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Blind Owl Blues – The Mysterious Life and Death of Alan Wilson by Rebecca Davis – A review


Blind Owl Blues ~ a review

Just finished reading this. If you’ve ever wondered who that quiet guy in Canned Heat was, the one standing at the back looking sheepish, playing a blinding bit of bottleneck, or singing that high falsetto vocal on ‘On The Road Again’, then read this book.

An illuminating entre into the late 60s psychedelic band scene on the West Coast and for those uninitiated into Blues music past and present.

The book suffers from the ‘relatively’ recent rash of online self publishing; it desperately needs an editor’s hand and a true story-teller at the helm, but we get the information we came for and it’s that which counts. Wilson, underrated and overlooked has his story told and we are assured throughout that the facts as they are presented are well researched and balanced.

You’ll be introduced to some of the characters in the story, Bob Hite the frontman and singer, Henry Vestine the talented but drug addled lead guitarist and Larry Taylor the driving and truly talented bass player.

Wilson and his compatriots were there right at the birth of the Blues revival and he and some of his friends rediscovered a number of the artists who would go on to lead that revival, at the same time as giving honour to the past, they blew the cobwebs off of their old  78s, re-worked the old tunes and re-dedicated their blues to the power of amplification.

Wilson wrote both of their biggest hits, ‘On the road again’ and ‘Going up the country’, they played the Monterey and Woodstock festivals and their output soundtracks the 60s as well as anything by anyone else. Many Blues revivalists consider Wilson to be THE under-rated figure of that age and the book tries to re-balance history, place him centrally as an important figure and to chart his compulsive obsessive love of Blues music as it transformed into and equally obsessive love of nature, particularly Sequoia trees. Intrigued?

My First Record My First Music

Dive into a Sea of Vinyl.

I consider that this was my first ever record player...

Over the years of collecting records I have bought and sold many albums and singles, at one time selling a largish collection of mainly Rock and Psychedelic Rock LPs to Sam Hobden a fairly well-known international seller of collectible vinyl. I don’t hold anything against Sam… now, but he could have given me a better price than £1 a piece. I’ve never forgiven myself for letting them go, I was skint at the time, heartbreaking stuff when I look back on it. The ‘deal’ included over 30 rare Hendrix albums, first pressings, alternative covers, bootlegs and general rare as sparrow poop pressings.

In my time I have owned all the first pressings of Bob Dylan’s first ten Lps on U.K.  release and everything from Frank Sinatra’s sought after ‘Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain’ to Neil Young and Crazy Horses’ ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ on original Reprise, right to Don Rendell and Ian Carr’s ‘Live’ Lp, which I found for 50 pence in an Oxfam shop and sold for £175 to some mad Swiss Jazz’er on eBastard.

Addicted to Records

Beards, only one actually, the Drummer Frank Beard.

You only ever sell a good collection of albums just the once if you’re a record collector in your soul and heart, you just couldn’t do it a second time; it’s too painful and so it follows that you must learn by your mistakes. The only problem with an addiction to collecting is that you have to place artificial limits on yourself and keep to them; like ‘I won’t keep anything unless it’s Caribbean in some way’; otherwise you’d end up under a pile of records, with no money in your pocket. The general plan is to find stuff you can’t have in your collection because it’s unrelated to your own ‘area’ of interest, but is still worth something money-wise and to sell it and use the resultant funds to buy expensive, normally out of reach items for your own collection.

The sublime JJ Cale's 5 Lp.

There of course will follow a period of difficult adjustment. For a while you try really hard to keep away from the temptation to unjustly re-classify the album you’re holding in your greasy mit, but one day the fact that the record was produced by someone who has a typically Caribbean surname is all the excuse you need to hold on to that Lp you just found, probably should sell, but just have to keep because it’s ‘Hank Thompson and the Brazos River Valley Boys’.

Early Plays ~ From 0-11 Years of age.

Nothing ever compares with those first few singles and albums that started you on your way to collecting and enjoying music.

I often look back at the moment my parents let me ask for my first Lp, then bought it for me and let me have a portable Dansette style player in my bedroom, with great affection and warmth. I was less than 5 years old, I know that because I started head banging to the Beatles ‘Getting Better‘ from Sgt. Pepper’s when I was 5 and I know I already had a couple of albums under my belt by then!

So just what the hell were the first LPs and singles I recall as being of early import in my life I hear you clamouring to ask?

Here follows the bald truth!

Hooker N' Heat - John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat

Hooker N’ Heat – John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat. – 1971.

For whatever reason this is the first Lp I can recall listening to, maybe my Dad bought it in ’71 when it came out, who knows, but know I do that the first Lp I recall knowing the name of and what it sounded like, and that I liked to dance to it was Canned Heat’s excursion on the Blues Version with John Lee Hooker. An Lp that I have learned earns some respect in the History of Rock and Blues and where for once someone had the ability to ride along with John Lee Hooker’s odd offbeat and confusing playing. Hooker I’ve since decided (having become a fan in my own right) feels the music better than he plays it and makes up for a lack of virtuoso talent with a style that is ALL about feeling the music and hitting the notes at his own personal ‘right time’, even if that means playing half the verse, in the middle of the chorus!

The album also neatly memorialises Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson who plays his last on this LP and was the lynchpin of the original band. The album was released posthumously, Wilson died at the age of 27, the same age as Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison passed on to the great festival in the sky.

I was born in 1967 so I guess I would have been about 3 and a half when this came out.

Rubber Soul one of the first three good Beatles Lps

USA releases of Beatles Lps, Sgt Pepper’s (mono) / Revolver and Rubber Soul

Obviously in no particular order, this trio of Beatles Lps were all very important to my early musical meanderings. Though Rubber Soul hasn’t the harder edge of Revolver I still rate it, Revolver though is certainly the better Lp and perhaps out of the three my personal favourite even though you can’t help rate Sgt Pepper’s if you love sound, recorded sound and the process of recording sound. I know that such was the reaction to the release of Pepper’s in 1967 that my Dad and many like him gathered together at someone’s house to hear it for the first time and in the parlance of the day, it ‘blew their minds’.

What I particularly liked about the Mono copy we owned is that, as I discovered early on, you could turn off the left or right channels to give you a completely different mix of the Lp. It was perhaps my first thrill at the controls of a mixing desk, all be it two channel, and Mono.

The reason Sgt. Peppers is so firmly fixed in my mind is that, in the back room of our Nashville home there was a spare bed, and when I put the Lp on, or rather someone did that for me, I would wait for the song ‘Getting Better’; a tune apparently about a ‘bad’ trip John Lennon had at Abbey Road Studios, and then placing a cushion about my head, headbang onto the mattress to the music, no doubt viscerally expressing my own emotional response to the song.

How did they make this in 1967!

I have never forgotten this first moment of pure reaction to a song, where before I could notice I was doing something odd, beating my head against something soft, yet firm enough, to the music I was hearing. Since then I have wept more often to the music that moves me.

The Beatles of course are one of those bands that people can no longer view in isolation, all the angles have been covered since their success and deification, it’s very difficult to see them as people would have at the time when Sgt. Peppers was released. I for one consider them to be the greatest ‘Pop’ group ever to have walked the Earth. I think I would have thought that in ’67 and I certainly believe it in 2010. Of course part of their appeal is that for me, and obviously for so many they played a significant part in their lives. Were I to meet a ‘Beatle’, say Paul McCartney, as my brother has been lucky enough to have done, (and play the Piano with) I would fall about him a gibbering moron, unable to string more than two coherent words together, such is the importance for whatever reason of the Beatles in my own life.

Of course they were sweet to taste in comparison with the harder edged realities of the Stones Blues, of course McCartney on his own went down the Sweet Shop route of syrup laden Pap, sorry Pop, and Lennon on his own went down the Workers Club of Bleaketonsville and miserabled into his pint of success, but together with the still underrated guitar genius of Harrison and the tub thumping antics of Starkey they were the square root of the Fab 4, they were one genius of four members. I truly believe that and have continued to enjoy listening to them on and off since first discovering them before my 5th birthday, when actually, thinking about it, they had yet to split up!

This is the very release that I had too!

The Man of La Mancha

Why oh why oh why oh why?

This L.p. was something I was obsessed with during my childhood, from about the age of 6-8 all I listened to virtually was this Musical inspired Buena Vista produced L.p., and the version you see pictured here too, by the Mike Sammes singers. I guess it’s only saving grace was that it was my first gatefold sleeve double L.p., the first of many, though the later ones were generally by the Third Ear Band or Gong, or by someone or containing a musical something that required a large surface area for rolling a spliff on!

It was produced in 1967 and in 2007 my Uncle Jack brought it with him to my wedding, where he gave it to me. It was scratched to hell and yet I could see why I might have paid it more than a passing expletive when I was younger, it had this incredibly wide and sweeping sound, a big orchestral landscape and a production quality that would have made a large Cathedral feel inferior.

I’m guessing that if this had been the first (and not both the first and the last) in a long line of similar L.p.’s and a subsequent (imagined) obsession with the music of Musicals I might not now be the proud owner of one two year old son, but instead be running a Tea shop in the Kemp Town area of the City of Brighton, East Sussex.

There was that weird last tune with Bagpipes on too!

There followed, Blondie’s – Heart of Glass on 7″ Single, the first tune I bought having been moved to the U.K. in 1976, then I purchased with my very own pocket money – Abba’s – Arrival L.p., for years I was embarrassed that I had bought this, then I took a second listen to the production on ‘Dancing Queen’ and felt vindicated.

The film was a mess, the album a good starting point...
Another Can of Special Brew - We Are The Roadcrew - That's right!

Why then did I buy The Song Remains The Same – by Led Zeppelin next? Somehow while standing forlorn in the tiny Hailsham Record Store, now LONG since gone, I must have responded to the masculinity of the packaging of the Gatefold or something like that, because I’d never heard Led Zep and no one I knew had either. Little did I know then that Peter Grant (their manager) lived only 3 or 4 miles away and that his son went to my school. If you know the sequence with the moated timber frame building in the film Song Remains the Same, then that was Grant’s mansion house in Hellingly East Sussex. Bonham, Jason’s (John’s son) band rehearsed in the same rehearsal space across the road from the Mansion as my band did in the early 90s, everything stacked to the ceiling had the impressive stencilled moniker of the band on. The Zeppelin must have made quite an impression because I bought Motorhead’s – ‘No Sleep ‘Till Hammersmith’ next, a live L.p. and one that would be described by many as pretty f***ing heavy. It contained the classics ‘Iron Horse’ a biker’s ode to his ride and We Are The Roadcrew, a lyrical thankyou from Lemmy to his … urm… road crew, in which lines such as ‘another case of Special Brew, Another Tube of Superglue, We Are the Roadcrew’ or at least that’s how I remember it after all these years.

Shortly after this I went on a trip back to the States and bought ZZ-Top’s – ‘First album’, which remains alongside their early L.p.s a remedy to the excesses and tacky pop-dom of the later ‘Eliminator’ and ‘Afterburner’ albums. It always amused me that on the back of that first Lp, the Drummer – Frank Beard, was the only one pictured with a beard, later, he shaved his off and as we all now know the other two members of the band Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons indulged their passion for bushy beardness.

My most played L.p. ever!

AC-DC – Let There Be Rock

This L.p. is without a shadow of a doubt the most played album in my collection EVER! Though most of my records now bear something related to Jamaica in or on them, this is one L.p. that has managed to survive the coup and continues to give massive amounts of pleasure both to me and to spotty teenagers the world wide. Back In Black, the last L.p. that Bon Scott had anything to do with is also well worth a visit occasionally. Though I continued to like them, really, ‘For Those About To Rock’, the first album to feature the vocals and lyrics of Brian Johnson, not Bon Scott, signalled my losing interest. Lyrically they never would have sustained my interest anyway, Bon Scott was obviously obsessed by two things, Alcohol and tawdry back alley assignations of a ‘naughty’ nature, but he had the kind of lyrical approach one might expect from a schoolboy, for example from Go Down, which is on ‘Let There Be Rock’  ‘You got the Lips to make a strong man weak, Go Down Baby Go Down’ – Ginger Beer and a Blow Job anyone?

Over the Years

I have listened to and collected Early Country Blues, listened to proto rock n’ roll from the likes of Arthur Big Boy Crudup, the musings of Buddy Holly, The psychedelia of Ashra Temple, Steve Hillage’s ‘Green’ and oddities like the Occasional Word. Before Paul Simon cottoned on I was listening to Soweto’s music, and got into African music lightly for a while. I obsessed over Nick Drake and Roy Harper, Hawkwind, The Orb, Massive Attack, Prince Far I, and yet, nothing will ever really compare to the excitement of walking into a record store as a kid and not knowing what I was going to go home with.

In many ways I was more open to music and the purity of the listening experience as a child, no peer pressure, no expectations, no pre-formed assumptions about the artist or music got in the way of either liking it or not. It was enough that it gave me pleasure, it could have been a BBC sound effects Lp, The Man of La Mancha, or a rare 78 on Paramount by Blind Blake, it wouldn’t have mattered.

If there’s a message to be taken from this article, then go buy your child a record player, and I do mean a record player, because there’s something about playing records.  I’m not so sure our kids will be collecting iPods and MP3s in the same way and enthusing about them in 30 years from now.