Even if Leslie West had never sang or played another note after the summer of 1970, his place in rock history would have been assured. The summer before, he’d stunned everyone who saw or heard him with his breakthrough performance at Woodstock – his band Mountain’s third or fourth gig. A few months later, Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” – 2:32 of pure nitro, with Leslie’s unmistakable voice and head-scalping guitar front and center in the mix – became a national hit.
Fortunately, Leslie West did not fade from view after his first flirtation with glory. After a multi-album stint alongside bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in Mountain, he re-emerged time and again with West, Bruce & Laing, the Leslie West Band, and a host of solo projects. Along the way, West has proved himself one of America’s best heavy rock guitarists, a status fueled in no small part by three factors: his million-dollar vibrato, his tone, and his solos. In the vibrato department, he has precious few peers – his hero Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Angus Young among them. His tone and solos are inseparable. At his very best – from Mountain’s “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and “Stormy Monday” all the way up to several tracks on his latest album, Unusual Suspects – Leslie sounds like his hands are hardwired to his heart and soul. His voice, that husky, raw, roaring, unstoppable force of nature, is as effective today as it was a generation or two ago. May it continue for decades to come.
My first encounter with Leslie occurred in 1979. My colleagues at Guitar Player magazine, Don Menn and Tom Wheeler, came back from a trade show in Atlanta with the news that not only had Leslie played there, but he was living just over the Santa Cruz mountains from our office. In that instant, I knew my mission: interview Leslie West! As a guitar-loving teenager, I’d been knocked out by Woodstock II, with its unsurpassed performances by Hendrix and Mountain. “Mississippi Queen” had been part of the soundtrack of my teens. I’d devoured each new Mountain album as it came out, all the West, Bruce & Laing recordings, The Great Fatsby, and especially The Leslie West Band, which I still count among my favorite albums. I gave Leslie a call, and he invited me right over. At the time, it had been four years since The Leslie West Band album, and his career was in flux. He was renting a house on Woodlands Drive in Ben Lomond, California, and flirting with putting a band together with former Faces and Humble Pie frontman Steve Marriot.
Leslie and I hit it off right away. On the first day, July 20, 1979, we spoke and played for hours. He invited me back the following week, and we did another two-hour interview. No article ever came from these conversations, mostly because Leslie’s band with Steve soon fell apart and he moved on to other projects. During the ensuing years, we did have other memorable encounters and interviews that were published. Thank you, Leslie, for permission to transcribe and publish our first conversation after all these years.
Be forewarned: The following interviews are about as long as seven music-magazine cover stories put together. But I am happy they exist, as they give unprecedented insight into an unforgettable musician. As I walked into his house that first day, Leslie was tuning up an unplugged double-cutaway electric guitar.
Hi, Leslie. What kind of guitar is that?
This is an MPC Electra. [Switches on his amp, creating a large, distorted tone.] Loud little sucker. This guitar has modules you can plug into it. [Plays a few fuzzed-out measures of “Hall of the Mountain King.”] Now, you can clean it up. [Pushes another switch and creates a strange octave effect.] I’ve got two octave dividers there. [Plays another riff.] Ain’t that something? Sounds like a harmony in there. You play guitar?
You’ve got to feel what it feels like to play. Now, you’ve got to play very staccato. [Takes off his guitar and hands it to me.] Sit down and play. You’ll be more comfortable with it. [I begin playing a blues progression.] Now, you can’t play chords. You gotta attack the strings one by one and plunk it. Don’t let anything else ring except the note you’re hitting. With the chords, it takes a long time to practice to try to get the notes to ring clear. I’ll tell ya man, it was very hard at first. [As I play a few more riffs, Leslie activates switches on the guitar.]
Unique type of sound.
Isn’t it? I don’t think anybody’s got it. That’s why I’m so intrigued with this guitar. [Takes it back and solos at a very high volume.] Pretty good, huh? I got so sick of all these guitars with DiMarzios, DiFarzios – everything’s the same! And that guitar is just something new. It turns me on. [Leslie sets it down.] That’s an interesting sounding guitar, huh?
Do you still keep a Les Paul around?
Not here. I have them in New York. The Juniors are in two pieces, most of them. You know what happened? When I got tired of playing – really tired of playing – I was tired of Les Pauls, Strats, the whole business. And this guitar was laid on me and made me want to play again. There are 12 different modules you can put in there – there’s phasing, flanging, overdrive, octave divide, compressors.
Looks like you can fit two in there at once. Can they hook up something to run more modules at once?
Yeah, the guy at the company’s got a whole bank in the workshop. It holds fifty. Can you imagine that? It’s not a synthesizer, now. It’s just like all the pedals Hendrix had but without having to trip over all the fucking wires.
I recently interviewed Mick Ralphs, who talked about touring with you when he was with Mott the Hoople. He said you turned him on to a style of playing.
And Les Paul Juniors.
Yeah, he said he never saw one until he saw you with it.
You know, on 48th Street in New York there’s a place called We Buy Guitars. Well, Larry, it’s really funny. He used to sell all the Juniors to me. I bought the white Junior from him. And he had signs in his window, “Leslie West Les Paul Junior model.” It was funny seeing one up there. I’ll never forget it. It was a beat-up, battered piece of shit, and it didn’t look like it could be called anybody’s model. He owns three stores on that block, man. We Buy Music – it’s right across from Manny’s. Manny’s is the Corvette of music stores. Whatever Henry tells you not to get, you definitely should get, in that music store.
With Mick Jones?
An ass kicker.
The trouble, though, with that album was my manager. He knew I was leaving, and he owned the label.
Yeah. He manages Foreigner, and he knew I was leaving. So he didn’t bother to promote it, since he owned the label, and he just let it die. But I thought we had some good songs. I mean, the songs on there was the beginning of what Mick took to Foreigner. Those roots.
That version of “Dear Prudence” was really nice.
The kids in the background, those were the kids from The Wiz, the original cast. Those kids are the premiere backup singers in New York. There trip is that if you pay ’em a hundred bucks, they’ll do the whole session – three hours, or whatever it’s for. And that’s how they made a lot of money.
So you’re getting a new band together.
Yeah, we’re working on that, man. There’s a lot of things going through my head, though, at this time, with doing a band, doing everything. It’s like I’ve got so many different ideas of what I’d really like to do. I swear to God, the last two days, I’ve lost all my interest to go and start touring and doing the whole thing. You know what is the most incredible thing that I would love to do? Join a fucking band and play guitar in a band, a band that I idolize. A band that I knew that I could add something to their music. I just don’t feel like starting a whole new band and calling it something else with my name on it or Steve’s name or something like that. My real dream would be to do something like that, or even in the studio, you know. I hear some of the shit now and think to myself, “If only Motown would have used a guitarist.” The roots changed, and all of a sudden guys I went to school with, like Waddy Wachtel and other guys, are right up there. It’s amazing. Eddie Money. He used to come see me when I was at the Action in Long Island – front row! Oh, man. There’s more people coming out of New York, making it now, and nobody realizes it.
Last we heard, you were up in Milwaukee.
My partner and manager has a men and women’s beauty salon there. It’s called the Hair Company. And the West Company is right across the hall. We had our offices moved out there because New York was so crazy. I want to get out of New York – the drug scene, the whole music scene, everything.
Many of the guitarists we interview talk about your style.
Hey, man, that’s the greatest thrill in the world, because I was wondering when I was going to get all the accolades! [Laughs.] I’ll tell you the truth.
British people, especially.
It’s incredible. The American people, not so, because they are so hung up on their damn selves. And I’ll tell you, there’s not too many guitarists in America that I really dig.
I’ve heard you like Van Halen.
Oh, Edward? He’s got something to say, man.
He made that guitar himself too.
Yeah, and the funny thing is at the music show [NAMM show], somebody was making copies of Edward’s guitar and selling them. Yeah. They were Japanese copies of his ax.
Eddie has a good attitude too.
Yeah, he’s happy. He can’t believe it! He’s just so thrilled. See, the most important thing to me is vibrato, and he’s got it. You know, it’s funny. You were talking about Mick Ralphs – you know that me and Corky [Laing] were almost in Bad Company? When West, Bruce & Laing was formed, the night before Jack started playing with us, he had to go to Germany. So we went to Island Studios, Corky and I, and Paul Rodgers and Mick came down, and we were making tapes. They wanted to start a group, and we said, “Well, we just asked Jack last night.” They started Bad Company. So yeah, I’ve had a lot of influence. Mott the Hoople – when they first came over, they were Mountain’s publicity directors. Another of the English groups – Jethro Tull – said, “Man, when you come to Europe, we’ll do all the promoting in the world for you.” They were our fans, and it was incredible because they were scared coming over here. We were working with them and showing them everything and taking them around. We formed very tight relationships with the English groups.
What did it mean for an English group to tour America the first time?
It was like, “Wow! Conquering America!” Think about it.
How were the bucks for them?
Oh, the first time around, in those days? You don’t do it for the bucks. You do it to be able to come to America. It’s like you don’t go to England to make money. You can’t make money touring London or even all of England. It takes you six days to tour all of England. And you walk out of there with shit. So you don’t do that for money. But they sure like to come here.
Which band did you like being in best?
West, Bruce & Bullshit. West, Bruce & Laing. I had a lot of fun in there, because I learned so much from Jack. Oh, boy – what a bass player!
What did you learn?
How to fuckin’ play solos! How to get in and out of a solo. How to compose a solo. Every time you take a solo, to me, it’s like writing a song. A lot of guitarists just jump right in and they’re right up on the top of the neck immediately.
We have a five-foot poster of Jack Bruce on the wall in the Guitar Player office, playing a Gibson bass.
Remember the Fender Jaguar he had? The one in Cream with the painting – I got that! Jack gave me that 6-string son of a bitch. Yeah! Jackie Lomax has got Eric’s guitar – the SG tomahawk one. He was up in Woodstock when I was living there, and he offered to sell it to me because I had the bass. And I turned it down because I didn’t want to buy it, because Eric’s my idol. I didn’t want to just buy Eric’s guitar. But shit, I could have had Eric’s and Jack’s – oof.
You know who’s got Eric’s psychedelic Cream guitar, that SG?
That’s the one I’m talking about! Jackie Lomax.
I heard that Todd Rundgren has it.
Todd bought it, because he lives in Woodstock. He bought it from Jackie. What? Did Todd tell you that Eric gave it to him?
No. I just heard that he had it.
He’s got a good sense of humor.
He does. Hey, he is the Phil Spector of the 1970s. I’m telling you – and you can quote me. I mean that. He was in Nazz, and he lives in Woodstock now.
It’s strange to think that in five months it will be the 1980s.
I can’t believe that ten years ago I was sticking my head out of the helicopter, going in to Woodstock, man, to play that fucking show.
What day did you play?
Saturday. The nicest day – at night. The first time it was dark and all the lights came on. Our agent was Hendrix’s agent, Ron Terry, so they gave us the best shot in the fucking show!
What was it like playing Woodstock?
It was incredible, man. I was so scared, and I was going on with these 400,000 people out there. I got up onstage and I had my three stacks of Sunns, and Felix had his three stacks of Sunns. It was so loud! When it came time for my solo, our roadie hooked up all twelve of the Sunns.
Is this for “Blood of the Sun?”
No, my guitar solo, by myself. And boy! Twelve Coliseums at once! It was not loud – it was just the biggest, fullest sound. Because who could be loud outdoors? You know, the sound just goes. But this almost landed. This almost was that loud that I thought, “Wow! The man upstairs is talking!” It was so loud. It was probably magnified because I was so nervous. It was incredible, boy.
No, it was our third gig.
How did you get on the show?
Because our agent, Ron Terry, was friends with my manager at the time. Premier Talent didn’t want to bother with us at that time – nobody knew who we were, really. And Ron just happened to pull a good move – a very good move.
After Woodstock, Mountain became a supergroup.
It was like only a year after that. I think Santana broke from Woodstock, Ten Years After broke there. But we weren’t on the first Woodstock album. We were on the second one. Boy, it was incredible then. I was listening to the radio the other day, and every record that came on had the same guitar sound on it – you know, that Les Paul with the Boston/Foreigner harmonizer on the guitar.
Are you still in touch with your bandmates from Mountain?
You know, when I went to Florida last summer, I promised Corky I would play on his solo album if he ever did one. So he did one, and he put on it that I played on it, and I wasn’t on it. So this time I went. He called up my partner in Milwaukee, and I was still hiding, withdrawing, everything. He said that his album had stopped – Elektra Asylum cut the budget. Would I play on it? It was the only thing that would bring it back. So I said yeah. So they picked up his budget and I went up to Woodstock – Todd was there. And he had done all these tracks with [Mick] Ronson and himself, with Felix and Ian Hunter. And it was awful. Mick Ronson played so out of tune. So I made a deal with Corky. I said, “I’ll play on it, but I’ve got to be able to take Mick Ronson out, and I’ll redo his part. I don’t care about doing the extra work. I don’t want somebody listening to it and wondering who’s Leslie and who’s Mick Ronson.” How is anybody gonna know, especially somebody who doesn’t know who the fuck we are? He said okay. So I went up and I worked my ass off. I had these things sounding so good. And all of a sudden I realized that him and Felix had this thing planned. They wanted to get me up there to play on Corky’s solo album and turn around and tell Elektra Asylum, “Look – I got Mountain back together. How much is it worth?” And I knew they offered a million dollars for us to get back together for two albums over two years.
When was this?
This past summer, last summer. They didn’t know I knew this, so when it came time Corky paid me in Woodstock – two solos, five grand. And he called me again. “Come down to Florida, to Criteria.” The Bee Gees had given up their studio time, so I would be able to come in and overdub two more. Would I play on two more? I said, “Well, two more is sort of half an album. So what’s going on?” “Oh, no, no, no. Come on down. Felix loved the way you played. Felix told me you never played so good, man.” So I go down there – the Bee Gees are all there, even Andy’s there in the control room. They’re hanging out in the studio. We’re watching the World Series. And I did the two more solos, and I said, “Where’s the other check?” I was staying at the Cricket Club at $150 a day, and I’m paying for all this, because Corky’s gonna pay me. He said, “Well, I haven’t gotten in touch with the West Coast yet.” I said, “I’m leaving tonight.” “Oh, no, no.” They didn’t think I’d leave. So I went to the studio, and I said to them, “Look. Felix, I don’t know who’s bullshitting, you or Corky, but I know what’s going on. Do you have the check?” “No.” I said, “Felix, are you the producer?” “Yeah.” I said, “Since when?” “Well, since I spoke to Elektra.” I said, “Well, how come at Woodstock last week you weren’t?” He had nothing to do with it, except he played on the tracks. “Well, that’s something else.” I said, “Well, if you’re to producer now, you okay the purchase orders. Where’s the check?” “Uh, speak to Corky – it’s his album.”
I sent the guitars out to the car, and twenty minutes later I told the both of them, “It’s been a pleasure. I’m leaving.” I walked out – the Bee Gees saw me leave, everybody saw me leave. And sure enough, I went home and they sent a letter to Elektra Asylum. It seems they didn’t even need the letter. They’d heard about it from the people in the studio that they got me so upset I walked out in front of the Bee Gees and all of this shit. That I came all the way down there to do a session, I did it, and I walked out because nobody paid me. They sent the $5000 to my account so fast, by a transfer, and they stopped Corky’s album. It was a really bad thing, man, because I was really hoping that the guys would have changed. But to do that shit, try to be sneaking like that.
Why didn’t they just come right out and tell you?
That’s my point. They were so desperate, you see. And I’m not desperate. I really couldn’t give a fuck. Money – thank God we don’t starve no more, you know. That’s the only thing. If you’re a little bit smart, you can fix it. So I live in New York and I’m living here [in California], and it’s great. I don’t have to kill myself or put up with bullshit like that.
You saved your money, huh?
Well, I did one smart thing. I bought a house in New York City.
Is this when you were with Mountain?
No, I bought it during West, Bruce & Laing – the big money days.
Good part of New York?
Well, it was such a good part that Ahmet Ertegun bought it. It’s 81st and Park. He lived next door to me. Ahmet Ertegun was my next-door neighbor. So he bought my house and made two houses. This was two years ago.
West, Bruce & Laing paid you more than Mountain?
Well, you see, when we started the record deal with Columbia, it was for $350,000 per album, and that was in 1975. Felix, man [with Mountain] – you see why I walked out in Florida, after him making all that money all them years. He owned the record label, produced the group, managed the group, was in the group, published the group. Isn’t that a little bit unconscionable? You know, wouldn’t you think? Whenever they used to tell me I’m doing great, I used to say, “Well, if I’m doing great, you’re doing fantastic!” I’m tellin’ ya.
Oh, man, that was ridiculous. It was just more old songs. I wanted to do new stuff, badly. What happened was Felix told me, “If we go to Japan, we’re gonna put a live album out over there.” And I didn’t even know Corky wasn’t going. They had some kind of thing, a hassle with their old ladies, and Felix told me Corky wasn’t going. He said he had this drummer, Allan Schwartzberg, and Bob Mann was gonna play rhythm guitar. I said, what the hell. I wanted to go to Japan, so I did it. And Corky thought that it was my fault that he didn’t go. I told him later on what had happened. We had a fight the last night before Tokyo. We played, the Leslie West Band, Central Park, and he did a really great solo. And I knew he wasn’t going. And that night Felix was gonna tell him. And I knew that he was gonna really be mad at me. When I came back from Japan, I said, “Felix, I don’t want to continue this group unless you get Corky back in it.” So Corky came back in the group. And then Corky and I came to blows later on. I fired him and Carmine [Appice] took his place. This is when Mick Jones was in the band. Things were fucked up. A lot of stories, a lot of stories.
You got the band with Mick together after The Great Fatsby album?
Yeah. I really wanted to have a good band. Mick Jones wanted to be a record distributor or something – he was ready to pack it in. And I said, “Gee, you’re such a good-looking guy and you play guitar. You look like a standard English guitarist.” [At this point Leslie picks up a copy of Guitar Player magazine that I brought for him.] I used to think for a while that Guitar Player was really getting ridiculous – every page is an ad. But you know what I like? It’s in a way good. See, you can always see what’s happening. Some of the ads are ridiculous, but I’ve seen a lot things. For instance, now I am sponsoring that guitar, the MPC guitar. I’m looking in your magazine, and I see an ad for Crate amp. I said, “Wow. What a nice-looking small amp.” I went to factory one day, and I saw it. I didn’t know it was theirs. But I saw the ad in your magazine, and I’m working with the company. I sponsor the Crates now.
It’s nice to get with a company like that.
Especially if they’re behind you. This guitar [points to his MPC] is good. I’ve gotten a lot of free stuff in my life that sucks, but it is a good guitar. [Note: These days, Leslie sponsors Dean Guitars – for details, see note at end of article.]
Has Gibson ever given you guitars?
Gibson doesn’t give away shit. There’s a motive for everything they do. The guy Bruce Bolen from Gibson, he happens to be a close friend of mine, and Bruce used to always find the Juniors for me. And that was like having a C.I.A. agent looking for you. I was wanting a Firebird Junior. Ever seen a Firebird Junior? It’s a backwards guitar – Eric used one on the Live Cream album. Bruce had one in his office. I don’t even think Les Paul has any originals. He said that he never knew that they were gonna become famous, so he never bothered to keep one. It’s a great guitar. How long have you been playing?
There’s nothing like the electric guitar, huh? It still fascinates me. Another thing that fascinates me is the Japanese influence, man. The last article I did, I believe I mentioned in there that I think about the prices of guitars, how expensive they were for a kid to go and buy a guitar, an exotic guitar. There was no way he could. But all of a sudden, the Japanese now – wow! I’m playing a Japanese guitar. Remember when we laughed at Japanese stuff? Sony TVs, huh? Tell me about Sony TVs, Nakamichi tape decks. Now it’s embarrassing to have some American products.
How many Les Paul Juniors have you owned?
Five. And I never paid more than 170 bucks for each one.
When did you get your first one?
Felix gave it to me. Remember when [Cream’s] Disraeli Gears and all that was going on? Whatever year that was. Well, when it became #1, Felix went to Danny Armstrong’s guitar shop. Eric had a Les Paul, a cherry Les Paul with his name all down in the head[stock] – “Eric Clapton” instead of “Gibson.” Danny had it inlaid “Eric Clapton,” and the head broke. Felix was feeling really rich, so he gave Danny, I think, a thousand bucks for the guitar. And Danny never fixed it. So Felix went there to get credit, and he got a Junior and he got a bass. He showed me the Junior, and I said, “Wow! What a unique little thing.” Felix played a little guitar. He had a little amp, and he cranked it up and he showed me how the little Junior blasted out this little speaker in the amp. I started playing it – one control. “Wow, this is such a simple, nothing instrument.” I said, “How much can I get this instrument to do?” Because it looks like it’s just a piece of wood, strings, and pickup, and it was always shorting out. Shittiest pegs – you know, the white plastic. And that was it. I said, “Wow! I’m in heaven. I’ve got a Les Paul” – I knew that was the thing to get, but I was about to get everybody’s gold-top, one of those. And this is ’68. I said, “Wow, I got a Les Paul, but it’s not quite . . . .”
Dig this – in 1965 I bought Wachtel’s Les Paul Junior, the mustard double-cutaway, because he bought a Rickenbacker 12. We saw the Beatles, me and him, and he said, “I gotta get me one of them.” He bought George Harrison Beatle boots at Florsheim on Broadway, and he bought the Rickenbacker and sold me his Les Paul. He got the Rickenbacker home, and he cracked the fuckin’ Rickenbacker and had to borrow back the Les Paul. He had this beautiful, beautiful Rickenbacker – it wasn’t the one George Harrison used, but it was the one [Roger] McGuinn had, the red one. That’s the way we bought instruments in those days – according to who was using ’em. I bought his Les Paul, but I didn’t know what a Les Paul meant in those days. I sprayed it with paint. And then when I started my group, the Vagrants, [sighs, says sadly] I traded a 1956 Strat for a brand-new Kent, three pickup, at a pawnshop on 8th Avenue. I didn’t know what a guitar meant. And in those days, I thought “shiny new” meant “good.” This Fender I had was beat to hell, but what a sad story. Isn’t that a sad story? I wish I could tell you that the Kent went on to make millions of dollars in records, but the Kent never did shit.
What year did you make that trade?
Uh, the year the Beatles played Shea Stadium . And that Strat was the one I bought with my bar mitzvah money, man. I bought it. I’m 33 now – and I was born in ’45 – so 13 and 45 is 58. So in 1958 I bought that Strat. Imagine if I had it now? An old Strat from ’58?
When did you start playing guitar? How old were you?
You started out with a Strat.
That bar mitzvah, yeah.
What made you want to play?
I saw Elvis Presley on that Stage Show – you know, that Tommy Dorsey did. Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey replaced Jackie Gleason years ago, in the summer. They had Elvis on. I saw him, and I thought that was the greatest-looking thing in the world. So I got an acoustic tenor guitar and I played that. A tenor guitar is the last top four strings. I played that for years. Finally my mother said, “You better go to school.” I went, and I saw that they had two other strings. I didn’t know about 6-strings. And to move up, it was very difficult, because it was like moving from a ukulele. I didn’t know what to do with those other two strings. So my mother hid the tenor guitar on me. That forced me to play the 6-string. It’s a good thing she did, because it really made you want to be real lazy. I would tape up the strings on the guitar, so they didn’t count, even though I had a new guitar. You see? She bought me this new guitar, and what was frustrating is, there’s this new guitar – but wait a minute, I can’t play it. It’s got these two other strings. So it wasn’t really that great new guitar. Something was wrong with it. It wasn’t perfect yet. But at least I got it. I was playing accordion for about a week before I found the guitar. And the accordion was so heavy. I remember smashing it and putting it in the case, million pieces, locking it and throwing the key away. And the guy came to pick it up and he shook the case. He heard all the shaking, but he didn’t want to open it and see. Oh, was it smashed, man. I was so frustrated with that instrument. Oh, it was disgusting. The accordion frightened me into playing the guitar. That’s what happened.
Did you learn how to play “Heartbreak Hotel” right away?
Uh, yeah. That was my first song.
You did it at a talent show?
Yeah, in junior high school.
Was it a hip thing to play guitar back then?
No! Nobody did. But if you did, you were . . . Because I was a little fat kid, you know. You ever see those ads in those comic books, “You can be a hit at parties.” Well, that’s what I was. [Laughs.] And it was working! The only thing was, there was no girls then. Because all you wanted to do was just impress everybody. “Wow,” you know. “A girl? I don’t know about that.” You know, we saw the Beatles, and that was what made us all want to play – all the Vagrants. You know, that was, “Hey! Let’s play.” And they didn’t know how to play. My brother was in the group – Larry played bass.
How old were you?
I was much older than them. They were all three years younger than me. Well, the Vagrants broke up in 1967, I guess – ’68? I don’t know all the dates. [Leslie takes a phone call, returns.] You wanna hear one of the cuts that we did? The new stuff?
Sit there and I’ll play it. [Plays cassette of blues-rock song featuring Steve Marriot’s vocals and Leslie’s slide guitar.] I used the octave divider on the slide. He had the song written, and I put that lick on it. [Multi-tracked solo begins.] I’ve got three guitars all at once here. [Song ends.] That’s the second night we ever played together.
Leslie, you’ve got a sound like no one else.
Really? Did you see how long I waited to come in with that solo? [Plays another song that’s darker and more metallic.] I love this. No pedals, just the guitar. [As the song ends, he hands me a joint.] People that get high, man. I’ve had a lot of drugs in my life – fuckin’ heroin, morphine, cocaine – and thai sticks and cocaine is the best. You can do anything you want. The funny thing is, man, the real thrill – more than anything else, I swear to God – is playing. I wish there was a way to automatically plug yourself into a studio. You know? [Picks up his guitar, turns it up loud, and quickly retunes. Flipping on the distortion module, he launches into a muscular riff.] Do you know how to count time?
Count it. Is this in seven?
[When the riffing ends, Leslie retunes to open D, activates another switch, and plays a clean-toned country breakdown. Next come some Stones-style chords.] It’s a good-sounding amp, but I’ll tell you what. I bought a Marshall when I came here, downtown. It’s called a Beauty. You’ve seen it? The brown Tolex. And it is the best amp I ever played in my life. It’s worth $1300. It’s the same size as a Twin, and yet it’s $1300. Amazing, at the price. [Glances at a baseball game on a TV with the sound off. Someone gets a hit.] My boys, the Yankees! Boom! I’m a stickball player, boy.
Oh yeah? We used to play that in Detroit.
Yeah. Hey, man, I spent so many fuckin’ good times in Detroit at the old Sheraton Cadillac. Two of my friends’ father bought that hotel, and they own the Gramercy Park in New York too. But Detroit, Dee-troit. It ain’t like it used to be. I gather you’re like me, in your thirties, late twenties . . . How old are you?
Late twenties. It ain’t like it was, is it? What’s happening? You know what’s happening – and you can quote this, Jack, and see if anybody’s gonna contest that I’m wrong. You know when you’re growing up, trying to get out to hear your rock and roll, and the parents all went crazy? My mother was listening to Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra – “That’s good music.” Well, the way we’re looking at punk now is exactly the same as our parents! Are we getting all fuddy-duddy? No, the music we like happens to be a little bit better than today’s music. I’m not kidding myself, am I? But the kids today, you couldn’t tell them that. Tell them that Procol Harum happened to be one of the best groups, in my opinion, musically. Try to play that “Whiter Shade a Pale” for a kid going to a Kiss concert. No way! It’s like playing semi-pro ball and Yankee Stadium – it’s two different worlds. And that’s the same feeling. Our parents, when they were talking down to us, it’s not a matter of better or worse, it’s what you grow up with. We grew up with that shit – there ain’t nobody gonna tell us it ain’t great! It’s like telling you your high school sucked. “No, I had a great time.” “No, it sucked!” Nobody can tell us that. And the music is all part of the times. Before Frank Sinatra, I guess it was the swing – what was that, in the Roaring Twenties? The Charleston? Yeah. You know, our grandmothers, and now we’re feeling it. Growing pains. All of a sudden, it’s like turning around and saying, “Wow. They must think I’m an old fart.” It’s the truth. That’s all that it amounts to, man. It’s not better or worse. It’s different. That’s why people say. Remember the expression, “You can’t compare anything.” You can’t. It’s like comparing punk – it’s not comparable, it’s different. That’s the only thing in relationship. It’s weird, man.
You know, my roommate, Dave, he’s so thrilled that you were coming, man. Magazines – he buys these fucking things, you know. The funny thing with him is, we moved across the street, Steve and me. We rented his house, big house, and we’re all living there. And one day before Ian Wallace came, we were looking for a drummer. Steve said [imitates Steve Marriot’s British accent], “There’s a kid across the road got a big fuckin’ drum set, mate. Big fuckin’ drum set! I’ve never seen one like it. I’m going over to see if he can play.” So Steve walked in, and they were playing. Marriot just came crashing through the house. Dave’s got a Mexican friend who said, “Hey, who the fuck are you?” Marriot said, “Well, I live across the road.” Dave said, “Wait a minute. You’re Steve Marriot from the Small Faces, Peter Frampton [Humble Pie].” He said, “Oh, yeah! It’s cool.” Oh, God. And then Dave found out we were living over there.
So I moved in and got the house together. Dave doesn’t quite understand the era of music I’m from, although he knows Mountain and Humble Pie. He knows all the songs. He listens to that Dennis Erectus, that disc jockey from San Jose, and I can’t believe it – he actually enjoys the guy. And after about three nights, I started listening too to that music. Most of it’s shitty, but there are some groups that are coming up. I swear to God I heard U.F.O. do a song the other night, and in the middle of it it goes [sings a riff from “Mississippi Queen”]. I said, “That’s from ‘Mississippi Queen’ if I’m a fuckin’ dead uncle.” And Dave said, “No, that’s from U.F.O.” I said, “No, Dave, you don’t understand. ‘Mississippi Queen’ is from Ten Years After [sings another riff].” That’s where I stole it from! Boy. If I didn’t have that to listen to, man, I would be very, very lost. Now I can see why a lot of musicians that grew up in the era that I’m from, the ’70s, are scared shitless. They don’t know what to do!
Do you still listen to 1960s music?
Uh, no. Do you know the only thing I listen to? The radio.
You don’t listen to Cream or Hendrix?
No. The last time I listened to anybody from back then was a long time ago. The last six months I’ve been working very hard on this [a new band], putting this together. So I don’t really listen to anything else. I must admit, I don’t listen to records as much. I listen to Dave’s album collection, which is like a cross-section of what America’s listening to now. I hate it sometimes. You know, he plays drums to Van Halen – I love that. So he put Van Halen’s both records on tape, four sides, so I’ve got to listen all the way through. And now I know every one of Edward’s licks backwards and forwards, and I’m sick of it already. But I love the style.
Have you ever seen Randy Hansen imitating Jimi Hendrix?
No. Do you know what I gotta ask you? I must have heard him play, and I’m sure he knows who I am, but I don’t know Lee Ritenour. I know how he plays and everything now, and that’s incredible, but I’d never even heard of him until I saw in your magazine that he’d won [a Readers Poll Award]. Where did he come from? Do you wonder, in the polls . . . I think I’ve been maybe nominated, but I’ve never won a poll or come in on a poll. It’s funny, the older guitarists recognize me more than the people. What I’ve realized is that now the oldest guitarists that are making it are now saying it, so you don’t know what’s gonna happen from that. It’s like when I started, I was saying it was Clapton, and he was already up there. But it’s funny that someone like Mick Ralphs talks about me. All we used to do on tour was collect guitars.
He said that you guys got along well and that he loves your style.
He did, huh?
Yes. It’s in the new issue of Guitar Player, which hasn’t come out yet.
Let me ask you. You’re an editor of this magazine. Your opinion is respected. What would you do if you were in my shoes?
Let me think about it. [Long pause.] If you can get a band together with Steve Marriot, and split the singing with him, 50-50 . . .
You think I should sing?
I don’t wanna sing anymore.
I just want to pay guitar.
But your voice is unique. And it’s done stuff to songs that no one else could do.
It’s like a whiskey voice. It’s got power – like “Blood of the Sun” on Woodstock II.
So you should get a band together.
You don’t think I should do it with someone else? In other words, what I feel I can contribute to is a group – remember what Joe Walsh did to the Eagles? That’s what I’m talking about! Something like that. In other words, not because of the money, because I know if I do a solo record deal, I would end up with the money myself. But I don’t want the responsibility on my shoulders, man. It’s an awful load.
Do you want to go on the road?
I did. I thought I did.
Have you been writing a lot?
Me and Steve wrote a lot of songs together.
Have you got a bass player?
We’ve got the whole band. Somebody talked him into it.
You’re not sure you want to do it?
After the other day, there’s some things involved legally with the lawyers. I think there’s some games going on, and I’m not into that. What’s your real name?
I was born “James.”
You sound like you’ve been listening to me play, James.
I’ve known your music since the Leslie West Mountain album.
That’s almost the very, very tippy-toe beginning.
And I even liked Twin Peaks, especially the guitar solo.
Yeah? [Leslie crosses the room, picks up a guitar, and cranks up the amp volume. He plays Cream’s “Crossroads” riff and solo and seamlessly segues into snippets of Jimi Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary” and “Voodoo Child.” From there, he goes into “Hall of the Mountain King,” jumping octaves midway through. When he’s finished, he briefly explains the modules he has installed in the guitar.]
How many guitars do you have around you?
In my life, or in this house?
Three. They made me an Explorer with the modules in it, that one [points to the Electra], and a new one they gave me at the show, a gray color with a double cutaway.
What do you have in your life?
Uh, I think about 11. I’ve got John Phillip’s gigantic custom-made Guild 12-string. It’s as big as Zemaitis’ guitars. My brother picked it up. It belonged to John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. Hey, tell me something. Who’s your favorite guitarist?
I gotta say, it’s either Eric or Hendrix. For motivation, I gotta say Eric. For taking a style and doing something crazy with it? Hendrix, boy. He was just so fluid. He was so sexy onstage, man. Do you know that I played with him the night before he died?
No. Over in England?
No, in New York at Unganos. He was in New York, man, before he went to England. What happened was Steve Miller was playing Unganos, and I went there to see Steve Miller. And I sold him a Les Paul. Jimi Hendrix was in town, in the club. I’d never played with him, I never met him, and sure enough, he came down. There were no amps. I said, “Look, I got a loft on 36th Street.” We got in a limousine, went to my loft, picked up my amps. My roadie woke up, and there was Hendrix standing by his bed. This guy woke up, and then he had these Screaming Yellow Zonkers – you know, those popcorn things? He was eating them. You know, I was in awe, and here’s this roadie getting up, and he saw Hendrix. He didn’t know what to get first! Jimi just said, “Calm down” – you know, real mellow. We got back in the car, went and played all night. Jimi played bass. One of the newspapers was there, and they took a picture of it. All the papers in New York City have copies of the photos. Tim Davis was playing drums.
Do you remember what Jimi played on bass?
We just played a slow blues. And then when we were doing Mountain Climbing, Jimi was the first one to hear it finished. He was doing Band of Gypsys in the Record Plant, with Buddy Miles. And he came in when we’d finished mixing and he listened to it. And you know “Never in My Life”? [Sings the riff.] He loved that little stop in there. He said, “Oh, I love that.” I thought it was great! I said, ‘Wow! J.H.” Oh, man.
When did you start getting into Clapton?
When I was tripping on acid. Felix produced one of the Vagrants records. When I was getting into the guitar, I bought this album by Cream, the first album [Fresh Cream]. And then when I found out Felix was producing them, Felix was my idol. You know what I mean?
Did you enjoy playing the Atlanta Pop Festival?
They made an album of that. They put it on the back of the Isle of Wight. That was really a great show, man. I had more fun at that than Woodstock, because we were already established.
A lot of people liked your version of “Stormy Monday.”
Yeah, that was nice cut, huh? We were very lucky that we all clicked that night. When those things work, when everybody is right on, you know. But when you’re not, it can be the most disastrous.
What was your life like in those days?
Just worked. All we did was tour. It was just such hard work.
How did you travel?
A Lear jet. [Laughs.] If I had to do it again, I don’t think I would have taken a Lear jet. Felix, really – it was his idea. It was my fault, because I suggested it, and he got used to it. It cost a lot of money – $600 an hour. He didn’t want to do anything but get out of the house, get in the car, get on a plane, get in a car, do the gig, and go back, get on a plane, and go home. You know, he didn’t want to stay on the road. We did that for a couple of tours. But it was a lot of fuckin’ work! And it was really, really gravy.
Weren’t the audiences something?
It was great at the time, man. You knew whether or not they wanted you to do an encore. Now it’s just they don’t want to go home yet.
What were the best bands you traveled with?
I worked mostly with Jethro Tull, Ten Years – a lot of Chrysalis acts. Oh, this is funny. You know Martin [Barre], from Jethro Tull? One of his biggest things was he wanted to be recognized by his peers. And he never was recognized by his peers – eh, a little bit. But he wanted that more than anything. It’s very hard when you’re in a group that’s a name around the group, and nobody knows who’s who. Like in Chicago – until the guy killed himself, nobody knew who the fuck he was. Peer recognition – that’s more important than anything. And he knew I had it, because he felt the same way as Mick Ralphs did. We were inspired, and they somehow grabbed on to the way I played. I don’t know what it was. It was very into me and Felix playing together. Like in their groups, they never could get the bass player to play the big power licks. And the greatest thing was to play those things and to play off from there – you know, run the solo off from there. So they took to that.
We toured with the same acts for about two years, I would say. We were all with World Premier Talent, so we all worked together. We got along very good. In fact, we came back to Detroit, where you were from, with Jethro Tull. And the customs officers in Toronto let us get on. Everything was fine. We got to Detroit, they had thirteen custom officers – six chicks and seven guys – to frisk us all. They pushed us in a room, and I said, “The people with the heroin you’re looking for went through with the attaché case, in a suit and tie.” It was really funny – all of us got nabbed, all of us. We were last on the plane, drunk. What were you doing then?
What year is this?
I was in school in Cleveland, Ohio.
Yeah. I saw Steve Marriot that year [with Humble Pie at John Carroll University], and he kicked ass. He sang without a microphone.
Yeah, that’s what he does. So he shows he’s louder than a P.A. Great. I think you’ll go see him in Cleveland again, maybe.
Did you ever play with Eric Clapton?
I’ve never met Eric. He’s the only person I’ve never met. I’ve never met Clapton.
What do you feel he’s done?
He made it possible for me to have a job. Because, see, up until then, people were strumming. Herman’s Hermits were singing, and Peter Noone was looking pretty. But all of a sudden instead of strumming the guitar, these guys [Cream] were into digging in. That was a whole other world. And I saw them on acid at the Fillmore. At that time I was imitating Townshend, smashing the guitars up in the Vagrants – you know, that whole act with the smoke bombs and everything. Dave doesn’t believe me that I was using smoke bombs and flash boxes in ’68. I saw Eric on acid, and I said, “I better shit or get off the pot.” In other words, learn to play the guitar without smashing it. And I learned. I got a vibrato that night. I didn’t have one up until then. That was the beginning of it. So Eric was the start of a whole new ballgame for me.
How do you do your vibrato?
Like you jerk off. Exactly. It’s a little crude, isn’t it?
Yeah, but I use all my fingers. I see a lot of guitarists who just use the finger that they want to vibrato on. I use every one. That’s the thing I never understood – I see guys use the vibrato [picks up guitar], a lot of San Francisco guys, and they just do it like that [uses just one unsupported finger to shake the string]. But if you’re gonna use it, why not use the whole fucking hand? [Hits a note and uses his ring, middle, and index finger together to add vibrato]. Because that’s all power there. Put your hand on my hand [I do it]. Can you feel which muscle is doing it? [Plays vibrato.] Hendrix had a beautiful vibrato. [Plays the riff Hendrix did just after he sang, “Oh, shucks, foxy lady.”]. Yeah. It’s all in the wrist. It sounds real corny, but it’s like jerking off.
Did you start off playing blues?
My roots are The Who – I mean, rock and roll as it is from them. I don’t have roots that go back to blues and all that. I learned guitar by watching the Beatles and the Stones, like everybody else. None of this bullshit where, “Yeah, I used to listen to the old blues guys down in the Delta, hell, aw, shit.” No. Modern rock and roll is my roots. You don’t have to be an old black man to have the blues. You know, you lose your old lady, you owe the government, you this and that, you got blues. You can be Howard Hughes and have the blues, you know. Everything is, as Einstein says, relative. A lot of guys, blues artists, that’s why they used to resent white guys playing blues. Because they thought, “Wow. Nobody dug ’em when we played it.” What, they didn’t believe we had the blues? They see a white kid playing it, aw, he’s serious. All of a sudden, these old blues guys are thanking God the white kids play their music. Somebody did. Jack Bruce told me that his greatest thrill was when – who wrote “I’m So Glad”? Skip James?
Skip James’ wife wrote him a letter thanking them for doing “I’m So Glad,” because she got royalties from it that we astronomical. She thanked them for doing the song, because that money saved her. She was dead broke. So thank God that we picked up on their music.
Do you enjoy country guitar?
I like Weldon Myrick, the pedal steel player for that 615 band [Area Code 615]. Oh, he’s got some licks, boy. If I could play some of those pedal licks on a guitar – that’s something. Those licks are great. Major country licks – I love that.
Do you play around with country music?
Nah. Just a little bit. You know what I like – it’s obvious, right? It’s all the same. Just one note difference between country and blues – you know, minor or major. [Sings “Give me a home far away from home.” [Leslie picks up the new issue of Guitar Player, which I brought along, and studies at the Ted Nugent photo on the cover.]
He’s always playing that Gibson guitar.
Yeah. He uses Fender amps, though. Yeah, all them Twin Reverbs – six of ’em. Oh! That’s a lot of that terrible sound.
In the interview, Ted says he wants to “make people’s ears bleed.”
Yeah. And he’s a great guitarist, Ted! He really is. But he plays such crazy . . . It’s funny, but he’s making money, so good for him. I hope all my friends make millions, you know? With making it now, God damn! Like putting it down, like I said before. When all the rock and roll comes on, my roommate Dave can name every group. It’s almost like our parents, when my mother would say to me, “What do you listen to that crap for?” Really, it’s like different eras and times. It’s a new wave. It doesn’t matter if you play good vibratos anymore. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beautiful guitarist – you know what I mean?
Yes, but there’s a need for it.
Yeah. Hey, you got criticized pretty heavily for having Kiss on the cover. I believe they have every right in the world to be on the cover of it.
That was our biggest-selling issue. For the first time, the magazine was carried in a lot of record stores.
I believe it! I’ll tell you something: I believe they have every right in the world to be on the cover. They’re guitarists in the biggest group of its kind. To be able to bullshit that many people?
They’ve sold 12 million records.
And there ain’t a memorable lick on any of ’em. But somehow they did it, and I give them credit. As long as you accept ads from Gibson, you’ve got to accept ads from anybody. Kiss play Gibson – you know what I mean? [Flips through the magazine.] I wish somebody would invent a thing that kept an electric guitar in tune – a device that stopped your guitar from going out of tune.
There is one.
Where? Not a strobe.
Let me introduce you to the Floyd Rose. I did this article on the Hendrix imitator, Randy Hansen . . .
How is he?
Brings tears to your eyes.
Is he that good?
Where’s he from?
Seattle. And he works his ass off. He doesn’t take a break between songs.
Like Hendrix-type stuff?
Yeah, he does Hendrix songs note-for-note, exactly.
Is he doing good?
Yeah, he gets sell-out shows. Anyway, he uses a Strat, and he’s got a device on his guitar that allows him to use the vibrato arm to make the strings go limp, beat on them, take them back up, and the guitar will be exactly in tune.
Is that what Eddie Van Halen uses too?
Van Halen’s got the same setup.
What does it do?
This guy in Seattle, Floyd Rose, invented it.
It only works with vibrato guitars?
No, it works for any guitar. I’ll show you. [I flip through the July 1979 issue to my interview with Randy Hansen, which includes a close-up photo of the Floyd Rose locking-tremolo device.] Here it is.
What is it?
It’s a special tailpiece and locking nut.
He molds them?
Yeah. He installs them on the guitar, and it clamps down on the strings. In other words, two pieces of metal come down and completely hold the strings at both ends. So the playing length of the string doesn’t pass over anything. So, in essence, the strings are almost welded in place on both ends. Once you tune the guitar, you use an Allen wrench to tighten the clamps.
And no matter what you do, it won’t go out of tune, huh?
That’s right. Randy Hansen says he can go a couple of days without tuning. Eddie Van Halen has one, the guy in Heart.
Where do you get it?
From Floyd Rose in Seattle. You send your guitar up to him and he puts them on.
He tried to sell it to Fender, I heard, but Fender wasn’t interested.
It’s a simple idea. And you don’t even need ball-ends on your strings. You can buy bales of string and cut them to length.
Wow. That’s incredible. Boy.
At this point, Leslie and I decided to call it a day. He invited me to continue next week, so six days later, on July 26, 1979, I returned to his Ben Lomand home. Leslie began our interview by playing me a tape of a straight 12-bar blues tune he’d written a day or two earlier. Played on acoustic guitar with electric slide fills reminiscent of Mick Taylor, it began, “Well, the rent is due . . . .”
I wrote that song for the IRS! [Leslie sings along to the chorus, “Well, I ain’t gonna pay, I ain’t gonna pay no more. Well, I ain’t gonna pay, I ain’t gonna pay no more. I’m gonna give it to my baby, and walk right out that door.”] An octave divider comes in on the solo. I don’t know if this guy I wrote it for wants to do it. I’m trying to figure out if I should give it to him for what he paid me to do it. [Song ends.] I just recorded it on Wednesday, and I didn’t know what it was gonna be like before I did it. I thought it was just gonna be a joke, and I’d go in there half-assed. But I don’t play half-assed. Even without trying, it came out like that. So I don’t want to just give it to him for the $500 before I find out . . . Dig this. Steve did one of the sessions, right? I told the guy he couldn’t use my name or nothin’. The guys said, “Well, Steve said I could use his name for one point” [of the album sales]. I said, “Do you know what fuckin’ one point is worth on your thing? About half of a subway token. If you want it, you pay the cash.” Now, Steve’s thing was ridiculous. He just conformed to whatever the guy wanted. He did as straight a blues as you possibly can. I’m trying to make a joke out of it, because that’s what it is. You know? It couldn’t be serious.
What does he want to give you for it?
Well, nothing. He said, “I realize that if we put it out, you want all the royalties.” But before I let him put it out, I want to find out if it’s worth anything. I wanted to put like fifty people singing “We ain’t gonna pay . . .” Remember like the Beatles, “Hey, Jude”?
“All You Need Is Love.”
Yeah, “All You Need Is Love.” Same thing.
Yeah. Hang on to that song. Keep your publishing, no matter what.
Yeah, it’s my song. And I swear to you, man, I wrote the song in five minutes. I went to a studio, and the guy told me to write the song and he’d give me $250 the next time I came down to rehearsal. I came in the next day and I said, “Well, shit.” So I ran and got a pad, I scratched it out, came in, and gave it to the guy, and he said, “Okay.” I was laughing afterwards. I had to tell him, “You know, I wrote this now.” Hey, I found out that at advertising companies, if somebody comes up with a slogan that’s real good that’s real quick, they don’t want it. They want it to take time. At Ford, one of those things was right off the bat, and they couldn’t use it because the person paying for all the advertising wouldn’t want to know that they came up with it the first crack around. What’s he spending millions of bucks for?
Mick Ralphs said that he writes all of his songs in under five minutes.
I’m sure. Because once you start getting a lick out, you just keep going. You’ll find the chords and finish the progression.
What do you find harder to do – the lick or the words?
I never wrote words. I just learned in the last two years to write words. I wrote a couple of songs by myself in Mountain, but I always had to have help.
Like on “Mississippi Queen” . . .
“Mississippi Queen”? I had all the music, chords, and lick. That song was already a song. Corky had that from his other group. It was one-chord, disco. It was like, “Mississippi Queen, chicka, ching, ching” [scats the rhythm guitar sound commonly used in disco songs]. And I put a lick on it, obviously. I snorted something really nasty, something that I’ll remember the rest of my life, and that’s how I wrote it.
Yeah, stoned out of my mind. Boy, we were so fucked up. I was in the bedroom, he was in the living room, and I was yelling “How about this?” We were just shouting shit back and forth. “Yeah, it’s alright! Whatever you want, man.” I swear to God. When we did the track, Felix threw it out one day. He didn’t like it. Then he put his name on it the next time because he stuck a little note in here and there. You know what he stuck in there and got credit for? That little Steve Knight piano part – that little stinky thing that fucks the record up, in my opinion. That little tiny rinky-dink [sings the piano fill]. Just that, and he took 25% of that song. Felix is a legend in his spare time. He’s a legend in his own mind. Really, he was. But I learned more from that guy than anybody else. Hey, you can print every fuckin’ thing I’m saying. I’m not putting the guy down. He was a genius to me. But he also owned the record company, publishing, management, was in the group for half of what we made, owned the production company. And, to top it off, the record company.
And I happened to be the artist that got Felix’s Windfall [record label] on Bell Records. I was the first album – Leslie West Mountain. I was the first album for Windfall Columbia – West, Bruce & Laing. And I was the first album on Phantom – The Great Fatsby – for Bud Prager. I was the first album on all of their private label deals. The RCA deal was worth $2 million to Bud Prager, just on that alone. And I was the first album on all of them subsidiary deals. And I do not want to be with a subsidiary if I’m gonna do a group. I just don’t want it anymore. I want the luxury of being with the main label, even though subsidiaries are good – we did it with Bell, and they never had a gold album before. The Box Tops’ “The Letter” – that was their first gold record [single], but it wasn’t a gold album. They never had a gold album. So we did it in spite of what restricted airplay we had – 12:00 at night to 6:00 in the morning.
But you got the gold album?
Oh, yeah. For Mountain Climbing, Woodstock II, and Nantucket Sleighride. In fact, I had three managers in Mountain – Felix, Bud Prager, who manages Foreigner, and Gary Kurfirst, who managed Peter Tosh.
That’s a lot of managers.
30%. Premier was taking their 10%. That’s 40. [The phone rings, Leslie takes the call.] Oh, boy. The guy, Lucky, is from Arkansas and Texas, but his family was related to that guy Jim Garrison, the attorney with Kennedy and Oswald and all that. He knows so much about the Kennedy assassination, man. You couldn’t believe what he knows. And that was definitely a conspiracy. Hey, come on – one bullet?
Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?
Rockefeller Center, right by a limousine. I was delivering jewelry. I worked in a jewelry exchange in New York. I made women’s engagement rings. I see a chauffeur by 30 Rock, and he’s crying. A black guy. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “They shot the president!” I came over, and I see all these drivers are there, waiting for the execs from NBC, and everybody’s hysterical in the street. It was incredible. Where were you?
I was in sixth grade, in a Catholic school.
Kennedy – ooh, that’s God.
The principal came on the loudspeaker and said, “Boys and girls, we have something you should listen to.” And they put on the radio news report. Kids started praying and crying.
What a great guy he was, Kennedy. It’s funny – he’s the only guy I ever felt like I had a relationship with, like, why should I vote for somebody? I couldn’t vote at the time, but I wished I could have. The only time I have voted is for McGovern. My wife made me do it on absentee ballot, just because of Nixon. Yeah, she made me do that. I said, “Why is it so important?” She said, “Please, you’ve gotta vote for him.” I wasn’t following it. Then when Watergate started, I got into it, boy. I got into it so heavy, and I was so thrilled I voted McGovern. Didn’t help. I think me and you were the only ones that voted. And I played in Washington, D.C., the night Nixon won, and what a drag that was – Constitution Hall, yet. We were so depressed.
You were never very political.
Nah-uh. Fuck it. I really resented Abbie Hoffman getting up at Woodstock. I’m glad Townshend whacked him. I resented the fact that somebody used – those people didn’t come there for any other reason but to hear them sounds, man. And to get all those people there to hear those sounds, you don’t come onstage and use it to make a speech. Because they didn’t want to hear that speech. And if you would have told them that you’re gonna hear a speech during The Who’s act, nobody would have showed up. So that’s why I resent that. I’m just sorry he didn’t hit him hard enough. I saw it. I was right there.
Abbie Hoffman grabbed the mike and said, “I want to talk to you all.” And Townshend – fuck you! He hit him with the guitar on the head. Hoffman was gone, right into the audience, man. Almost killed him. But he said, “Our stage. When we hit the stage, it is our stage.” And he is right. He earned the right to get control of that stage. Anyway. Hey, I’m really glad I met you, man. I haven’t met any real knowledgeable people around here to talk to about guitars. I’ve got another MPC to show you, they sent me. It’s a funny color, but it’s a new shape that’s nice. It’s got a Les Paul cutaway on the bottom. You know what a 330 looks like, right? Well, it’s got a little one of those on top. It’s nice.
How does it sound?
Beautiful. I’ve got a compressor module for it. We’ll go out in the back there – I’ve got the amp set up in the back. [Leslie leads me into a closet-sized room and demonstrates the guitar by playing “Mississippi Queen” for me at very close range – so close, I could feel his breath on my face as he sang the lyrics. We return to the living room.]
I’d like to ask you some biographical questions.
You got kicked out of ten schools. How did that happen?
I didn’t really like what they were teaching me. I went to private schools, and in private schools you had to have a certain average to get in. And every one I tried to get in, I knew it was a matter of time until I was gonna get kicked out. In the meantime, I could just skate along and not have to go. I was living in Forest Hills, across from the tennis stadium. And my parents separated, so they moved to Jersey. I told them to move to Jersey, because I had three sisters, so let us all starve together. We lived in Long Island, a rich section. I didn’t want to live there. So we moved to Jersey, and I hated it.
How old were you when you moved?
13 – no, 15. Something like that. I’d just gotten my Strat I bought with my bar mitzvah money. I wanted to play guitar in one of the schools, and they didn’t have a guitar in the band, so they asked me to play a drum. And I told them what to do with the drum. It was just one school after another, getting kicked out. Because I didn’t have the grades, and there was no musical opportunity. That’s what it basically was: I was uninterested to learn about anything except the guitar.
So you spent a lot of time playing?
Yeah. Hell, that’s all I could do. And then I quit school and started becoming a jewelry apprentice, just to make some money, because we hadn’t started the Vagrants yet.
In my teens. Everybody in the Vagrants learned to play together. You know, we didn’t know nothing together, and we learned a little bit of something together.
Who were the guys in the Vagrants?
Four guys I went to school with. My brother. They were all actually three years younger than me. They were his age. Yeah, that’s why I quit school. I couldn’t make it in school. I went to a lot of private schools. I didn’t have enough grade marks to get out of the tenth grade if you added it all up. It was funny.
Were you a troublemaker?
Not really, because I just didn’t go. When I was there, I did cause trouble, only because of boredom. It’s the way they teach, you know. They ask you dates about shit and crap like that. They ask you questions they know the answers to. Why don’t they tell you, so you learn? And now you can use calculators – you know what I mean? It’s like Felix was a teacher to me. Recently in Florida we had one of our things where he was in there in the control room and I was out there playing. We used to have good things like that, teach your student. But this time there was a line that I’d come up with, and he said, “You know, it would be real hip to play a harmony to it. It could be something monumental, like ‘Layla.’ You know, that kind of line.” So I spent hours. I don’t know how to read music, I don’t know where notes are, so I had to figure it all out and he’s helping me and this and that. Man, I’m saying to myself that there’s a whole Eventide rack in there with all the things – a harmonizer and everything else. It would be a lot easier if we use a harmonizer – it would have taken two seconds, because I already played the damn line, it was done. It was like a very, very simple thing, like a kid saying to his teacher, “Why can’t I use a calculator?” “No. Figure it out yourself.” Why? That ain’t important. The answer’s important. And that was the thing – he didn’t want use the machine. And I sweated my ass off, working to get those notes. It wasn’t no easy thing for me. But I guess that’s what he enjoyed. I enjoyed getting there at the end – it was very gratifying, I must admit. But fuck the gratification – I’d rather go for a doughnut.
When you were growing up, how did you learn the guitar? What part did you learn first?
I learned on a ukulele. Just by foolin’ around and watching Elvis Presley.
Yeah. Three-fingered chords. See, on a tenor guitar it’s real easy. You can get a big sound, and just play one- or two-finger chords. That’s what I was explaining to you last week. When I got that guitar I didn’t know what to do with them other two fingers. But a tenor guitar is great for a kid, because you get to hear a big sound if you can only play ukulele. And the kid doesn’t have the fingers to get all the way across the strings [on a 6-string guitar], but there’s a little skinny neck on a tenor. The guy in the Mouseketeers used to play a tenor guitar, the guy with the mouse ears on – Jimmie Dodd. That was a tenor guitar! I wanted that so bad. And that’s what made me get a tenor guitar, but not with the mouse ears. It was a Stella. [Shouts “Stella” like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.]
How did you start learning leads?
It was when Cream had just become #1 across the boards with Disraeli Gears, and Felix is producing the Vagrant’s single. I had been listening to Eric for a while. I came in with this sound, with the fuzz tone and an amp, where I could get a lot of sustain. It sounded a little bit like the Marshall, but didn’t have nowhere near that – I mean, I saw Eric’s amps at the Murray the K Show. Did you see The Kids Are Alright? Pete Townshend’s talking about the Murray the K Show? Well, we did that Murry the K Show in New York. He did like eight show a day, four-and-a-half minutes an act. Mitch Ryder, The Who, Cream, the Vagrants, the Rascals, Wilson Pickett. It was incredible. On and off [snaps fingers], on and off [snaps fingers], all day long. I see these amps came in – it said Marshall in the front, it was kicked in, this and that. This group [Cream] comes out and I hear, “I feel free,” and I hear these drums going and I hear the guitar. [Sings line.] And I said, “Oh, damn!” And I’m still imitating The Who, and they were on the show. So I saw Eric play, versus Townshend, and I said, “Time to progress.” And that’s what did it. The leads, I learned real quick. After I saw Cream on acid at the Fillmore East – that’s what made me shit or get off the pot. I didn’t have a vibrato until I heard Eric play. I mean, I swear I did not even have a vibrato until I heard Eric’s Fresh Cream. I learned quick.
And you use three fingers usually.
Yeah, all the time. Never do a vibrato like that [plays a vibrato with just his ring finger]. You never get as much power with one finger. Everything in back of your fretting finger is dead, so why not use your whole hand?
When you first learn leads, did you work off of chords?
Always off chords. Because all my rhythms, they’re line chords. I don’t just play chords, and I don’t just play lines. I play lines into chords or off chords. And they always do resolve into a lead if you take them far enough.
What were your favorite chords to work around?
I don’t know the names of all the chords. [Picks up guitar and plays a partial A chord.] I call this The Who A – it’s a modal chord, neither major or minor. So you can play like this [plays a country lick in A] – that’s legit – or a minor [plays a bluesy riff, then quotes the descending flatpicked pattern in Cream’s “Badge”]. I like to play in E. I never learned to use these fingers, either [points to his left-hand middle and little fingers]. I only use these two [indicates index and ring fingers, then plays a solo]. Now, I can use these other fingers like this [uses all four fingers to play chords and do a scale-like line], but I don’t play jazz, though. I hate jazz. [Launches into Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”] I like following the basic, simple chords.
How did your onstage guitar solo originate?
What do you mean?
Like that piece “Guitar Solo” on a couple of the albums.
Oh, by myself? Kill some time onstage. You know, it’s funny. That thing, I think, got me my record deal. We were playing out in Long Island with Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Yeah. No – this was Mountain, but it was an organ player and a drummer that I had dug up. And this was the first gig of Mountain. Friday we played with Jeff Beck – my manager was the promoter, so he threw us on the show. I played with Jeff Beck on a Friday, and we sucked. No bass player – foot pedals on the organ, like jazz-rock. That’s why I hate jazz – I’m telling you right now. Bad memories. And I thought, “Oh, shit. Thank God Felix isn’t coming tonight.” So what I did was, there was this group that he was managing, and I got my manager to put them on the show and paid them a lot of money. So I knew that Felix would think, “Wow, I gotta come and see my own group if they’re making that kind of bread.” And he came all the way out to Long Island. I got him to see us because we were going on after his group, and they couldn’t touch the equipment, so I knew he had to wait. And he saw me get two standing ovations that night, and nobody knew who I was. So he told me to get rid of the drummer and organist, and that’s how I did my very first album. He came in and said, “Well, I’ll get a drummer and I’ll play bass,” and that was that.
Two weeks. I had all the songs. I’d been working on them. It was just me and Felix and Norman Smart. I had a guy I was writing with, John Ventura – he wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. “Long Red” was one of them.
When did you begin writing songs?
For that first album.
You didn’t write any before?
No. I didn’t know how. I really didn’t. That was the beginning of it all. You know, Eric said in an interview that he hasn’t really advanced on lead much, and he said he did that because he got into songwriting. He stopped playing lead as opposed to sitting down and trying to write. And I can respect that, because he’s come up with some nice tunes.
When do you play guitar the best? Have you had times where you feel you’re peaking?
Mm hmm. West, Bruce & Laing, over in England when we were putting that group together. The rehearsal tapes that we did, which nobody ever really got to hear, were great. It was the first nights we had gotten together, and everybody was feeling great. It was coming together. We had done each other’s songs. We had done “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” all of Jack’s stuff. He did some of mine. Hearing him sing “Mississippi Queen” is incredible! And those were the original tapes. Yeah, I really thought I really gave on that. That’s what I was trying to do.
How long before that had Jack left Cream?
Well, the last group he was with was the Jack Bruce Band with Larry Coryell and Mitch Mitchell, for that solo album of his. But he hadn’t done anything. This was the first rock and roll band since Cream.
What did you feel, playing with him?
I was feeling on top of the world.
Did you hit it off right away?
Mm hmm. I met him at the Fillmore, when Mountain played with Jack. What happened was Stigwood didn’t tell Jack he wasn’t headlining. Mountain was headlining. And Felix took very great pride in the fact that our name was over Jack Bruce’s name. Jack had to come to the Fillmore and see on the marquee that he wasn’t headlining, and he was real mad. He’d never met me, but he saw Felix’s name over his, and he said, “Whoa!” So Jack came in and did his set, and he did “Sunshine of Your Love” and wouldn’t come back for the encore. And the place was going bananas. I never saw anybody go over like that in my life. First time I’d seen him since Cream. I said, “Shit. How are we gonna go on now?” And he said he [imitates Bruce’s Scottish accent] “didn’t have any more fuckin’ tunes. We haven’t rehearsed enough.” I said, “Whoa! I like that guy!” Between shows, Felix wouldn’t talk to him. But I was talking to him. Jack asked me to show Coryell how I get the sound, because he was playing a little amp that wasn’t big enough for the Fillmore. So I let him use all my Sunns. And he went out to Sunn and he bought the same Sunn amps. I was solid with Jack, and we hit it off right away. Yeah, it was great.
Did he play with you that night?
Did we jam? No. I didn’t play with Jack until we went to England. We went over to his house for his birthday, and me and him went upstairs to play in the studio up there. He was playing piano and I was playing guitar. I said, “Hey. One day we gotta play together.” So when I went to England with Corky after Mountain broke up, I knew who I was gonna call, but I wasn’t sure. I knew if I called Jack, I wouldn’t have to call anybody else, because there’s the group – me and Corky and Jack. And I called Joe Cocker and I called somebody else, did that whole thing – we would have had to get this guy, that guy. So I said I’ll call Jack, and he said yes. He didn’t even care who the drummer was. I told him I had one. He had some dates left to do with Jon Heisman and Chris Spedding, John Marshall. And he canceled them. We started the group. The fondest thing I have to remember about all this is putting that together.
Did anyone ever talk about Ginger Baker?
Never. Except Felix. One day he told me that when Cream were playing in a club in England, the set was over about 4:00 in the morning. People started leaving. All of a sudden they started turning back to come in. It turned out that Jack had dove into the drumset, strangling Ginger. They had a fight, a real bad fight.
What were they angry about?
Ginger was hitting him with sticks in the head during the show. Who knows? Nobody knows. But they created such a great crowd of people coming back to see what the commotion was. Yeah, he told me that. Oh, and one time Felix had a fight with Ginger. There was an article where Felix said that Jack was the most talented writer in the band, and Ginger thought he was. [Laughs.] And he got mad at Felix for saying it! He fucking came at Felix at the studio, man, in an alley, waiting. He said [in British accent], “C’mon, man. We’re gonna go it.” They started wresting and shit, and Ginger pulled a knife on him. Really, that’s what Felix said – I swear. Felix said he took him and got him down. I tend to doubt that. I saw Mr. Baker, and he is a bad-looking and tough motherfucker! Oh, boy. That’s all I use to do is ask Jack stories about Eric, and I asked Felix stories about Jack. And they seemed to both tell me stories about Ginger.
How did Eric get along with Jack and Ginger?
He got along better with Ginger than Jack. Jack was sort of a schooled musician, and Eric wasn’t. But Eric could play anything any schooled musician could. And Jack wrote “Theme from an Imaginary Western” before Cream was together, and Eric didn’t want to do it because he said it was too complicated. And that was my favorite song for doing a solo of all time. So I sort of wonder about Eric in that light, because why would he not want to do that song, unless he just resented Jack too much. You know how Cream got signed to Atlantic Records?
They were part of the Bee Gees deal. Stigwood had the Bee Gees, and the only way they would give the Bee Gees to Atlantic was if they took this other group that he had, Cream. A throw-in! Isn’t that something? What to do with the group? They were supposedly the crème de la crème of English studio musicians. I’d never seen anybody playing rock and roll with double bass drums, except for [Keith] Moon. Yeah, that was a turning point in my life, seeing them.
Did you hear the album first? Fresh Cream?
Yeah. Murray the K had a copy of it right away. And you could vote on your records. You see, that was great. You could call up and you could register your vote for new albums that came out. They had the imports, they had Americans, and you could actually see whether or not your vote meant anything. You could make a record get played or not get played. And they played Fresh Cream. Fresh Cream got eight-hundred-and-some-odd votes to stay. It was incredible. They couldn’t do any wrong. It was like God had landed. Somebody saw something else to do with an electric guitars other than just strum. Did you ever wonder why humbucking pickups have so much power? Who ever used it? They certainly didn’t get any of the sounds we’re getting now then. So why were those pickups so powerful?
You went after a powerful sound right away.
Yeah, those Juniors had that sound. Those pickups on there, those little triangular-ended ones – those back ones – they have more power than the other ones, the sunburst humbuckings. But they had one sound. Now, if you take out the capacitor in there, you can stop the tone control from doing anything. All you get is full treble out of it, and that’s how I got that sound a lot. Bass tone I would use more or less by playing up where the bass pickup should have been. The bass tone is the bass pickup. One a three-way switch, it would be the bass switch, and I used to turn all the bass off, all the treble up. And that tone, which also Eric used in “Outside Woman’s Blues” [sings the Cream riff] – he used to call that the “woman tone.” It’s soft like a woman. It’s not a biting electric tone. I call it a “belly tone.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful, vibrato-sounding, saxophonish lead, but it doesn’t hurt your ear at all. Total bass, but nice tone. Tone I learned from Eric too, yeah. Yeah, he had tone, finesse, class. Never blew a lick.
When was the first time you saw Eric Clapton play?
At the Fillmore, on acid.
Well, they played the Café Au Go Go. Also on that tour I went into Café Au Go Go to see, one night, Jimi Hendrix, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Albert King. Everybody got up and jammed that night. And everybody got up and played a progression and played everything they knew. Bloomfield played everything he knew, Eric got up and played everything he knew. Hendrix plugged in all his pedals, played everything he knew. B.B. King got up there last, and he hit one night and sustained it through the whole progression. And walked off. It was incredible! After all them guys played 90 million things, what left was there to play? I thought that was so hip. In other words, he couldn’t do anything else, so he only did what he could do. And the one thing that he could do worked. It’s incredible. He can’t play that fast, you know, but he can sustain notes good. That was exciting, boy. The place went nuts, because all he did after all of that was [sings note]. One note, boy. Ultra hip.
When was the first time you played the Fillmore?
The Fillmore West I played the first time, with Albert King and Johnny Winter. That was my first gig. This was after the Leslie West solo album and right before Woodstock. We played Fillmore West, The Whisky, Kinetic Playground in Chicago, and Woodstock.
Who was in the band at the very beginning?
Norman Smart, Felix, and Steve Knight, an organ player who I never wanted in the band.
How soon after your first solo album did the band get together?
Pretty quick, because I told Felix we couldn’t miss.
Where did you rehearse?
New York. We had a loft – that place I brought Hendrix to. The Windfall loft. We got a lot of things accomplished there. Yeah, I told some good jokes up there. I got ripped off 19 times. It’s in a real groovy area, you know. In Manhattan, by the trucks and the docks, where you either get shit or your dick or blood on your knife.
Where did you live in New York?
Manhattan – Park Avenue.
Who did you jam with?
I didn’t. We didn’t jam in those days, man. Jamming I didn’t learn about until I went out to San Francisco. I swear to God. Vanilla Fudge were my friends, and they came out here and told me all about this jamming shit, you know, and peace and love and no dressing up for the stage – you know, just jeans. I said, “Wow. Those people must be laid back.” I came out here [to California] and I couldn’t believe it. I came back, and I said, “Shit, I hate Ashbury.” You know, I really hated it [Haight Ashbury].
Yeah, because I came out here with the acid and the freaks bothering you. Couldn’t even walk down the street. I loved the period – I didn’t like the area. It looked to me like a place where people can go get stoned and be left alone, you know.
Did you believe in the hippie philosophy?
What was that?
Would you consider yourself . . .
No way! Yeah, peace and love as they’re stealing your tires. [Laughs.]
You always seemed to have more a street-smart image.
Yeah, well, I was from the street, man. But I didn’t believe any of that crap. I hate political motivation. Why would anybody want to put themselves up in front of all them people and try to be good all the time. Who can be good all the time? I can’t be good at all. I don’t trust ’em. Why Jimmy Carter wants to subject himself to what he’s going through now is just beyond me. Are you hungry? [Leslie and I go into the kitchen and he pulls out a box of Hostess Ho-Ho’s, some homemade zucchini bread, and diet orange soda.] Who turned you on to our records?
Actually, I was turned on to Mountain in Detroit, because you were promoted heavily there.
Yeah, we played there. And I’ll tell you where we did real great – WABX . Are you familiar with that [FM radio] station? Dave Dixon? He’s a friend of my wife. I was really friends with him. I heard Dave Dixon’s in Florida now.
When did Mountain have its best moment?
The most exciting moment we ever had was in Memphis. We played the Mid-South Coliseum, and we were in the middle of the show somewhere. And we just blew the place apart. Grand Funk was on, all the heavy groups were on. And we did this “Stormy Monday” thing, people reacted incredible, and “Mississippi Queen” went to #1 in Memphis. That was biggest thrill I had. The best we were, I think, was on that Atlanta Pop Festival “Stormy Monday.” Doing what we did best, I would think it’s there, for the live show.
What made Mountain break up?
Drugs, attitude, attitude because of drugs, old ladies – all the usual shit. But at first it broke up because Felix didn’t want to work on the road. He was making a lot of money, and Corky and I wanted to. We didn’t tell him we were gonna call Jack, because as soon as we did, he’d get really pissed off. Jack told him on the phone one day, “You might have to go through what I went through, Felix, being by myself as the outsider.” It was a very emotional moment. But like I said, he chose to not go on the road. As soon as he did that, I ran to Jack. What would you have done? You know who you want to play with. And Jack was so relieved at the time. Wow. As soon as Jack thinks he’s getting commercial, he folds up. And that’s what we were – we could have been a commercial band.
What was your drug involvement?
[Chokes on his soda.] You mean financially? Drug wise? You want to know what my stash was? Cocaine and heroin and morphine. In Germany – oh, boy. That’s when I got started with the morphine.
Were you with Mountain?
Yeah. No, West, Bruce & Laing. It was incredible. I’d never had it in my life. All guitar players, for some reason, gravitated to – well, I shouldn’t say guitarists, although there are more guitarists than drummers – you get so fucking bored on the road, and it happens to be the only drug that works. You know, it’s too bad, but anything that good is that bad. Some people can handle it, and some can’t. I couldn’t. Everybody tried it. We all got together, and a friend of ours from another group who I will not mention came through with it. It was Chinese brown rocks that were big in England, and we all got into it at the same time and got strung out at the same time. Except it was so pure, coming back here was like a laugh. And that was the beginning of that. It was always something, though. If it wasn’t drugs it would be something else. But with drugs comes attitudes. You see, people think, “Oh, that guy’s changed.” But it’s not the guy changing, it’s the drug making the personality change. Flower of evil – that was from [Charles Baudelaire’s] Les Fleurs du Mal.
What eventually happened with the drugs?
It was too much of a hassle. I was spending more time worrying about getting them than what I could have been doing. I had to ask myself what was more important. Like I said, that guitar – the MPC guitar – had a lot to do with straightening me out, funny as it may seem. Something is a catalyst. You need something. When I saw it, I said, “Hey, it’s different.” A regular guitar wouldn’t have done me no good. I was sick of it. This had a little something to play with, just something to cut your head off. And that’s what did it.
After the Leslie West Band, what did you want to do?
After the Leslie West Band, with Mick Jones?
That was in ’75, right?
And how long did you have that?
Oh, shit. I don’t know. A year or two? I can’t remember. I don’t even know. From ’75 to now, it’s like, short. Seems like a couple of months for me.
What have you been doing?
I took two years out to get my head together, and that’s it. I was living in Milwaukee.
Did you do any playing?
With Lowell George, right before he died, man. We went to Madison. We went to a club, Funky’s. I got up onstage that night and played with him. They asked me to come and do a couple of dates, because the band was really sluggish and Lowell didn’t do much. He wasn’t hardly singing. I didn’t go, but he told me that he was going to build a studio out here and he wanted me to come to the studio and check it out. He was going to possibly produce an album or something like that, and then he died [in June 1979]. I got a tape of me and him playing acoustic slide together at that club. It means a lot more now.
He was working with Mick Taylor right before he died too.
I don’t know. Was he?
Yeah, he’s on Mick Taylor solo album that just came out.
Yeah, he loved Mick’s slide playing, because of the vibrato. I talked to him about that. He loved vibrato. Have you heard Mick Taylor’s album?
Is it good?
Is it really exceptional or is it . . .
What kind of oriented?
He starts out with “Leather Jacket,” a sort of kick in the pants to the Rolling Stones . . .
Mick Taylor. He has a good voice.
Really? Rock and roll? Real rock and roll?
Jazz on there too?
Yeah, a bit of rock-jazz. He goes into acoustic blues and comes in on bottleneck slide, Stones-style. He also plays a slow blues, Chicago-style, a real cooker. His guitar playing is fabulous – so many tones.
That’s great, man.
He plays almost everything himself.
No, he’s got a drummer.
Is he playing bass too?
One some cuts.
It ain’t on the charts, is it?
I haven’t seen it, no.
No. I don’t think anybody really remembers who Mick Taylor is.
But the album is superb.
That’s great, man. Great. It’s him, Peter Green, Eric, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page – Jimmy Page not as much as Jeff Beck. Jeff Beck, he has style, you know. You know, I heard that Eric used to be an extrovert, with the windmill thing like Townshend and everything. That’s why he’s so introverted now.
I’m surprised you’ve never met Eric.
We’ve come close a lot, but I hold him as a hero.
It would be great to hear you to jam.
I’d love that. When you respect anybody as much as I respect him. . . [Looks at the Guitar Player magazine with the photo of the Floyd Rose device.] Yeah, send that guy a letter, that Floyd something up in Seattle. Boy, that’s a great thing, man. It definitely deserves to be patented. Can you imagine, the guy [Randy Hansen] says in the article, “Hey, I tune my guitar for four days, and it don’t go out.” Isn’t that incredible, using a stick [vibrato bar]? I figured out how it works – those pinchers holding the strings. The tuning gear – nothing ever comes near there. The pinch and everything is put in the middle of the string, so it’s still tight. That’s incredible.
That’s how Eddie Van Halen does it right now.
It’s funny how these young kids are into things like that. God knows what we were into. But look at the difference: Like now, you can go buy pickups, you can buy replacement parts. Where the hell was that a few years ago? Nobody thought that anybody could replace a part on a Gibson guitar. You know what I mean? I remember when Manny’s finally got some humbucking pickups in from Gibson – it was incredible. Me and the guitarist in Vanilla Fudge bought one. We had a Telecaster, and we tried to put a humbucking pickup in a Tele. We dug that guitar out with screwdrivers – we had nothing to cut it. And we just chopped it away, man. And we had Scotch-taped the pickup in, and it worked! It bucked a lot of hum. That’s what a humbucker is supposed to do – buck the hum.
Do you play much Stratocaster?
Aside from being my first guitar, no. I was a Gibson freak. I have a Strat in New York. I got it at my brother’s place. My National is there too. I remember one day Mick came in – Mick Jones had a Strat – and I hooked it up to my Marshalls. I’d never hooked up a Strat to that many Marshalls. I said, “There must be a reason everybody’s using them,” and it was great sound. The only thing is, boy, when I need to dig in on the treble tone and on them big, full chords, I never could get it out of a Strat. I’ve never tried it with the new, fatter pickups that distort. I suppose it’s probably good, but I’m enjoying the sound I am getting out of these MPC guitars so much, and I don’t think you can do that with a Strat. There’s not enough room in the body cavity for the modules. If you could, that would be great. You had an article in your magazine about vintage guitars. That’s why I went with the Juniors – because they were like, hey, great Les Pauls that were cheap. I couldn’t spend no thousand dollars on a guitar. I wouldn’t for principle.
Let me ask you about your acoustic guitars. What kind did you use on “Long Red”?
12-string Guild. Felix gave it to me. I also used it on “Because You Are My Friend.”
Is that the 12-string on the early albums?
What happened to that guitar?
The head cracked or something cracked. I had to go get the Ovation, I know, and I think it was because of that. The Ovation I got for free. They gave them to Townshend, me, and Clapton in the beginning – 12s and 6s – and they wouldn’t give them to anybody else, man. Henry at Manny’s got it for me. I sent Steve Marriot in there, funny enough. He came to the studio, and I said, “Look what I just got for nothing! Go to Henry at Manny’s.” He went and said [imitates British accent], “Leslie told me I could get a free guitar.” He said, “Well, tell him to go fuck himself. I didn’t tell him . . . .” He called me up and said, “What are you doing?! That ain’t for everybody! It’s just for you and a few other people.” He got real mad at me. I said, “Well, gee. I’m sorry.” So that’s why I got Steve a couple of guitars from St. Louis Music. He felt a little better.
Where was “Dreams of Milk and Honey” recorded?
In New York. I did that whole album [Leslie West, Mountain] in New York – a real shitty recording studio, Gotham Studios. I remember they got a great deal because it was a commercial studio. So they got a real cheap deal. Terrible sound. And to mix the fucking album was atrocious. We had to put machines on top of machines. Nothing was set up for mixing or anything. It was incredible. Did you like the sound on that album?
Not as much as Woodstock.
Yeah, it was very inferior sound, that album.
What guitar did you use for that first album?
Sunburst Junior, the one Felix gave me. I had a sunburst Junior before the white one, and at the third gig, right before Woodstock, the strap thing fell off and it cracked. So I had to go to Chicago and buy a guitar real quick, the one I mentioned to you I sold Steve Miller. It was a double-cutaway mustard. I didn’t like the sound of it. Every Junior sounds different, even if it’s the same pickup, same-looking guitar. They all sound different, they all have their own sound. I thought this Junior had the sound I was looking for – it didn’t, so I sold it. No – I cracked my mustard. I had a single-cutaway mustard, right, and that cracked and I went out and bought the double-cutaway. And Felix had his Junior on the road, and he gave it to me. Yeah. I never liked the double-cutaways. They had a much treblier sound. They didn’t have as much bottom as a one [single] cutaway.
The white one.
What did you use it for?
West, Bruce & Laing – everything. One pickup took me through a career. Just on that one pickup. It was incredible
What kind of sound were you going for?
Whatever I could get. And it turned out I got what I got. I was using those Sunn Coliseums, and they were supposed to send me guitar tops. They never worked. And they finally sent me this P.A. top, and the P.A. top sounded great. I turned all the treble up on the amp, just put a little bass off. So it was full treble, and I turned the master all the way up and put the volume on 8, the master on 9, and the gain all the way up. And that’s how I had my guitar sound – they sent me the wrong top, a Coliseum P.A. top, and I tried it. And that’s how I got the sound. I had to use something.
How many amps would you use?
Six bottoms and three heads. One was a spare. 100-watt.
Would you have any effects devices?
No. I used to use a phase shifter on “Yasgur’s Farm” and some of that shit, but I didn’t like effects, except for the lines.
What about in the studio?
A phaser, Leslie. I got a way of hooking up a Leslie [rotating speaker] by going into a Hammond organ. You know, there’s a volume control on the organ, in a little box. If you tap-in an empty lead, an open lead, and tap it onto the amp section, you can overdrive the Leslie and make it sound like a Marshall with a Leslie. Because that Leslie is a 15-inch speaker, and Hammond organs are 12 volts – the pickup. A guitar pickup is only one-and-a-half volts, so you only have to turn the volume slightly and you open the guitar up, and my God! Try it one time. Go right into the Hammond organ, you solder the leads on where the volume pedal is, turn the organ on, set the stops, and then all you got to worry about is turning the Leslie on and off. You’re not connected to the organ, you’re just running through it with the power in the preamp.
Where did you use that?
On that song “Silver Paper” on Mountain Climbing.
Did you use it anywhere else?
Anywhere I could hook it up. Anytime I came into a studio, I said, “Ooh, quick – hook that thing up.” But you needed a B-3, and finally I bought a B-3, but it was a cut-down model, and I couldn’t get in the damn thing to hook it up. So . . .
What were your favorite solos with Mountain?
“Theme from an Imaginary Western,” from the very first Mountain album, Climbing. That solo – I don’t think I had another one. That was my very favorite, yeah.
Did Mountain play songs differently every night?
Yeah. Not the structure, but all we played within the framework was different. It was a conversation. In a way it was jazz. [We take a break. When we resume, Leslie brings up Mick Taylor’s new album.] I’ve got to hear Mick Taylor’s album now if it’s that good, man. He’s got an incredible amount of sounds. He played the SG and got a great sound out of it. Yes, I really respected Mick. Jack and him almost had a group, but it never came off. It was a jazz thing, though. That’s the thing with Jack – he can play rock and roll, but he can play jazz with anybody too. So I can understand why maybe he might have been starving for that too. Maybe he was that hungry for it. You could see that Eric is hungry for blues – he loves blues out of funky old guitars and amps. The big amps and all of that is a thing of the past. You walk in any music store, and even in your magazine, you see that small amps is on the way. Small components for your stereo, mini speakers. It’s coming. Small TVs, small cars. It’s all coming. Mini modular studios. Watch a guitar come all folded up and everything. A mini guitar. That’s what I thought a Junior was – a mini guitar – because in many cases, it did look like a mini. What else you got? Are we getting somewhere?
Just a couple of more questions on my list. What did you use on “Dream Sequence” on Flowers of Evil?
Sunburst Junior through one Sunn, a Coliseum P.A. head, tubes, and one 4×12 Sunn cabinet with the Eminences, and a Marshall 50-watt 8×10 and a Fender Twin.
How did you create that effect in the beginning?
That’s my volume control on the Junior. I have that mastered, because I never could afford a pedal. Someone leant me his Morley, and shit, the thing makes you stand up crooked! You gotta go like this [demonstrates stepping on the volume pedal] to try to get it. I tried doing it sitting down, and it’s still hard. What you can do, though, is block it, so the pedal doesn’t have that much leeway. You can put something in there to make the pedal not go all the way down. Oh, I’m sorry, I did use a Bow-Wow pedal, a Schaller, that Jeff Beck uses. I used it on Leslie West Mountain album, on “Blind Man.” The tone I got on there was a Schaller Bow-Wow pedal. Instead of wah-wah, it’s [makes wah sound] bow-wow. [Sings the opening line of Jeff Beck’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” from Truth.]
What do you use for slide?
A lug wrench.
Like a Sears Craftsman?
A Sears. You can walk into any hardware store in the world and get one. You just have to try it on and get the right size for your finger. Now they make slides. They’re in all the stores. They’re not bad. Jas, you think we’re alright for today?
We sure are.
I’m a little tired. If you’re up here this weekend, give me a call and we’ll do something.
Well, Leslie, I’ve got to thank you for this interview.
I’m glad you gave me a call and came over. This has been a good interview. It was a nice talk.
To spend some quality time with Leslie West today, check out his highly entertaining, star-laden The Sound and the Story DVD. Here’s a link to a preview: The Sound and the Story . You can also see him in this promo video for the new Dean Leslie West Signature Guitar: Dean Leslie West Signature . His recent album Unusual Suspects, well worth searching out, is available from Amazon.com and most record stores.
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© 2012 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.