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Johnny Winter Knew What to Do
The whitest man of them all could not only play the blues, he could play the hell out of them. For the past 45 years, that’s exactly what he did, night after night, whether he had the ear of the whole music scene or only of those devotees and passers-by who happened to be around on any particular evening. Johnny Winter was absolutely the real thing and, although Chuck Berry, Little Richard and even Bob Dylan played their part in his pantheon, the core of it always came back to the blues.
I first saw him under duress. An albino blues guitarist laying them flat in south Texas and brought north in a whirlwind of press releases threatened more than tedium. My girlfriend said I would love him, that he was exactly the kind of blues player I loved best. It took about 15 seconds to convince me that he wasn’t good, he was great. It wasn’t just that razor sharp guitar or the gravel edge of his singing. Johnny Winter onstage, bathed in blue spotlights (because white ones burned his skin) was the blues stripped to an essence, confident and raging, nervous and excitable, heart-broken and drowned in not just his own but a world of tears, including your own.
I knew Johnny a little bit in those early days, mainly because I was friends with his manager, Steve Paul, the New York City impresario who flew to Texas the minute he finished reading the first Rolling Stone article about this weird cat in 1968 . Steve had long run a club called Steve Paul’s The Scene, which was the greatest all-night jam club in the history of New York City. Jimi Hendrix spent a lot of time there, as did whoever else was in town, from Johnny and his friends Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper to that other left-handed strummer, Tiny Tim. None of these was necessarily the unlikeliest cat in the room on any given night.
We saw a lot of Johnny and Steve in those years in Detroit, at the offices of Creem Magazine. I can remember them turning up one day with a copy of Second Winter, the followup album. Two discs, three sides, eleven songs. Fourth side blank. Why? After those, the level of material dropped off, they said. Hype? Well, anyway, a dubious rationale, albeit Columbia only turned up two outtakes when they reissued it on CD ten years ago.
But the real story was the battle they fought with CBS Records over its insistence that all albums made for the label be made at a company-owned studio using company hired and trained engineers. One of the most instructive lessons I ever had about record production came from that conversation, Johnny raving mad about the refusal of those engineers to recognize that to make this music, you needed the needle to rock into the red. Yeah, the sound got distorted. That was what the songs needed. Johnny was righteously indignant. Steve was perfectly happy to have a good story for the papers, capped by his revelation that he had negotiated an agreement—in writing, he said—that Johnny could henceforth record wherever the fuck he wanted to, with whomever he chose.
Once, long after midnight at Creem, Johnny played us his brother Edgar’s first album, which struck me as all too arty. Johnny patiently explained, to universal incredulity, that Edgar had always been the more accomplished musician. I thought this was nothing more than touching brotherly loyalty until Edgar put together White Trash with Dan Hartman and Ronnie Montrose and sold more records in two years than Johnny probably did in his lifetime.
Johnny seemed unthreatened and, looking back on it, you have to think that he understood very well where his life’s work lay, although he did give straight-up rock’n’roll (of the day) a try, with the 1970 album, Johnny Winter And, which was a band concept, Rick Derringer on the other guitar and about half the vocals, with bass and drums by the other members of Rick’s pop group, The McCoys. It gave Johnny the closest thing he ever had to a pop hit, “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” Rick’s song sung by Johnny. It also gave him the only chance to croon that I can remember, on the semi-show-tune “Let the Music Play”: “I don’t know what brought you here / But I know what to do.”
Drugs, yeah, he took drugs, including all the wrong ones. He was a pretty bad mess, with a drug habit he did not discard for a very, very long time. He never tried to hide it much. One afternoon at Creem, which was living quarters as well as office space, he borrowed a bedroom for a nap. I went down to wake him up a few hours later and there he lay, sprawled out with his works neatly arranged beside him. Still breathing, but I sure the hell wasn’t gonna try to wake him up.
Yet the music continued to be fine through all of it or almost all. It was his anchor to life, maybe the only place where Johnny did know what to do. I’m guessing but how else do you explain it?
I once saw Johnny try to make sense of it. It was the early ‘80s and we were taping the David Susskind show for a “discussion” on the rock scene. Johnny was as nervous as ever; he liked people but he knew how many different ways he struck them as odd. So he kind of addressed himself to me, not a very good idea within the bounds of that particular exercise in megalomania. It was, for a while very much as if Susskind and the other guest, John Rockwell, were having one discussion while Johnny and I had another. What Johnny was trying to explain was the why of the drugs, how for him and for Janis Joplin, his friend from their youth in Port Arthur, and others, the endless attention and… It was as hopeless as any other mass media attempt to explain the lure and necessity of dope. But I’d pay money to have a transcript of what Johnny said, and more to have had Susskind pay attention to it, so that Johnny could’ve finished. It was probably the most sensible thing I ever heard anybody ever say about being an addict, though I so remember none of his exact words. (Irish whisky + Lester Bangs the night before.) Finally, I intemperately exploded: “Johnny’s trying to tell you why.” Susskind treated it like who was I to tell him not to kick his dog, which in this case was Johnny. I thought just trying to tell a philistine like that about such existential woes was in a certain sense more heroic than pathetic, though it was certainly both.
For me, the most heroic thing Johnny Winter ever did was make those two records for Steve’s Blue Sky label (distributed by CBS) in the late 1970s. I edited Rolling Stone ‘s record reviews then and so everything came to me early. I remember opening the first one, in 1977, not expecting much: Muddy’s last few tries for Chess had been dismally mediocre. Hard Again jumped out of the speakers, from Muddy’s first “Ohhhhhh yeah!” on “Mannish Boy.” It’s the perfect opening, not only because it summons musical thunder but because the words are all about the transformative magic Muddy not so much put into his songs but conjured from their structure. He’s boasting, but not idly, because this momentum is sustained throughout the ten songs.
Johnny’s insight came from treating Muddy, to his mind and mine the greatest of all bluesmen, as a singer and a galvanizing bandleader, not as a mere guitarist. (Muddy played no guitar on the record.) Thus, he could be surrounded, as he was on his greatest records, with superb players, mostly a bit younger than himself, and he could both record new songs and rework old ones. The version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of his defining songs, on Hard Again is a revelation—almost conversational, its cadences relaxed, nothing to prove because he is the proof. The four albums they made for Blue Sky are certainly not Muddy’s greatest recordings, but they are unquestionably his best albums, utterly traditional in the material and arrangements but recorded and organized as a modern rock artist—and I mean, artist—would.
Johnny Winter carried on, accumulating tattoos like blues merit badges. And he couldn’t entirely be ignored—the music simply wouldn’t let him fade away. Rolling Stone squeezed him in at 63 on its list of however-many greatest guitarists (he maybe wasn’t a whole lot better than more than 60% of those ranked higher). Johnny made albums once in a while—the last one was Roots, a beautiful set of classics featuring mostly well-chosen current guitar heroes (Warren Haynes, Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, Sonny Landreth). On it, Johnny’s singing, always scabrous and sassy, has taken on some of the tone of Dylan’s late work. But this is not a master engaged in mystification, making the listener to divine a meaning that may or may not even be present. This is a bluesman, pained and driven, reaching for lucidity. “I don’t know what brought you here, but I know what to do.” And he did it.