Richard Cole was the black box of rock ’n’ roll.
The smoldering, indestructible child of postwar Kensal Rise, London, he became not just a legendary road manager, but the de facto chronicler of more than four decades of life inside and outside the van, thanks largely to his 1992 tell-all, Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored. An affably raucous, unpredictable, yet oddly punctual man, Richard was the embodiment of a Keith Moon drum fill. Cole passed away on Dec. 2, 2021, at age 75 after a long fight with a cancer that is surely now hobbling around with a broken jaw. Thinking of the man almost a year later, it still feels like he left the world much too soon. Richard loved fresh flowers in his Notting Hill Gate home; he loved his daughter Claire and his cat Puss Puss. But he would also have no problem throwing someone over a balcony and into a dustbin if he felt his environment was in peril. And Richard was more than capable of creating his own brand of chaos, most notably during the longest stretch of employment he would ever have: as road manager for Led Zeppelin, from their inception out of the ashes of the Yardbirds in 1968 to Cole’s cataclysmic descent from the Zoso orbit, including a doomed detox attempt that led to an improbable stint in an Italian jail after being mistaken for a terrorist bomber in 1980.
In the summer of 2014, I was writing a feature about Cole and had the good fortune of meeting him near his home in London. At the time I had only a crude knowledge of him as Led Zeppelin’s mythic muscle, and a preconceived archetype of the cartoonishly brute “roadie” characters ubiquitous in sitcoms and films of the late 20th century. With a very heavy presence even as he neared 70, it wasn't surprising to me that he had once unleashed actor and notorious underground figure John Bindon onto Oakland, or headed a pack of London underdogs in pummeling a posse of cash-scheming Teamsters on the Boston Garden loading dock, or greeted the FBI with glasses of champagne and a grin at his Manhattan hotel after Led Zeppelin were robbed of $202,600—a heist that remains unsolved to this day. In the currency of shark-screwing folklore alone, Cole was bigger than U.S. Steel.
So I was particularly disarmed by how sweet, paternal, and hysterical I found him to be during our meal. He still relished his fish suppers and scones, regularly laid flowers at his parents’ grave site, and lived for swimming and lounging along the sunny beaches of the French Riviera. When my mother passed away in November 2020, Cole reached out to my father, a man he had never met, to send his condolences and trade stories of fast living in late1960s Europe. I had also been unaware at that point that Richard truly cut his teeth on the road at age 19, when the teenage dropout-turned-scaffolder haphazardly landed the job of road-managing the Who in 1965, a gig he would lose only a year later along with his license, for speeding.