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Roadie Henry Smith on the Early Days of Led Zeppelin and the John Lennon Tour That Might Have Been

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Henry ‘The Horse’ Smith admits that he sometimes gets annoyed with people asking Led Zeppelin questions. After all, the good-natured 64 year old roadie/road manager has a lot more on his decades-old resume than the consensus ‘greatest rock band on the planet’. Let’s face it, Aerosmith and The Yardbirds are not chopped liver.

But, more often than not, Smith is candid and forthcoming when asked about his 1968-73 tenure with Zeppelin and his front row seat on the three ring circus that was the band’s rise to the upper reaches of heavy rock royalty.  Smith knows where the bodies are buried and could easily write a Zep tell-all that would rival what many consider the definitive Zeppelin book, Hammer Of The Gods.  But he won’t.

“I would never write a book about Zeppelin,” Smith tells Rock Cellar Magazine.  “The things I did and saw with Zeppelin were in the spirit of friendship.  To write a book about Led Zeppelin would be to give up that friendship and I value that friendship too highly to stab them in the back.”

ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: You’ve worked with some of the biggest bands over the years, including Led Zeppelin. Why do people keep hiring you?

Henry Smith: That’s actually a very good question.  I don’t know why. (laughs) A lot of it has been luck and timing. I’ve made friends with a lot of musicians and that always helps in getting gigs.  I’m somebody who can be trusted.  I’m a diplomatic sort of guy. I’m not a yeller and a screamer. I know the psychology involved with dealing with musicians and life on the road. That’s why I’m still working and that’s why people call me up.

RCM: You worked with Led Zeppelin from…?

HS:  From the day the group formed in 1968 until 1973. I started out with them when they were still going by the name of The New Yardbirds.

New Yardbirds, Jorgen AngelNew Yardbirds 1968. ©Jorgen Angel; www.angel.dk

RCM:  So the first incarnation of The Yardbirds was in decline and Jimmy Page comes up to you and says what?

HS:  The Yardbirds were nearing the end of the road and Keith Relf and Jim McCarty from that band asked me if I would work with a new band of theirs called Renaissance.  A few days later, Jimmy comes up to me and asks me if I would work with him on a new band that he had not completely formed yet. I liked the idea that Jimmy was going more into a rock thing as opposed to what Renaissance was going to do and so I said yes to Jimmy.

RCM:  So in essence you were going from an already established band with The Yardbirds to a band that was, at the time, Jimmy Page and nobody else.  Did you feel that you were making a wise decision?

HS:  No. (laughs) But I was 21 and stupid. It sounded like a good gig. Jimmy was always very kind to me and I knew (manager) Peter Grant’s reputation so I said ‘sure, I’m in.’

RCM:  So you were on board before there was even a band?

HS:  It was Jimmy’s band. You could probably make a case for Led Zeppelin being the first ever boy band.  Jimmy put the band together.  He went out and handpicked everybody else.  Robert and Bonzo (John Bonham) were in Band Of Joy but were still primarily unknown, and John Paul Jones was at the top of his game as a session musician but not known outside of that circle.

Band of Joy -1967Band of Joy, 1967: John Bonham, Chris Brown, Kevyn Gammond, Robert Plant, Paul Lockey. From www.robertplant.com

RCM:  The rest of the band seemed to go along with the idea that Jimmy would be boss?

HS:  The rest of the guys readily accepted the fact that it was Jimmy’s band.  And it was with good reason. They were going to go places they had never dreamed of going in everything they had done to that point.  Band Of Joy was a good band but they were never going to be Led Zeppelin and they were never going to tour the states.

RCM:  How quickly did those privy to the formation of Led Zeppelin realize how huge this band could be?

HS:  We knew after the first rehearsal. That was such a tearful moment. There was this immediate chemistry between the four of them.  From a roadie’s perspective it was scary to think we were on the verge of being part of something that had never been seen before.

RCM:  What’s the story behind Led Zeppelin making their debut as The New Yardbirds?

HS:  The Yardbirds were running out the string on some contracted shows.  A series of shows in Scandinavia had been booked but the band decided they did not want to do those shows.  So Peter Grant made the offer of having Led Zeppelin do those shows under the name The New Yardbirds.

Jimmy Page, Manager Peter Grant, Robert PlantJimmy Page, Manager Peter Grant, Robert Plant

RCM:  A stroke of good luck for Led Zeppelin?

HS:  More like good planning on Peter’s part. He knew how hard it was to book a band that nobody had ever heard of and he felt that it was easier to jump in as The New Yardbirds and get Led Zeppelin in front of an audience.

RCM:  What was the reaction to the band from the audience during those first shows?

HS:  They knew Jimmy but they really didn’t know any of the other guys.  But when the band started playing, it was killer.  A good third of the sets of those shows were the songs that would end up on Zeppelin’s first album and they went down real well.  You didn’t hear ‘Oh shit! That’s not the Yardbirds.’ From that first show, everybody knew that the band had something special.

RCM:  Led Zeppelin received only 150 pounds for one of those early shows. That’s not much. Were they leading a hand-to-mouth existence in the beginning?

HS:  It wasn’t as bad as four guys sleeping in a bunk. It may have been what many would consider hand to mouth but it didn’t last very long.  Peter Grant had a reputation for taking care of the bands and the people that worked for them.

RCM:  Grant also had the reputation of being a rough and tumble kind of guy. It sounds like he was the perfect manager for Led Zeppelin.

HS:  Let me put it this way: with Peter around the band really didn’t need security. Peter was not much of a fighter but he knew how to use words. He was a pretty intimidating guy so just his presence in the middle of a situation was usually enough to stop most things.

RCM:  Anybody who has read the book Hammer Of The Gods is familiar with how crazy the band could get on the road. Was it pretty much sex, drugs and rock and roll with Led Zeppelin even in the early days?

HS:  Sure. Without a doubt.  Everybody was getting everything, including the roadies.  Let me put it to you this way; some of the things we did that were accepted in the 60s would not be accepted today.

Led Zeppelin in 1968Led Zeppelin in 1968

RCM:  So it was women, drugs 24/7?

HS:  Not designer drugs at that point.  In those days, all anybody was doing was smoking pot. I’d have to say that in the beginning it wasn’t all that outrageous. Bonham was a big drinker.  But basically the band was taking everything that was thrown at them and why not?  That was what rock and roll was all about.

RCM:  And the roadies got ‘sloppy seconds’?

HS:  Looking back, I’d say that sometimes it was the band that got ‘sloppy seconds.’ (laughs) I know that there were times when the roadies got more action than the band. Sometimes in the morning a band member would be kicking two women out at the same time a roadie would be kicking two women out.

RCM:  So the early days of Zeppelin must have been like a three-ring circus.

HS:  Definitely.  It was kind of like a moment caught in time.  The girls everybody got. The drugs everybody took.  It just doesn’t happen that way anymore.  Today you would be arrested if you did what we were doing back then.

RCM:  Were those antics particular to Zeppelin at the time or was it pretty much what all the bands did?

HS:  The English bands in general were notorious for putting themselves above the law, especially when they were touring the states. The feeling was that, even if they got into trouble, the case would get thrown out. And it usually did.  Again, a lot of the things they did back then would probably get them thrown in jail today.

RCM:  The first Led Zeppelin album came out and it wasn’t long before the band was doing their first US tour.  Did the band and crew sense this was going to be a quick ride to the top?

HS:  Everybody felt the change, almost immediately. The amount of kids who would be at a show was beginning to escalate in ‘68 and ‘69.  In 1968, Zeppelin was basically an opening act for bands like Vanilla Fudge.  But the audience reaction was such that everybody knew the band would not be an opening act for long. Peter (Grant) had warned us that Led Zeppelin was going to have a quick and fast ride to the top.

RCM:  Did it go too fast?

HS:  I don’t think it went as fast as we think it did. The press never pushed Zeppelin much in the beginning. They got more press when they broke up then they ever did when they were together.

Henry Smith, the Led Zeppelin roadieHenry “The Horse” Smith. Photo by Frank Buddenbrock; all rights reserved.

RCM:  What was it like being a roadie for Zeppelin in the early days?

HS:  Well back in the day you did everything and there weren’t many people to do that. You had one roadie who drove the truck, loaded and unloaded the truck and drove down the road to the next gig.  Now the big bands typically have six or seven tour buses and about 100 people to do what one guy used to do. Up until 1973, Zeppelin was pretty much a skeleton crew.

RCM: Is it safe to say that the roadie driving the equipment van was taking more than coffee to stay awake?

HS:  Of course. Anything over ten hours on the road and it was time to bring out the ‘Black Beauties’. Otherwise you might not make it.

RCM: I understand you had a literal front row seat to the songwriting for the second Led Zeppelin album.

HS:  I was with Jimmy and Robert in this isolated cottage when they were writing the songs.  An entire album’s worth of songs came together in two weeks and it was amazing to watch how the creative process works.  Robert was good about asking me what I thought. He would be singing melody lines, bouncing ideas off me and asking what I thought.

RCM: To be close enough to the band to observe the writing session is not something most roadies get access to.

HS:  We were all part of the family, the band, the roadies, everybody. It wasn’t like the roadies were outsiders. Everybody got along and mixed well off stage.  We were around the band all the time and you could see them changing from the first album to the second.

Robert PlantRobert Plant at Bron Yr Aur Cottage

RCM:  In what way?

HS:  Well,for one thing, they weren’t getting cynical. They were becoming more positive of themselves and what they were about.  It was particularly that way for Robert (Plant) and Bonzo (Bonham).  Jonesy (John Paul Jones) had already seen a lot of success as a session musician and it goes without saying that Jimmy had already had a taste of stardom with The Yardbirds.  But Robert and Bonzo were kind of new to the fast scene and you could see their growth pretty quickly.

RCM:  So the second album comes out and the band is on the road again. More of their legendary excess?

HS:  It’s funny but some of the stories are actually a lot bigger than what they actually turned out to be. They did a lot of things but it wasn’t always so much the band starting things as it was them contributing to something that had already started. We had this roadie named Richard Lewis and, let’s just say, that Richard knew how to have a good time. I will say that we were around the band enough to know that they were totally enjoying what was going on.

RCM:  All the members of Led Zeppelin were married except Jimmy.  Is it safe to say nobody was faithful on the road?

HS:  That’s safe to say. They did what they did on the road but, at the end of the tour, they always went home to their wives.

RCM:  Bonham is legendary for being the real hell-raiser on the road.  How out of control was he on tour?

HS:  He could definitely get abusive but, usually, it was only to himself.  He would occasionally get falling down drunk and then fall down some stairs.  But Peter and Jimmy were always keeping an eye on him.  If he got really drunk and out of control they would let him know in no uncertain terms that he had to stop what he was doing because it was not good for the band.

RCM:  And the rest of the band?   

HS:  Jonesy was not like that.  He pretty much stuck to himself.  Robert was a pretty spiritual person even when things were getting real crazy but he would definitely enjoy himself. Jimmy was a very private person. With this band, you never walked in on anybody or anything.

RCM:  By the time the third album came out, the roadies have to be almost as proud of the band as the band themselves?

HS:  We saw it as one hell of a ride.  We were in it for the work, the lifestyle, the experience.  When the roadies would be driving in the van at night, we would always talk about how we were with the best band in the world.  In terms of pure musicianship, we felt that Zeppelin had it over both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  We always felt that Jimmy was a much better guitarist than Keith Richards.

RCM:   How did you get the nickname ‘Horse’?

HS:   That was something that Jimmy and Peter gave me.  It came about because, one day, I was able to pick up two Fender bass amps and put them in a bus.  It had to do with my strength, not the size of my dick or anything. (laughs)

RCM:  Zeppelin toured constantly until 1973.  Suddenly you left the band. Why?

HS:  They were going to slow down and not tour as much.  I would just be sitting in England and not making much money. That’s when I got a call from a guy I knew named Steven Tyler who wanted to know if I wanted to go out on the road with his band, Aerosmith.  I said sure.

Henry Smith, Steven Tyler, Erin Brady

Henry Smith, Steven Tyler, Erin Brady 2008

RCM: What did you bring to Aerosmith after having worked with Led Zeppelin?

HS:  Time in the business.  Anybody who’s going to do anything in this business, you have to put in the time.  I’ve always believed that if a musician hasn’t put in at least 10 thousand hours worth of time playing in every shit-hole in the country, they’re not really a musician.

RCM: I guess you don’t think much of a lot of today’s musicians?

HS:  Not much. Too many of today’s musicians sit in their bedrooms, play around with Pro Tools and then, all of a sudden, they’re musicians. And they’ve never even played live. It’s like a lot of these bands haven’t done anything to deserve being called musicians.

RCM:  Would you have gone back to Led Zeppelin if the opportunity had arisen?

HS:  I actually did have the opportunity to go back at one point but, by that time, Aerosmith was so big that it was like I was on the same ride all over again.  So I stayed with them.

RCM:  But you continued to stay in contact with the band members?

HS:  Jimmy and I continue to be close.

RCM: Was it tough to be that close to Jimmy when he was going through heroin addiction around the time of the Presence album?

HS:  Sure it was tough. He was always such a private person about things — I had no idea it was going on until I started reading about it.  It was something Jimmy never talked to me about.

RCM:  Even though you were away from the band since 1973, did you, in a sense, feel you were still part of them?

HS:  I’ve always been proud to be a part of a band that did what they did.  Anybody that had been a part of that band in any capacity for any length of time felt the same way.

RCM:  When did you hear about John Bonham’s death?

HS: I heard the news when I was on tour with Aerosmith.  I had the chance to fly to London for the funeral but I decided not to go.  It just would have been too rough.

RCM:  So many years around so many great musicians. Have you ever had the urge to play an instrument?

HS:  Absolutely not.  (laughs) Way back when, when I was with The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck tried to teach me how to play guitar.  After about an hour, he just gave up.  I guess he could see that I was already doing what I was meant to do.

~*~*~*~
Here in part 2, he recollects about the John Lennon tour he was supposed to lead.

Henry Smith was in Auckland, New Zealand on December 8, 1980, serving as road manager for Roberta Flack on her latest European tour and, of equal importance, mentally preparing himself for what was coming when the Flack tour ended. His preparations for that night’s show were interrupted by a phone call.

“It was Roberta,” recalls Smith during a recent conversation with Rock Cellar Magazine. “She told me that John Lennon had just been killed.”

Smith, who has worked for the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and Aerosmith over the years as both a roadie and road manager, relates that the immediate response to the call was both sadness and concern.

“The people at The Dakota (where Lennon was living at the time) had called Roberta. They didn’t know if John’s murder had been a part of a conspiracy or what and, since she had lived at The Dakota, they wanted to make sure that Roberta was going to be alright.”

Smith’s reaction to the news was two-fold. Like everyone else, there was unparalleled sadness. But, unlike others, there was also an element of self interest at the news.

“I stood a chance of making some good money with John on that tour,” he admits of Lennon’s long anticipated One World, One People tour set for May 1981 in which he would serve as both road manager and de facto booking agent. “I could have become a very wealthy man.”

Smith was introduced to John Lennon late in 1980 by producer Jack Douglas, who produced the album Double Fantasy. It was shortly after the completion of the album and Lennon, for the first time in a long time, was getting ready to tour.

Yoko Ono Lennon, John Lennon & Producer Jack Douglas – Double Fantasy Sessions

The official announcement that Lennon would undertake a U.S. and Europe tour was made on October 8, 1980. The musicians who had worked with him on Double Fantasy were in active rehearsal for the concert tour that Lennon hoped would hit the road in seven months. At the point when Smith was contacted, Lennon was looking for a road manager and crew support. Smith laughs at the memory of how nervous he was at that first meeting with Lennon at the famed Record Plant in New York City.

“I mean this was John Lennon! I was so nervous that I was pinching my leg so hard when I was talking to him that I had black and blue marks. I didn’t want to sit there, just smiling and laughing at him.”

Smith found Lennon to be extremely down to earth when discussing his upcoming tour. “He said he knew nothing about sound and lights because Brian Epstein had always taken care of those things for him. He joked that “‘I know how to turn on the lights with a light switch and I can turn the sound up and down on a radio.'” And that was basically all he knew!”

Lennon with son Sean during “Double Fantasy” sessions

So it was agreed that Smith would be road manager for the Lennon tour and pull together a core group of technicians that included long time crew mates Dick Hansen and John Conk from the famed Brittania Row sound and lighting company. However as the conversations with Lennon continued, Smith managed to get the legendary musician’s attention in another area.

“John told me that he was in the process of getting Bill Graham to promote the tour as well as a booking agent. I told him, ‘You don’t need all that! You’re John Lennon!’ To prove my point, I called up a booking agent I knew in Texas called Lewis Messina and told him ‘I said if I can give you ten John Lennon dates, would you take them?’ The guy just laughed. I told him ‘I’m serious.’ When he realized I wasn’t pulling his leg, he said ‘Of course I would.’

“John understood what I was telling him,” he continues. “He understood that there was no need to give up a huge chunk of his money that really wasn’t going to do anymore for him than my just calling up people I knew and asking if they were interested in John Lennon shows. So John agreed that I would promote the tour for five percent of the gross and save him forty percent of the money he would have had to pay Graham and a booking agent.”

Smith next turned his attention to the particulars of the stage setting for Lennon’s return to live performances. Everybody was in agreement that Lennon’s shows had to be nothing short of spectacular. Smith, in discussion with long time sound man Dick Hansen, envisioned a stage in which none of the instruments would be visible. But Smith recalls that video was ultimately an approach to the live Lennon experience that would have been groundbreaking.

“Playing with video would have been totally new in 1980. We immediately thought of Mark Fisher (a British based architect who had forged a second career creating the stage magic for such super groups as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and U2). I called him in the afternoon, he got on a plane that night and flew to New York. By the time he got there, he already had a few ideas penciled out and we gave him a few of our ideas.”

John & Yoko Ono Lennon – Double Fantasy Sessions

Ideas, explained Smith, that would cement Lennon’s attitude of being up close and personal with his audience.

“What we were going to do was take John and Yoko to each city on the tour a day before the show and film them just walking around the streets and famous points of interest and finally walking into the show. We would set up five video screens at five different points on the stage. When the people would walk in for the actual show, they would see John and Yoko on the screens, walking through their city and into the show. We also had the idea of filming the actual audience as they were walking into the show. There would be a time delay of about 20 minutes and the people already in the arena would see themselves walking into the arena. For the time, it would have been pretty trippy.”

Smith was under the impression that the set would consist of primarily songs off of Double Fantasy and was not sure as to whether Lennon would perform any Beatles’ or Lennon solo material. Rumors would abound on just what Lennon would play. Lennon was quick to stir the pot by indicating the tour set would include some reworked early Beatles’ songs, some Lennon solo songs and some 50’s rock and roll to go along with the Double Fantasy selections. But he did indicate that a novel way of presenting the songs had been set up.

“A lot of what was going to happen during the show was John and Yoko on stage, drawing pictures of what the songs meant to them. So, as a song was going to be played, the audience would see a stick figure that John drew, representing what the song meant to him. It definitely would have been different and very personal.”

Sadly, all the ideas and predictions of Lennon’s triumphant return to the stage were wiped out in a hail of bullets from the gun of Mark David Chapman. Thousands of miles away, Smith remembers how his small group of performers and crew honored the life and untimely death of John Lennon.

“Roberta wanted to sing a song at that night’s show that would bring closure to what happened to John and what he meant to the world. So she had us go out and buy a copy of the Imagine album, she learned the song and sang Imagine that night. What can I say?

“It was very emotional and very sad.”

Marc Shapiro’s comic-book biography on the life of John Lennon, Orbit: John Lennon will be published by Bluwater Comics on December 27. Pre orders are available through Amazon.com.

Relatedly, Roberta Flack is due to release Beatles tribute album this coming February:

Roberta Flack Working Out a Beatles Cover Album – Have a Listen!

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