Tribute: 37 Years Ago, John Bonham Died
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Tribute: 37 Years Ago, John Bonham Died


John_Bonham-2 (1)Thirty-seven years ago today, one of the world’s greatest drummers for one of the world’s greatest bands, Led Zeppelin, was found unresponsive and pronounced dead the morning after a day of excessive drinking. John Bonham, named “best drummer of all time” by Rolling Stone in 2011, died of asphyxiation due to pulmonary aspiration—in other words, he choked on his own vomit.

Albeit not the sexiest way to die, Bonham was in good company with Jimi Hendrix (who passed almost exactly 10 years earlier) and Bon Scott (original lead singer of AC/DC who died earlier that same year) both of whom died as a result of choking on their own puke.

The loss of John Bonham devastated his fellow band members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (who discovered his body), causing the cancellation of their upcoming tour and the eventual disbandment of Led Zeppelin all together. This was announced on December 4, 1980, just four days before John Lennon was shot—way to seriously ruin Christmas.

Bonham’s death was both tragic and special. His autopsy showed that alcohol was the only drug in his system at the time of his passing, somewhat subpar for a rock star. Even Jim Morrison and Billie Holiday, who both officially died from “alcoholism,” were found to have further complications involved in their deaths, often involving other substances. Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning but her long time addiction to heroin was not a secret. Yet regardless of what else Bonham might have been into, he wasn’t a famous musician who overdid it one night—he was a garden-variety drunk, the kind right out of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was the kind of guy who could drink 1.4 liters of vodka in a day, the kind of alcoholic that Bill W. could have helped—he was truly one of us.

I was a sophomore in college when I met the first only person I have ever known to tell me they did not like Led Zeppelin. The way someone with PTSD recalls the intricate details of their attack, I vividly remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of my boyfriend’s 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage, passionately gesticulating a story about a guy in my acting class who claimed he didn’t eat cheese. When pressured to explain himself he said, “I don’t know, I just don’t like it.”

“Obviously, this was complete BS,” I said to my boyfriend in a let-me-just-say-what-we-are-both-thinking tone. “No one just doesn’t like cheese. That’s like saying you don’t like Led Zeppelin.”

“I don’t like Led Zeppelin,” he responded proudly, as if his declaration changed the stigma on what people who don’t like Led Zeppelin look like.

I was shocked—blown into the fourth dimension. How could I have been in a relationship with Alex for nearly a year and have no idea he was so musically…demented? Not many things in life are certain truths except that everyone loves pizza, puppies and Led Zeppelin; hearing a deviation from this coming out of someone sitting right next to me, operating the vehicle I was in, sharing a bed with me, felt overwhelming. It was like realizing you are in love with a man who is rude to waiters (I just remembered that Alex was also rude to waiters).

While it’s pretty fascinating that I dated the one person in the world who doesn’t like Led Zeppelin, my point is that they were a band so massively successful that it’s completely reasonable to assume that everyone loves them. Which is what also makes the effect of Bonham’s death so unique; his band mates felt so strongly that they couldn’t do the whole Led Zeppelin thing without him that his death caused them to break up. Wow.

Obviously, way before the corruption of capitalism, there is nothing more Throwback Thursday than a globally worshiped rock group like Led Zeppelin ending a 12-year career because they morally or emotionally couldn’t face existing without their drummer; it’s quite possibly the last truly human thing to ever happen in rock and roll. Even Bon Scott, AC/DC’s singer (an integral part of a band’s sound) didn’t cause the band to get off their highway to hell. Call it mushy, call it bad business, but no one can claim that Led Zeppelin didn’t keep it real. Fitting, alas, for a band so dependent on their real alcoholic drummer.

Photo courtesy of Dina Regine [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.