Janis Joplin Finally Gets the Book She Deserves

Janis Joplin lounging in her favorite room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, 1969.Photo by David Gahr/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Janis: Her Life and Music By Holly George-Warren

400 pp., Simon & Schuster, $28.99

Rock’s first female superstar has already been the subject of a numerous biographies, memoirs by those who loved and worked with her, documentaries, and even a musical play. But nearly 50 years after she died from a heroin overdose and joined the 27 Club, George-Warren really reveals the woman behind the brassy, bawdy mama persona in this masterful work in which Janis Joplin becomes a person – and not a Southern Comfort-swilling caricature.

George-Warren does the deepest dive yet of Joplin’s life growing up in conservative, buttoned-up Port Arthur, Texas during the 1950s and early 60s where even then she was a nonconformist. A Beatnik wannabe, as a young teen she was obsessed with the Jack Kerouac novel On the Road, dressed unlike area debutantes, and loved black music and arts (especially the singing of big influences Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Odetta).

Joplin also had ideas about freedom and doing what she wanted when she wanted – often expressing that loudly and in an “unfeminine” manner. The reader also sees a Joplin who craves fame and attention, yet is shockingly insecure in her voice, place in society, and especially her looks.

The book also gives us the clearest portrait of the family who she would alternately embrace, return to, or run away from. That included an atheist, glass-is-two-thirds-empty father, a conservative, devoutly Christian mother, and a younger brother and sister who didn’t know quite what to make of their wild sister.

She was a sibling who might disappear for months, and then return home with incredible tales of adventure or, at one time, weighing 88 pounds and strung out. There’s also details of her seemingly sincere attempts to “go straight” – down to enrolling yet again in a college and pining for a fiancée who turned out to be a slimy, lothario con artist.

Big Brother and the Holding Company during an early photo session: James Gurley, Peter Albin, Janis Joplin, Sam Andrew, and David Getz.Photo by Lisa Law-Cache Agency/Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

George-Warren also debunks a couple of Janis myths that have loomed large in her legend. First, that she was a nice, normal, buttoned-down girl until getting to San Francisco and hoisting her freak flag (she had been an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol and had lovers of both sexes for years). Another longtime myth was that during her ill-fated stint at the University of Texas at Austin, she was voted “Ugliest Male on Campus” in a frat boy-driven election. Joplin was indeed nominated – with her picture splashed on posters – but never actually “won.”

While in Austin, she gained early and valuable performing experience singing with the bluegrass band the Waller Creek Boys at Threadgill’s restaurant, where owner Kenneth Threadgill took a fatherly shine to her. It’s also where she really discovered herself as a singer but – of course – not with ease.

“Yet, while surrounded by a tribe of like-minded bohemians, she continued to push her own emotional extremes boozing and brawling—and foreshadowing a long pattern of self-sabotage,” George-Warren writes.

Houston appears a few times in the narrative, including when at 17, a night of drinking wine and popping pills landed her in a city hospital. She also occasionally sang at the folk clubs the Jester and Sand Mountain Coffeehouse to mixed reviews (on patron recalls that as a singer, “she was just too damn strong for everyone”).

Finally, at one of the last shows she did with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968, disastrous events led the city of Houston to banning all rock concerts. And even when it was lifted, George-Warren says Joplin was barred from ever performing in the Bayou City “for her attitude in general.”

After fellow Texas and concert promoter Chet Helms encouraged her to try her luck in San Francisco a second time in 1966, things began to click for Joplin. First, as the new singer for psychedelic rockers Big Brother and the Holding Company, and then in a career-making, mesmerizing, show-stopping performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her profiling only growing after the movie was released.

And while that footage of her is iconic today, it almost didn’t happen, as the band’s manager at the time refused to allow their show to be filmed. Crestfallen and heartbroken, Janis begged and pleaded that the opportunity for exposure far outweighed what they wouldn’t be paid. The band was given another performance slot the next day that was preserved on film. Joplin, of course, was absolutely correct. But it was already clear that she was simply too big a star and force of nature to stay with a band whose musical skills and scope were fairly limited.

Unfortunately, George-Warren writes that one band member, guitarist James Gurley (with whom should would also have an one/off romantic relationship, despite his marriage) had a more lasting impact on the singer. He introduced her to shooting heroin. Soon, she was an avid user.

Post-Monterey and Big Brother, the book’s narrative picks up speed as Joplin struggles to find the right new bandmates, sound, and direction, all while amping up her drinking and heroin use.

A series of romantic adventures doesn’t fail to quell her loneliness, insecurity, and anxiety. And her screaming, stomping, and sweating stage antics which at first made her unlike any other performer now seemed more exorcism than performance. And for every musical step ahead that seem to put her career in perspective (like putting her heart and soul into Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee,” a posthumous #1 hit), there were personal steps back.

Janis performing in front of a camera crew in Frankfurt, Germany, 4/12/69. Photo by John Byrne Cooke/Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

Like when she returns to Port Arthur (which she had been deriding in the press) for a disastrous visit to her 10th high school reunion, looking like an alien in beads and feathers and swagger. That the evening ends with a drunk and depressed Joplin instigating then getting into a fistfight with Jerry Lee Lewis in a Louisiana night club with the Killer punching her in the face an offering “If you’re gonna act like a man, I’ll treat ya like one” is not surprising.

George-Warren posits that the heroin overdose that killed Joplin in a Los Angeles hotel room happened because of a combination of factors: her tolerance has been down after yet another effort to clean up, she injected it differently that her normal routine, and she had a much purer form of the drug than usual. But just as she looked to her blues heroes for inspiration, two generations since her have looked toward Janis Joplin as the O.G. of a woman in rock.

Janis is truly an amazing piece of work, and the highly-skilled George-Warren had virtual free access to Joplin’s archives while conducting scores of original interviews. And unlike many just-the-facts rock bio narratives, this one really conjures its subject off the pages with a vividness and clarity.

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Simon Kirke’s Good Music with Bad Company

Bad Company in 1975 during a photo session for the “Straight Shooter” record: Simon Kirke, Boz Burrell, Paul Rodgers, and Mick Ralphs.

It was the middle of 1973, and drummer Simon Kirke’s band was in complete and utter disarray. Though Free had only scored one hit in the U.S. (“All Right Now”) they were a popular concert attraction. But the group had pretty much – according to Kirke – “ground to a halt.”

“The last two years of that band were particularly troublesome and emotional, because of [guitarist] Paul Kossoff’s drug addiction,” Kirke says. “It had become intolerable.”

When Free was finished, Kirke took off to Brazil, while singer Paul Rodgers formed a new group, Peace. While on tour opening for Mott the Hoople, Rodgers became friendly with their guitarist Mick Ralphs, who was itching to leave his employer and form a new group. Rodgers put in a call to Kirke, ex-King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell was added, and by the end of the year Bad Company was born.

“Glam rock was big with Bowie, Sweet, Gary Glitter, and T. Rex. We wanted a no-frills, bluesy band. And we wanted to have some fun for god’s sake!” Kirke says. And while popular legend has them cribbing their name from a 1972 Jeff Bridges movie, Rodgers told Spinner.com in 2010 that it actually came from a book on Victorian morals he remembered from childhood. There was an illustration of child looking up a shady street character wearing shabby clothes, smoking a pipe, and holding a liquor bottle. The caption said: “Beware of bad company.”

Looking to score a record deal, the fledgling band had a New Zealand roadie named Graham Whyte, whose countryman Clive Coulson held a similar position with Led Zeppelin. The most popular band in the world had just started their own label (Swan Song), and Rodgers wanted Bad Company to be on it.

After getting Zep manager Peter Grant’s phone number via Coulson, Rodgers called him up and pitched the group. Grant drove 100 miles from his home to see the band rehearse at Guilford in Surrey, England, and he was instantly sold.

Bad Company would go on to record six records for Swan Song: Bad Company, Straight Shooter, Run with the Pack, Burnin’ Sky, Desolation Angels, and Rough Diamonds. They would chalk up massive hits including “Can’t Get Enough,” “Ready for Love,” “Rock Steady,” “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” ““Shooting Star,” and “Rock and Roll Fantasy” (as well as…“Bad Company”).  All six albums are collected together in the box set Bad Company: The Swan Song Years 1974-1982 (Rhino).

Kirke recalls that the first three were recorded piecemeal and in a variety of locations by a mobile recording unit, while for the last three they were able to work on them in a more concentrated fashion. And while many classic rock record collections include a Bad Company greatest hits compilation, he says there’s much merit in the standalone record format that mixed now-familiar radio hits with deep cuts and experiments, presenting a snapshot of the group at a single point in their career.

“Albums as we remember them are not the same. They’re a thing of the past. Bands put out EP or two or three tracks here or there [for streaming],” Kirke says. “But I always think of where we were and what we were doing around the making of each album.”

When asked to choose which one of the records he would present to a 15-year-old budding classic rock fan to say “This is what Bad Company is all about,” he doesn’t take too long to answer.

“That’s a tough one. I would say Straight Shooter,” he offers. “No outstanding reason. But by the time we recorded that one, we’d been together 15 or 16 months and had a lot of touring under our belts. We were tight. I’m not denigrating the first album at all – that was a labor of love. But Straight Shooter had a cohesion that made it stand out.”

Bad Company has had lineup changes, reunions, and periods of activity and inactivity since the Swan Song years. Boz Burrell died of a heart attack in 2006. And Mick Ralphs suffered a massive stroke near the end of 2016.

“There’s no beating around the bush. His career is finished, and it breaks my heart to say it because I love him dearly. To see him is not…it’s not a cheering sight. Mick is so debilitated now. It’s very sad,” Kirke says. He last saw Ralphs a couple of years ago when he took his then-new wife to visit his friend and bandmate at a care facility in England.

“He can talk and type with one hand, but can’t communicate. After about 10 minutes, I had to leave room to compose myself. It was very upsetting,” Kirke says. “He’s just a great guy and fantastic guitarist and a funny man. But he didn’t keep his health together and had high blood pressure. And he paid the price. But wherever we go, there’s an outpouring of love for Mick. And I miss him very much.”

Today Rodgers, Kirke, and additional musicians play occasional gigs as Bad Company, including a  string of dates opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd on the southern rockers farewell tour. They also played a Houston gig  last year in Houston  for hometown heroes ZZ Top.

Both of those bands are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But for many classic rock fans, Bad Company is either #1 or very high on the list of shocking exclusions to that club. Kirke is fairly forthright about his opinion on the matter.

“I don’t want to be coy and say I don’t give a shit one way or another. I do!” he says. “I do care, and I think it’s a glaring error that Bad Company and Free have not been inducted or at least nominated. Both bands have been very influential. It’s wrong, and I definitely feel slighted.”

Still, he’s cognizant of his fortune that’s been able to afford him a long-lasting career in music, and playing it for thousands of rabid fans still to this day.

“I’m so grateful to have gotten two bites of the apple. To be in one well-known group is great. But to be in two, it’s very humbling.”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Authors Offer a Texas Flood on the Life and Music of Stevie Ray Vaughan

Andy Aledort and Alan Paul onstage together. Photo by Tore Claesson/Courtesy of St. Martin’s.

It’s October 3rd, 2019 when Alan Paul and Andy Aledort – co-authors of the new bio Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan – are on the phone. The date is appropriate because it would have been the 65th birthday of the book’s subject, had he not died tragically in a 1990 helicopter crash shortly after leaving a performance.

So in the public mindset, the Texas blues rocker is permanently and forever 35 years old, sporting his chin goatee, wide-brimmed black hat, and decked out in colorful garments as his fingers move effortlessly over his guitar neck while singing in his distinctive low voice.

Both singer/guitarists themselves, Paul and Aledort reflect on what that frozen-in-time mentality means not only for Vaughan, but other music legends who died young or at the height of their careers.

I played with Billy Cox, who played bass with Jimi Hendrix. He liked to say as a joke ‘All of us got old, but Jimi is always going to be 27! He didn’t turn into an old person!’” Aledort says. “But it’s still a sad thing whether it’s Buddy Holly or Otis Redding or Stevie, who was at the peak of his powers at the time.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1988 for a “Guitar World” cover shoot. Photo by Jonnie Miles/Courtesy of St. Martin’s.

“It’s a mystery. You never know how musicians will turn out as they age,” Paul adds. “But I don’t think Stevie would have ever reached a sad point. He had overcome his problems, and maybe he would have had more, but I don’t think he would have gone back to the way he had been with the drug issues.”

Texas Flood will likely go down as the definitive work on the life and music of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the only other tome being a 1994’s Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire by Texas music journos Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford (the book’s research files reside in Texas State University’s Wittliff Collection). Read my original review HERE.

Texas Flood benefits from not only the time that’s passed to assess Vaughan’s musical impact (he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 along with his backing band, Double Trouble ), but also because it had the active participation of Vaughan’s family and closest friends. That includes older brother Jimmie Vaughan, who’s had a stellar career of his own and was Stevie’s first and most important musical influence.

Paul and Aledort could not be more qualified to handle this book. The pair first met in 1994 when both were (and still are) writers for Guitar World magazine. “We bonded because we liked the same music, so we found ourselves together all the time since we were going to the same shows like Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bob Weir, Gov’t Mule, and the Allman Brothers,” Paul – who would later pen the 2014 Allman Brothers Band bio One Way Out – recalls.

Having written about and interviewed both Stevie Ray and Jimmie many times over the decades, the pair decided to collaborate on the book about four years ago. They pooled both their archival resources as well as starting on fresh research and interviews.

Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1977. Photo by Ken Hoge/Courtesy of St. Martin’s

“I had the opportunity to interview Stevie four times starting in 1986, and have seen him play even more,” Aledort says. On Guitar World assignments, Aledort would often bring along his guitar and amp, do a traditional interview, then ask his subject to show him something to play with the transcribed music included as part of the article.

“On that first time, we spontaneously just started to play together for about 10 minutes,” Aledort continues. “Then I unplugged my guitar and Stevie said ‘What are you doing?’ and I said ‘I have to interview you now.’ And he said ‘Oh…I thought we were just going to have fun…’”

Getting the trust of Vaughan’s family was crucial to making the book happen. And in addition to their past with the brothers, Aledort had also done liner notes on a string of SRV reissues. “We both, separately, had long term relationships with Jimmie. We didn’t have an ulterior motive of doing a book,” Paul says. “Nobody could call him up out of the blue and say ‘Hey, I want to do a book about your brother.’ But he liked us and trusted us.”

Paul and Aledort both told Jimmie Vaughan about their intentions. And while he didn’t offer a ringing endorsement…he didn’t quite reject it outright either. A music biz associate and Vaughan family friend, Beverly Howell, helped pave the way with the Vaughan cousins for participation. And once Jimmie gave his approval for them and others (as well as himself) to talk to the authors, things started really moving.

Texas Flood is written mainly as an oral history, and followed the life and career of Stevie Ray Vaughan beginning at birth. But Vaughan also had a debilitating drug and substances abuse problems that wreaked havoc on his body, his relationships, and his career.

“During those difficult years when he was really scuffling, what we learned and what was kind of shocking was what a disaster his personal life was, mainly due to drugs and substance abuse,” Aledort says.

“The couch-surfing, the not bathing for a week, and no one knowing where he was an hour before the gig. I made the analogy to Charlie Parker. Once he was onstage, everything was great. But the second the gig was over and he left the stage, his life was in shambles. Stevie was a lot like that. Not with his band mates, but things like romantic relationships and [financial] issues.”

But the book does end with Stevie Ray Vaughan in a good place, as he eventually cleaned up completely, embraced sobriety, and began preaching it with an almost evangelical zeal. There’s no shortage of irony that at the time of his death, Vaughan was poised for even greater success and musical journeys with a now clear-eyed road ahead of him. It was this part of the story that the authors found most surprising in the course of their research.

“The depths he had fallen to was surprising,” Paul sums up. “But when he got better, he really embraced it and dug deep. He wanted to get back to the person he was and make amends. And after he cleaned up, he was really into helping other people.”

This interview originally appeared on HoustonPress.com

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And From Stephan Pastis in “Pearls Before Swine…”

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The Continuing Voyage of Pablo Cruise

Pablo Cruise today: Robbie Wyckoff, Larry Antonio, and original members David Jenkins, Cory Lerios, and Steve Price.Photo by Peter Lyons/Courtesy of Pablo Cruise

One of the more interesting aspects of pop culture is when a musician or band whose songs have not graced the charts in years (sometimes decades), suddenly has an unexpected resurgence. It could be from a song well-placed on a movie, TV, or video game soundtrack. Or a remake. Or some namechecking by/collaboration with a younger artist.

For ‘70s rockers Pablo Cruise, though, the zeitgeist came in the form of a garment. As in the band T-shirt that Will Ferrell’s lead character wears for a chunk of screen time in the 2008 comedy Stepbrothers. And no one was more pleasantly surprised than the band themselves.

“We had to sign off on it, but had no idea how much it would be in the movie! And that gave us some great publicity. It got our phones ringing again,” says keyboardist/vocalist Cory Lerios. “They wanted us to walk the red carpet at the premiere, and I didn’t want to. We didn’t have anything to talk about! But we did and when reporters asked us what we were doing there, we said ‘We have a T-shirt in the movie!’”

Guitarist/vocalist David Jenkins adds that the band got to play the after-screening premiere party, joined on stage by Ferrell and co-star John C. Reilly. But there was an even bigger benefit for him. “For six to ten hours, my son thought I was the coolest guy in the planet!” he laughs. “He was 12 years old, and his dad knew Will Ferrell!”

Today, Pablo Cruise is in the midst of its busiest touring schedule in nearly 20 years. And while part of that is due to the continued appeal of classic rock among fans middle aged and older, Lerios says their audiences are made up increasingly of multiple generations and younger faces.

Will Ferrell: Lovin’ the CruiseScreen Grab from the Columbia Pictures movie “Step Brothers.”

“I always make jokes to some of the audience that they’re too young to be there!” he laughs. “But now, we can have a lot of and fun interplay with the audience. Our [original] fans are older and not screaming all the time, so they come to hear the music. We joke with them that we want them to get up, but slowly!”

“It’s interesting and encouraging when parents bring their kids to the show,” Jenkins adds. “Afterward, I love seeing the look in their faces when they realize that people our age can still rock, and they get fired up over classic rock.”

Pablo Cruise first formed in 1973 in San Francisco when some members of the bands Stoneground and It’s a Wonderful Day joined forces. The original lineup included Lerios, Jenkins, Steve Price (drums), and Bud Cockrell (bass), with Jenkins and Cockrell sharing lead vocals.

The party line is that their name came from the idea that “Pablo” represented a down-to-earth person ,and “Cruise” a fun and laid back attitude toward life (in a TV interview for the show “Through the Decades,” Jenkins would admit that, um, there also might have been some LSD involved).

Their self-titled debut came out two years later, but it would be their third record A Place in the Sun and the single “Whatcha Gonna Do?” that launched their career, hitting #6 on the charts. The lyric was inspired by Jenkins’ troubled romantic relationship at the time, with Lerios asking his bandmate he was going to do when she left him. But despite having “hit” written all over it, it was not the album’s first single release.

“I thought it should have been the first single, but it came out after ‘A Place in the Sun,’ because that’s what the record company wanted. When it did come out and was a big hit, I felt vindicated!” Jenkins says. “And the sort of duet part with me and Bud made it something special. I wish I had tapped into that more.”

Cockrell abruptly left the group, replaced by former Santana bassist Bruce Day. The next album, Worlds Away, offered the equally big hit “Love Will Find a Way” (also peaking at #6), and equally inspired by the same woman as “Whatcha Gonna Do?”

“It took me a whole frickin’ year to get over that relationship! But at least I got two great songs out of it!” Jenkins laughs. Other minor hits like “Don’t Want to Live Without It,” “I Want You Tonight,” and “Cool Love” would follow, with more albums and lineup changes, but Pablo Cruise would call it quits in 1986.

Lerios would go on to score a lot of TV shows and movies (including “Baywatch”), while Jenkins would form country rockers Southern Pacific, work as a sideman to some big names, and occasionally fly the Pablo Cruise flag. That was sometimes with Price, whose “day gig” was heading a successful e-learning company. Bruce Day passed in 1999.

The original lineup: Cory Lerios, David Jenkins, Bud Cockrell, and Steve Price.A&M/Universal Record Cover

Flash forward to 2004 and the four original members regrouped to play Price’s wedding. The groom, Jenkins, and Lerios reformed Pablo Cruise the next year. The current lineup also includes Larry Antonio (bass/vocals) and newer addition Robbie Wyckoff, now handling the majority of lead vocals. Cockrell died in 2010.

Still, having 75% of the original lineup together for a band inching toward 50 years is pretty damn good. “We’ve been a three-legged dog for most of the time. If we didn’t have that kind of camaraderie, we would be doing this,” Lerios offers.

“When we were out on the road and had hit songs on the radio all the time and playing to a young audience, it’s almost surreal to look back on it. If we did anything wrong, it’s we just stopped touring as a band. But our show today is way better because we took that time off. We are really appreciating it now.”

Jenkins adds “Having Steve and Cory and me together playing the songs…there’s a reason that it works. The songs are one thing, but the lineup is the element that makes it happen.” When asked what one piece of advice the David of today would give his younger version, it’s this.

“I would tell him to dig in deeper to the writing and just do more. And stay focused on that. Don’t tire out and don’t get lazy. We have a nice body of work, but I wish I had written more songs.”

The music of Pablo Cruise – and in particular their two big singles – are essential components of any Yacht Rock playlist, a throwback genre simply getting more and more popular today.

“We were a Yacht Rock band before there were Yacht Rock bands! I mean, we’re Pablo Cruise,” Lerios laughs. “And so many of our songs were about the islands and the beach and the water. We were always moving in that ‘escape’ direction.”

For his part, Jenkins is happy to be lumped in with the same company as Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and his friend Steve Lukather of Toto. Pablo Cruise has even sat in one gig with the Yacht Rock Revue – the country’s premier Yacht Rock cover band.

“Pete [Olson, Revue co-founder] is always telling me where they’re playing and asking if I want to sit in. And they learn the songs!” Jenkins says. “And they sell out shows! But it cracks me up. People show up, wear this silly captain’s hats, and have a good time.”

The current version of Pablo Cruise put out a live CD/DVD package in 2017, and is working on a new song, but expectations are modest. “It’s not like we’re going release the song and radio is going to jump on it and fans are going to buy it. Things don’t work like that anymore,” Jenkins says, noting that they’ve also signed to new management.

As for Lerios – whose sons are also songwriters/producers and spearhead the band Fox Wilde – he’s excited that Pablo Cruise is sailing smoothly, and excited about the waters ahead. “There’s a lot of good energy around us now,” he says. “If we had the guys in the band then that we do now, we never would have stopped!”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Bloomfield’s Big Book O’Blues

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band with guest guitarist Mike Bloomfield runs through a blues at their sound check prior to the New Folks concert at the Newport Folk Festival.Photo by Dr. John Rudoff/Courtesy of University of Texas Press

BOOK REVIEW

Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues

By David Dann, 736 pp. , $39.95, University of Texas Press

At one point in the mid/late ‘60s, Michael Bloomfield was considered by many as the country’s premiere blues-rock guitarist, seamlessly meshing the traditions of the genre’s past with the louder inclinations of the counterculture. Yet a combination of erratic career moves, a tendency to quit projects, lethargy, manic behavior, fear of competition, and a predilection for substance abuse (mainly heroin) derailed all of that.

Today, his name is mostly known to music nerds, despite being ranked as #22 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time. But in this exhaustive, detailed doorstopper of a tome, Dann tells the troubled player’s story through research and more than 70 interviews with friends, relatives and bandmates, but explores seemingly every nook and cranny of his music.

The Chicago-born, upper class Bloomfield was first exposed to blues at a young age by his family’s housekeeper’s radio. At 14, would travel alone at night on city buses or rail cars to go to the heart of the south side of Chicago and try and catch players like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at mostly black clubs like Pepper’s Lounge – listening outside when he couldn’t get in. In just a few years’ time, he’d be sharing the stage with both men.

The teen became so obsessed with listening to and then learning to play the music – at the expense of school, family, and “normal” life – that his conservative, emotionally distant businessman father had him committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

But word was getting around about Bloomfield’s explosive guitar playing, and it was his work with Bob Dylan on two projects that brought him to national attention. That’s his lead guitar on the unlike-anything-else “Like a Rolling Stone” (and other Dylan tracks like the stinging lines on “Tombstone Blues”).

And his controversial appearance backing Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. As Dann points out – what history has since etched in rock history as The Time Dylan Went Electric, they are really referring to Bloomfield’s playing during the short set, which was a lot wilder and louder than the frizzy-haired Bard of Hibbing’s.

Bloomfield’s star rose higher as part of the groundbreaking Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But upon seeing how Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were taking blues rock into different stratospheres intimidated him. Especially when Bloomfield witnesses Hendrix’s helter skelter set at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Shaken and never able to sit still in life or career for much time, he quits Butterfield just as they are about to break big. And his self-doubt about his legitimacy as a white man playing a black man’s music is exacerbated when a Rolling Stone columnist (unfairly) accuses him in print of “shucking.”

Then there were the lifelong medical issues. The mile-a-minute talking Bloomfield today surely would have been diagnosed as bipolar or with ADD. He also suffered from severe and debilitating insomnia, which led him to constantly frying his senses.

Dann then begins to detail decades worth of starts and stops for Bloomfield, during which he is his own saboteur. He forms the politically charged rock/pop act with horns the Electric Flag, only to cede leadership to his showboating singer/drummer Buddy Miles, and then quits.

When friend/keyboardist Al Kooper invites him to play on an experimental jam session record, Bloomfield quilts during recording, disappearing in the middle of the night and leaving Kooper a note that said “Dear Alan, couldn’t sleep, went home, sorry.” Kooper frantically recruited Stephen Stills to fill out the other side of the album. Ironically, 1968’s Super Session would be his greatest commercial success, but also an albatross that framed fans’ expectations.

Michael Bloomfield solos in February, 1973 at the Winterland Ballroom.Photo by Jonathan Perry/Courtesy of University of Texas Press

Periods of isolation would follow, as the guitarist would shut himself in his house, play a little, shoot heroin, and watch endless amounts of TV (sitcoms and “The Tonight Show” were his favorites). His mother was concerned enough that she went to a B.B. King show and managed to get backstage to ask the blues star (and her son’s musical hero) to call and cheer him up. Which he did.

The book’s weaving through the 1970s reads a bit like repeat as Bloomfield continues to falter. At one point, Bloomfield is scoring porn movies – his music often the most creative work in the project.  Then in 1981, Michael Bloomfield is dead of a drug overdose at the age of 37, his body found sitting up in his beat-u, parked car on a San Francisco street.

Dann recreates the guitarist’s final hours, the likely scenario that Bloomfield went to a party hosted by his drug dealer, took some mixture of narcotics that left him unresponsive and turning blue, after which partygoers put him in his vehicle, drove several miles, then left him in the front seat to be found.

“I’m a musicologist as much as a player,” Bloomfield would say in one of the last interviews he would ever give. And indeed his enthusiasm for other’s work over his own is seen throughout this book. But with Guitar King, the spotlight is absolutely on the subject, a wealthy, Jewish kid who just wanted to play the blues.

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

 

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Peter Noone is Hardly a Hermit These Days

Peter Noone today. Those genes! Photo by Loyd Overcash.

Peter Noone has heard it for years: “You should write a book!” After all, the lead singer of British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits certainly has a lot of stories he could tell.

About hanging out with members of the Beatles and the Stones in swinging London clubs like the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St. James. About touring all through the world. About recording any of their classic ‘60s pop hits like “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” “There’s a Kind of Hush,” “I’m Into Something Good,” “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” and “A Must to Avoid” among them.

He says he keeps telling his agent he’ll “do it in ten more years” and that there’s no drama to his career and people might not be interested. But pressed, he’s at least got an idea for a true-life intro.

“It would start on August 6, 1963, in field near my grandmother’s house. That’s where a bass playing friend and I went to see the Beatles who were performing at a country fair or something like that to 112 people. They had just come back from Germany,” he offers.

“My friend sees them, quits his band, and never touches instrument again. But me, I was inspired! I needed to find guys who would work 10 hours a day on being different than the Beatles and make it, and steal those young girls and boys in the audience. It’s me thinking ‘how can I be part of this?’ And then the book finishes three years later. It’s just a magical trip.”

Herman’s Hermits, 1965 clockwise from left: Derek Leckenby, Peter Noone, Karl Green, and Keith Hopwood. Barry Whitwam is in the center

The Manchester, England-based band’s name came, famously, because some of Noone’s friends thought he resembled the character of Sherman from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. “Sherman” became “Herman,” which morphed into “Herman and the Hermits” and finally “Herman’s Hermits.” In addition to Noone on vocals, the lineup would shift a bit until settling on Derek Leckenby (lead guitar), Keith Hopwood (rhythm guitar), Karl Green (bass), and Barry Whitwam (drums).

Today, the music of Herman’s Hermits is unfairly dismissed by some as fluffy  pop, with bands like them, the Dave Clark Five, and Freddie and the Dreamers on one side of an imaginary line while “serious” bands like the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks on the other. And while it’s true that latter group wrote most of their own material and experimented more, Noone says his band never wanted to be like them.

“We made a conscious decision at the beginning that we weren’t going to be a band that made records to impress other musicians. We wanted to impress young people and make music that they could play right after the BBC News. And we only had one radio station!,” Noone says. “The A-sides were always something upbeat, though sometimes we’d put something different on the B-side. I mean, our song called ‘The End of the World’ was the B-side of ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am.’ Talk about a dichotomy!”

Photo by Loyd Overcash

He notes that producer Mickie Most often brought songs to the group to record, including tracks like “Bus Stop” and “For Your Love” that, when they didn’t gel for the Hermits, became hits for the Hollies and Yardbirds respectively.

“Well, Mickie wasn’t so much a producer as he was a director. But he was my best friend, the best man at my wedding, and my daughter’s godfather,” Noone says. “We completely understood each other musically. If I talked about the reverb on the Everly Brothers’ ‘Walk Right Back’ he knew what I wanted. He knew how to pick a melody, and how I should sing the words so they would make sense and people would believe it.”

Noone left Herman’s Hermits in 1971, and members have toured in various combinations and periods of activity over the years. Green and Hopwood no longer perform actively, and Leckenby died in 1994. After some legal wrangling, Noone now fronts “Herman’s Hermits featuring Peter Noone” while Whitwam has his own version of the band, playing mostly in Europe.

In addition to a very, very active touring schedule, Noone currently hosts the Sirius/XM radio show “Something Good with Peter Noone” where he spins mostly ‘60s tunes and tells stories and anecdotes. But the energetic 71-year-old (who still looks impossibly younger) has no plans to slow down, with plenty of shows booked through the rest of the year. “A lot of people my age start to wind down, but not me. I’m really enthusiastic about the future, and naively optimistic about the future of the world,” he says.

He also recently released a cover of the Easybeats’ 1966 hit “Friday on My Mind” with the retro-sounding band the Weeklings. Noone’s version is surprisingly strong, more urgent and frantic than the original. And coming from the perspective of a man who has spent too many weeks working a shit job and really can’t wait for the weekend and time with his lady love.

A version of this article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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