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Chicago Tribune - October 15, 1999

Author: Greg Kot, Tribune Rock Critic.

In one of the most notorious rock biographies ever written -- "Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga," by Stephen Davis -- bassist John Paul Jones escapes unscathed. Whereas Davis constructed larger-than-life profiles of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Bonham with their insatiable appetites for Dionysian excess, Jones is the inscrutable mystery man.

Little wonder that Jones' role inside Zeppelin remains poorly understood. Plant and Page got the glory as the front men, and Bonham became a rock legend after his alcohol-induced death. But Jones was the quartet's secret weapon -- a brilliant musician who was already an experienced arranger and producer when Zep lifted off in the late '60s. He had done orchestrations for artists ranging from Donovan ("Mellow Yellow") to the Rolling Stones ("She's a Rainbow"), and with Zeppelin contributed thecentral riff for "Black Dog," the indelible synthesizer line in "The Crunge" and arranged the Arabic strings for "Kashmir," while locking in with Bonham as one of rock's most formidable rhythm sections. Yet when Page and Plant recently reunited, they didn't invite Jones. Not that Jones needed the work. In recent years, he has done the string arrangements for REM's masterpiece, "Automatic for the People"; produced albums by cutting-edge artists such as the Butthole Surfers and Diamanda Galas; and recently completed his first solo album, "Zooma" (Discipline), which combines the avant-garde fury of "Red"-era King Crimson with Zep-style mondo-blues. Before bringing his first solo tour to Park Weston Wednesday, Jones chatted about life with and without Zeppelin.

You toured in 1994 with Diamanda Galas, a powerhouse who pushes the parameters of the voice much the way Plant did.

Yes, and Chicago was the place where that little voice came out of the audience and said, "The Song Remains the Same." Do you remember what she said? "No, it doesn't mother(expletive)." Couldn't have said it better myself. She got me playing the lap-steel guitar more too. I had always carried it around with me in the Zeppelin days, but never played it outside the hotel room. Now it gives me a guitarlike voice on the solo album.

You were arranging sessions for big pop records while barely out of your teens. How did you learn?

My father was a musician, and he gave me a piece of advice that really paid off: Never turn down work. So when somebody asked if I could do an arrangement, I said, "Sure." Then as the session date got closer, I got a book out of the library on how to orchestrate and basically taught myself how to transfer these sounds I was hearing in my head onto paper. I literally walked into my very first arrangement date with a chart and the musicians played it! I was in demand! Though not everyoneimmediately liked what I did. Donovan didn't like the brass I had added to "Mellow Yellow" at first. The session was about to drop into doom and gloom when fortunately Paul McCartney dropped in and said, "Wow, the brass sounds great." And everybody says, "Oh, yeah, doesn't it?" I was saved by Paul.

So are you keeping up with Page and Plant?

You keep an eye on each other. I think the last thing they did together is a direction that Robert has been going in for quite a long time. When somebody asked why I wasn't there, he said, "We know what we want to do, and it would be much different if there were three of us." And I'd agree with him (laughs). That's a good reason for me not to be there. He didn't want me around because he didn't want to be seen as Zeppelin, and then I saw their set lists for the last tour and thought, "Who's fooling whom?" That convinced me that I didn't want to be doing that. I mean, I've played all those songs already, and they were really great, but I don't want to go back there. I would stagnate if I had to play "Whole Lotta Love" forever after. Thereare loads of tribute bands out there. Go see them.

Does it bug you that you don't often get equal credit with Page and Plant when Zeppelin is discussed as a musical force?

They were the ones people could see. Bonham and I remained more in the background. But Zeppelin was definitely a four-way thing. It wasn't particularly a song-based band, it was more based on the sound of the instruments. Even Robert had more of an instrumental quality to his vocals, especially when he was doing the improv stuff with Page. I had one interviewer ask me, "So, did Robert and Jimmy write the songs and then teach you and Bonham?" I couldn't answer. At the end of the day, you have tonot care about those things. I don't lose any sleep over it.

Did you scream when Puff Daddy and Page remade "Kashmir" for the "Godzilla" soundtrack?

It sounded like a dance band. Boom-ta-boom-ta. I'd like to slap the arranger around a bit. The song survived, but I don't think they added much to it.

How did you come off so cool in "The Hammer of the Gods" while the rest of your bandmates sound like boozing, whoring hedonists?

I read some of it, and it kind of looks like I wasn't there. I'd just sort of show up after the carnage, make an appearance to see how my plans had gone (laughs). I was the one who didn't get caught.

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