Bonham thinks of "Bonzo" often.

"I do miss his smile and words of encouragement," he said of his dad. "My daughter points to his picture every now and then, and it's sad that he never got to see his grandchildren. Sometimes I want to ask him if I'm doing the right thing, and if he's proud of me."

* The Jason Bonham Band, Brand New World and Warpath perform tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $12.50-$14.50. (714) 496-8930.

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