Posted September 2019
Baby boomers and those less privileged are certainly aware of the great Saturday Night Live skit wherein Christopher Walken places Blue Oyster Cult’s record producer who keeps demanding more cowbell on their recording of “The Reaper”.
One might that the demand for more cowbell was heavily influenced by the song, Mississippi Queen, by Mountain, in which cowbell is prevalent. The man behind that cowbell was Corky Laing, who has released an autobiography, Letters To Sarah. It is a brilliant concept of an autobiography based on a stream of letters that Corky wrote his mom while he was traveling as a drummer.
I chatted with Corky about this book as he and his co-writer, Tuija (think “Julia” but with a “T”) Takala, were driving on a rain-slicked interstate somewhere in Connecticut.
“I am good! I’ve got to tell you, I am sitting with my co-writer Tuija; we are driving back to the city in downpour of rain here in Connecticut!”
I shared with Corky that I caught him and Leslie together when I first launched Boomerocity back in 2009 at one of the stops on the HippieFest tour. I had interviewed his Mountain mate, Leslie West (here) the month prior and was his guest to the show and backstage. I didn’t see Laing and I joked that he probably didn’t want to be seen around the likes of me. He chimed in:
“No, no, it’s not that. I just, I get away, because I don’t know what Leslie is going to say or do because he can be quite unusual in interviews. He can either tell ya to go f*** yourself or, ‘How ya doin’, Boomerocity?’ Ya know what I mean? He’s a moody guy. So, I just let him do his thing when that happens.”
I had just finished “Sarah” just prior to our call and I absolutely loved it. I’m a voracious reader, but if a book loses me, I " allowtransparency="no" width="120" height="240">don’t waste my time. I can honestly say that I couldn’t stop until I finished it. When I told Corky as much, his reply was gracious and sounded like it came from the heart.
“Well, I’d like to take credit for a good deal of that, but in short, I had my co-writer, Tuija (Tecala), who I had met in Manchester in 2006 and we kept in touch as I worked on a project, ‘Playing God’, with her, that she wrote. She’s very prolific. She’s a PHD, she’s a professor and she loves music. That’s the way we became partners - in writing the music in this play called ‘Playing God’.
“Hence, while we were rehearsing that in the New York area in my studio, she went to the storage area while she had some time and pulled out a box of letters that I had written to my mother over a period of about thirty odd years; that my mother had saved in this box, nice and neatly. I didn’t know about it. I never knew my mother did that. But, at the time, Tuija and I were talking about trying to do a memoir. She went online and she was pissed off. ‘Wikipedia, you got a lot of facts wrong!’
“She says, ‘Can we just clean up this brand of yours?’ And I said ‘yeah’. She said, “Well, maybe these letters could help us as a catalyst, in terms of a timeline of over thirty-odd years, which would coincide with me being in a local band when I was 15 years old; all the way through Mountain, West, Bruce & Laing; right through when she passed away. She saved these letters.
“Tuija was the one to say, ‘Well, wait a second. We can do this. We can put the letters in the book.’ She chose specific letters that were heartwarming, some were, whatever they were. But she was in charge of that, and she had them all filed beautifully as to the topic in the letter, and where it was, what the date was, what I was thinking, what I was smoking. Whatever it was, it was in the letters. Hence, she put it together, and I would tell the stories that would, hopefully, embellish the letters. That’s the way the book developed.
“I’m thrilled that you and people noticed that particular approach, because it was spontaneous and in terms of doing it. We had no idea. I have to say, a lot of my buddies in the music business say, ‘Cork, are you going to tell the story of snortin’ ants off a table and out late, with Ozzy?’ I said, ’No, we’re not going to tell that story.’ She insisted that we would tell a proper - not a proper story but write a proper book. And that’s what gave it, I think, the credibility.
“So, I give her credit. She did an amazing job, and I’m not being humble. I lived that life, and I was very lucky to live that life and I enjoyed pretty much every moment of it. It’s there in the book. But what else can I do? Just celebrate. You got over fifty years there. I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. Ya know, Randy, it flies. It flies by. Especially for a drummer that’s trying to keep time. I wrote the letters to tether myself to my family. Because I was the baby in the family and there was 7 other people in the house. And, Randy, if you ever want to get noticed, get a set of drums because they’ll notice. Play them as loud as you want. As it turned out, the drumming sort of took me to places that I was fortunate enough to enjoy.”
Sharing how it all started, Laing said: “Well I wasn’t sure if it was one of the guys, whether it was Todd (Rundgren), or it could have been any one of those (who said), ‘To be a teenager, in the 50’s was to be a nobody.’ To be a teenager in the 60’s was to be an everybody. And, if You were lucky enough to pick-up a guitar or a pair of drumsticks and play and get in front of people, that was your era. That was the soundtrack. You started the soundtrack.
“I went from my first performance where I got addicted to playing - I think I may have been 11 or 12 years old. I was helping out on this stage in a country club outside Montreal. It was called the Riviera Country Club. I think it’s in the book. And what happens is, my brothers were busing the tables because it was a restaurant/bar/theater. I was a couple years younger than them and they got me to sweep the stage.
“So, what happened is: The Ink Spots come up from the Catskills because Montreal is a half a day drive and this particular theater would book people from the Catskills in the summer at this club, this outdoor cabana club. Jackie Mason, you name it. The comedians would come up there. The Ink Spots were like the Temptations of their time.
“So, they walk in, and I’m sweeping the stage to get them ready and there’s a drum set and a couple of mics there. The guy says, ‘Boy, boy, where’s the musicians? We gotta practice.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Well, I think I just got told there’s a strike; there’s a musician strike.’ They looked at me like, ‘Really?’. One of the guys plays guitar in the band - they’re beautiful black singers; they’re gorgeous, The Ink Spots - and he looked at me with the broom and said, ‘Can you just pick up the brushes over there on that kit and just give us a little brushes so it looks like there’s a band?’
“I didn’t know what he meant. I never sat on the drums. I took care of the drums. I cleaned the drum sets, ya know? I took care of them. And, as I sat there in shock, I put on a bowtie, and I’m back there, 5 beautiful singers, black guys and this little white kid, right? And I can see the audience looking up, this was in the early 60’s - no, late 50’s, early 60’s. There’s all these families and kids - there must have been 150 - and they’re all having dinner and there are Th Ink Spots are singing and I’m brushing, doing whatever I could do. And I am enjoying it. I’m enthralled. People are noticing me. You know what I mean, Randy? They are looking at me! Coming from a big family that nobody noticed me, that was big time. So, that got me addicted to actually performing.
“I think there’s a photo in the book of me playing this drum set, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is the most beautiful instrument in any band!’ I remember going to music stores with my mom. I was going to buy a snare. I was shoveling snow that whole winter and I made enough money to buy a snare drum. I went into the store and my mother said, ‘Look at all these beautiful drums!’. There were sparkles. You’ve seen drum sets. Anyway, how could you not fall in love? So that’s when I fell in love with the drum - the way they looked.
“You go through these changes, Randy, where different things really inspire you.”
I interjected how cool it was, being born at the perfect time and having the perfect opportunity. It won’t happen again. It’s not going to happen again. You don’t know that when you’re there. Corky replied:
“But, somehow, something tells me, ‘Go for it, baby! Go for it!’ And I did. That’s where the book is at, in Montreal and just across the border into the states was a big deal - New York, was.
“You know, my father did tell me one thing ‘cause he saw me playing downstairs and he says, ‘Corky, if you wanna find out how good you are, go to someplace where the people know what good and great is.’ I remember saying, ‘I’m fourteen years old and I’m going to have to get my ass down to New York‘ ‘cause I saw King Grupa playing in New York at the Metropol on TV. They had a thing. So, once you see that, I got my ass in gear with the band and my buddy, George Gardos, and we got our visas and headed down to New York to the Peppermint Lounge, Randy! I don’t know how old you are, but do you remember? The Peppermint Twist was the coolest song in the world! What we didn’t know was that by the time we got to the Peppermint Lounge, it became a gay club! So, there we were, 14, 15-year-old kids, we were dressed up - like in those days all the bands wore the same outfit. We had suede vests with puffy white sleeves, ya know? White shirts, tight pants and dingo boots. All the same color and, boy, did they love us!
“What happened is, you had Johnny Maestro and the Crests who were playing, remember? (sings) ‘Sixteen Candles’, and after playing all these sweet sixteens, it was a big deal. They were headlining. And Johnny came over and said ‘You boys, just be really careful. Make sure you go into the bathroom together.’ And, I’m saying, ‘Wow! What advice!’ That was our first gig in the states. Then, we went on from there. That was like, the mid-60’s then.”
In “Sarah”, Corky tells a fascinating story about seeing The Who during their first tour in the U.S. and an incident that involved Keith Moon. I asked him about it.
“The point is, when I first saw The Who - we were opening. Our band, Bartholomew Plus III was opening the show at the Forum at the time. I think I mentioned in the book. This was the time the British invasion came in. So, because we were Canadian and because our manager ran the Forum, he booked us. We opened up for James Brown. Go figure. We opened up for the Kinks. We opened up for Herman’s Hermits. You name it. And they all came in because they had to get their visas. So, The Who came in and they were not celebrities, Randy. Nobody even knew who the f*** they were. They caused a riot. They broke up their equipment. You know what they did.
“Hence, at the time, Keith threw off this jacket and everything cleared. The police cleared the place. It was pretty heavy. And when things quieted down, I walked back under the stage - huge stage - and I see the jacket. I told the story (in the book), I don’t have to repeat it.
“I was going to steal it. And, as a result of me actually giving it back to him, I tell you, I think he’s going to kill me ‘cause I said, ‘Here’s your jacket.’ Because his grandmother made the jacket for the tour - for his FIRST tour, Randy - this was big time! He thought he lost it. When I handed that to him, he grabbed me by the collar – I thought he was going to kill me. He gave me a big kiss on the lips. I mean, he’s a funny guy. And I looked at him and went, ‘Whoa!’. It actually felt good. But the point is, he walked away, looked and me (and said), ‘Thank you, mate! I can’t thank you enough! I can’t thank you! I’ll never forget you!’ I went, ‘All right’ and he walks out, and at the time I don’t know what made me do what I did it, but I said, ‘I was going to steal it.’, just trying to relieve myself with that confession. He came running back at me, and this time I really thought I was dead. He grabbed me, again, and gave me another big kiss on the lips and he said ‘But ya didn’t steal it, did ya mate? Ya didn’t steal it and that makes it even better!’ And he says, ‘I love ya mate and I’ll never forget ya!’ Another kiss on the lips!
“So, what I’m saying is, he didn’t forget me. As time went on, Mountain was being managed in Europe and the UK by the same management company - it was Track Records that had Hendrix in England and they had The Who. So, we used a lot of the same crew as The Who, because they were off, The Who were off. In any case, we did become friends. Later on, he invited Jack, myself, and Leslie out to his house. And he came and, I don’t know how to put it. He pulled up in his Hydro plane. You know, the big thing? Anyways, so Randy, he pulls up and he sent a Mini Cooper to pick us all up as a joke because he knew Leslie was, like, 350 lbs. We got out of that and it was very funny, Randy. He saw Leslie trying to climb out of the f****** Mini Cooper and he says, ‘I’m so sorry mate. I’m so sorry. I would have sent the Rolls, but it’s in the pool!’ That kinda shit. We had a great time. We met a lot of times.
"In New York, when they played Madison Square Garden, he couldn’t have been nicer. He sat me right beside - right behind - Peter Townsend’s amps. Because, you know, backstage is one thing - the dressing room. He says, ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on!’ And he sat me right there and he had his tablecloth with his wine and his beer; his couple of shots of whatever, who knows what else was on the little table. But I sat there, and I watched him. Randy, I watched him. I focused every minute on him because I learn by the hand. I never took lessons, but I watched, and I was lucky enough to be able to do what I saw. And I remember, he got off the stage and he went back there. I said, “Keith I have to ask you . . .’, and he said, ‘Stop it! Stop it, right now! Don’t ask me how I do it! I have no f***ing idea what I’m doing, so don’t ask me!’
“It’s one of those things Randy, where it’s beyond being inspired. I just wanted to be Keith Moon, you know what I mean? I wanted to enter that vessel, you know, and take that journey. Which, I must say, that’s what the book is about, I guess. That’s the Nantucket sleigh ride, Randy. That the one we’re all on right now, as far as I know.”
Corky and his peers have seen a lot of changes in the music business. Not all of them have been good. I asked him if he were made music czar, what would he do to fix – if it can even be fixed.
“It was (broken), yes, (in the) early 90’s. I don’t think, number one, it can be fixed. It’s gone to a place - it started off kind of as a joke. You know, it was a summer job. It’s what you did on the weekend, whatever. But it was good. It was about the music. It was about the inventory. What you learned was in your heart. It wasn’t in your pocketbook. And, I’m happy to say, I never thought I’d make a lot of money in music. I knew when I started, you had to pay for things. You had to buy things, yeah. But I didn’t look at it like, ‘I’m gonna become a rock star’ ever, ever, ever! As a matter of fact, I always hated when we had West, Bruce, and Laing, and they started calling it ‘Super Groups’. It was. And there were musicians that played really well; that got more coverage than other people. You know what I mean? So, I hated that title that they put on different bands.
“But there are a lot of people that went into the music business thinking they’re going to be stars. And, hence, you have those TV shows of people singing one song really great, which is fine. But the true musicians - it’s kinda like this: I think it was my dad, I’m trying to remember, I said ‘Dad, I wanna grow up and I wanna be a rock drummer.’ He said ‘Cork, you’re gonna have to choose one thing or the other.’ So, I knew I would never grow up.
“But the drumming, it made you feel so much more. That’s why they call the drum seat a drum throne because it is the best seat in the house. When you’re sitting there, especially in over the last 23 years, I played in the trio, so I was usually at the top of the triangle - on the riser. And I would watch the guitar player. I would watch the bass player. Whether it was Leslie, whether it was Jack Bruce, or Felix, and I set the tempo. I was in charge. I was king of the world, of that world. That was the best seat. Whatever I played went right through to the guys in the band, right through to the audience, and the audience responded right back, if you did a good job.
“So, it was like that circle of life that Elton John sings about. I compare it to that. It goes ‘round and ‘round; it feeds each other. But as soon as you throw the f****** money into it, money has nothing to do with that. It’s a f*** sick item that f***ed it all up because all it was was music - playing and listening. You know, you had the ears out there. You had the players on the stage.”
Then, circling back to becoming music czar, Corky concluded, “So, I’m not sure it can be fixed. I’m not sure. You can’t go back on this stuff. But, yes, my new album is going to be on vinyl. Talkin’ about a turn around. There are a few things that still exist. You know, there are a lot of fans that are buying vinyl instead of CD’s. That’s just symbolic, though. That’s just symbolic of a time that you could feel, you know, you could literally feel the record and you have the album cover and you could read it and look at it. And, normally, if it was done well, it would project the vision of the record.
“Of course, when MTV came, it started going and it started spinning off into different marketing aspects. So, I don’t know if it’s going to come back to that. People can go get it. You can still go hear a great band, you know? I don’t know how you like. But to give you an idea, Randy, we are on tour this summer with the Legends of Woodstock, right? You were talking about the Hippiefest. It’s similar to that. The same guys putting on a few shows. We’re going to Houston and Denver, to play with 10 Years After, Cactus - you know, bands of the era and sort of implying there’s going to be a Woodstock-ish kind of vibe, which is fine.
“What I’m getting at is, that is as far back as one can really reach in terms of trying to find the musicians that played back then. And, like I said, they’re all dirt napping. If they’re not on stage, some of them have given up. Personally, I have no choice, I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t playing drums. Maybe selling shoes, but they would all be the same size and the same color. I’m starting to get out there Randy, I’m sorry about that.”
“But it’s like, again, I’m very fortunate to have experienced a great time in music and a time when drummers were allowed the freedom to play the way they wanted to. When I was playing with Mountain, Felix turned to me, ‘cause I was scared to death, you know? I didn’t know what to play. I mean, they’re coming up with these riffs and all that. So, I, look at Keith Moon, right? Felix says, “Whatever you do, show me the one. Make sure if we start getting out there and jamming, whatever, make sure I know where the one is.”
“So, he allowed me to go right off any kind of click track or anything. And that’s a joy, that’s a freedom. That is the freedom that you want in music. I mean, these days, I remember Dennis (Elliot) from Foreigner, a really good friend, you know? He’s gotta play with a click track. And Foreigner’s a great band. It’s good to have great material so I would never make any judgement on that. But, really, Dennis said, ‘How lucky you are! You don’t have to be instructed or anything!’ And I was. I was really lucky. You’re playing with guys like Leslie and Jack and Felix - they don’t need a drummer, Randy. These guys got more time than many drummers I know. So, all I did was just fill in the blanks and there weren’t that many blanks. You know, it was like a joy. Yeah it was like riding on any kind of jet plane, just going way out there and making any turns you want. I’m going on now Randy, you’ve got to shut me down. This is when you shut me down.”
When I asked Laing why does he feel it is that our music is so much better than the crap that has come out in the last decade and why do our kids and grandkids gravitate towards our stuff, the classics like Mississippi Queen, he replied:
“I don’t know. I think you should ask them. I don’t know. My son is 31 and he won’t listen to Rap. He doesn’t listen to any of that. You’re right, he went right to The Doors. He went way back. I think the closest he got to new music was when Dylan and Roy Orbison and Tom Petty put together that great band - The Travelling Wilburys, yeah. And, if you were a Wilbury, you were cool, ya know? I’ve gotta say that that’s the latest one. But, again, those were the guys. They were all part of Classic Rock. I just don’t want to get in a posture to judge or diss the new music right now because there is some good things out there. They’re just - I don’t know, if you come from a headspace where music does certain things in a certain order in your head, you get used to that. So, it’s no fear of what’s new, it’s just how do I understand this?
“Last night I was watching the MTV movie awards, which I never watch. We happened to be in this cottage in Nantucket, and Tuija and I are watching it, and she’s looking at me saying, ‘How come you’re watching this?’ ‘I’m watching this because I’m curious.’ I had no idea, Randy, what the f*** they were doing. The guy was moaning, and he was lying down on stage. And this is a big - apparently a big star. Girls are screaming and all that. And a couple of whistles, who knows what he is doing. Can’t understand a word he says. I’m not putting it down, I’m just saying, I don’t understand what this is all about in terms of what they’re doing.
“And, so, you know, this is not just a generation, it’s 2 or 3 generations now from Classic Rock. You talk about the 10 years and stuff, you got about, it’s 2020. You know, right off the bat, we’re 20 years into the new millennium. I can’t say anymore, I’m going to shut myself down on that, because no, I don’t know what to say. Because, there are some great, great bands, Sublime - there are some good bands. You know they all break up. That’s the problem when new bands come. But I can’t criticize that because, we had a great band with Jack Bruce and myself, and we broke up too early. Who knows? It’s all the emotional aspect of it.”
I responded by quoting the late Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Co. from one of my first interviews when I launched Boomerocity. He said, “Randy when we were out there, it hadn’t been done before.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.“We were inventing this stuff, then. Nowadays, you’ve got schools cranking out 500 graduates a year who can play Hendrix”, which says a couple things. First of all, it speaks to the genius of guys like Mountain and others being able to tap into that muse out there and be able to create great classic works that stand the test of time. Secondly, it’s human nature to see this happen, but people try to emulate and mutate; they try to clone and copy. People try to commoditize. People are trying to take things that we all loved and try to carry on the tradition while creating a new tradition. People like Jonny Lang, Joe Bonamassa and others who are taking what Laing and his peers have done, honoring it and trying to create their own work to be able to carry the mantle forward. I concluded my comment by saying that I think there is something in the DNA of our generation - of our music - that is solid and, hopefully, our kids and grandkids will honor and respect that and carry it forward.
He replied philosophically.
“You know what, Randy? If they don’t, it’s all right, too. They’ll do what they do. I just found out a couple of years ago, I was listening to one of the Rap songs, I think it could have been JayZ. I guess his producer, was it Rick Baker? I’m trying to remember the producer. Anyway, they used a live recording of myself, the intro to ‘Long Red’. But I remember listening to a record, it could have been the other guy, Spotty D, or Icy Bull or whatever or whoever it was. But I remember that I said, ‘That feel was really cool.’ And I find out that my intro to ‘Long Red’- that we recorded way back somewhere, at the Fillmore. It was one of the top 10 samples that these rappers used. I looked it up. It said Top 10 samples, drum samples for rap. You’ll see, ‘Long Red, Corky Laing’ or whatever. And I’m going, ‘Where’s my check’, Randy?
“It turns out that I was about 8-9 years late. I gotta tell ya, I really felt like, wow, that is so cool that you know that happened. They sampled it and, apparently. It’s a real simple beat. Nothing over the top. I ‘m trying to think of the guy with the beard that produced JayZ. I’m sorry, I think it became Capital or Epic or something. Come on Cork... Rick, Rick, Rick . . . Anyways, the point is: Leslie got these huge gold records from JayZ on his wall, from ‘99 Problems and the Bitch Ain’t One of Them’. It’s a great song. I did listen. They used his guitar and they manipulated a couple of down beats and they use it as a percussive effect and they gave Leslie credit, which was kinda cool because you wouldn’t of. I couldn’t identify it, if you ask me. You know what I’m saying? In other words: You’re right about them using things from the past, manipulating them a bit and whatever they feel they want to do, I guess, to hold on to a little bit of yesterday day or whatever that is. But, you know, at this point, if the kids are listening . . .
“But you’re right about one thing: Because of everything being so disposable these days, Classic Rock is right there. It’s not going away. It’s not coming back. It’s not going away. It’s there. And, hey, I couldn’t be more happier than a pig in shit about it because at 50 years later, I’m playing Mississippi Queen, a song that didn’t even have any meaning in it. It was a rap song. The version of it on Don’s old records - somebody recorded me when I played in Nantucket, and the lights went out. There was no electricity and I started screaming out at this dancer who came up from Mississippi and I kept the lyric and everything, even though I was trying to pick her up.
“But the point is, how much happier can you be? This goes back to 1968-69 and people are still rockin’ with it. I love it, you know? What can I say? So, I’d be the last person to criticize anything. And what’s his name from Grateful Dead (he meant Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company) is right. We were just trying whatever was necessary - from whatever we felt was necessary from our heart. And it had to be LOUD, you know?
“I know a lot of the heavy metal bands these days, but, somehow, I’m associated with being a heavy metal drummer. The only reason I think that is because I had timbales when I started, which were, like, neutron bombs when you hit them. And then I had the cowbell. The only reason I had those drums is to cut through the stack of amps that Felix and Leslie played. They didn’t have all of the sophisticated microphones, Randy. You know it was like, you had to play really loud. And that’s what I did.”
Referencing the aforementioned SNL skit, I interjected “You were doing cowbells before they were being demanded more of, right?”, to which he replied:
“That’s right! I sold a lot of LP cowbells. I did! They were really happy with me.
With the book out, now, I asked Corky what’s on his radar for the next year or two.
“Well, I’ll tell you exactly what it is. At this point, we have the book, which we are just starting to promote. By the way, thank " allowtransparency="no" width="120" height="240">you for your support on the book. It’s really cool that you’re doing this. And we have a new record coming up, which was recorded last - well, 6 months ago we finished it. It’s coming out in the fall - the latest will be the fall. So, I will continue to tour that. We are going to Europe and Germany in October. I think we’re hitting France and maybe Romania? Romania. I’ve never been to Romania. Maybe Gastonia, I don’t know, one of those ‘nias’. Yeah, we’re going to keep playing. As long as I can kick it, I’m going to kick it, Randy. And I see we have a repertoire to work with, which is great, whether we’re playing old Mountain or West, Bruce and Laing. And, again, we have this new record called, Toledo Sessions, and I’m very, very proud of that from a writer’s point of view. Detroit, Toledo, it’s become the rock belt up there.
Speaking about his book, again, Laing said:
“The book is very special to Tuija and myself. That’s why it’s great to talk about it. You know, I’ve been talking about music for the last 50 years, which I love. But it’s very different. It’s a different format.”
You can order Corky’s book by clicking on the widget beside this sentence or wherever you prefer to purchase your books. You can also keep up with the latest going on with Corky by visiting CorkyLaingWorks.com.