It’s the way he tells them. You might be interviewing Walter Trout in the coffee lounge of a Holiday Inn, or over a shaky Skype connection on a wet Tuesday, but when the veteran bandleader fires up an anecdote, rewinding to a pivotal scene in his own toe-curling biopic, he takes you along for the ride.
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Squalid 70s drug-dens. Murderous LA biker clubhouses. Clammy backstage orgies. You’re right there with him, watching through your fingers.
Right now, The Blues is riding shotgun as Trout slips through another wormhole in the space-time continuum. The date is October 31, 1974, and the New Jersey bluesman has just arrived in California to seek his fortune. “I’d driven three thousand miles across the country in my VW Bug, camping in a pup tent, living on peanut butter and jelly,” he begins. “When I got into Costa Mesa, my buddies were all going to a Halloween party. Well, I didn’t have a costume, but they tell me they have this full-body gorilla suit that nobody is gonna wear. I figured, what the hell, y’know?
“So I put this gorilla suit on, with nothing underneath, then we all took a hit of LSD and we drove off to this Halloween party. Now, I had only been in California for five hours at this point. So I’m at this party and I start having what you’d call the quintessential bum trip. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve made a big mistake. I gotta get in my car right now and drive back to Jersey.’ I get more and more despondent until finally I just leave the party and start walking.”
The punchline: “At which point, I realise I’m completely lost. I don’t know where my friend’s house is, or how to get back to the party. I have no money and I’m peaking on LSD. I came across this hamburger place called Bob’s Big Boy. I walked in, sat down, took the gorilla head off, set it down on the counter and broke into sobbing uncontrollably. I told the waitress: ‘I just got here, I’m on acid, I’m in a gorilla suit, I don’t know where I am and I’m freaking out.’ So she got me a cup of coffee and drew me a map. Turned out it was actually very easy; there were only two turns to make. So I walked back, in my suit, people pulling up next to me and yelling out of their cars. All I could think of the next day was, hopefully it’s gonna be uphill from here...”
If you had kerb-crawled the tragic figure pounding the highway that night in 1974, it’s unlikely you’d have bet on Trout surviving a month in the meat-grinder of the LA music industry, let alone toasting his 25th anniversary as a solo artist, as he does in 2014. The band leader’s record label, Mascot, has certainly pushed the boat out, marking the quarter-century milestone with a fistful of commemorative releases, including reissues of 10 classic albums on premium 180-gram vinyl and a documentary directed by Frank Duijnisveld.
There’s also Rescued From Reality: the official biography due next month, co-written by Trout and myself during a flurry of Skype interviews and one marathon face-to-face session in Cardiff. In the anecdote stakes, the gorilla suit is in pretty good company. There are bust-ups with Bruce Springsteen, Ike Turner and Albert King (“Albert tells me, ‘The backstage toilet is for the headliner – get the fuck out of here!’”). There are death threats from Canned Heat’s biker-gang management (“This large biker fellow tells us, ‘I’m gonna personally murder each and every one of you!’”). Beatings from Buddy Rich. Dope-deals gone bad. Vagrancy. Cavity searches. In one particularly low ebb, Trout cooks up freebase in his own underpants. Without fear of arrogance – because it’s his story, not mine – it makes Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt look like The Gruffalo.
My own favourite episode finds the guitarist and his solo-period bassist Jimmy Trapp [who passed away in 2005] marooned in Ketchum, Idaho, circa 1977, having been blown out on a club residency. Without money or transport back to Cali, the pair are reduced to sleeping in cages at a local dog kennels. “These cages are three feet wide, maybe three feet tall,” Trout reminds The Blues, “so you have to crawl in on your hands and knees. You’re laying on concrete, surrounded by dogs, and they’re barking and shitting all night. It was horrible. One night, after getting sick of all this, me and Jimmy went walking down the main drag of Ketchum, the yellow line between us, drinking a bottle of Jack, tripping on acid and swearing that we’re not gonna let this get us down and we’re gonna do something with music. When my wife read that part back to me, I just fell apart, because it brought back memories of my good buddy Jimmy, y’know?”
But enough of the sales pitch. For most fans, the pivotal release of Trout’s anniversary year is The Blues Came Callin’. When sessions for this latest studio album began, back in April 2013, the guitarist had no particular concept or lyrical thread; he simply wanted to turn out another dazzling slab of blues-rock to maintain the velocity of 2012’s Blues For The Modern Daze. Since then, life has changed beyond recognition, and the record’s guiding theme alongside it. “I can’t write bullshit,” Trout shrugs, eyeing me steadily down the webcam from his home in California. “I have to be honest about what’s going on. So this record became a whole different thing. There are songs on there that look square in the face at what’s been happening to me.”
Most of our readers will hardly need reminding what that is. If you’ve taken even a cursory interest in blues-scene current affairs over the past nine months, you’ll know this album arrives on the heels of the bluesman’s darkest days, and that the 25th anniversary hoopla has suffered a desperate change to the script. “I wish the liver would have waited,” Trout laughs, a little darkly. “Because I had this big year planned, with all these big tours, this and that...”