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Listen To This Eddie: Inside The Tour That Grounded Led Zeppelin With Drugs, Violence, And Tragedy

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Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Led Zeppelin earned a reputation for being the biggest, and heaviest band in rock and roll. Their genre-defining records set the template for brutal, blues-based rock that thousands, maybe even millions of bands have tried to adopt in their wake. But for as crucial as their recorded output was, it was on the road that they really burnished their standings as the wildest, most sonically adventurous band in a decade overflowing with groups who made names for themselves by redefining the very definition of the word debauchery.

Even for as wild as the stories about mud sharks and racing motorcycles up and down the halls of hotels are, it was onstage where the real fireworks happened. “The records were just a starting point,” bassist John Paul Jones once explained. “The most important thing was always the stage show… at our worst we were still better than most. At our best we could just wipe the floor with the lot of them.” For almost ten years that statement was almost indisputably true, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Exactly 40 years ago, in the Spring and Summer of 1977, Led Zeppelin embarked on what would be their final tour through the country that made them superstars. The British group’s run through America that year was supposed to mark their return as the biggest rock band on the planet, after a future rendered uncertain by a catastrophic car accident that involved singer Robert Plant the year before. As it turned out, their presumptive moment of triumph was marked by bad vibes, lingering illnesses, heavy drug use, messy performances, violence, and even riots, that all ended in a tragedy that nearly derailed the group entirely. Here’s the story of how it all went down.

On August 5, 1975, Plant and his family were vacationing in the Greek Island of Rhodes. Led Zeppelin were less than five months removed from some of the greatest performances they’d ever staged at London’s Earls Court arena, and had scattered to the wind in order to avoid England’s more severe tax laws. Plant was behind the wheel of a car, navigating the hilly countryside when his vehicle went over a cliff. His wife Maureen nearly died — actually her heart stopped for a moment in the hospital — and the Plant himself suffered a severely broken ankle that left him confined to a wheelchair for months.

All immediate plans within the band were put on hold to allow Plant time to recover. In the meantime, the band put finishing touches on their concert film The Song Remains The Same, that had been recorded across three shows at Madison Square Garden in 1973, and released it in theaters in October 1976. After a few months, Plant apparently felt well enough to re-enter the studio and begin work on the band’s seventh album Presence. They rehearsed it in Los Angeles before recording the entire thing in just 18 days at Musicland Studios in Munich, West Germany.

Plant, who was now on crutches, suffered another medical setback when he fell while laying down the vocals to the album’s centerpiece song “Achilles Last Stand.” As he told Rolling Stone, “Enthusiasm got the better of me. I was running to the vocal booth with this orthopedic crutch when down I went, straight on the bad foot. There was an almighty crack and a great flash of pain and I folded up in agony.”

Beyond the obvious physical pain, Plant was also beginning to question internally whether the costs of recording and continuing the machine that was Led Zeppelin was even worth it any more. “I was really frustrated,” he said in Chris Welch’s book Led Zeppelin. “I was furious with [Jimmy] Page and [band manager] Peter Grant. I was just furious that I couldn’t get back to the woman and the children that I loved. And I was thinking, is all this rock and roll worth anything at all?”

Around the same time Plant was experiencing existential doubts about continuing with Led Zeppelin, the group’s leader Jimmy Page was indulging in a pretty significant love affair with heroin. Page had dabbled with the opiate going all the way back to 1973, but lately, it had taken a noticeable toll. His already slender frame grew even more gaunt, and his already pale skin turned translucent. He could still play, and perform, but he’d grown far more withdrawn. People within the band’s orbit genuinely feared for his health.

Despite their many ailments, reservations and burgeoning love of narcotics — or booze as was the case for drummer John Bonham — the monster that was Led Zeppelin continued lurching forward. The band bunkered down for two months’ worth of rehearsals at Manticore Studios in London, and as soon as Plant proved that he could perform onstage once again for their mammoth three-hour extravaganzas, their manager booked a full-scale tour in the US that was scheduled to kick off on February 27, 1977 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Before they could even depart for their transatlantic excursion however, Plant contracted a severe case of laryngitis that pushed the entire run back four days, so that the tour officially began on April Fool’s Day in nearby Dallas. LA Times critic Robert Hilburn was on hand that evening and described the show as containing “rough spots,” and that “there was only jubilation on the faces of Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham after the three-hour show as they raced to limousines for the ride to the airport.”

After that first gig, Plant told Hilburn that the experience was “emotional” and that, “We had just cleared the biggest hurdle of our career. It was a chapter in my life that I never really knew if I’d be able to see.” Adding that, “The whole show possessed an element of emotionalism that I’ve never known before. I could just as easily have knelt on the stage and cried. I was so happy.”

Just like their last outing in America in 1975, this jaunt was the pinnacle of excess. The band stayed in only the finest luxury hotels and moved between gigs on a private 707 jet airliner named Caesar’s Chariot. 51 shows had been booked in some of the biggest venues America had to offer. Over 1.3 million tickets had been sold. At the Pontiac Silverdome just outside of Detroit, they broke the world’s indoor attendance record by performing in front of 76,229 screaming Zeppelin fanatics.

To help burnish their reputation, the notoriously press-averse band even allowed a handful of reporters — like Hilburn — to see their shows and ask them questions, though the rules, as outlined by journalist publicist Steven Rosen were strict.

1. Never talk to anyone in the band unless they first talk to you.
1A. Do not make any sort of eye contact with John Bonham. This is for your own safety.
2. Do not talk to Peter Grant or [Tour Manager] Richard Cole — for any reason.
3. Keep your cassette player turned off at all times unless conducting an interview.
4. Never ask questions about anything other than music.
5. Most importantly, understand this — the band will read what is written about them. The band does not like the press nor do they trust them.”

Those first few days out on the road were pretty positive, but the feeling didn’t last for long. Page in particular seemed to be in a foul mood, whether because of his drug use, his liquid-only diet, or general malaise. Jack Kalmes, the head of Showco, the production company running the tour remembered in the oral history Trampled Underfoot that, “I showed up on the third date at the start of the tour. The mood was ugly and there had been a buzz in the PA and Jimmy had come over and thrown a trash can over one of the main techs.” Another Showco employee recalled the time that Page got up and spit in the face of tech during the middle of the band’s acoustic showcase in front of 50,000 people.

Still, for as surly as Page was, his behavior paled in comparison to the rage that poured out of the man everyone called, “The Beast.” The experience of being out on the road and away from his family was a miserable one for drummer John Bonham. He used heavy doses of vodka to drown his melancholy, which turned him into an absolute animal. “Bonzo was a sweet, cuddly, goofy fella until he got drunk and then you wanted to avoid him,” Queen of the groupies Pamela Des Barres said. “I saw him slug my friend Michelle Myer right in the jaw just for being in the doorway with him at the Rainbow.”

Richard Cole, the tour manager said that, “The last American tour was f*cking horrible. There was no camaraderie between anyone.” All the frivolity and partying that marked their earlier excursions through America was gone, as Zeppelin was cocooned into their own insular world through an outsized security apparatus. “There were bodyguards everywhere, and that was a real big sea change from ’75 to ’77,” journalist Jaan Uhelski remembered in Trampled Underfoot. “There was just a cloud that seemed to hang over everybody.”

As for the audiences that turned out in droves to see them, most came away from the experience pretty well pleased, while also acknowledging that the band wasn’t as good as they had been in year’s past. Plant’s voice was a little deeper, a little more ragged than it had been before. Page’s solos, especially on “Dazed And Confused,” tended to fly right past transcendence and land squarely in the realm of self-indulgent, but the same could be said for John Paul Jones’ moment bathed in dry ice on “No Quarter” and John Bonham’s drum clinic “Moby Dick.” In other words, there were plentiful bathroom break opportunities.

A show in Chicago on April 9 ended two hours early because of Page’s “stomach cramps.” Another show in Cincinnati resulted in 70 arrests after 1,000 ticketless fans rushed the gates. A similar scenario played out in Tampa Bay after lightning storms ended the concert early and police used tear gas to try and disperse the crowd.

Still, for all the shoddy concerts — the stops in Tempe, Arizona, Greensboro, North Carolina and San Diego, California from this tour rank as probably one, two and three on the list of worst shows Zeppelin ever performed — they still had the ability to pull it together on occasion and offer the crowd their best. Their six-night residency at the Los Angeles Forum that began on June 21, 1977 and ended on June 27 ranks as among the finest moments in the band’s history. That first night was actually recorded by an intrepid bootlegger and was released onto the black market as Listen To This Eddie, the namesake of this very column. The Eddie in question refers to producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, who recorded the band for The Song Remains The Same.

As Elizabeth Iannaci, a rep from Atlantic Records, recalled in Trampled Underfoot, “They were at the fabulous Forum on that ’77 tour. I was standing at the edge of the stage watching. During ‘Going To California,’ someone threw a bouquet of flowers on to the stage and Robert picked it up. And as he sang the line about the girl with flowers in her hair, he walked over and presented the bouquet to me. Twenty thousand fans went f*cking wild, and I thought to myself, ‘This is why they do cocaine.’ Until you have that kind of energy directed toward you, there really isn’t any way to get it or to understand it.”

All of the bad vibes finally came to a head at the band’s show at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Led Zeppelin’s two-night residency at the large outdoor venue was being promoted by concert impresario Bill Graham, who they already had had some rough dealings with them in the past. The trouble began when Peter Grant’s 11-year-old son Warren tried to take down a dressing room sign bearing the band’s name and was assaulted by a member of Graham’s staff, Jim Matzorkis. This was a huge no-no. Peter Grant was a mountain of a man; a former professional wrestler who carried with him an extremely short temper.

Bonham saw the whole thing and went after the worker. Eventually, Grant himself, along with John Bindon, a member of Zeppelin’s crew and a well-known London gangster, cornered Matzorkis in a trailer and savagely beat him down, while Cole guarded the door, refusing to let anyone in. Obviously, Graham was furious about the whole thing, but with another show the next night still on the books, he signed a letter of indemnification, absolving the band from any wrongdoing in order to get them back on the stage. Nevertheless, charges were eventually filed against Grant, Bindon and Bonham who all later pled no contest and paid a small fine to make the whole thing disappear.

As it turned out, Zeppelin’s second show in Oakland on July 24 would be the final time they ever played in America. Two days later, the band was in New Orleans prepping for their next performance when Plant received a phone call from back home informing him that his five-year-old son Karac died from a stomach infection. The entire tour was immediately cancelled as Plant flew home to be with his family.

More than just emotionally devastating, which, of course it was, the loss of his son drove a wedge between Plant and the rest of the band, specifically Jimmy Page, and made him once again question whether or not he wanted to continue. “During the absolute darkest times of my life when I lost my boy and my family was in disarray, it was Bonzo who came to me,” Plant said in a 2005 interview. “The other guys were [from] the South [of England] and didn’t have the same type of social etiquette that we have up here in the North that could actually bridge that uncomfortable chasm with all the sensitivities required… to console.” Page and Jones both failed to show up to Karac’s funeral, and it’s pretty easy to draw a line between Plant’s latter day blasé attitude about his band to this singular traumatic experience.

Of course, Led Zeppelin weren’t quite done by then. Two years later, in 1979, they got back together and released another album In Through The Out Door, played two monumental shows in Knebworth, England, before embarking on a tour through Europe in 1980. They had planned another trip through America shortly thereafter, but sadly it was not to be. John Bonham died of asphyxiation in his sleep after a night of heavy drinking in Page’s home on September 25. Led Zeppelin were no more.

“The 1977 tour ended because I lost my boy, but it had also ended before it ended, really,” Plant said in Trampled Underfoot. “It was just a mess. Where was the actual axis of all this stuff? Who do I go to if it’s really bad for me? There was nobody. Everybody was insular, developing their own worlds.”

The Bootleg Bin

Up until last week, Bob Seger remained the last big holdout from releasing his music on streaming services. Though you still can’t listen to a lot of his earlier work with the Seger System — for the love of God, can we please just have Mongrel? — you can finally easily access some of his biggest records with the Silver Bullet Band like Night Moves and Against The Wind.

In what should come as a small surprise to anyone who follows along to this column, my favorite Seger release is his monster double-LP Live Bullet, that was recorded at Cobo Hall in his hometown of Detroit in September 1975. Beyond that spectacular album, there really isn’t much out there to document what a tremendous live performer Seger was at the peak of his powers. As far as I can tell, some of the best video footage that exists comes from a show he performed in San Diego in 1978. The footage shows the Detroit rocker at his rambling, gambling best, belting out hits like “Hollywood Nights” alongside crowd favorites like “Still The Same.” It’s not hard to see why people were so eager to stack him against the likes of Bruce Springsteen so frequently early on in their respective careers.

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