Monday, February 19, 2007

33 1/3: a conversation with john perry

London-based guitarist John Perry is a former member of The Only Ones, as well as the author of Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy and Exile on Main St. in Schirmer’s Classic Rock Albums series and Electric Ladyland in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. We spoke by phone on February 8, 2006.

Electric Ladyland is absolutely, obviously written by a guitarist with a sense of humor.

(laughs) Yeah, that’s true.

Let’s start with the guitarist part first since that’s probably easier to talk about than where your sense of humor came from. When do you start playing guitar?

When did I start playing guitar? Let me think. I started when I was about 12 or 13, and then basically I left school at 16 and went professional straight away because in those days, which was the late sixties, there was still a lot of live work around England. I’d been working with bands for a couple of years. I was always the youngest in the band. And there was just work to turn down so I kind of went professional very young.

So if four years after you pick up your first guitar you leave the world behind in order to go do it for the rest of your life I imagine there’s some natural talent involved there.

Well, the thing that was nice was that all my mates at school were going through all that kind of Oh, what should I do? What am I going to be? What do I want to do? And I never even thought of that because, I mean, from the time I was about 13 there was kind of no question as to what I do and, you know, luckily I was able to.

Well, how does the guitar happen for you? Were there musicians in your family?

No, my dad sung counter tenor, sort of operatic, amateur. He could’ve been professional, I think, but he was the youngest of nine so by the time any money got to him there wasn’t enough. So he was a keen amateur musician but he didn’t play guitar. There was just a guitar in the attic which I got down. But I think like everyone at my age in England, the thing which did it was The Shadows. The Shadows were kind of the first guitar group in England and once you saw a Stratocaster and a tremolo arm that was kind of it. That’s what you wanted to do.

Was that your first real guitar? A Strat?

No, I had some Japanese guitars. I had an acoustic guitar first. My first electric was a Japanese guitar, and then the first Strat I picked up must’ve been about 1968. Again, in those days there were a lot of people who’d bought good American guitars in the late fifties when the first rock and roll boom, Buddy Holly and that sort of thing, had started, and then they probably got married and put the guitar under the bed where it sat for five or six years. The guy I bought it off certainly, the Strat had been under his bed for six years. He got married and the wife made him stop playing music.

Do you still play a Strat or are you playing something else?

Strat is always my main instrument. Yeah, I love Strats. I also play a Tele and with Freddie (Stevenson) quite a lot of acoustic so I’ve got a Martin I’ve had for years that is my main acoustic guitar.

All right. One more quick question about the guitars and then we’ll move on. What’s your favorite Strat that you own. What color? What year? How long have you had it?

I’ve had luck with guitars actually. The first Strat I had must’ve been ’68, the one I was telling you about under the bed. That was a sunburst. Then I had a friend who had been given one of Pete Townshend’s Gibson SGs that had been smashed and glued together and I bought that off him. Then in ’73 I got the white 1962 Strat which is the one I use now. And a couple of years later Jerry Garcia gave me his Gibson SG which is the one he played on Live/Dead, and the one he played at Woodstock, so I had a couple of SGs, a couple of Gibsons and one Strat. So I sold the Pete Townshend one and bought a Telecaster. So basically my main instruments now are a white 1962 Strat and a black ’64 Telecaster.

And you’ve had the white ’62 forever and a day?

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s beaten to fuck. It’s like a plank. That’s what I like about a Fender. Really, it’s just a plank and you can kind of kick it around the stage and bounce it off walls, play cricket with it. Anything you want. And it stays in tune. It’s the only guitar I’ve had that you can knock around and still stays in tune.

In 1976 you join The Only Ones.

That’s right. Late ’75 I started working with Peter and it was in development for about a year, and then we started gigging in January ’77, I guess. Everyone talks about ’77 as the year of punk but in London, if you were there, I always remember ’76 as the real year of punk, and ’77 the year it kind of spread out through the country. Peter, who was the singer in The Only Ones, was the first singer McLaren asked to front The (Sex) Pistols, but Peter didn’t want to do it because he was a songwriter and he knew basically what McLaren was looking for. The Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers we knew socially. We were good friends with them. So even though musically we weren’t really punk we were sort of shoveled in with the new wave. It’s a bit like Blondie in New York, really. I mean, they’re straightforward pop group but they were always included in the CBGB’s crowd because they were socially part of it.

So is pop/punk not a fair characterization of The Only Ones’ sound?

No, no. See Kellie, the drummer, had been in Spooky Tooth who were big in England and America in ’68. I would say we were a mainstream English rock ‘n’ roll band in the style of The Who and The Stones, if you like. Peter was very keen on Lou Reed. I was very keen on Jonathan Richman, so it was a kind of crossover between them. It was like any of those things. If you’re doing something good, and something genuinely original, when you start out nobody in the press kind of knows how to categorize it. You can tell if you’re doing something really good. If it’s easily pigeonholeable, it’ll probably be easy to sell but it probably isn’t that original. Every time you do something that the press is having a genuine problem figuring out quite what it is, you’re probably onto something original, I figure.

And The Only Ones last about four years?

We split up in 1980, but we had to pretend that we were together for another year in order to get out of our contract with CBS.

You’re obviously still playing guitar. When does the writing career start?

About 1984 I was just kind of entertaining friends with kind of long stories of like disasters on the road. You know, funny things that happen on the road, stuff that goes wrong. Of course, disasters are the most amusing bit. And somebody said, Oh, you ought to write that down. So I thought about it and thought, Actually, I probably should. And it’d probably be quite fun to write a book of kind of collected road stories, so I started doing that, kind of a retrospective diary, finished that but didn’t really put any effort into selling it, and then a bit later I bumped into Clinton Heylin who was a series editor for a similar set of books with Schirmer, and he said he’d been let down by the person doing The Who book, and I said, Well, I could do that. So I wrote a book on The Who singles for the Classic Album Series.

And that’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy.

That’s right.

And that comes out in 1997.

That’s about right. I probably wrote it in ’96, something like that I’d guess. I mean, I’d occasionally written bits for Melody Maker and bits for ZigZag, bits for various English magazines, so I’d always kind of scribbled a little bit. By ’96 I was 40-something and you’ve got a bit of perspective on things, and I just thought it would be fun to write basically about the three bands I loved most from when I was 16, which was The Who as they were in ’66, Hendrix and The Stones. Those were the three things that moved me most, I guess, when I was 16.

Well hell, John, that makes it sound like you’re finished.

I mean, I keep my ears open to new stuff, but I just think when you’re 16 you’re uniquely open to music, you know. And the other thing is, they were all things I saw before I was professional. Once you turn professional as a musician, you kind of know how it’s done. No matter how great the artist, you kind of know how it’s done.

It’s a different set of eyes, isn’t it?

Yeah, so you can never quite recreate that complete sense of magic when you’re just a spectator and you have no idea how it’s done, you know. I think that’s probably what the difference is.

So The Who book kind of falls into your lap.

Absolutely. It was just an accident.

It’s already a book. They just don’t have a writer.

They wanted to do Who’s Next and I said, No, I don’t want to do Who’s Next. For me, The Who were always two bands. They were a great English pop group who made a run of like six or seven superb singles, up as far as Tommy, then after Tommy they changed into a rock group and kind of invented big-time American stadium rock, really. They were still great, but they were a completely different proposition then. It was that singles band, The Who as they were when they were kind of 19, 20, 21 that really appealed to me.

So you do that one and it goes well and you’re happy and the editor’s happy.

That’s right.

And so he says, Why don’t you do another one?

That’s right. And I picked Exile a) because I loved the record, and b) I’d got quite good friends with Anita Pallenberg who was Keith Richards’ wife at the time they were making the record. You know, they made the record in the south of France at Keith’s house, and through all the stuff I’d read about that nobody had really talked to Anita about what went on. And you know, if you want to know what went on in the house, if you want to know where the bodies are buried, you ask The Lady of The House, so I was able to do long chats with Anita. I mean, I could do the musicology side of it, but the social stuff, there was this great resource of all this kind of info that Anita had that nobody had really sat down and talked to her about. I thought, Yeah, let’s do Exile on Main St. That’ll be a good one.

To the best of my knowledge, you’re the only writer who’s written for both the 33 1/3 series and the Classic Rock Album series.

I think that’s correct. I think that’s right.

How are the two different?

Okay, now the Schirmer ones were much more kind of formal dissections of the album. The Continuum series, David had a definite idea that he wanted kind of individual, quite quirky books. The one about The Smiths is almost a novel, I think. And he didn’t want just a straight, kind of musicological analysis. He wanted kind of a quirkier, more personalized view of it. I’d say that’s the main difference.

Well, it sounds like the approach that you were going to take with Exile on Main St., where you sit down and talk to Anita Pallenberg to get her perspective, that sounds like that could’ve been a 33 1/3 book if you had skewed it a certain way.

It probably would’ve fit into either, yeah, except the stuff with Anita was so much I don’t know if would’ve fit into the 33 1/3, because the 33 1/3 is quite a short word count and I had so much material from Anita. I could’ve probably just done Anita talks about Exile on Main St. for 33 1/3 and not even got to the music.

Well, how does the 33 1/3 book come about? The first one came out in fall of ’03 and yours is published in the spring of ’04, so I’m guessing there’s not even a physical sample to look at when you sit down to start this.

I don’t think there is at that point. Again, it’s my friend Clinton Heylin who basically writes Dylan books mostly, though he’s written one on Orson Welles and a couple of other topics. He always has fingers in lots of pies. And I was chatting with Clinton and he said, It’s time you did another book. And I said, Well, maybe, but I don’t know if a third one in the Schirmer series would go well. And he’d been talking to David and knew that there was another series with a kind of a different slant. And I thought, Yeah. I don’t want to do a third book in the same style, but if there’s something that’s still the same kind of area but from a different angle . . . So I got in touch with David. I e-mailed him overnight and got a very nice e-mail back but saying, no, the list was closed and thanks for writing but they were kind of set up. And then about 24 hours later I got a second e-mail saying, No, no. You must do it. John, do it. Do the book. So it was great. Stuff kind of turned around and it went straight from there.

What the hell happened in those 24 hours? Did you ever ask him?

I didn’t ask. But I what I think probably happened is when I first called him though, Oh shit, who’s this creep? Didn’t know who I was, didn’t know the other books perhaps. He maybe asked a friend, maybe the friend was an Only Ones fan and said, He’s a good guitarist and the books he’s done previously are good. You ought to grab him. That’s the only guess that I can think for a complete about turn so quick, you know.

When you contact David, do you say, I want to do one of these books? Or do you say, I want to do Electric Ladyland?

Basically I contacted him and said, There’s only two or three things that I feel that passionately about and I’ve done two of them. The remainder is Hendrix. I would love to do a Hendrix book. Which of the first three Hendrix albums would best suit your series? And between us we chose Electric Ladyland. But I would’ve been happy writing about any of the first three because they were just kind of landmark albums coming out when I was the perfect age for them.

So that’s your Holy Trinity of groups that you saw, pre-professional, when it was still magic. These are the three that you wanted to write about and so this basically kind of puts the last brick in the house you’re building here.

For those kind of books it does really. I was lucky. I was born just at the right time when most of the great bands were still playing live and still playing basically the local dance hall. Of the big guns the only ones I never saw was The Beatles. Obviously I would’ve liked to have seen The Beatles. You know, the Hendrix thing was ridiculous. I was at school when a friend said, Do you want to come down to the dance hall tonight to see this black bloke that plays with his teeth? And I said, No. Don’t be stupid. What would I want to go see that for? Because, you know, he didn’t have a record out. Nobody knew who he was. He had just arrived in England. But in the end I went anyway, and bang. You know, suddenly it was the Jimi Hendrix as we know him, but I was seeing him without any pre-preparation, with none of the myth already in place. It was just seeing him without a veil between you and him, if you know what I mean.

Sure. How about placing this for me, because that’s a very real moment in the book. Hendrix gets to England in late ’66.

That’s right. He arrived in late September ’66, starts playing the odd show around the London clubs, I think, in November, December. But he really starts in January, in the new year. January ’67 is when he starts playing around the country.

And when do you see him?

I saw him very early in February, so I guess “Hey Joe” was already out but hadn’t actually done anything yet.

But this isn’t London.

No, I grew up in Bristol which is a town about 100 miles west of London, and there was just a local dance hall where like every Monday you’d have Cream, John Mayall, The Who, The Small Faces. One of those would be playing every Monday. You went down and paid 35 cents and saw these bands playing live.

I’m going to make the assumption that the American idea of dance hall and the British idea of dance hall are completely different. I mean, dance hall in America sounds almost like a saloon in a Western, you know, where there are women in garters named Kitty.

No, no. It’s not women in garters. Basically you had a firm called Mecca who owned a kind of dance hall in every major town, and like Saturday night there would be an orchestra and it would be strict tempo dancing. Thursday night would be a disco and they would play Motown and all the mods would come. Basically the reason they did Monday nights for the live music was they could get the bands cheaper on a Monday night. If they booked Hendrix on a Saturday night it would’ve probably cost them 100 pounds. When they booked him for a Monday night, they probably got him for 30 quid.

How many people would the dance hall hold? And how many people are in attendance this night?

Occasionally, like with The Who at their peak, you’d get lines around the place and a few people turned away. It was probably about five or six hundred capacity. And it was just one of those classic sort of tacky low lighting, plastic palm trees, you know the kind of vibe. So it’s definitely like seeing him in a local club. I mean, I can’t have been more than four or five feet away from him.

Did Hendrix draw a full house?

It was decently attended. It wasn’t packed stupid certainly, but I mean there was a regular group of people who went to see the music every week.

So a crowd of several hundred.

That’s right. That would be it. Yes, I doubt if the place held a thousand so it would be hundreds. Right.

And what’s the effect on a 14 year old boy? You’ve been playing guitar for two years at this time, but I imagine at 14 you’re still a wide-eyed adolescent. Does your jaw drop? Do you realize when you see him that this is something different than you had ever seen before?

Oh, I think so. Because remember by this time we’d already seen Cream, we’d seen Clapton, we’d seen the English blues guitarists. And they were good guitarists but they were definitely a kind of trainspotter mentality, you know. It was English people doing an impersonation of something. And even with the little I knew you could see that Hendrix was the real thing.

I wanted to ask you about that. There’s probably as much material written about Hendrix as anybody short of Dylan, and many of the biographies play up the racial aspect of Hendrix’ ascent and many point to his being labeled as the Wildman from Borneo as sort of racial typecasting.

That’s right. In England he had a great publicist called Keith Altham and Hendrix’s management was basically Chas from The Animals and he was still thinking very much like, Hey, can we get a splash in the tabloids? So they tried Black Elvis and that didn’t do anything, so then they tried The Wildman of Borneo and that worked for the tabloids, I guess, but the thing is they were hitting the wrong audience, because this was a point that the Underground market was starting. If you took the people who became face in the Underground of 1969, probably about 99% of them were there that night, so it was clear that was his true audience. Apart from the fact that he was a black American and therefore doubly authentic, there was really no kind of comparable racial thing in England. I think a lot of the black musicians found Europe really kind of cool after America, which is why so many chose to stay there.

It’s an interesting angle because we still kind of go through the same issues with, say, American basketball players. White players are described as smart and gritty while African-American players are described as natural. And I understand the connotation behind the Wildman tag. They’re calling him primitive. But in the book you write, “Good as they were, none of the English players I’d seen – Clapton, Beck, Townshend – prepared one for Hendrix. It wasn’t a question of degrees of ability but a qualitative difference: the English guys all seemed like highly skilled workers applying themselves to a task while Hendrix seemed a natural.”

Yeah, well what I mean by that is I think the English players had all sat down with their American records and learned to play off the records and created something in their imaginations. Whereas you’ve got Hendrix who, by the time I saw him, had already played rhythm guitar with the Isley Brothers, toured with Little Richard a bit. It was just clear that we had this idea of the thing, that we got an impression of something from 3000 miles away, and seeing Hendrix it was suddenly like being moved 3000 miles. And none of those English guys could play good rhythm guitar. They were all kind of B.B. King-style lead guitarists. The whole thing with Hendrix is he was such a fabulous rhythm guitarist.

The English players did one thing, and they did that one thing really, really well.

That’s it.

I wasn’t trying to argue with your word choice there. It just seems like it’s almost dangerous territory to call Hendrix a natural despite that fact that you’re obviously being complimentary.

Well, the point is, we had white English kids copying black America R&B and then along comes the real thing – Jimi. I go at this from the reverse angle in the book, where after The Experience’s US debut at Monterey there’s a definite clique of critics who dislike, perhaps even feat and resent him, the “Psychedelic Uncle Tom” crew. To them, black artists were supposed to be “dignified,” like Josh White or Pop Staples, or do do steps wearing matching mohair suits.
Even now, all this time later, I’ve never seen a better electric guitarist, and you would think that in the 40 years, or whatever it is, somebody almost as good would’ve cropped up. But to my ears, they haven’t. You know, there’s brilliant players around but there’s nobody who seems as effortless as Hendrix. And he was also hugely good-natured onstage. He was really fun. You know, people get carried away by the talk of the wild side, but it was a really nice vibe seeing him. He was good-natured. He was obviously having a great time. It was kind of big grins and chewing and cracking jokes. It was just a very, very different thing. The blues that we’d seen was mostly like really serious people and the audience kind of stood dead still and looked really serious, whereas as Hendrix had played rhythm guitar with all those people, he’d learned his craft there, but he was constrained by it and suddenly, with all that background behind him, he suddenly got an open stage to do exactly what he wanted and at that point he was just reveling in the freedom.

He was enjoying himself.

Enjoying it hugely, and that really communicated, even to a 14 year old. And I could play some basic chords but I couldn’t begin to play what he was playing, but that sense of enjoyment really communicated.

And it’s understandable because he probably had only been experiencing this kind of attention for three, maybe four months.

Hardly that. I mean, if you think about it, he’d been doing those kind of US soul review gigs right up til the spring of ’66 at least, and when I saw him he was only five weeks into the first tour around England. For him it must’ve just been like a dream come true, like an open door, do whatever you want, because he didn’t have a great deal of original material. From memory, as I recall it, he had “Hey Joe,” whatever the flip side of “Hey Joe” was, he had Third Stone From The Sun, but most of the set was kind of “Wild Thing,” “Midnight Hour,” “Have Mercy”. It was a lot of, you know, American soul standards, some of which he’d played on.

Kind of the stuff that the mods are dancing to on Thursday night.

Exactly. Exactly. It’s just, you know, one of those rare, rare occasions when you can’t quite believe the thing’s happening. And all the better because it was totally unexpected.

One of the things that you point out in the book is that really nobody of a comparable skill level is ever in the studio with Hendrix other than Stevie Winwood. And you point out that Jack Casady, who plays bass on “Voodoo Child,” shows up thinking it’s a jam session. Does Winwood know what he’s there for? Obviously Casady’s got to figure out by like the third take that this isn’t just a jam session, but is Winwood’s participation happenstance or is it planned?

I would suspect happenstance actually, because my understanding of that album was that the studio was around the corner from the club that he liked hanging out in. He would hang out in the club til kind of midnight to jam with whoever was in the place, and the minute he hit a kind of vibe in the jam that he liked he would just grab everyone and rush around to the studio and record it. So it was probably just an extension of what was happening on the stage a couple of hours earlier at the club.

It’s impossible, almost, to duplicate that kind of rush of excitement that he gets when he hits London, because it’s a complete rags to riches story. But how much of that excitement carries over to when he does return to the States? Does he really have musicians the caliber of Jack Casady and Steve Winwood willing to follow him around the corner whenever he wants to go?

Oh, I think so. I mean what happened in the English scene is, when he first arrived the top English guitarists of the time, kind of Clapton and Townshend, felt really, really threatened by him. Their initial reaction was they were deeply threatened by it. Then just a combination of the fact that he was so good, he was such a nice guy and clearly there was no point in trying to take him on, everybody just kind of changed their attitude really quickly, so as I recall it virtually the whole English music scene just kind of adopted Hendrix. He was so obviously the best thing around. There was Dylan perhaps as a lyricist. There was Hendrix as a guitarist. The whole English scene was posited on the blues anyway, and here was someone that, you know, was a blues guitarist on a par with Buddy Guy but was inventing the kind of new electric as he went along too. And also he was just such an attractive figure, so I think that in England certainly he could have more or less have his pick of anybody. Everybody was just dying to play with him. Kellie, the drummer in The Only Ones, jammed with him. He was in Spooky Tooth at the time and Hendrix was just carrying on. He would just come down to The Speakeasy - this would’ve been ’66 or early ’67, I guess, before I was in London - but yeah, Kellie had played with Hendrix and said it was just huge fun.

Let me ask you about the actual writing of this book. How long is the process once David says, You’ve got to do this book?

I’d guess the whole thing went through in about seven months, something like that probably. Maybe less. I mean, the first thing I would do was just kind of bring round friends from the time and speak to them. Then in part of the British Museum in north London we have the newspaper library so it was great to go back to the Melody Maker and the various papers from the time, which I would’ve read when they came out and haven’t seen since. I would also look up the local newspapers for the town I was in, where I saw the act, to see if there was a review or anything. So I spent a couple of months doing that, and then for the actual writing bit I think I borrowed a house in the Russian River in Sonoma County, up north of Frisco. A friend just lent me a house for a month and I basically just sat down, you know, undisturbed for four weeks and just got into it.

So the writing takes about a month.

Yeah, yeah. And to be honest that’s not working particularly flat out. I would write from about 9 til 12 in the morning and then just kind of piddle around the rest of the day. I suspect you can’t really apply yourself for much longer than that unless you’re up against some frantic deadline.

How soon does the structure come to you? When you pitch this to David, do you know how you’re going to lay it out?

Not at all. Not at all. I’m completely a kind of improvising musician – not that the two disciplines are particularly comparable – but I’m pretty lazy about structure and I think if you overstructure you can make the book a little bit formal and dull. The first week or ten days nothing I wrote was any use. I would basically just start writing until I found an angle and a way in that actually interested me. Because you know what it’s like. Sitting down with a blank page is boring as fuck. It’s horrible. It’s hard work until you find some sort of way in that actually interests you and then after that it’s sort of downhill.

Yeah, it’s kind of fun after that.

Exactly. So I had no idea of structure at all. I just started writing and basically just waited to see how it came out. And then the structure kind of declares itself as you go along.

The track by track section is pretty close to half the book. And I’ve got to imagine that you’ve heard this record a hundred times in your life before you get this assignment.

I probably heard it a hundred times in the first year it came out.

So how much time do you actually have to spend with the record, especially given the detailed comments from a guitarist’s perspective?

Well, this is quite interesting to me. The records from that period, when I was kind of 15, 16, I played so much that now, even if I don’t listen to the record for ten years, I know exactly how it goes.

You can play it in your head.

Exactly. But what was interesting to me was going back to a record that I knew that well and actually listening closely and listening below the surface of it and seeing what was there. So for me that was fascinating, because it’s like revisiting something that you love and concentrating on the details that you hadn’t noticed before. So that part of it was a real pleasure for me. You know, really I knew the album with a 16 year old’s ears, I suppose, but when I did the book I was able to go back to it with the ears of someone who’s been playing for 30 years or whatever. I find that really interesting. I would basically take a track a day, I guess, and then just kind of run it on speakers, run it in headphones. I also had access to some great outtakes, like the “Voodoo Chile.” I had all twenty-one takes. Twenty of them aren’t used, but you can really hear the thing developing. Obviously it is a jam. It starts from a loose idea. It takes a wrong turn. He changes the chord structure a bit, and then round about take 15 or 16 they suddenly just hit it. So yeah, I was very lucky in that friends furnished me with really kind of detailed outtakes and all that stuff.

How are you listening to the album? Are you listening to a CD? Are you listening on a reel to reel? Are you listening to an LP?

No, what I had was CDs. Most of the outtakes have been rounded up and collected on bootleg CDs, so I was working pretty much from the official albums and from bootlegs of the outtakes. And for that detailed listening you really have to use cans. When you want to hear the minutiae of like maybe bits of conversation between the musicians, you really need cans so you can listen right in close.

And just to make sure we’re on the same page, cans are headphones?


So it’s probably safe to say that Meaty, Beaty Big & Bouncy, Exile on Main St. and Electric Ladyland have all been played hundreds of times in your presence. Are you sick of any of them?

No. No. I mean, I wouldn’t put them on every day, but that’s partly because they exist in my head anyway. If we got up on stage now and anybody asked me to play any of the songs off any of those records I could certainly play them straight off from memory.

When you turn the manuscript in to David, do you have to stay away from the record for a little bit to kind of give yourself a break?

Yes. Yes. Doing it that closely kind of exhausts your energies for it a bit, it’s true. But then the nice thing is I’ve always loved radio. I love radio. And one of the aspects I like of radio is the fact that you’re not choosing the music and you’re not choosing the sequence, so when any of that stuff comes on the radio I still love it. I turn it up. But I probably wouldn’t sit down with Electric Ladyland and play it through, the whole album.

In the process of writing about this record that you’ve listened to hundreds of times, what did you learn? What surprised you that you didn’t know before?

I’ll tell what I discovered actually on both The Stones and the Hendrix one. I moved to London in ’76 and I get to know lots of people on the scene who’d been there and had been around London in the ‘60s. I have a friend Carol who used to be married to Jim Price who’s the trumpeter with The Stones in the great period. Now I’ve known Carol for thirty years and it was only when I started writing this book did I discover that Carol knew Hendrix really well. She’d never mentioned it, never volunteered the information at all. So I was just kind of over there one evening and mentioned I was writing a book on Hendrix and she said, Oh yeah. Jimi gave me this. And she pulls out a white label acetate of “The Wind Cries Mary.” Yeah, she says, I bumped into him at Kensington Market one afternoon and he gave me this. Carol, I didn’t know you knew Hendrix. Oh yeah, I knew him really well. She was going out with the guitarist from Love, from Arthur Lee’s band, who were based in England at that time, and Arthur Lee and Hendrix were pals in LA circa ’65, but when they both found themselves in London they hooked up. This was fascinating to me. Friends who had been around London during the period it was happening who I’d known for years but had never known that they actually knew Hendrix. So it was that kind of thing. It was the personal testimony that I was most interested in.
The thing with Hendrix especially, with him dying so long ago and with him still being kind of popular, recurrently popular with each generation of new young people, whole generations of people who never actually saw him but who love him dearly, and it seems to me each generation creates their own idea of what Hendrix was like. Well, of course they do, but in some cases, I notice with Hendrix especially, it becomes a really kind of personal thing and sometimes people don’t actually like to hear contemporaneous info if it challenges their Jimi. They’ve got their idea of Hendrix. They’ve built an image in their head, and they want it to be so, and they feel so affectionate towards Hendrix that they don’t actually like information from people who were actually there if it contradicts the image they’ve built. I find that especially with Hendrix. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that’s just because there’s something about him that enables kids of 15 today getting into guitar to feel that Hendrix is almost like their personal property. It’s really no different than kids who were 15 in 1967. I find that more with Hendrix than almost any other musician I can think of.

We talked before about there being more books on Hendrix out than probably any other artist besides Dylan, and obviously you read a lot of material when you were doing your research. Did you ever have pause that there’s forty books out there on Hendrix already? Did you ever worry about trying to say something that hasn’t been said before?

Well, obviously I thought about that, and because of the specific request that David had made, for them to be kind of personal books, I didn’t think there was any point trying to write yet another objective sort of history of Hendrix, because the definitive book has been written anyway. It’s not the recent Charles Cross one. It’s Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek. That is the definitive work as far as I’m concerned. It’s a thick book, it’s beautifully researched, it’s done with great care and great attention and it’s accurate too. I’ve read the book several times and actually, in leafing through that as I wrote this book I was moved to a new respect of how well done it was, enough to actually e-mail the author and express my admiration for what a great job he’d done.

Now the Cross book came out in the fall of 2005, so your book obviously predates it. And yet you’re interested enough to read the Cross book within the first few months after it comes out.

Yep. Well, I’m always interested in Hendrix, and it had been serialized somewhere or other and I’d seen that there was a bunch of new stuff about his teenage years so I thought I would check it out. It’s not bad, but as I say, I still think the definitive book that will never be triumphed is Harry Shapiro’s Electric Gypsy. It’s a fine book. It really is a fine book.

So now that you’ve written books on Meaty Beaty, Exile on Main St. and Electric Ladyland, what’s your favorite album?

God, it changes all the time. If I had to take one album with me to the desert island actually, what I would take is the full Dylan Basement Tapes. Not the 15 song thing that came out on Columbia, but there’s a bootleg that’s got about 100 songs of Dylan and The Band at Big Pink, so I think that’s the record I would take with me. The thing I love about the Basement, it’s not a formal record at all. It’s Dylan at the top of his form with a bunch of mates basically messing around at home for their own amusement through the course of a summer. It just touches such a wide range of music. You know, there’s country, there’s contemporary Dylan, there’s Hank Williams, there’s Johnny Cash, there’s stuff right back to the ‘20s like Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. It covers an extraordinary range of music. It’s like a primer in Americana, really.

So if somebody came to you and said, John, would you write a book about Dylan and The Basement Tapes . . . ?

Good question. Well, I wonder. Clinton Heylin, my good pal who sort of facilitated my doing these things, is a great Dylanologist, and even more than Hendrix Dylan seems to inspire a sort of semi-academic feuding. I mean, there’s a crew of maybe a dozen writers that write regularly about Dylan, and the disputes between them are furious. I mean, I wouldn’t tangle that lot for anything. I wouldn’t even put my toe in the pool because they’re a bunch of sharks when it comes to, you know, the minute details and I don’t have, or want, that kind of forensic grasp of marshalling huge amounts of evidence, which someone like Clinton can do. He’ll go to CBS and he’ll get the track sheets and he’ll establish that this take was done the day before that one. I could write broadly, I suppose, about the feel and the spirit of the music, but between Clinton Heylin doing it at one end and Greil Marcus doing it at the other end I don’t know that the world is crying out for my opinion on The Basement Tapes. Oddly, the thing I’m always told is that if you actually want to make money from a book, write about Led Zeppelin.


Yeah. You put out a book on Zeppelin and they just jump off the shelves.

I didn’t even know Led Zeppelin fans could read.

Well, maybe they just look at the pictures. I mean, I saw Zeppelin a lot when I was young, that period we’re talking about here is ’66 and ’67, so by ’68 I’m working professionally and we had a gig in a town called Bath just a few miles from Bristol. It was a great venue called the Bath Pavilion. Everybody played there. Even into the seventies when The Who were doing stadium tours they would use Bath Pavilion as a kind of tryout date. And my band always had the support slot there, so one day in maybe late ’68 we get a phone call saying, Can you do a support at Bath tonight? And we said, Yeah. Yeah. Who’s the band? And they said, Secret. Not allowed to tell you. So we think, Okay, this is interesting. So we go over, we get there, and there’s big posters saying, The New Yardbirds, and in little brackets underneath it Led Zeppelin. And this was maybe the third or the fourth gig they did. Page was using existing Yardbirds bookings to try out his new Zeppelin. We opened up for them and they stank. They were awful. They were so bad. So, you know, having seen Hendrix, and everything that I loved about Hendrix, the spontaneity, the ease, the joviality, the effortlessness, it seemed to me that Zeppelin, at that point at least, were the antithesis. It was heavy. It was labored. It was humorless. They were awful, I thought. I was telling that to a friend of mine quite recently, Boss who was the tour manager for a group called the Pink Fairies, and it turns out that his band did exactly the same thing only the next night further down the country at Exeter. His band did the support for Zeppelin, and they thought they stank too. You know, they were individually obviously very accomplished if you like that sort of thing, but they didn’t gel as a unit and they didn’t swing. I was always thought Led Zeppelin were a bad copy of the Jeff Beck/Rod Stewart group anyway.

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