Monday, August 9, 2010

My Log 210: Johnny Winter, a life of brilliant musicianship, shameless excess, dissolution, and recovery

I have just read a book on what is for me rather an unusual subject --- the life and music of the Texan guitarist, rock and roller, and blues aficionado, Johnny Winter. The book is called Raisin’ Cain, and is by Mary Lou Sullivan.

I have never been particularly interested in Johnny Winter, have never heard him play, and would be unlikely to go even if he appeared in Ottawa. But he has always been an idol of my guitar-playing son, Ben, who so much liked this book that he arranged for me to have a copy for myself.

For Ben, this book tells the bald truth about Winter and his chaotic career. It does, too, but --- how can I put this? If I sent a book to Ben on the life of some cricketer which was full of information about what make of bat the fellow used in which innings, what kind of clothes he wore, who made the pads he wore for protection, which label was his helmet, the effect would be similar for him to this book’s effect on me.

For one thing, I didn’t find it particularly well written, though the research that went into it was undoubtedly impressive. The story of Winter and his rise to fame and subsequent decline into drug-induced helplessness is an impressive one, but it has been overlaid with so much technical detail that I found it hard slogging to get to the end.

On almost any page you can find mind-boggling passages like this one: “Johnny’s career has experienced a renaissance under Nelson, also rebuilt bridges Slatus burned, got him endorsement deals for a Gibson Custom Shop Johnny Winter Signature Firebird V, a recreation of Johnny’s 1963/64 Firebird (when Gibson analyzed Johnny’s Firebird at the Custom Shop in Nashville, they found a serial number on the headstock and were able to date the neck as 1964, and the body design as 1963), the Dunlop “Texas Slider”, a pinky slide modeled after Johnny’s slide, and D’Addorio strings.” Wow, really, D’Addorio strings!

However, leaving that aside, Winter, for all his ridiculous self-indulgence and substance abuse, is an interesting figure. He and his brother Edgar, also a famous rock musician, were born as albinos into an upper middle-class family that had no albino history of any kind --- truly a freak of nature. They lived in a small, ugly Texas oil and chemical town called Beaumont, and as children had to suffer a great deal of torment from the local kids.

Johnny never wanted to be anything but a musician, and he grew up, strangely enough in his redneck surroundings during the days of full-on segregation, to adulate the old black Texas musicians who were practitioners of the blues.

With parental support, he became an expert guitarist while still a child, and he and his brother were playing in bands around the neighbourhood when they were 14 and 12.

Though he was recognized by those who heard him as an exceptionally brilliant musician, it took him some years to learn the tricks of performance which were necessary to create a musical career. Ms. Sullivan has documented every step of these early years in almost too much detail. For many years he was looked upon as rather freakish, with his white hair and pale skin, but his musicianship and showmanship eventually overcame this, and he grew into a stardom that he was always uncomfortable in accepting. He wanted it; and yet, when he had it, he chafed against its demands. I suppose this is the case for many people trapped in the mindless adulation of their fans, who always seem to expect unreasonable things from their idols.

Perhaps typically, he made mindless deals from which he never saw any money. He hired managers who exploited him mercilessly, and who continued to make money for decades by re-issuing early “bootleg” records that were totally unauthorized. From the beginning he lived a life of complete self-indulgence. He married once, but couldn’t stand that he was expected to be true to his wife. For decades, even when he had a permanent girl-friend, he made it understood that he would have other women when he was on tour. In fact, for many years he had two permanent girl-friends, located in different towns.

He also became a persistent drug user, although in the early years he was careful not to allow drug-taking and booze to affect his playing. That did not last, however. And by the 1990s --- he was 50 by this time --- booze, drugs, both prescription and illegal, had reduced him to almost a zombie-like condition which robbed him of his voice, his ability to play the guitar, and his willingness to perform the regular functions demanded by his star status,

Ms. Sullivan blames a long-term manager, who himself became a hopeless drunk, for this, and establishes that it was not until Winter himself could be awakened to the thievery and arrogance of this manager that he was persuaded to fire him, and begin a recovery.

For much of his musical life he was trapped in the conflict between his desire to play the blues, and the commercial demands of managers and promoters that he play rock n’ roll.

In a forty-year career, he put out 36 official albums, not counting appearances he made on albums of 25 other musicians, but the bootleg albums that were collected by his later, responsible management amounted to a staggering 85 --- completely unofficial, unauthorized issues that basically were a fraud on the fans who bought them.

Ms Sullivan pays copious tribute to many fine qualities, although she perhaps goes too far in this direction, even quoting someone who said, during Winter’s terrible years of incoherence and near-silence, that they could tell the real Johnny Winter was still existing inside his sullen silence.

He did have a real adulation of the old black blues masters, and spared no effort to confirm and strengthen the blues as a musical genre, Indeed, he put so much effort into aiding the great bluesman Muddy Waters that he revived the man’s career, and rescued him from the kind of neglect he himself had suffered from for some years.

Altogether, a remarkable story about the rock n’ roll lifestyle that has come so close to destroying one of the icons of the profession.

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