In conversation with Leslie West
Leslie West tells The Blues 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 new 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.”