I have been commuting by car these days rather than by bus or train. And those long days inching my way through traffic have been occupied by listening to Led Zeppelin. For many people that many not be such a big deal but learning to play the drums has meant learning to listening to music that I otherwise would not. I must have missed it, that magic age between 14 and 18 when Zeppelin would have been on my turntable. Just as I missed that other magic age when J. R. R. Tolkein would have been a great novel ist to read. (I tried when I was 32 years-old and couldn’t get past the first two chapters of The Hobbit). So, I’m thirty-nine years old now commuting with thousands of others on the Kennedy Expressway attempting to cultivate an appreciation for classic rock bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin.

John Bonham, Zeppelin’s drummer, is one of those drummers newbie drummers hear about all the time even if we had never listened to the band. Although it would be impossible to live in the Western world and not have heard Zeppelin’s music. That is perhaps why I resisted Zeppelin for so long. My understanding of Zeppelin is purely associational. A former college friend liked Zeppelin. Or a guy I knew in Ohio loved Zeppelin. Or Brian plays Zeppelin riffs when he’s waiting for me to set-up my drums. I only knew Zeppelin because other people loved Zeppelin.

It was only as I listened to the CDs in the car that I realized that their music was so pervasive that even someone like myself who once sniffed her nose at classic rock in favor of jazz or classical also knew Zeppelin. Repeatedly each song aroused recognition. A recognizable guitar riff would open a song and I would think: “That’s Zeppelin!?”
Or, “I didn’t know that was Zeppelin.” Or ,”They did that one too?” That’s when I understood that anyone who turns on a radio in the Western world has already heard Zeppelin, whether they understand it or not.

I had to recover first from my own involuntarily shrinking when I heard the songs and remembered my associations. I had to forget the annoying guy in my college dorm who blasted Zeppelin from his windows. I had to erase from my mind the guitar player I had a crush on when I was twenty-one. I had move out of my mind the irritation Brian tries to raise in me by playing Zeppelin riffs in our set. Instead, I had to listen to the music.

And this is what I discovered: John Bonham’s an amazing drummer.

Whatever I may have thought about the band or it’s music, Bonham was on to something.

I called Brian from the car to share my insight. He was in his office at the college.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Bonham is great. Part of the innovation is how Jimmy Page miked the drums.”
“Really?”
“That was the first time anybody heard the bass drum.”
“I noticed he plays a melody on it.”
“And you can hear it. That’s the first time anyone really heard the bass drum.”

Brian gave me a mini-lecture on Jimmy Page, the guitar player, and Bonham. Even in his office between breaks in classes he can still teach and Brian expounded briefly on the attributes of Page and Bonham’s collaboration.
I inched through the Midwestern suburban sprawl and listened while Brian talked. Woodfield Mall came into view and next to it, the Ikea.
“I think we can use some of what they did in Short Punks.” I said.
“Oh definitely. We sort of do already.”
“Except I have to figure out how to do it without being as proficient as Bonham.”
“Well,” Brian said. “That would be the White Stripes.”

Ah, the white stripes…we don’t talk much about them since the first show when a man, mildly intoxicated, saw me setting up the drums and Brian setting up his guitar gear, and said “So you guys sound like the White Stripes or what?”

It was time for me to exit the expressway. I told Brian I would talk to him later when he got home at 10 pm from his night class and we hung up. It’s been ninety degrees here lately and the heavy humidity clung visibly in the air even at 9 o’clock in the morning. Zeppelin played on the car stereo and I heard Bonham’s heavy bass drum punctuate the sound of my car tires rolling over uneven pavement. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play like Bonham but I’m glad that I could find the thing inside of Zeppelin that I needed to learn, to understand, so that I could develop my own way of playing. I wasn’t quite at campus yet and the rest of my morning would be spent teaching others but I was happy that on that hour drive I was able to receive my own lessons before I try to teach lessons to others. Drumming has helped me in my teaching more than I can describe. In learning to be a drummer I had to accept my mere student status and accept that I knew nothing. That has been a humbling, useful experience for me. I judge my students less now for not understanding everything right away. And I let them and myself take the lessons as they come.

Thanks, John Bonham, wherever you are.

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