A conversation with Leslie West
From the archive: Leslie West talks about dropping acid at the Fillmore, kicking methadone with Johnny Winter and missing Jack Bruce
Don’t say he didn’t warn you. On the back of Leslie West’s album, Soundcheck, you’ll find a disclaimer: ‘Caution! Risk Of Electric Shock While Listening’. It’s a joke, but only just. At his fiery best, the New Yorker still plays with a megawatt attitude that belies his 16 solo albums and 70 years on the planet.
“Sixteen albums…” echoes the bandleader. “My God. Y’know, when I saw that number, I couldn’t believe it. But I’m hoping that my guitar and vocals are gonna shock people, in a good way.
“I realised, too,” he adds, “that I’m gonna be 70 in a couple of weeks. It’s a big number. It’d be nice if you hit 70, then it’s 69 again, then 68, then 67. But what are you gonna do? It keeps going up. It doesn’t go backwards.”
In the best possible way, West is growing old disgracefully. While his silvery peers have long since retired to the trout farm, he’s still out there on the front line. Torching the eyebrows off the audiences. Shucking kerosene over the albums (if there’s been a heavier take on Goin’ Down than the bone-shaker on Soundcheck, we’ve not heard it). Fielding interviews with a suffer-no-fools wit that means you ask stupid questions at your peril. “Am I happy with the album?” he barks, impatiently. “You wouldn’t want me to say it sucks, would you?”
If anything, West’s work ethic has only accelerated, in glorious defiance of recent obstacles placed in his path. “I’ve had a couple of setbacks physically. It’s funny: I hadn’t been to a hospital my whole life, except when I had my tonsils out when I was two. All of a sudden, I’m a cancer survivor, I’ve lost a leg. It’s like a car. When a car gets 50,000 miles on it, things start to go. Y’know, everyone gets knocked down in life. It’s how you get up.”
He speaks from experience. Though ostensibly a new album, Soundcheck finds West winding back the clock, dusting off mothballed sessions that he tracked decades back, covering favourite tunes from his youth, saluting departed friends. Even if six of the 11 tracks are covers, you’ll know the man far better after you’ve heard it. “When I listen to the music,” he notes, “I don’t feel 70. But I guess I did something in that time.”
He sure did. Born Leslie Weinstein in 1945, he took a brief stab at regular employment. “Believe it or not, I was actually a jeweller. I sold diamonds in the jewellery exchange in New York. But I didn’t get much kick outta that. Felix Pappalardi [Mountain bassist] used to say to me, ‘Thank God you can play the guitar, because I don’t see you doing anything else.’”
By the mid-60s, West could feel New York’s counter-culture blooming, along with its attendant fads and fashions. “I’d watch guys walk down 48th Street in the middle of the afternoon, in velvet and high-heeled patchwork boots. I used to look at them and say to myself, ‘Boy, this guy had better play real good to be walking around looking like that’, y’know?”
In truth, West wasn’t much interested in his countrymen. “People think I listen to all the old black dudes. No, my influences were Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, John Mayall. I didn’t listen to guys from Alabama or Memphis. I listened to English guys copying American guys.”
The epiphany came the night when Cream played the Fillmore East, he explains. “We took some LSD, and the curtain opened and Eric was wearing all his buckskin: they looked great, man. They opened with Sunshine Of Your Love and I looked at my brother and said, ‘My God, we really need to practise.’ I was stunned by how great they sounded, man. The show didn’t end till 4am. It made me a lifelong Cream fan. I was like a groupie for Cream.”
Small world. West’s first band was The Vagrants, an R&B footnote that brought him into the orbit of Pappalardi, producer of Clapton and co’s 1967 masterpiece Disraeli Gears. “Could The Vagrants have been stars?” he wonders. “No. We had a great show, strobe lights, all that stuff. But we were a local group, and we just couldn’t record. Felix came in and tried to record us. He did two singles with us that didn’t really do anything.”
Pappalardi entered the frame again in the late 60s. “Somehow, I got in touch with him. I’d started this group Mountain. Went in the studio. Felix had two weeks before he had to go and produce Cream’s Goodbye, or maybe Jack Bruce’s Songs For A Tailor. But we didn’t have any original songs. I said, ‘Y’know, if we can’t do this album, I guess we may break up.’ And Felix said, ‘That might not be the worst thing in the world. If you put something together, give me a call.’ Well, I called him in three days, came back, went in the studio, and we did my first album, Mountain .”
With Pappalardi joining as bassist and co-writer, Mountain planted their flag deep in the 70s blues-rock scene with classics such as Mississippi Queen and Nantucket Sleighride. A rueful West can only speculate how high they might have flown had Pappalardi’s wife not disrupted the partnership (and shot her husband dead in 1983). “She stuck her two cents in, got in the middle of Felix and I, caused a lot of crap,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, we were going to shows in separate cars. Drugs entered into it. I guess we got as much good out of it as we could. I love the Nantucket Sleighride album , but after that, we started to go downhill.”
Nevertheless, that early run made West a star, as noted for his molten guitar tone as his shock- haired, larger-than-life character. Soundcheck includes a cover of Gretchen Wilson’s Here For The Party, West plainly revelling in its debauched lyric. Were you pretty wild back in the day?
“I’m sure a few people would say, ‘Oh yeah, Leslie was out of his fucking mind, man,’” West considers. “I probably did do some crazy fucking things. But at least I’m here to talk to you about it.”
Some of the others aren’t. The album inlay has a poem paying tribute to Johnny Winter. You helped him kick methadone back in the day, right? West nods: “It’s a terrible drug to get off. My brother had tricked me into getting off it. One day, he told me, ‘You’ve been taking placebos for the last three months, you’re clean.’ Johnny’s manager asked me one day, when we were doing a show together in Canada, ‘How did you quit?’ We were on tour a couple of years ago and Johnny came in the dressing room and thanked me. He was clean, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He wasn’t hiding in his bus.
“When Johnny died over in Europe,” adds West, “I felt terrible, because I’m sure that a lot of people thought it was from drugs. It wasn’t from drugs at all. It was just that his body gave out. It’s very sad. We’ve lost a lot of guys this last year. And I’m still here. I’m scratching my head.”
Perhaps an even more significant friendship was with Jack Bruce, the pair working as West, Bruce And Laing (with drummer Corky Laing), and remaining close until the bassist’s death last year. Given that, the most poignant track on Soundcheck is a closing Spoonful, recorded live in the late 80s.
“I was doing one of my solo albums, Theme ,” recalls West, “and Jack came up and stayed in New York to play bass. The promoter in upstate New York wanted to know if we’d come in and do an impromptu set, no advertising, just word-of-mouth. The place was packed, and my producer, Paul Orfino, was smart enough to record it in stereo. We didn’t rehearse, we just did it. And Jack sang it so great, man. I was trying to clone Eric Clapton. It was about 15 minutes long, so we cut it back.”
Do you remember good times with Jack?
“I remember one time, we were out in San Diego, and they have the water park where you go see the dolphins. So Jack and I went to that, then we went to the movies, and we came back. And we saw, ‘Jesus, somebody broke into Jack’s room.’ He had a box that he had his special dope in: this beautiful box, a humidor from Harrods. And sure enough, it was Corky Laing. We figured that out right away. That son of a bitch ruined the box!”
You must miss him.
“When Jack passed away…” West tails off. “I still haven’t gotten over it. I hope that song is a tribute to him. It brought tears to my eyes.”
At the other end of the tracklisting, Left By The Roadside To Die is a frank consideration of West’s own recent brush with mortality. In June 2011, the guitarist – a long-term sufferer from type 2 diabetes – was aboard a 10-hour flight to Mississippi when his right leg began to burn, swell and turn blue. West lost consciousness, and on touchdown, his wife Jenni was given an ultimatum: sign off the amputation of his right leg at the knee, or let him die.
“They put me in a coma for four days,” remembers West. “I had a blood clot, they were trying to bust it up, and my blood got so thin that I was gonna die. So they woke me up. I was so out of it. And Jenni says to me, ‘Listen, I have to tell you something: if they don’t amputate your leg, you’re gonna lose your life’. So I said to her, ‘Ah, do whatever you have to do.’
“When I woke up, I realised what had happened, but I was kidding around. So I said to Jenni, ‘What happened? All I said to you was to pass me the salt, and you cut off my leg, you evil bitch!’ We made a joke out of it. So in the darkness, there was some humour.”
Heroically, West put out a new album, Unusual Suspects, within a few months of the amputation, and swiftly adapted touring plans to his circumstances. “I was really sad for a while,” he admits. “Like, how am I gonna do this shit? Left By The Roadside To Die: that’s the way I felt when I lost my leg. I tried to play with a prosthetic, stand up with a guitar, but my balance was so terrible that if it wasn’t for the parallel bars, I’d have fallen down. I could have killed myself falling off the stage, so I had to make a decision and play sitting down. But my playing has the same energy. I’m glad it was my leg and not my arm – or you and I wouldn’t be talking right now.”
Touring logistics have got slicker, he says: “I have a special vehicle now called an MV-1. It has two ramps that come out from the middle and I drive the chair up. A four-hour drive is about all I can take, y’know, without needing a rest. On stage, I have electronic wheelchairs. Even with that, I can’t go up too steep an incline, because I don’t want to fall. So it’s a little trippy to go out on tour. I’ve had to make sacrifices. But I’m doing the best I can.”
So the old car keeps rolling on, the odometer inexorably ticking up with every mile. For all the scrapes and dings, there’s a palpable fulfilment in West’s voice that suggests he’ll easily sail through his eighth decade. “I mean,” he concludes, “everybody’s got some kind of blues, y’know? Maybe your cat peed on the carpet. Or your wife ran off with the mailman. It’s all kinds of stuff. But right now, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t be more happy.”
West remembers hooking up with Hendrix in 1969.
“Jimi came into this nightclub in New York at, like, one in the morning. I happened to be there to see Steve Miller, who had finished and left. I’d already met Jimi in the studio at the Record Plant – we were doing Climbing! and he was doing Band Of Gypsys – so we knew each other. He came over to me and said, ‘Wanna jam, man?’ Just like that. We didn’t have any equipment there, but we had a loft about 13 blocks away, in a real deserted part of Manhattan, 36th Street, 11th Avenue.
“So Jimi said, ‘Well, let’s get in my limo.’ My road manager lived in the loft, so we woke him up at two in the morning. He came down and opened the door and who’s standing there but Jimi Hendrix. He nearly had a heart attack. We went upstairs and we jammed, Jimi was playing bass and I was playing guitar. We just seemed to hit it off. But I think Jimi could have played with anybody. He just loved playing, and he was so cool as a guy. That’s my favourite memory of him.”