To the extent that he ever really was mainstream, that is. My roommate in high school (from Saudia Arabia) turned me on to Winter’s first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment and I fell in love with its raw, grittiness, in spite the goofy pics on the album back of Winter dressed inexplicably in Renaissance fest garb.
Johnny Winter never really enjoyed much in the way of true mainstream success.
What that he did went down after he signed with Columbia Records and released his first major label album in 1969, a disappointment. He later crossed over into rock after hooking up with The McCoys (“Hang on Sloopy”) as his backup band, before returning mostly to touring and playing the blues, albeit without much in the way of hype or fanfare,
In recent years Winter drew decently with club shows at places like Knuckleheads and a more-or-less free show outdoors at the Lawrence Art Center last month. He had to be wheeled on stage where he remained seated throughout his show and – according to some reports – had difficulties with his singing and guitar playing.
Speaking of which, did you catch Paul Wilson‘s review last year of BB King?
Winter died Thursday in a hotel room in Switzerland while on tour.
Which brings us to the frank, controversial assessment of Winter’s career by Bob Lefsetz, a music savvy dude who never quite crossed over into becoming a Johnny Winter fan but did manage to enrage some by speculating on Winter’s death.
“Methinks (Winter) O.D.’ed.
I understand the use of drugs on the road, but it’s hard for me to glorify them. As much as I believe marijuana should be legalized, along with the harder stuff, it bugs me that we lionize inebriation, as if the highest state of being is to be high. Because personally, my greatest experiences have all been natural.
I don’t want to lock you up. As I get older, I veer towards the libertarian philosophy of we’re all individuals and get to make our own choices, but when someone dies of drugs, I think of the waste involved, it taints the legacy. Yup, even Jerry Garcia. Wouldn’t it be great if we still had Captain Trips around, if you didn’t use him as your personal Jesus, forcing him into a drug habit retreat.
It’s hard to be famous. Not that only famous people do drugs, never mind O.D. But most musicians are not well-adjusted, they play for the love of the audience, they get high being on stage, and then being off is positively awful. First, the comedown from the gig, then the endless travel/boredom.
But maybe Johnny Winter didn’t O.D. He was 70, he was an albino, maybe he never went to the doctor and died of a heart attack (yup, go every year, despite conventional wisdom, get a colonoscopy and take your statins and your life will be lengthened, and believe me, when you become aged, you want that.) But the truth is after the death of Jimi, then Janis and Jim, we’re skeptical. It’s not like Uncle Stan, or the regular people walking the street, when musicians die, we think drugs.
And my inbox is filling up with people asking me to write about Johnny. And I don’t want to speak ill of the dead. And I was not the biggest fan, even though I bought a few albums and went to see him live, but most interesting is his career arc.
The sixties were different from today. All the energy came from the label, and then it was dependent upon radio to blow you up. Oh sure, if you were not a label priority, you might build a fan base that would support you along the way, while you searched for that elusive hit, as was the case with Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat, but if the label worked you hard and radio didn’t believe, you ended up in a no-man’s land, like Johnny Winter.
We all knew who he was, but none of us could name his tunes. Because we didn’t own the albums, because there was no Spotify, no YouTube, no BitTorrent. If radio didn’t play it, if you didn’t own it, it’s like it didn’t even exist, it might as well have been an empty cover in the record store.
So the first album stiffs. And then they hype the second one as a three-sided double. And back then the scene moved fast, tracks didn’t last a winter or a summer, furthermore, if the hype preceded the traction, it was even harder.
So Johnny Winter changed direction. He pushed aside the blues and embraced rock, and scored a hit with Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” A certified smash in both this incarnation and the following Rick Derringer solo rendition. But it was the wrong track at the wrong time. It wasn’t quite the sixties, with album side long cuts by Arlo Guthrie and Iron Butterfly, but we hadn’t switched over to bite-sized tour-de-forces. Lee Abrams had not taken over the FM world, codifying it into AOR. “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” was too pop for WNEW. This was the height of hipness. A few years later, in the Abrams era, the track would have dominated like “Sweet Home Alabama.” But we were still waiting for “Stairway To Heaven” and “Free Bird,” which were yet to be released.
And suddenly Johnny Winter wasn’t what he was presented as. Rather than the blues slinger, the Texas Michael Bloomfield, he was just another rocker.
Then it got worse. Winter was finally a star who could draw, but he was covering the Stones’ “Silver Train,” it’s like he had a lobotomy and was delivering what the audience wanted, just to stay alive.
But this was the era of careers and credibility. And when the hits dried up, so did Johnny’s fame. Not that most cared, the grinning guy with the tiny guitar seemed a curio, far from the original bluesmeister.
And when Johnny Winter returned to who he was, very few people noticed. Enough to keep him alive, enough to keep him on the road, not enough to bring him back to prominence.
This was not someone ripe for MTV airplay, never mind a VH1 “Behind The Music.” His stardom was second-rate. It was unclear who his fans were. All he had left was himself and his playing.
And that’s when Johnny Winter started to flourish. When people stopped paying attention, he went back to who he was in the first place. Unfortunately he was a little too old for the Internet. If the online world had begun a decade earlier, and/or Johnny had been ten years younger, he might have been able to rebuild his career. But at his age…it’s kind of like Hot Tuna, there’s the hard core, and the rest of the people who might care don’t spend hours surfing the Internet and the youngsters who are are more interested in discovering the legends.
Which, unfortunately, Johnny Winter never became.
But Johnny was a musician, unlike so many of today’s stars. He really could play the guitar like ringing a bell, he did have roots, he did have a style.
And like the classic bluesmen who preceded him, Johnny had his ups and downs. But he stuck with the program. He delivered for those who cared.
The truth is every career is unique, would the Beatles have licensed to corporations if they broke today? I’m sure Pearl Jam would. You’re a product of your place and time.
And Johnny Winter was a product of the radio and records era. Wherein you listened all night, bought the recordings and stayed at home practicing until you were good enough to gig and get a life.
It was so different from today. No one thought they were entitled to instant stardom, never mind a gig, whereas today pre-teens are stunned that no one wants to see them live.
But today no one’s lonely, you can always find your tribe online.
But back then the loneliness was overwhelming, especially if you didn’t live in the city. You were an outcast if you didn’t play sports. Girls didn’t pay attention to you if you weren’t cute. You got bit by the music bug and woodshedded until you could break out. And Johnny did. Although his career was thwarted by high expectations that were initially unfulfilled.
So another classic rocker is gone. Not one of the Brits who gave it up for a day job and rarely straps on his axe, but someone from the second generation, someone who didn’t break in ’64, but hit the scene before everybody had an FM radio in their car, when music and albums were still for the hip.
The timing of these musicians was right, they were infected before the Beatles, so when that band broke, they were ready.
But so many of the American bands were influenced by the Yardbirds and the rest of the U.K. acts feeding our history back to us. Yup, in the late sixties, we reclaimed the blues.
So Johnny, we hardly knew ye. You were trumped by the publicity, you changed styles before you caught on and when you returned happily to who you were times had changed and few were paying attention.
But you got to be up on stage. You got to play and record with your heroes. And life is not about charts and spreadsheets, it doesn’t come down to data, but experiences.
And all those playing at home just dream of having the experiences you did.
You were a soldier in the rock and roll army when not anybody could enlist, when they only wanted the best and the brightest. You fulfilled your duty. You got no medals, but you were a key player in the ultimate triumph of rock and roll over disposable pop.
We could still use you, your ability and your wisdom, your staccato and your twang, the way you wrung that sound out of your guitar.
Unfortunately, you’re gone.