How long did you, Jones and Jason rehearse together?
Weeks — across a space of time. We didn’t do any professional recording. We just had a little digital recorder. I thought it was good. I wasn’t going to walk away from it. But the weakness came up again. It was said, “We gotta have a singer.”
Now, none of us said that. It was suggested. Yeah, we would need a singer — not necessarily at that point. The first thing is to have material. If you’re all getting on and playing well, why bring in a juggernaut of politics with a singer? [Pauses] I won’t go into who actually came in to sing.
The name mentioned most at the time was an American singer, Myles Kennedy of the band Alter Bridge. How did that sound?
It sounded premature. I could see what way it was going. Various people thought we should go out on tour. I thought we needed a good, credible album, not do something that sounded like we were trying to milk the O2.
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith told us he came by as well.
Did he say that he sang? Well, then, he did [grins]. The timing wasn’t the best. We had put so much time toward the O2. And the three of us were coming up with stuff. It was very good, seriously promising. But there was this other thing going on. [Pauses] And that’s it. You went through this once before, when Led Zeppelin broke up after John Bonham’s death in 1980. You nearly formed a band with two members of Yes. There was an approach from a mediator [laughs], which involved playing with [drummer] Alan White and [bassist] Chris Squire. I had great respect for the music of Yes, how precise it was. We got together; they had some interesting stuff. It was challenging for me, but I got there. I had some material I brought to them. It was good synchronicity.
Chris had this wonderful name for it: XYZ, because it was ex-Yes and ex-Zeppelin. Then it was clear that the person who was mediating was approaching Robert as to whether he would like to come down and have a listen. Of course, he wasn’t interested at all. Chris and Alan had a Yes tour come up, so they did that. But I’ll tell you, the material was good. I have the multi-tracks. I hope they see the light of day.
Are you frustrated by Robert’s refusal to do more reunion shows?He performs Zeppelin songs on his own tours, but it’s as if he doesn’t want the rest of his life defined by that band. Whereas you don’t mind at all.
Well, I don’t pretend it didn’t happen. I’m not saying that he’s just taking a leaf out of the Zeppelin book. But it’s apparent that the third album [1970’s Led Zeppelin III], where you have this emphasis on the acoustic, was more attractive to him as time went on, rather than the more hardcore elements of Zeppelin. Whereas I’d jump off a roof into that — naked.
It was interesting getting together with Robert again for [the 1994 MTV performance] Unledded. I was working with David Coverdale. We had an album out [1993’s Coverdale-Page]. We were rehearsing to go to Japan. And I was asked to go see Robert.
He had these loops. It was, “Let’s see if Jimmy can come up with anything. Or is he about to get in the limousine with David Coverdale?” No. I’m fine with a challenge. On the first day, we came up with two of the [new] things on that project. It was good to recon- nect. It might have upset other people. [John Paul Jones was not asked to participate in the Unledded show or subsequent tour.] But that’s all we did — we got together.
What is it about Robert, as a collaborator, that still attracts you?
What is the quality in me that attracts him? Maybe there isn’t one. Because we’re not working together [laughs]. We had an empathy. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” [on 1969’s Led Zeppelin] — I knew exactly how that was going to shape up. I set the mood with the acoustic guitar and that flamenco-like section. But Robert embraced it. He came up with an incredible, plaintive vocal. When you’re in a group, you’re trying to bring out the best of each member, in that moment. We managed to bring something good out of each other.
Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980, essentially because of Bonham’s drinking. [The drummer died of asphyxiation on the eve of a U.S. tour, after drinking 40 shots of vodka.] How did it feel to have the band you started suddenly taken away from you?
It was unimaginable, what I was going through at the time. I mean, he died in my house, for Christ’s sake.
What is that like?
I can’t really say now what I was going through. I know it was hell. But it was for everybody else around me, his family. It was tough all around.
You did not officially announce the end of the band until three months after Bonham’s passing. Did you even briefly consider replacing him?
You can’t imagine the calls and suggestions — not from our side or [manager] Peter Grant, but from other people who were saying, “Oh, so-and-so might be good.” You take a deep breath and think, “Even if you were to play with somebody else, where’s your starting point?”
It was metamorphosis on the move. “Here’s the album track. In 1975, on this bootleg, we’re doing this. But in ’77, we’re doing that. Can you do all that?” I thought that if it had been any one of us — myself, Robert or John [Paul Jones] — the same decision would have been made.
Did Bonham’s drinking ever impede his performance?
No. His focus was extraordinary. I’m not saying I didn’t know he was drinking. But we were doing long tours, a lot of concerts into each week, and they were three-hour sets. He managed to do extraordinarily well. Anyone would have had a drink at the end of a three-hour set. There wasn’t any one of us who didn’t.
Bonham’s nicknames — Bonzo, the Beast — derived from his reputation for excessive havoc on tour. Was there a different, private side to him?
When I met him, he was already the family man. He and Pat were married; Jason was born. John was very conscious of providing for the family. But people wouldn’t know. Because it wasnt anybody’s business. It was their business — family business.
What was people’s business was listening to what he did, how hard he pushed himself to be able to deliver that bass-drum roll in “Good Times Bad Times” [on Led Zeppelin]. I haven’t met anybody who can play that all the way through, with that swing and approach. That’s what one should be listening to: the inspiration he had on other drummers, on this and that movement in rock, not the fact that he drank too much.
How bad was your drinking? There are iconic photos of you on Zeppelin tours with a Jack Daniel’s bottle.
I was drinking to excess by today’s standards — because now it’s nil. But it was what it was. I was enjoying myself. I was determined not to be miserable. I wanted to take it all on board — this lifestyle and the party aspect that went with it.
How much did you experiment with LSD during your psychedelic period in the Yardbirds?
To the minimum, more than the maximum. I had already heard of some terrible casualties. I witnessed someone who was spiked. It was enough to make me recoil from my experiments. It was not the best way to see whether you could be making music at the end of it. Although there were other things, like mescaline. I had to try them.
How would you characterize your drug use during and after Zeppelin?
There wasn’t a period when I thought I was in too deep. In retrospect, yeah, I’d consider it. But I’m still about. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, because we lost some amazing people along the way. But as far as feeling I was out of my depth on drugs, no, I didn’t. I’m not going to make any further comment on that.
When did you stop?
Drinking? Doing certain areas? Years and years and years ago.
As in, the Nineties?
As in, years ago. As in, it doesn’t matter when it was. It was a long while ago. There were decades of decadence, then not-quite-decades of sobriety. As far as things that I could see were seriously dangerous, I flirted with them. There was an intoxication. And that was it. It was a romance that passed.
Did your guitar playing improve when you stopped?
I don’t know. It takes on another persona.
A sober persona — sober but not particularly clearheaded. Because it’s still filled with wonderful, crazy thoughts.