Friday, May 3, 2013

The Blind Owl

Alan Wilson
This year, Alan Wilson would have been 70 years old.  Now you may not know who Alan Wilson was......he wasn't around very long (sadly, he's a member of the infamous 27 Club), but he made quite a mark during his brief stay.  He is considered to be the voice of the Woodstock Generation.  He helped to found one of the greatest blues/rock bands ever.  He was recruited to re- teach one of the rediscovered living legends of the blues how to play his old songs.  John Lee Hooker once said that "Alan plays my music better than I knows it myself."  He was regarded by many music critics of the time as being one of the best harmonica players of that era.  Despite those accolades, and many others, for Wilson, life was a daily he gave up on far too early.

Alan Wilson was a singer/songwriter/guitarist/harmonica player in the band Canned Heat.  Several songs that he wrote, or adapted from earlier blues songs, are considered classics today.  If you've watched or listened to any form of mass media over the past 20 to 25 years, you've heard at least two of the songs he's best known for.  His song "Going Up The Country," adapted from an ancient song from the 1929's from Henry Thomas ("Bulldoze Blues"), became the unofficial anthem for the Woodstock Generation.

Alan Wilson was born in Boston and studied music at Boston University.  From a young age, he immersed himself in the blues, playing old 78's in his room and reading books about early blues artists.  He became a talented guitarist and harmonica player, and became a regular on the Cambridge folk/blues circuit.  He earned the nickname "The Blind Owl," due to his nearsightedness (almost to the point of blindness).  His bandmate, drummer Fido de la Parra, said, "Without the glasses, Alan literally could not recognize the people he played with at two feet."  Once, while rehearsing with Canned Heat at the Presidential Palace in Mexico City, he laid his guitar on the bottom layer of a wedding cake, mistaking it for a table.

In the mid 60's, Dick Waterman was able to track down Son House.  House, who influenced legends like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and nearly every other blues man in the Mississippi Delta, had not played in over twenty years and had basically forgotten his own songs.  Wilson had grown up a huge fan of House's, and knew all of his music, so Waterman recruited the 22-year-old Wilson to re-teach the veteran his songs from the early 30's.  Wilson was then invited to accompany House, playing guitar and harmonica, at the Newport Blues Festival in 1964 and also on House's "rediscovery" album (now called The Father of Delta Blues:  The Complete 1965 Recordings).

Canned Heat - Wilson is second from right
Also around this time (1965), Wilson and Bob Hite formed Canned Heat, taking the name from Tommy Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues," a 1928 tune about a alcoholic so desperate that he turned to drinking canned heat (the name used for Sterno).  The band was well received from critics and fans alike.  Wilson and Harry Vestine were considered a formidable combination on guitar, and Wilson was generally regarded as one of the finest harmonica players at the time.  Throwing Hite's powerful vocals into the mix made Canned Heat one of the best interpreters of traditional and modern blues of the 60's.

When they released their second album in 1968, Boogie With Canned Heat, one of the songs recorded was the hard-rocking "On The Road Again," which was inspired by blues man Floyd Jones.  This song became their first break-out hit, soaring to the top of the charts, a rarity for a blues track.  The band ended up at the Newport Pop Festival that year, and then moved to a month-long tour of Europe, the band's first overseas exposure.

Later in 1968, Canned Heat released their third album, Living The Blues, which included their biggest tune, "Going Up The Country."  It was taken almost note for note from Henry Thomas' original tune, "Bulldoze Blues," only Thomas' part played on quills was duplicated on flute for the modern version.  The song was a worldwide hit and became the unofficial theme song of the Woodstock Generation after it appeared on the 1970 documentary about the festival. You heard the Canned Heat version's the original inspiration, from Henry Thomas.

Canned Heat - Wilson is second from left
Wilson continued to develop as a songwriter and performer.  Musically, he was phenomenal on guitar and harmonica, but as a vocalist, he continued to develop and improve, and his high-pitched vocal style was ideal for blues songs, as it perfectly conveyed pain and vulnerability.  Socially, he was awkward and uncomfortable, especially with the opposite sex.  He was able to relate this in his songwriting, on songs like "My Mistake," "Change My Ways," "Do Not Enter," and "London Blues."

His songwriting was deeply personal, and he dealt with his various battles with depression ("Pulling Hair Blues," "Human Condition," "My Time Ain't Long") and also his concerns about the world around him, particularly environmental issues ("Poor Moon"), his relationship with his father ("Get Off My Back"), and even friction within the band (the classic, "Time Was").

Through it all, Wilson retained his incredible musical virtuosity.  On Living The Blues, the band assembled an incredible nine-part musical adventure called "Parthenogenesis," where each band member had his own part of the song where he could do or play whatever he wanted without interference from the other band members.

In 1969, the band recorded their most famous live set at Woodstock.  They performed "Going Up The Country," though their performance wasn't featured in the movie itself, it did appear on the original 3-record(!) soundtrack.  They were very prolific in the studio, releasing two studio albums and what would later be two live recordings in 1969 and 1970.

Also, during this period, Canned Heat recorded with John Lee Hooker.  Hooker and the band had a chance meeting in an airport in Portland, Oregon and discovered they had a mutual respect for each other's music, so they decided to make a record together.  The format featured Hooker performing some of his songs solo, Hooker and Wilson performing together, and then Hooker with the full band in support.  They recorded enough songs to make a double album, Hooker 'n Heat.  Hooker loved Wilson's musical talents, saying that he was "the greatest harmonica player ever."

Canned Heat
Unfortunately, Alan Wilson didn't get to see Hooker 'n Heat released.  He had previously tried to commit suicide by driving his van off the road near Bob Hite's house in Topanga Canyon, where he lived with Hite's family.  He continued to be depressed over concerns for the environment, his struggles with women, and just relating to the world and people in general.

On September 3rd, 1970, manager Skip Taylor found Wilson outdoors behind Hite's house, dead in a sleeping bag.  The band was about to embark on a European tour.  Taylor found an empty gin bottle and a bottle of Seconal on the ground.  Wilson's death was listed as an overdose, but his friends were convinced that the depression finally caught up with him.  Wilson was 27 years old, the same age as Hendrix, Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, and Robert Johnson when they died.  Canned Heat continued on without Wilson, even forging on after Hite passed away in 1981, and are still active today.

Recently, Severn Records released a two-disc retrospective of Wilson's music with Canned Heat, called The Blind Owl.  If you're not familiar with Alan Wilson's recordings, this is an excellent place to get started.  The hits that Wilson sang lead on ("Going Up The Country," "On The Road Again," "Time Was") are here, as well as some of his incredible instrumental performances, including four parts of the "Parthenogenesis" suite.  Also worth hearing are several of Wilson's interpretations of classic blues tunes (Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me," Charlie Patton's "Shake It And Break It,"  Little Walter's "Mean Old World").  If you've missed out on this gifted blues musician, you can still give it a listen since most of Canned Heat's early work is still in print.

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