Zeppelin adventure will float forever

01/17/2008 4:41 AM

01/17/2008 4:44 AM

Great stories -- the kind you'll forever tell your kids and grandkids -- seldom involve one fleeting moment with no other factors.

No, the great ones have it all: the long buildup, the event itself and the aftermath. In other words, they're like movie scripts, except that you actually lived them.

Matt Cox, a 34-year-old farmer, rock-band drummer and Led Zeppelin fan from Patterson, got the story of his life last month.

First, I need to clarify something: Cox isn't merely a casual Led Zeppelin fan. When you call his cell phone, you'll hear Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" while you're waiting for him to pick up. In fact, he's a disciple who has learned to play the drums, in no small part, to emulate late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

"He was my favorite drummer of all time," Cox said. "And they're my all-time fave band.

Cox never got to see them in concert. He was only 14 in 1980, when Bonham died following a drinking binge as the band rehearsed for a U.S. tour. Not only did it cancel the tour because of his death, it disbanded completely. Considered one of the first "heavy metal" bands, Led Zeppelin's fame and legend continued to grow even after it quit touring and recording.

Cox grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and became a drummer in the local band Transport, which enjoyed a decent five-year run before breaking up in 2005. He vowed that if Led Zeppelin ever decided to reunite, he'd be there for the show.

That announcement came last fall, when Led Zeppelin -- with Bonham's son, Jason, replacing his dad on the drums -- agreed to headline a concert Dec. 10, 2007, at the O2 Arena along England's famed Thames River.

"I'd signed up (for a chance to buy tickets through a Web site), but I didn't get tickets," Cox said. "About 20 million people signed up, but only 20,000 got to go."

He got his hopes up again when a friend of a friend's sister, who claimed to have been raised by the wife of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, was supposed to get him a ticket.

"I started looking for airline tickets," Cox said. "Then the friend couldn't go."

Nor could the friend get him a ticket.

"But it totally inspired me to go," Cox said. He went online and found someone who had won the right to buy tickets -- "The Willy Wonka Golden ticket, so to speak," Cox said -- but couldn't go. The seller wouldn't guarantee anything about the transaction. In fact, what the person was selling was a password that would allow the bearer to buy the tickets.

"I paid $109, prayed the password would work, and it did," Cox said.

He used it to buy two concert tickets at $250 each. He called buddy Ryan Ramos from Los Angeles, also a Led Zeppelin fanatic, and offered him the other ticket.

"He had just gotten engaged," Cox said. "He was trying to buy a ring for his (fiancée)."

A ring or the concert? Ramos debated.

"I said, 'Man, this is what credit cards are made for -- living out a dream, and we both had dreams of seeing Led Zeppelin,' " Cox told him.

Ultimately, Ramos' fiancée made the decision for him. Don't worry about the ring, she told him. Put it on hold and they'd worry about it together later.

Instead, they booked a flight for London. Ramos would go to the concert with Cox. Michelle, Ramos' fiancée, would go shopping while they were rockin'. Everybody wins.

Then it occurred to Cox: He didn't have a passport. He called to make an appointment to get one.

The first available date?

Dec. 10, the day of the concert.

"That wasn't going to work," Cox said.

So he drove to San Francisco, to the Emergency Passport Office.

"I got one that day," he said. "I explained my story to the passport officials. Some were older, a couple of them were younger, and they said, 'You're going!' "

In fact, he hit upon a remarkable run of luck that began on a Sunday (Dec. 2) when he secured the concert tickets. The next day, he got the passport. Tuesday, he booked his flight. Wednesday, he found a place to stay in Chelsea. Thursday, he flew out of San Francisco to London and arrived on Friday, the 7th.

"It was all by the seat of my pants," he said. "I couldn't believe the way everything fell into place."

Fortuitous happenings were at every turn. His buddy Ryan flew out of Los Angeles with Michelle. During the trip, they chatted with another passenger about the concert. When they arrived in London, they met up with Cox and went to pick up the tickets, which were distributed in lines formed alphabetically, a day before the show. Standing in front of them was the same gent Ramos had chatted with during the flight. The guy's buddy, it turned out, hailed from Kidderminster, the same town that spawned Bonham and Led Zeppelin's lead singer, Robert Plant.

Cox told the friend, Christopher Collins, about his admiration for Bonham. Collins offered to take Cox to Kidderminster the day after the concert, to visit Bonham's gravesite.

The concert, Cox said, blew his mind. Some critics predicted the aging musicians -- Plant is 59, Page is 64 and bassist John Paul Jones is 62 -- simply wouldn't be able to rekindle the magic the group enjoyed from 1968 until 1980. But they didn't know of the band's secret practices for the concert, which benefited the memorial education fund named in honor of Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, who died in 2006.

"They put the writers to shame," Cox said. "Afterward, the critics were abuzz about the show."

The next day, Collins took the Americans out to Kidderminster in his Bentley automobile. They visited the small country church, where Bonham is at rest in the cemetery. They visited the grave.

"I brought a steel Celtic cross I'd taken to the concert with me, and left it at the grave site," Cox said.

Did Cox want to see where Bonham lived, Collins asked? Of course. Collins said he knew Bonham's sister, Debbie. He remembered partying at Bonham's estate, called "Old Hyde," when Bonham was alive.

He knew about where it was, but not exactly. They drove out into the countryside. Everything -- and nothing -- seemed familiar. Cox noticed a road marked "Upper Hyde," but Collins had already passed it. He'd turn around at the next driveway and head back. But when he reached the next driveway, the memory kicked in.

"This is it," Collins told Cox.

"Fate took us down this driveway," Cox said. "Fate also had it that the gate was open. We actually found (Bonham's) house. It was a three- or four-story house with ivy, on about 200 acres -- just as I had pictured it. As we were turning around, a woman came out of the house and said, 'Can I help you?' "

The woman was Bonham's widow, Pat. Collins explained why they were there -- that his American friend had been to the church and the graveyard to pay his respects to his drumming idol.

Pat Bonham invited them to visit. "What did you think of the concert?" Cox said she asked him. "Did you think the guys good?"

They talked for about 20 minutes before taking some photos together.

"She gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek," Cox said. "She told me to write down my phone number, and that when they (the band members) get to LA, she has a place for us to stay."

In other words, Led Zeppelin's first real concert since 1980 might have been a beginning, he said.

"I can't imagine them not touring," Cox said. "The concert was fantastic. That night, the band was reinvented. It was Zeppelin, but the new Zeppelin."

In all, it was a night to remember on a trip to remember.

And it's a story Cox can tell for the rest of his days.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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