What John Bonham Ate for Breakfast
Angela Bowie’s 1993 book Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie is one of the great rock n’roll memoirs. It’s dishy and trashy, full of inside dirt about what drugs glamorous people ingested while doing which creative sex act with whom. There are lots of italics and exclamation points. She’s breathlessly descriptive, especially when it comes to what everyone wore in those psychedelic peacock years of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, lingering lustily on detail: the turquoise silk, silver netting, yellow patent leather and soft, golden, double-breasted velour, “the shiny skin of the alien archetype, the starry strangeness of the impression David was trying to create.”
It’s the kind of carnal, vivid writing that we’re more used to seeing done about food, though maybe not surprisingly, there’s not a lot of food in Backstage Passes. The indulgences of glam didn’t take place at the table, so much. Except, that is, for breakfast sausages.
The only two food stories in Backstage Passes are about sausages—particularly cheap pork breakfast sausages by the venerable British brand Wall’s, a food item that she declares “what foreigners, especially Americans, always assume fish and chips or steak and kidney pie to be: the One True Food of the Original English-Speaking Peoples.” It was 1977, and she had gone to visit with Led Zeppelin, who were staying at the Montreux Palace hotel in Switzerland. Zep’s Welsh roadie, she learned, had a breakfast problem.
The luxury hotel had excellent restaurant facilities, and for the wealthy and massively famous drummer of Led Zeppelin, surely, they might have taken a special order. But John Bonham, apparently, didn’t travel anywhere without a stock of his own Wall’s pork sausages which the roadie, Gully, dutifully fried up in a greasy cloud of smoke and pig fat each morning on the balcony of his elegant five-star suite. Gully had a pan and a small barbecue grill, and he had plenty of sausages in reserve, forty pounds’ worth. But if he kept them in his portable cooler, they would spoil. If he stored them in the hotel kitchen’s freezer, he suspected, they would be pilfered.
“And Bonzo won’t have his bangers,” Gully told Angie worriedly, “and there’ll be hell to pay.” Luckily, Angie had a ready fix. She and David had been living in a chalet in nearby Blonay; she cleared out space in the freezer for the breakfast sausage, gave Gully a set of spare keys, and the threat to Bonzo’s morning routine was gone.
It’s always nice to know what people are eating. It’s intimate. When Prince died, there were two different interviews with his former personal chefs, one from Food and Wine and one from the Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages, which circulated widely in my corner of social media. His last intended meal, which went untouched, had been a kale salad and a bowl of roasted red pepper soup. But before that, in life, Prince ate teriyaki salmon and coconut soup with mango, edamame dumplings and poblanos with beans and corn tortillas. Prince loved cake! I read all those articles, carefully and more than once, as if they were menus I was going to choose from.
Partly, the Bonham sausage maneuver of ‘77 reads like one of those wacky tales of the excesses of those with extravagant means, which are always somehow funnier when they have to do with food – Elvis taking his private jet on a thousand-mile trip from Memphis to Denver, for example, to buy his favorite peanut butter-jelly-and-bacon sandwiches. Certainly we love to read about the rarefied foodstuffs allegedly consumed by stars (Even the Greek gods ate nectar and ambrosia, not sandwiches.)
But also, when it comes to those who seem so larger than life, less subject to the boring gravity of the flesh, knowing what they like to eat is comfortingly grounding. Here’s Prince, riding a flying guitar to ecstatic congress in a bubble bath with the angels—but also, there is Prince, quietly eating his soup. The same sorts of stories came out after David Bowie’s death, stories that cast the man‚whose life and whose death, which he built around himself in coded art like a pharaoh’s tomb, was a long, exquisitely crafted and protean creative accomplishment—as also just a guy who had a favorite sandwich and a regular espresso order at his neighborhood coffee place to start the day.
Breakfast is the humblest, most wholesome meal, which is maybe what makes the tale of Bonzo’s bangers so endearing. When the Beatles were on their Maharishi trip, as the story goes, Ringo Starr tried to jump in and embrace vegetarianism along with his more gastronomically sophisticated bandmates, but he couldn’t quite get the hang of it: his idea of a veggie meal was the old English standby of beans on toast. John Bonham is famous for his outsized and extraordinary talent, as well as for the excesses of consumption that eventually killed him. All of these guys were reshaping the course of Western culture, creating legacies the size of planets. What could you even imagine the Spiders from Mars or Led Zeppelin or Sabbath eating for their breakfast in the ‘70s, these ambisexual aliens and dark gods of thunder? Moonbeams and mescaline served on a twitching butterfly wing? Miruvor and honey-cakes, straight from Middle Earth? A bat’s head? A mud shark? Or a pile of cheap sausages, painstakingly transported and carefully guarded—“browned and sizzling in its own awesomely plentiful excrescences,” as Angie Bowie writes—that makes breakfast taste like home?