• Corky Laing Talks Letters, Music, and Mountain

    Posted September 2019

    CorkyLaing001 cropBaby 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.

    CorkyLaing002“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 CorkyLaing003said, ‘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.”

    CorkyLaing001“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.

  • Leslie West

    Posted July, 2009

    westandvanhalenPhoto by Wade WeberIf you’re a middle-aged, “slightly overweight”, pasty white guy like me, you occasionally wish that you could go back in time.  You wish that you could go back to the smooth skinned, skinny person you were in high school or college.  You wish that you could go back in that time when you knew more than your parents and were fully aware of the solutions to all of the world’s problems.  In her top selling hit, Me and Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin wailed, “I’d trade all of my tomorrow’s for a single yesterday.”

    Do I have some great news for you!  You can go back in time and it won’t cost you your future.  That’s right, folks!  Coming to a city or town near  you, you can catch the tour that is getting the Baby Boomer Generation’s tongues a-waggin’ and classic rock fans salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

    That tour?  HippieFest and, this year, it has a dynamite line-up of some of the favorite artists and bands that blared from your radio while you wowed your imaginary legions of fans while you lip-synched or played the world’s best air guitar.  Artists such as Chuck Negron (the voice of Three Dog Night), and Flo and Eddie, Felix are on the line up as are Joe Molland (Bad Finger), Mitch Ryder, Brewer and Shipley, and Mountain and the surviving half of its founding duo, Leslie West.  West’s founding partner, Felix Pappalardi, was the victim of what was ruled as a negligent homicide committed by his wife, Gail Collins Pappalardi, in 1983.

    Leslie West is a man who is comfortable with where he is in life while touring with his band that enjoys an impressive 40 year legacy that still commands broad support.  While Mountain still has fans that remember when they performed at Woodstock and bought their first vinyl album, West is introducing a new generation to his signature Mountain sound.  The bands iconic hit, Mississippi Queen, has been covered by artists and bands ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top to being sampled by current Rap artists.  This new surge in popularity has, no doubt, been helped by the band’s music being featured in TV shows, movies and, more recently, in video games.

    Before the band boarded their tour bus to join the HippieFest tour, I had the privilege of chatting with Leslie West.  We started off by talking about what Mountain has been up to lately.

    “Well, we just finished two months with Joe Satriani and all over the country and had the holidays, working on my guitar DVD that should be out soon and called, ‘Sounds of the Stories’ and getting ready to go on this tour, HippieFest  . . .”.  He also mentions with pride that he and the band will performing again at Woodstock forty years and one after the band made its appearance there.  In addition to performing the set they played in 1969, there will be a new, life changing event taking place on stage:  He’s going to marry his fiancé.

    I was curious about the backstage environment between the bands on the HippeFest. “We travel with our own bus so we don’t really hang out to much.  We have a good time hanging out with Flo and Eddie and Felix Cavaliere.  I’ve known Felix for a long time – we’re old buddies.”  Later, he adds with a laugh, “Yeah, (the bands) us to talk a out buying cocaine and now they talk about buying Lipitor and Plavix and drugs like that, you know?”  This, no doubt, leads to a healthier line-up than in days gone by.

    I asked West if the inclusion of “Mississippi Queen” in Guitar Hero III was creating a larger, younger audience for Mountain.

    “Well, it’s been on Rock Band, also.  When you have a game like that, that did over a billion dollars in business, it sure does.  And, also, Kanye West and Jay-Zee used my songs for some of their songs, too.  That has helped quite a bit.   “99 problems” by Jay-Z  was my music is being sampled.  Kanye West is the same thing – the song, Long Red.  So, all of a sudden – go figure!”

    With forty years of touring under his belt, Leslie West has seen and done it all.  I asked him what the main differences are that he sees in touring today as compared to the 60’s and 70’s.

    “A better tour bus!  That makes it a lot easier because I hate to fly and it’s a pain in the *** - security and all that stuff and, uh, it takes a toll on you.  But, on the bus, you finish playing, you go relax and all of a sudden, you’re moving and in the next city and if you want to go to the hotel, you can relax.   Just to play the shows is tough enough.

    “You know, what happened, I think, after 9-11 when nobody could fly and that all happened.  Well, these corporations and everybody else started saying, “Wow!  A tour bus is the only way we can get anywhere.  And they started using them and they started making them nicer.  Everybody wants a tour bus now. “

    The Woodstock generation was one that clearly lived for the day.  I asked West, “When you were touring back in the 60’s and 70’s, what did you expect the world to be like 40 years later?”

    He bluntly states, “I didn’t expect anything.  I was lucky we made it to a month!  I was a kid and we were writing rules as we went along.”  Reflecting on the idyllic mindset of those days, he adds, “You could leave the doors to your house open and, you know, nobody had guns, really, and, if you did, you were just shooting rabbits up in the country.  But, like Dylan said, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

    This lead to talking about what he missed from those days.  He shared about missing being younger and thinking he was “bullet proof”.  “I could throw myself off a building and I wouldn’t hurt.  We’d finish – especially when we did this last tour with Satriani, I think it was 35 shows in 42 days.   But I also did the encore with him.  So, Mountain did our show then left and he did his show and I had to come back and do a half an hour with him.  So, it was, like, 70 shows in . . . 45 days.  It was a lot of work.  It was one after the other so you just keep going and don’t get a chance to exhale. “

    Conversely, he mentions what he doesn’t miss about those days.  “What I don’t miss is . . . sometimes we had to do two festivals in one day.  (We would) get on the jet and do the Cincinnati Pop Festival then fly to Atlanta at night and do the Atlanta Pop Festival.  It was really rough.  I mean, all of a sudden, the festivals would hit and – I was lucky enough to be on them but it was an awful lot of travel.  I always thought we got paid to travel, not paid to play.  That’s what it felt like.

    Still comparing the 60’s and 70’s to today, the conversation turns, naturally enough, to today’s music.  He loves Creed and says that “Mark Tremonti is a really great guitar player.”  But Creed is about the only current talent that commands his respect.  He doesn’t see anyone that offers anything new.

    I suggest American Idol’s Adam Lambert but West slaps the offering down by saying, “Yeah, but there is nobody that is totally so -  so – so unique that you think, “Wow!  I never heard anything like that before!  The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    He also bemoans how music is made today, saying, “I tell you the truth, some of the music today, I don’t know what . . . I’m listening to.  Am I listening to machines?  Am I listening to tape of somebody?  I don’t know if somebody is really playing.  I can sometimes really tell if somebody is really playing the guitar.”

    Speaking of guitars, West lights up talking about his “baby”:  His signature line of guitars manufactured by Dean Guitars.  “.  I’m really involved with my Leslie West Signature Guitar with Dean Guitars.  It’s important to me.  We got into it, finally, and I have my own model and now we have four models.  Check out DeanGuitars.com and look at the 40th Anniversary Leslie West Guitar.  We made this great looking guitar with inlay on it and a peace sign with my initials in it for the anniversary of Woodstock.

    “ . . . they sold out of the anniversary ones they made.  They were quite expensive.  They only made 10 or 12 but the other ones are doing very well.  It took me a while to figure out what I wanted (the guitars) to look like.  I use to play a Les Paul Junior but this one is like a Ferrari version of that.  And, then, also we have my own Leslie West pick-ups – “M.O.T. “ (Mountain of Tone) pick-ups with Dean Guitars.  And, this summer, we’re coming out with the 40th Anniversary Mississippi Queen cow bells.  So, we’re doing pretty good.”

  • Leslie West Discusses Soundcheck, Hendrix, and More

    Posted March 2016


    West Leslie CREDIT JUSTINBORUCKI 001Photo by Justin BoruckiOne of the most talked about performances at Woodstock (but didn’t’ get to make it on the movie) is the eleven song set by Mountain. At the time, the band was mostly noted for it’s cover of the Jack Bruce tune, Theme for an Imaginary Western, as well as blistering guitar solos by the bands founder, Leslie West.

    In the years that followed, the band continued to blaze musical trails, ultimately releasing eight studio and three live albums. It’s signature hit became “Mississippi Queen” that has been heard all over the world and used in movies, TV shows and commercials. 

    Leslie West also simultaneously launched a successful solo career, marked by fifteen solo albums – sixteen when you include his new monumental effort, “Soundcheck.” It was for “Soundcheck” that I recently contacted West by phone. In fact, I called him on the 45th anniversary of the passing of Jimi Hendrix. I was curious about your thoughts about him.

    “Well, it was really sad. He died at almost 28 years old. I’ve since become friends with his sister, Janie. She came through New York recently – within the last year. They’re doing a documentary on the Atlanta Pop Festival – with Jimi there. They were interviewing people that played it. She’s such a sweetheart.”

    Circling back to Jimi himself, West continued:

    “Too bad he’s not still around. I have very fond memories. I played with him at a club in New York at, like, one in the morning. Just me and him. Him playing bass and me playing guitar. In fact, on MoutainRockBand.com – our website – there’s a picture of Hendrix playing bass and me playing guitar that night. It’s not the greatest picture but you can certainly see that it’s him and me. 

    “He went WAY before his time. Yeah, that wasn’t a happy day.”

    Bringing the conversation to Leslie’s new CD, I asked him how many solo records this mad for him.

    “I think it’s sixteen solo albums, believe it or not. I think. Somebody wrote that the other day. I started to count them but I EverythingKnoxvilleLogoEditedfeel really tired so I’m not going to start to{mprestriction ids="*"} count. Ha! Ha! The good thing is this one I’m really proud of. The sound is great and I’ve got some good people playing on it.”

    When he says, “some good people,” West is referring to people such as Queen’s Brian May, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Bramlett, Jack Bruce and Joe Franco (via some resurrected studio tapes). When I said that having such a stellar group of artists willing to play on his album certain said a lot about the respect he has amongst such big names, Leslie said:

    “On the ‘Going Down’ track with Brian May, a friend of mine was producing at the time and he got us all together. So, when I was doing this album, nobody had ever heard it, I don’t think. The song was written by Don Nix. Don sang it originally. But when we listened to the masters of it, he didn’t use Brian’s solo. Somebody else finished producing it even though my friend started it. 

    “So, when me and my engineer heard it, I was playing the solo on the first half of the song. There was a break and then Brian played the solo on the second half on out. We put it together and it was great! We’ve got Max Milton playing the intro on piano. I get really excited. That’s probably my favorite guitar song to jam on of all time.”

    As we talked about the songs on the album, I mentioned how unique his treatment of the old song, “You Are My Sunshine,” was in its contrary delivery.

    West Leslie CREDIT JUSTINBORUCKI HR02Photo by Justin BoruckiWith a chuckle, Leslie shared the background to that version.

    “I gotta give credit to Sons of Anarchy because I heard somebody doing it on there. Instead of the major key that the sounds so happy, it was in a minor key. I said, ‘Boy, I think I can really do a very, very ‘funerally’ – funeral dirge – some kind of sad version of it.’ 

    “I called Peter Frampton because I’d done something with Peter the year before. I said, ‘Peter, I’ve got a version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that I’d love for you to play with me.’ I sent it to him. It really came out great. I’m really proud of it. Between the two of us – I think I started out playing the first solo and he played the second one. After the break in the middle, he plays the first solo and I play the last solo and we play the last line together.

    “I’ve known Peter forty-five years – something like that. Even though we’d toured together, we’d never actually played together. He had this tour last year called ‘Frampton’s Circus’. He invited me to play a couple of shows on it. It was the first time we had ever played together. Now we’ve played together twice.”

    After working with them on this record, are there any more plans to collaborate with any of these people in the future?

    “Well, there’s a young guitar player – Jim Cook – a blues player. He’s going to be opening for me in New York when I play B.B. King’s. I play a track on his album. I think the kid’s gonna be something special. I’m looking forward to that.”

    Having worked on all of the Mountain and solo records that he has – as well as appearing on many of his friends’ projects – I asked West how “Soundcheck” was different for him.

    “It’s not so much different than the last one I did, ‘Still Climbing,” because that was only two years ago. The machines and everything else – every two weeks there are new things to try out. We’re pretty much on ProTools. The secret to making a good album is a good engineer. I can just play and Mike can edit where I need editing. Putting songs together is a lot easier now that it used to be years ago.”

    As a “calling card” for the entire record, Leslie offered his choice of song:

    “The first cut, ‘Left by The Roadside to Die’. It starts with a synthesizer. I actually played that part on the guitar and had myWest Leslie CREDIT JUSTINBORUCKI HR05Photo by Justin Borucki keyboard player start to play it. So, right off the bat, I guess you’d expect to hear a guitar from me. This, at least, you hear that synthesizer come on and then I start playing some slide and it gets heavy. It shows some different phases of what I can do in one song. I would hope that would get you to listen to the rest of the album!”

    The best of the best guitarist are sought after by the various guitar manufacturers. It’s no surprise that Leslie West has a signature line through Dean Guitars. When asked how that line was doing, he said:

    “Great. We ran about five models. From very expensive, to the middle, to very inexpensive so everybody can play it. Even the less expensive ones have great graphics on it. The newest model is the Leslie West Peace guitar. It has my logo. The logo looks like a peace sign but, if you look closely, one of the lines on the circle is left out so it looks like an LW. It’s a black guitar with a silver peace sign on it. It looks great! It’s been a lot of fun. I mean, I feel sorry for Jimi Hendrix. He’s dead and he never had a model while he was alive.”

    Jimi Hendrix came up in the conversation about signature guitars when West started talking about what a Hendrix signature model might be.

    “They were upside down Stratocasters. They weren’t left-handed. He would take a regular Strat and just re-string it. A guy like Albert King, he used to turn the guitar upside down and play it backwards. I don’t know how the hell he did that! He had the big Flying V and just turned it upside down so, where the fat E string would be, he had the little, thin E, first! I wondered how he stretched the strings that far. 

    “The first gig we ever did was with Albert King. Fillmore West. Mountain’s first gig. I watched him play. I had been trying to develop my vibrato and stretch the strings. I wanted to stretch them as much as he could. When I found out that he was doing it from the opposite way, it made it a lot easier. I didn’t see that until I watched him. I wished that I had saw him before. It would’ve made my life a lot easier and simpler!”

    Circling back around to Hendrix, again, Leslie said:

    “Yeah, if Jimi was still around, I kinda know what his Strat would be like.”

    Our conversation turned to another great, legendary guitarist – one who recently passed away and who, like West, played at Woodstock: Johnny Winter.

    “I was on Johnny’s last album. ‘Long Tall Sally’. And Johnny played on my last album on the song, ‘Busted, Disgusted or Dead’. My engineer mixed Johnny’s last album and got a Grammy for it. We (Johnny) were pretty close. I actually helped Johnny get himself straightened out, drug wise. He didn’t die from drugs, man. He just died of natural causes. He wasn’t doing to well, health-wise. Neither was I, but, somehow, I’m still around!”

    That last comment gave me the opportunity to ask Leslie how he was doing. As some of you may not know, West has had some serious health problems over the last several years – including the loss of a leg - so I asked how he was doing. His initial remark blindsided me.

    “I was going to ask you, Randy: Did you find it (his leg)?” 

    Then, on a more serious note, he added:

    “My balance is terrible and I haven’t been able to use the prosthetic so I have to sit in a chair to play, unfortunately. But it hasn’t stopped me from playing. That’s a good thing. In rehab, they put me in the parallel bars with the prosthetic leg and made me put the guitar on. I put the guitar on and they wanted to see how long I could stand and play the guitar without falling. I didn’t last thirty seconds. 

    West Leslie CREDIT JUSTINBORUCKI 001Photo by Justin Borucki“I said, ‘You know, this isn’t going to work on stage. I don’t want to be worrying about falling when I’m trying to play.’ Even though you have a prosthetic, it feels like an alien to you.”

    Then, after sharing more about his adjustment to losing his leg, he said:

    “Life is precious, Randy. Thank God for the guitar, right?”

    I know you have many more years of work left in you but when you finally do go to that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?

    “When the time comes, and they cover me with dirt and grass, to all my critics that didn’t like the way I played, they can kiss my big . . . “

    I’ll leave it to you to figure out what else he said.{/mprestriction} 

  • Mick Jones - Orchestrating Foreigner's Latest Tour

    January 2020

    MickJoneTDscopy croppedIn these days and times, it’s considered remarkable to be still be working when one is in their seventies. It’s even more remarkable to be working successfully in your field for fifty-three years. So, to say that Mick Jones is remarkable would be a tremendous understatement.

    Starting his musical career with the 60’s band, Jones has worked with a whole slew of artists. However, he is most noted for founding and leading the legendary band, Foreigner.  With reportedly over 80 million record sales world-wide, the band is one of the best-selling bands of all time.

    When he wasn’t leading the band in cranking out classics like “I Want To Know What Love Is”, “Waiting For A Girl Like You”, “Juke Box Hero”, “Cold As Ice” – as well as touring the world, he was producing records for bands such as Van Halen, Bad Company, The Cult, Ben E. King, and Billy Joel. ‘

    But Foreigner IS touring and doing so as energetically and creatively as they ever have. In fact, when they make their stop in Nashville, they will be performing their successful catalog of monster hits with the Nashville Symphony – much like they did with the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus a couple of years ago in Lucerne, Switzerland. 

    Having seen the band twice in the past ten years, I can only imagine they will sound with the Nashville Symphony in the city’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center. While I’m not sure I will be attending, I encourage you to catch them at whatever city closest to you on this tour because I guarantee you that you’ll be in for a real treat.

    But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.

    Because of their upcoming tour, their three Nashville shows and their Greeneville, Tennessee show shortly afterward, I caught up with the band’s founder and sole remaining original member, Mick Jones, while he was taking a break in New York City. 

    After the usual small talk, I started off by asking Mick if Foreigner had ever played the Schermerhorn before.

    “We've actually done a couple of shows there. It's got to be a couple of years back. And it was pretty much new at the time. I remember the sound being excellent in there. We got a lot of compliments on the sound. So, we were very happy. And I can only imagine having the orchestra. There's a pretty big choir going to be involved, too.” Then he added, “You know, we're pumped and ready to go. We'll be Tennesseans for a few days.”

    As for what fans can expect from the shows like the Nashville show as well as the non-orchestral shows during this tour, Jones shared:

    “Well, we've been touring. We took it easy last year or the year that currently - not going to be a new year. We did that last year and where we're sort of fairly - it was kind of a sparse sort of itinerary. We didn't do the major markets so much and this year we are doing nothing but. So, we've got a big tour of Europe coming up. Big, Actually, we're going to several countries. We're playing the O2 in London. 

    “As far as more regular type shows, we've got a pretty loaded schedule for the rest of the year. We're really looking forward to it. I think that we needed to take the time off just to refresh and really, I think from the view the audience, we've done two or three major summer tours, amphitheater tours the last few years, so we kind of withdrew a little bit. This is the comeback. 

    “So as far as the shows are concerned themselves, it's been kind of quite a learning experience working with the orchestra. I've worked very closely with the arranger. Actually, he's a master cellist. His name is Dave Eggar. We've worked together on the arrangements. From time to time, we'll get together and just refresh them. But it's worked remarkably well, going to these cities and plucking from the local string section of the local (orchestras) - colleges, schools, and it's works really well. We did a whole tour of Australia 18 months ago and we employed . . . college orchestras. They were great. They were really good. They were very talented. And it helps, also, to bring a communal kind of thing back into it. It was all really good. So, we've been lucky and we've had great orchestras wherever we played, pretty much.”

    To put a finer point and to clarify just a bit, Mick added: 

    “It's a new deal. Foreigner. Not that we're going to go that way completely. We're still going to be the rock band. But, from Mick Kelly Photo credit is Laurence HarveyKelly Hansen (L) & Mick Jones - Photo by Laurence Harveytime to time, we like to throw these shows. We have fun doing them.”

    As I stated at the beginning of this piece, it's been said that Foreigner has sold over 80 million records. I asked Mick why he felt that songs like Foreigner’s stands the test of time. 

    “I think, obviously, the songs have a fair amount to do with it. I think the artistry perhaps. The band has an identity musically. We were never a band to go out and be individual personalities so much as being a band. I think we've managed to keep up a standard, the quality in the songwriting and also in the performance. And now with the lineup as it is and with Kelly Hanson, we've expanded to a very exciting kind of staged live show. It's just remarkable with the recognition we still have. And, you know, you see younger folk in the crowd and they're singing the words to the songs, you know, even younger. Ten-year-old’s! And, it's, like, 'Jesus, what's going on here?'

    “But it's great. It's very gratifying. I never thought I'd be doing this at this time in my life. But, you know, I'm very grateful that I've been allowed to follow this dream and still doing it. Still having a ball. I think you'll probably see, if you haven't seen this for a while, the band is really in tip-top shape. It's a great show. It's very exciting. We've sort of completed what I've envisaged as, originally, the band of my dreams, in other words. As opposed to feeling tired or exhausted, I'm feeling like refreshed and full of confidence. The band is just super and everybody is really dedicated to it. The chemistry is great. It's just very refreshing in so many different ways. Now, as a stage show, is so powerful. It's also opened up a bigger audience again for us. So that's a good thing. It's nice to play in the big places again. 

    Our time was running out so I threw my final two questions to Mick Jones at once.  First of all, I wanted to know if he thought the music business was broken and, if he did, what he would do to fix it. 

    Secondly, I asked him a question that I’ve asked in approximately two hundred interviews and I’m sure Mick has been asked millions of times: When you step off the tour bus life up at the great gig in the sky, how do you hope to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be? Surprisingly, Jones answered the latter first.

    “Ok. Let's do to the last one first. 

    “Well, whenever that day comes and I hope it's a long way off, I'm having too much fun. You know, it inevitably will. And MickJoneTDscopyobviously, I'd like to be remembered as a decent guy and somebody who had a bit of a clue about writing songs and. And, really, having brought a few classic songs and put them in the wherever-they're-stored-up-there and songs that have actually reached people and have had an emotional effect on them or have been of some help during dark times - and happy times, too, you know. So, I just feel that I'm I've just been very fortunate to be able to do that - to be able to express myself and be successful at it, too.”

    Shifting to my music business question, the Starrider said:

    “The music business. It's almost like it's gone back to the beginning, you know, with singles, pretty much. People concentrate on singles more than they do on albums these days. And I think the general quality suffers a bit because, you know, career building is very much different these days, very much more difficult. It's a jungle out there, really. It's sort of out of control, in a way. Like, everybody's got some way of recording something and putting it down and there's just so many people and so much product out there - a lot. Which is good, you know. There's some cool bands around.

    “As much as that goes, I think the thing is, is if you don't have qualified people in the record companies - the old meaning of A&R was arranging and recording and there are not many people who really have the experience or the know-how to make great records. I don't think it's a shortage of musicians. I think it's just a shortage of teachers or up-and-coming musicians who can work or be influenced by a certain extent. 

    As far as a solution, I don't know, it's become a very - it's become a very greedy business, like a lot of things out in this day and age. And it's all money motivated. Not that it was not before. It's so stifling for kids to want to get a record contract and then discovered that they have to give their life away to do that. It's a little obscene, I think. As I say, there aren't enough people with the wisdom and the savvy to be able to nurture the artists and really advise them in a useful way.”

    That said, Mick Jones is certainly one of those in the world of rock and roll who most certainly has the wisdom and the savvy to rock our musical world. You may have a chance to allow him and the rest of the guys in Foreigner to do just that. Check out their tour schedule at ForeignerOnline.com.