Leslie West: First Time I Met The Blues
Mountain man Leslie West recalls inspiration, amputation and the revelation of watching Cream on LSD.
This article first appeared in The Blues #9, October 2013.
Back in 1969, Leslie West’s girth inspired the name of anvil-heavy New York power-trio Mountain – and four decades later, the guitarist remains larger than life. Batting back our questions with a gruff wit undimmed by the amputation of his lower right leg in 2011, and insisting he’s in the game until he drops, it’s easy to read the title of new album Still Climbing as a statement of intent. “I’m gonna be 68 in a month,” drawls West, with palpable satisfaction, “and I’m still playing the damn guitar.”
Do you remember how you fell for the blues?
Yeah, listening to Eric Clapton. Plain and simple. God, I listened to that Bluesbreakers album over and over again. It was John Mayall’s group, but I was more interested in Clapton. Wow. I’d never heard anybody play guitar like that. He played so differently at the beginning, in Bluesbreakers and Cream. I’d say Clapton and Jimi Hendrix are the guys that made me want to play.
What was the best blues concert you saw growing up?
Well, after we heard Cream, my brother and I went to see them play at the Village Theater in New York, which became the Fillmore. It was their first or second tour of America. We took LSD. The curtain opened up and I heard Sunshine Of Your Love and I looked at my brother and said, ‘Holy shit, we really need to practise!’
Which of the ‘three Kings’ is your favourite?
Albert King. In fact, the first Mountain show we did, at the Fillmore West, was opening for Johnny Winter and Albert King. Albert King’s amps didn’t work and he had to use mine, and I don’t think he had a very good experience with them. I didn’t talk to him that night, I was too nervous and it was our first show, but I loved his style. He could take the same lick and bend it 40 different ways. I just seemed to like his style more than Freddie King, Buddy Guy, BB King… Albert was my favourite.
Who’s the most impressive blues musician you’ve ever seen in the flesh?
Joe Bonamassa. He played with me on my last album, Unusual Suspects, and I played with him on a song from his first album called If Heartaches Were Nickels, written by Warren Haynes. And yeah, he’s something else. He’s from upstate New York, and he knows the blues like he was an old man playing it.
Johnny Winter is a guest on Busted, Disgusted Or Dead. What was that like?
You can really tell the difference when he starts to play. It’s Johnny Winter all the way. He’s got that Texas style. We’ve been really good friends a long time. We had a problem a long time ago, both of us, from doing heroin. And then we both went on methadone, and I found a great way to detox from it, but Johnny still had a problem. We played together in Canada, and his manager asked me how I did it, so I told him. And it worked for both of us. I think we’re gonna do a book about it, because nobody’s done a book about methadone, which is a very serious drug.
Jonny Lang also appears on one track…
Well, I interviewed Jonny about 12 years ago, after his first album, for a guitar magazine. He was playing New Jersey on tour with Buddy Guy and he had a day off, so we played and sang together in the control room, and it turned out really good, man. Besides his guitar playing, there’s something about Jonny’s voice that just gets me. Boy, he plays like an old blues guy from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He’s got it going on.
Have you ever had the blues in your life?
The hardest time was two years ago when I lost my leg. I don’t know how I came back from that. My wife, Jenni, saved my life. We were going to Biloxi, Mississippi. Mountain was playing our last show. I got a blood clot on the plane. When I got to Mississippi, my leg didn’t feel right. I went to hospital and they put me in a coma for four days. Eventually, they had to amputate my leg. They had to wake me up from the coma, and Jenni said, ‘Either they amputate your leg or you’re gonna die.’ I just said, ‘Do whatever you have to do.’ It’s a good thing it wasn’t my arm. I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
Did you consider stepping back from the business?
Well, I’d just finished doing Unusual Suspects. We have this thing over here called Rock‘n’Roll Fantasy Camp, so I did it in New York, and when I heard the guitar it got me all excited again. It’s a little difficult. I’m not really using a prosthetic. My balance is a little fucked-up, but I’m doing the best I can.
If you sold your soul to the Devil, how much would you charge for it?
Heh heh. I’ll sell it to him for five bucks!