Friday, March 18, 2011

Johnny Winter

I can't think about Johnny Winter without thinking about my friend Michael, who between the time I was 16 and the time I was 21 went from being my idol to my best friend to my nemesis.

He was three years older than me and the best guitar player in our neighborhood. I learned more about playing the guitar from him than from anybody else. He was also a heroin addict. By the time we parted ways, I'd come to dread hearing the phone ring because I'd always fear that it was him and that he'd want something: a ride, some money, basically my time and attention. With surprising self-awareness, he once told me that one reason for his self-destructive substance abuse patterns was that "I just like having people worried about my welfare." I didn't learn that he was dead, from an overdose at age 28, until a couple of years after the fact, and when I did, I was surprised to feel absolutely no emotion at all. Only when I started playing again, after a seven-year layoff, was I surprised to discover how much I still sounded like myself, and how much of that "self" I'd gotten from him. In that regard, I suppose he's still with me every time I pick up a guitar.

Michael loved him some Johnny Winter. Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, too, but Johnny was his main man. He modeled himself after Johnny, with hair down to his ass and a reverse Gibson Firebird, although he was a snub-nosed Irish kid and not a Texan albino. I dug Beck and Hendrix, too, along with Pete Townshend, whom I soon learned that Michael disdained because of his inferior abilities. When we first met -- we had art and gym class together my sophomore year, which gave us ample opportunity to bullshit about music -- I'd just seen Mott the Hoople at the Uris Theater, and come away with the impression that their show, while entertaining, was also largely artifice. On the other hand, Michael's current band, Clyde, seemed a lot more real and musicianly when I saw them play a concert in the high school auditorium. He was, at the time, the best guitarist I'd ever seen up close, and appeared to mean every note that he played. I was impressed by this.

Johnny Winter, on the other hand, seemed like a mindless riff machine at first, compared to Beck, Hendrix, and other guys I dug like Mike Bloomfield: possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of blues styles and licks, and able to peal them off with a relentless abandon that was kind of overwhelming, sans any kind of subtlety or restraint. He sang like a cat having its tail stepped on, closer to Steven Tyler than Muddy Waters. Unleashed and pharmaceutically fueled (as he was on Johnny Winter And Live), he could be quite imposing, like an unbridled Id with guitar. In all ways, he predicted Stevie Ray Vaughan, down to employing the rhythm section of Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner, who'd go on to play alongside SRV and my fave Texas white bluesguy Robin Sylar in Krackerjack; later, Tommy would go the full distance with Stevie, after some harrowing times of his own.

My favorite thing about Johnny was the way he played slide in open tunings. On extended workouts like Dylan's "Highway 61" and his own "Mean Town Blues," he rocked out with a ferocity that was at once primal and folkloric, like an Appalachian banjo breakdown on trucker speed. When I got to college and played in my first good band, Johnny's "Rock and Roll" from Still Alive and Well allowed me to play with a freedom I wasn't yet able to muster on straight guitar. "All Tore Down" from that same album remains a jam-room warmup fave of mine. And every band I was in between 1973 and 1976 or so must have played "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" and Johnny's version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

The one time I saw Johnny, in Albany, spring of '75, my bassplayer at the time, who was on the university's concert committee, stole me a bottle of whiskey from Johnny's dressing room, as a result of which I can remember everything the opening act, a bunch of upstate losers called Darlin', played (mainly Wishbone Ash covers that the college sheep audience mistook for 'riginals) and nothing the headliner played, after I pushed my way to the front, shouting "YEAAAHHH!!!," the moment he hit the stage. Later, I was told that I kicked a girl in the face who was trying to remove my boot after I'd passed out in somebody's dorm room. I'm not proud of it, I'm just saying.

As much as I've disparaged Johnny in the above scrawl, I have to say that Second Winter, his three-sided sophomore release for Columbia (who picked him up after Texan scribe Chet Flippo hyped him in a Rolling Stone piece) remains one of the best guitar records of the '60s, if not all ti-i-ime, like a more aggressive Electric Ladyland. It covers bases from electrified Delta blues to hard rock, with detours through jump blues and rock 'n' roll. At the end of the day, Johnny was a highly individuated player who put his own stamp on all the styles he absorbed. In later days, after a few years of misguided commercial attempts, he'd go back to the deep blues, producing Muddy Waters' return-to-form comeback Hard Again. He's still pounding the boards as he pushes 70. Go back and listen to him in his prime, and be amazed by a sound like a force of nature.


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