Tag Archives: rolling stones

Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Ball of Fire

Against all conceivable odds, expectations, predictions, rumors, gossip and reason, Jerry Lee Lewis is 75 years old. He still sounds like he could hit the key of a piano with his pinky harder than most men could hit it with their right fist. His legacy—a smoldering trail of mayhem and musical masterpieces that stretches from here to Ferriday, Louisiana—was forged with the scorching barrelhouse piano and Pentecostal brimstone holler with which he has haunted and taunted country music and rock and roll for five decades. Slandered by scandal, hobbled by addiction, and fueled by a defiance that borders on vengeance, Jerry Lee has lived to stand his ground in the 21st century, playing the same music he has played since 1956, daring you to dismiss it.

“Mean Old Man,” Jerry Lee’s new album—which follows 2006’s hugely successful “Last Man Standing,” and utilizes the same formula of pairing Jerry Lee with conventionally recognized superstars for a set of covers—is no I told you so. It’s just Jerry Lee doing what Jerry Lee has always done. It is loose, spontaneous country, rock and gospel, delivered by one of the last living inventors of rock and roll on the instrument he taught himself as a poor boy growing up a thousand years ago in the pre-War south. That’s all. And if at times today’s stars seem like mosquitoes buzzing around the head of a lion (Kid Rock on “Rockin’ My Life Away”) or a little campy (Mick Jagger’s Broadway drawl on the Stones’ fake country classic “Dead Flowers”), they are to be forgiven—even admired for their willingness to get in there and do it.

There was a famous argument between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips recorded at Sun Studios in 1957. Late one night, after a long session—the bottles had been opened and emptied—Phillips wanted the band to cut a song written by Jack Hammer and Otis Blackwell that he thought would be perfect for Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee refused. He heard evil in the lyrics; to sing them would be a sin. Just 22, he had been kicked out of Southwestern Bible College a few years earlier for playing boogie-woogie in chapel and had made his way to Phillips in Memphis under the absolutely outrageous but remarkably accurate assumption that anybody who could make a star out of Elvis Presley could make a star out of him too. By the time session engineer Jack Clement had the good temerity to hit record that night, Jerry Lee had begun to testify.

“H-E-L-L!” Jerry Lee spells, furious. “It says make merry with the joy of God. Only! But when it comes to worldly music, rock and roll, anything like that: You have done brought yourself into the world and you’re a sinner! And no sin shall enter there. No sin! It don’t say just a little bit. It says no sin shall enter there. Brother, not one little bit.”

The older Phillips tries to counter with a professorial differentiation between faith and extremism, arguing that you can play rock and roll and do good, help people—even save souls. Jerry Lee explodes.

“How can the Devil save souls?” he screams. “What are you talking about? Man I got the Devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian!”

The tape cuts off, but somehow, eventually, Jerry Lee relented and recorded the song. It was “Great Balls of Fire.”

The point being: The guest artists on “Mean Old Man” are singing duets with someone who believes his music has served the Devil—and has played it for 50 years anyway. Cut them some slack.

Still, the best moments on “Mean Old Man” come when nobody is trying to out-Jerry Lee Jerry Lee, including Jerry Lee himself. Everyone shines on the country numbers, which—like Lewis’ impeccable, chart-topping late-60s and early-70s renditions of classics like “Another Place, Another Time” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous”—teeter with weariness, regret and soul.

Jerry Lee’s cracking voice betrays the sadness and futility in “Middle Age Crazy” and Tim McGraw wisely lets the mournfulness hang in the air. “Swingin’ Doors,” his duet with Merle Haggard—two men that for public safety probably shouldn’t be allowed in the same city, much less the same room—is a lighthearted, Saturday night sigh of relief. And the unlikely pairing of Jerry Lee and Gillian Welch on the Eddie Miller country standard “Please Release Me” creates a rural church harmony that serves as one of the album’s true gems.

After a version of the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that finds Jerry Lee trading verses and sharing choruses with soul powerhouse Mavis Staples, “Mean Old Man” ends with a solo performance of “Miss the Mississippi and You.”

It is a resonant ending. First, the Staples duet: country and gospel, black and white, blues and honky tonk, secular and spiritual, combining to pine for a better home in the sky; then, the man alone at the piano, singing softly into the darkness, like its his only comfort in the world.

–Ari Surdoval


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Chooglin’s Red-Eyed Soul

chooglin

Chooglin’. It’s a verb, baby—as in, to choogle. Just check your Creedence American Dictionary, it’s right there: “to ball and have a good time,” an act to “keep on” or continue. Or better yet, check the Minneapolis octet that bears the name. To them, Chooglin’ means the Soul Train getting robbed by the James Gang, Kiss on 78 speed and the MC5 tearing into Blood, Sweat and Tears. All at once. With a bleating horn section and ferocious guitar playing, the band is a boogie-rock juggernaut that has the guts and the skills to deliver greasy, proto-Stax soul with as much power and conviction as their relentless, riff-driven rockers.

Formed in 2005 by guitarists and singers Brian Vanderwerf and Jesse Tomlinson, from Twin City contenders the Midnight Evils, as a rollicking but conventional two-guitars-bass-and-drums lineup, Chooglin’ made their official debut in November 2005, opening up for Reigning Sound and the Detroit Cobras. Their show garnered some early local praise, but the band hit their sonic stride a month later when they were joined by a three trombone and trumpet horn section that had been assembled for a one-off performance of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street for a local club’s cover band contest. The full Chooglin’ line-up—Vanderwerf and Tomlinson on guitar and vocals, bassist Jeff Johnson (since replaced by Paul Diorio), drummer Shawn Walker, trombonists Harold Longley, Steve Erickson, and Zach Zins, and trumpet player Bob DeBoer—was soon unleashed on an unsuspecting public in a round of now legendary high-octane live shows.

“Yeah, we can get pretty high energy,” laughs Vanderwerf. “Kinda Mach 10 compared to the record. We all come from punk rock, but you know, when I get asked what we sound like, I just say ‘rock and roll.’”

Considering the blistering opener of Chooglin’s Big Legal Mess debut Sweet Time, “Mach 10 compared to the record” is a little terrifying to consider. Weaving ragged guitar and horn lines together at a breakneck pace, songs like “Take Your Sweet Time,” “Airport Bar,” and “Tonight Alright” careen between soul and early metal. Vanderwerf’s gruff, soul-shouter vocals veer from heartbreak to sleaze and back again, while Tomlinson’s blistering guitar playing stitches all the disparate elements together—making Iron Maiden guitar gallup and Hi Records horns sit together seamlessly, and sound strangely natural together.

“There’s so many guys in the band, we all bring something to it,” Vanderwerf says. “We get a lot of comparisons to 70s rock, but I think we have more of an R&B thing going on. Jesse is an amazing guitarist, and he is writing all the time. Shawn our drummer likes more aggressive stuff, like punk rock and weird two-piece metal. And I’m a huge Stones fan, so I’m sure that comes through. But most good rock and roll is loud and fast”

Very true—but for a band that rocks this hard, it is a testament to Chooglin’s musical ambition that some of the real gems on Sweet Time are when they slow down a little. Gritty ballads like “Another Land,” “Nexium of Interest” and “Royal Vengeance,” showcase the power of the full line-up—the swaying melodicism of the horns, the songs’ dynamic arrangements, and the range and emotion of Vanderwerf’s voice.

“We started out as just straight up, balls-to-the-wall rock, but now we’re trying to write different stuff,” Vanderwerf says. “And since we have the horns, we want to use them for more than just accenting the rock songs. I love the newer slower tunes, cause we’re doing something different, but I think we pull it off. I think we can say to ourselves now we can try different stuff and not suck at it. ”

And then he laughs and says, “But sometimes I listen to the lyrics and think, ‘God what a bunch of big babies.’”

Discovered by Big Legal Mess while playing a show with Fat Possum artists Hezekiah Early and Elmo Williams during the Deep Blues Festival, Chooglin’ recorded Sweet Time at Minneapolis’ legendary Creation Studios—home of everything from the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” to the Replacements’ Tim and several Husker Du records. Inspired by the close-knit Twin Cities music scene that launched the Replacements and Husker Du, Chooglin’ exhibit a classic Minneapolis band trait—a musical restlessness that keeps them from repeating themselves, and a total refusal to do anything that pigeonholes them.

“I try to be open-minded, and not old man about it,” Vanderwerf says. “But a lot of new stuff just bores me. We go around and we see lots of the same shit. You know, you show up and see the band posters and they have like flames and iron crosses and skulls all over them. And then, watching a lot of these bands live, it’s like God—c’mon, bring it, you know? Get it into it. That’s why I like doing some of these slower songs. It opens us up to try different stuff. I think we raised the bar a little, doing things in a more musical way than just rocking out all the time. But we like to jump around and stuff too. It’s gonna be a real struggle when we go out on the road.”

–Ari Surdoval

Chooglin’, makin’ it after all, and doing “Father Time” at Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry.

Muleskinner Blues: An Interview with Warren Haynes

From his start with country hell raiser David Allan Coe, to 16 years with the Allman Brothers, to the heavy and melodic improvisation of Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes has blazed a trail that draws on the best of American music. With the voice of an old-school soul shouter and the guitar prowess of a legend, Haynes is both a formidable band leader and a blistering sideman who cares deeply about music.

When did you start playing music?
I started singing when I was about seven, and all my influences were soul singers: Otis Redding, James Brown, the Four Tops, the Temptations. I discovered rock music a few years later. My oldest brother got an acoustic guitar when I was 11 and I played it more than he did, so my dad got me an electric guitar for my twelfth birthday. My first electric guitar was a Norma guitar and a Norma amplifier—both bought at the local hardware store, $49 for one and $59 for the other. Of course that was 1972 dollars. Still, they were not the greatest. A year later, my dad upgraded and got me a Lyle copy of a Gibson SG. My first real Gibson guitar was a year after that, which was an SG Junior. And then, about a year after that, I got an SG Custom. So I had a history with SGs there for a little while.

Who were your main guitar influences when you started?
When I first started—chronologically speaking—Hendrix and Clapton and Johnny Winter were the first three people I got turned on to. That was the Cream era of Clapton. Then eventually, I heard the Allman Brothers and everybody else from that era that I stole something from (laughs). Of course, I would read interviews with all these people and find out who they listened to. And they all listened to B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Elmore James, so I would go back and discover that stuff.

I used to sit at the turntable and play songs over and over, trying to cop licks off of the records, wearing holes in the vinyl. In the old days you could slow the turntable down. Sometimes that would make it easier. Not always (laughs). I just spent hours and hours in my room playing along with records, trying to learn the solos. Especially the nice short solos (laughs). Learning long solos back then was not very easy to do.

Was there a moment when you knew you were on to something?
I remember when my oldest brother turned me on to Howlin’ Wolf. The way he got me into Wolf was he said, “Clapton plays on this London Sessions Howlin’ Wolf record.” Which in hindsight is definitely not the best Howlin’ Wolf record. It is still a great record, but there are others that are a lot more authentic. But the solo from “I Ain’t Superstitious” was short and sweet. I remember learning that note-for-note and playing it in my room.

I also loved more melodic players, like Jesse Colin Young and Dave Mason, who just sounded like they were singing their solos. I would learn solos by them as well. I also discovered Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Dickey had these really melodic solos, as well, that you could learn a lot from. I always loved people who sounded like they were singing through their instruments. So Duane Allman was a big inspiration. Jeff Beck was a big inspiration. Because they had this vocal-like quality. Maybe since I started as a singer, that was always something that was very important to me. When you hear somebody trying to emulate the human voice, a lot of it has to do with the timbre of the note, with the attack, with the vibrato. When a singer pushes hard, the sound is different. When they back off, the sound is different. It is very emotional and it is very human.

It must have been a natural transition into playing slide.
Slide guitar is emulating blues harmonica, and blues harmonica is emulating the human voice. So once again it goes back to the vocal. When I discovered slide, it was a whole ‘nother way of expressing yourself, because you could slide into the note and out of the note in a way that you couldn’t really do even bending strings on guitar, and you definitely couldn’t do on piano. So slide guitar had an even more vocal-like quality in some ways. When singers sing, they don’t attack the note head-on. Maybe in opera music or something. But blues singers and soul singers slide into the notes and out of the notes and it makes it much more vulnerable I think. So slide guitar achieves that.

Your first big break was playing with David Allan Coe. How did that come about?
I was in all local bands and regional bands in Asheville, North Carolina, trying to get a record deal—to no avail. When I got the call from David Allan Coe, I had no idea that at that time he had done records like Penitentiary Blues and stuff like that. I remember saying to him on the phone, “I don’t really consider myself a country guitar player, and I’m not really interested in being in a country band.” I was 19, or just had turned 20. I was a young, cocky kid. I think he liked the fact that I was cocky and full of myself. But, actually, I was really shy. I just knew what I wanted to do musically and that didn’t seem to fit the plan. But he said, “I want a blues rock guitar player who can add an edge to my music.”

When I joined Coe’s band, I realized how much he loved blues. Whenever his voice was tired on tour, we would go out just the two of us and open up with a bunch of Jimmy Reed songs. Then segue that into the show. One by one, the drummer would walk on and the bass player would walk on, and eventually the whole band would be onstage. He was really influenced by Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That stuff was way back in his formative years, so whenever it came out, it was very genuine.

Coe had quite a reputation. What did your parents think about you going on the road with him?
I was mostly raised by my dad. My parents divorced when I was really young. My dad was always very supportive. He always made sure I had a better guitar and a better amp. He worked 12 hours a day to provide for his family, and he would go that extra mile to make sure I had some decent equipment. So from the beginning, my dad was very supportive. He was a singer, but he never pursued a career or anything. He just had a beautiful, natural voice. So I think in some ways, he loved the fact that I pursued music. He was a just a very supportive role model. So he was into it. As a country music fan, I think he realized how controversial Coe was, and thought, “Wow, what is my kid getting into here.” (laughs) But I think he really liked it. He’d come to a lot of the shows. He still does.

And it was Coe who introduced you to the Allman Brothers.
I was in the studio in Nashville with Coe, shortly after I had joined the band, and he knew I was a big Allman Brothers fan. He was really just trying to impress me with the fact that he knew them. So he sent one of his limousines over to the studio where the Allman Brothers were recording and picked up Dickey Betts and Don Johnson and Greg Allman, and Guy Clarke came by that night. And me and Dickey and Guy Clarke sat around with acoustic guitars. There were three acoustic guitars, and we just passed ’em around, because on one of them, the action was about this high, so every third song, you had to play the guitar with the terrible action. We just sat and swapped riffs and songs and stories and stuff. And for me, as a kid, it was a really, really memorable experience, and it led to me joining Dickey’s band, which led to me joining the Allman Brothers.

What was it like joining the Allmans?
Joining the Allmans was not as overwhelming as it would have been had I not been in Dickey’s band for almost three years prior to that. The ironic thing was that the entire time I was in Dickey Betts’ band, the thought of putting the Allman Brothers back together was pretty much nonexistent. Every time it got talked about, it was a resounding, “No, that is never gonna happen.” Then one day, out of the blue, they buried the hatchet and said, “We’re reforming the Allman Brothers and we want you to join.”

So it was a shock to me when it happened, and a really strange dilemma. Because I was just signing a record deal of my own as a solo artist, and was really looking forward to making my first solo record. And then I get this call saying they wanted me to be a part of putting the Allman Brothers back together. I couldn’t really turn that down, so it meant putting my solo career on hold for a great opportunity.

Dickey and I automatically had a good chemistry and a good rapport, because I had grown up listening to and studying that music. The Allman Brothers were one of my favorite bands. But I had also studied and listened to so many other types of music that we weren’t too similar, but we weren’t too dissimilar. And I think that is what makes a good tandem between two guitar players: If there is enough common ground that they make sense together, but enough differences that the sum of the parts is yet another entity. That is what Dickey and I had. And it made me concentrate on my slide playing. So from ’86, up until I left the Allman Brothers in ’97, I was playing tons of slide guitar, which was really good for me.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you joined?
I definitely had the Switzerland role. If Dickey and Greg weren’t talking to each other, they would talk through me (laughs). Again, it was easier for me, because I had three years playing in Dickey’s band, whereas Allen Woody auditioned and the next day he was in the Allman Brothers. That’s much harder. I had this whole initiation period. It really made it less intimidating for me. I didn’t really look at is as filling somebody else’s shoes. And the audience was very kind, and very accepting.

The real challenge was how much to sound like myself, and how much to pay homage to Duane Allman. Because I was taking on that role: the slide guitar, the person opposite to Dickey Betts. They were kind enough, and smart enough, to know that the right person for the job was someone who wasn’t cloning someone else. So they got Allen Woody to play bass, who had a lot of Berry Oakley influence, but who was obviously his own person. And the same with myself. They didn’t tell us how or what to play. They just said, “We hired you—play the way you want to play.”

So it was up to me how much of Duane’s influence to show at any give moment. So in some of the shorter pieces, like “Statesboro Blues,” I would stay a little closer to the bone. In songs like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Dreams” and “Whippin’ Post,” I would go more off into my own direction. And I guess the biggest challenge was: How do I sound like myself to the audience, but still sound like a member of the Allman Brothers? Because one day I wasn’t, and the next day I was. That was really the toughest challenge for me, but it was such an honor.

Since I play slide guitar in standard tuning and Duane played in open-E, already there was some difference that’s subtle, but obvious in its own way. So even in a song like “Statesboro Blues,” it sounds different, even though those are Elmore James licks, filtered through Duane Allman, filtered through me. Duane was the conduit that brought the Robert Johnson, Elmore thing into the next generation and took it much further. Those licks sound different in standard tuning than they do in open-E.

One of the things that I love about standard tuning is that you can think in standard tuning. You don’t have to think about the open tuning. It’s a trade-off. Whenever you decide between standard and open tunings, I think one of the trades is that standard gives you more options, from a vocabulary standpoint, but the open tuning gives you a more natural, slide sound that’s familiar, that you’ve heard your whole life. Some of the licks that sound so amazing in open tuning are really easy to play, but they are the bread-and-butter of slide guitar. …

When I started playing more and more slide guitar in standard, I realized that I could think as if I didn’t have the slide on. And in some cases I would incorporate fingerstyle playing and slide playing together. It is kind of combining different techniques together like that.

Mick Taylor was one of the first people to do that, combining the two techniques. To go back a little further, Earl Hooker did it quite convincingly. He was amazing at that. I think it is important to take advantage of anything that will steer you toward your own voice. So that was one of the things for me that helped me find an identifiable sound. And I still love playing in standard tuning, and open tunings as well, but I’m more adept at playing in standard tunings. A lot of the improv stuff with the Allman Brothers was different every night, but it was nice not to feel that you didn’t have to do it a certain way.

What was it like going from a band like the Allmans to a band as stripped-down as Gov’t Mule?
When Woody and I first got the idea to form Gov’t Mule, it was a side project that we wanted to do in our spare time. Because the Allman Brothers only worked a small part of the year, we had plenty of time to do other things. And we felt that the improvisational rock trio was a dying art, and we wanted to bring it back, really just for fun. Woody and I both loved Cream and Band of Gypsies and the Hendrix Experience, even jazz trios had a unique sound.

In a trio, there is no chordal instruments behind the soloist, so there is a freedom that comes with that. You can ignore the chord changes, because there are no chord changes that are being heard. There are also limitations from that, because when there are chords in the backdrop, there are more options of what you can play that go with those chords. So a trio can be limiting and limitless at the same time. There is a certain amount of freedom, especially for the bass player.

If it is the right combination between the bass player and the drummer, the bass player takes on a much more aggressive role. Woody loved Jack Bruce, and loved that approach to playing. It’s hard—certain songs don’t lend themselves to a trio as much. So some of the songs we were writing worked great as a trio, some of them not so much. I found myself writing songs specifically for the sound of a trio, which is great—if you have a vehicle to write for like that. But by the time we got to the third record, which is Life Before Insanity, I was already starting to write a lot of material that needed larger ensembles. So we brought in Johnny Neal, our friend and keyboard player, to play on half that record. So at that point, it was half quartet, half trio. And that record is a good example of songs that work as a trio and songs that don’t work as a trio.

One of the things I love these days with Andy Hess and Danny Lewis in Gov’t Mule is that Danny plays guitar. So sometimes we can be a two-guitar band, with no keyboards, and then sometimes he’ll leave the stage, and we are a trio again. So there are options like that. One of the things that Jaimoe and I talked about in the Allman Brothers is that one of the beautiful things about being a seven-piece band is that at any moment it can be a seven-piece band, or a six-piece band, or a five-piece band, or a four-piece band, or a three-piece band, depending on who decides to lay out.

Gov’t Mule songs are very structured, but also very improvisational. How do you find the right balance between the song’s structure and the creative heights that you can hit by jamming?
Some songs lend themselves more to improvising than others. We are always looking for ways to incorporate some sort of improv into the songs, probably much more so than the average songwriter or the average band. That’s our lifeblood. Sometimes the studio version will be nice and concise, and then six months later we’ll figure out a way to open up the song in a cool way. It’s the same with the Allman Brothers; it’s the same with the Grateful Dead. My work with Phil Lesh and Friends was that way, to the nth power. We would constantly look for ways to change the songs, rearranging them, and stretching them. But I love doing that. I’m a big fan of songwriting, but I am also a big fan of improvisation. So trying to find the place where they meet is really important to me.

People ask me if I have any opinions on the jam band scene, and my only complaint would be that sometimes songwriting takes a back seat to jamming. The reason that the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers are still around is because the songs they wrote are great songs. And if they weren’t, the fact that they had this great chemistry would be overlooked. You look for that balance and that marriage between those two things. If you don’t have a song, you don’t have a premise.

When I interviewed Derek Trucks, he said, “Southern rock is a movement that happened because people were trying to get away from something and it doesn’t happen if you try 30 years later to redo it.” What do you think about Southern rock as a movement and the state of Southern rock today?
It’s funny, the whole term Southern rock is controversial. The guys in the Allman Brothers, who were really the guys who founded Southern rock, were really never comfortable with that term. They felt that the term “Southern rock” was coined so there would be a bin to put their records in. And they wanted to make music that was not stereotypical, and that was a way of stereotyping them. So I think from the beginning, they didn’t like that.

Through the years, the whole connecting Southern rock and rebel flags became very controversial as well. There is a whole movement in parts of Europe now, with bands who are influenced by Southern rock bands, and they have rebel flags on their stage. And they don’t realize that in America, that’s a derogatory, demeaning statement. I would meet some of these people and do interviews with these magazines, and they would ask me about it. As a Southerner, I would have to try to explain to them that their heart was in the right place, but the rebel flag is taboo at this point. It’s very much construed as negativity and racism, and it needs to be looked at as a thing of the past. We have all moved on. The South has moved on.

Also, to say that musicians from the South all sound the same is to say that Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix sound the same, because they are both from Seattle. R.E.M. is from the South, and they sound nothing like the Allman Brothers, but they are both from the state of Georgia. Having said that, when I was growing up, Southern musicians had different influences, because a lot of the influences were regional. Regional gospel music, regional blues music, that maybe people in other regions didn’t have. Not to mention the fact that pretty much all American music came from the South anyway. Blues came from the South. Jazz came from the South. Country music came from the South. Rock ’n’ roll came from the South. I remember being with Greg Allman one time and somebody asked us about it. And he said, “Well, to say ‘Southern rock’ is kind of redundant, isn’t it? It’s like saying ‘rock rock.’” Rock music was born in the South. So why do you have to clarify that?

As far as Gov’t Mule, or the Allman Brothers for that matter: We have never considered ourselves Southern rock. We are Southern musicians playing the music we love. And it wouldn’t be fair to not acknowledge the fact that the British Invasion influenced Southern rock. The Allman Brothers were influenced by Cream, by John Mayall, by Hendrix, who made his mark by going to England and coming back. For whatever reason, the British discovered American blues in a much heavier way than Americans did at the time. So we owe the British the debt of turning a white American audience onto music that they should have been loving the entire time, which is black American music. Something to do with it finding its way to Britain and back to the United States created a lot of amazing music. Bands like Skynyrd were influenced by bands like the Rolling Stones, and especially by Free. Free were a huge influence on Lynyryd Skynyrd.

So it’s a tough question to answer. Southern musicians have different influences, especially in the old days. Now, with the Internet, anyone can discover anything. Somebody in Antarctica is listening to Blind Blake. In the old days, it wasn’t that way. But it was always a touchy subject with the Allman Brothers, because they didn’t want to be associated with the rebel flag, and the racism that goes along with it, and they didn’t like being stereotyped.

John Coltrane was from North Carolina, Dizzy Gillespie was from South Carolina, Sun Ra was from Birmingham, Alabama. There is definitely a pattern there somewhere, but I think in any situation, it is very important to take influences that aren’t obvious and blend them together and find something new. And then, of course, at that point, somebody is gonna stereotype you. (laughs)

-Ari Surdoval

Johnny Thunders: Heartbreaker

By the time Johnny Thunders had arrived, he was already gone. Just 19 when he transformed from John Anthony Genzale, Jr.—the skinny Italian kid from Queens, New York who loved chicks and baseball and rock and roll—and hit Manhattan as Johnny Thunders—the sneering New York Dolls guitarist with a mop of teased hair, platform go-go shoes, and low-strung TV yellow Les Paul Junior—he was already a full-blown junkie.

Like some sad cross between Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park and Exile-era Keith Richards, Thunders took the myth of rock’s excess and stripped away the fairy tale to reveal the abscesses, dope sickness, loneliness, and self-destruction at the poisoned heart of it all. And with every breath he managed, Thunders both undermined and strengthened the lie. Like all junkies, Thunders was in love with his own self-destruction and blurred where his addiction stopped and he started, probably because Thunders never stopped. From the lurid, street-life specifics of “Too Much Junkie Business” (Well you run down to the corner baby, see what you can cop / You buy some for your sister and you take yours off the top) to the heartbreaking lament “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (Even though they don’t show, the scars are so old … You can’t put your arms around a memory / Don’t try), Thunders was a walking sharkskin incarnation of his own songs.

But boy, could he play guitar. From the growling shuffle of the Dolls’ “Jet Boy” to the pummeling power chords of the Heartbreakers’ “All By Myself,” from the incredible Live at Max’s Kansas City, the sound of Johnny Thunders punishing his Les Paul Junior is one of the greatest noises in the history of rock and roll. With his sloppy Chuck Berry leads and howling feedback, Thunders careened through rock guitar’s hall of fame like a wrecking ball.

After quitting the Dolls’ in mid-tour down in Florida because they were unable to get heroin, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan—his partner-in-crime for the rest of his life—returned to New York and formed the Heartbreakers. The band released one album, 1977’s L.A.M.F. (”Like a Motherfucker”), and dedicated it to the drug dealers on the Lower East Side’s Norfolk Street.

Thunders sound and style with the Dolls and the Heartbreakers had a profound influence on the nascent English punk scene. Sex Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones has professed embarrassment at how much he patterned himself after Thunders, and Joe Strummer name-checks Thunders on the Clash’s “City of the Dead.” But unfortunately, Thunders influence was more than musical. He is infamously credited with introducing heroin to the London scene on the chaotic 1977 Anarchy Tour that featured the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and the Heartbreakers.

In 1978, Thunders released So Alone, his one great solo album, featuring “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and cameos by Phil Lynott, Steve Marriott, and Chrissie Hynde. Soon after, the quality and quantity of his output became erratic. Throughout the 1980s he stumbled from band to band, struggling with his drug habit, on and off methadone maintenance. He was besieged by sycophants and copycats, dealers, and hangers-on, in the ugly twilight world of addiction and semi-stardom. He was never without his moments of greatness, though, and even late in his life he could summon up the power of his Junior with more charisma than most performers. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, Thunders died alone, in a New Orleans motel room in 1991, possibly of an overdose, possibly murdered for his supply of methadone. All by himself.

-Ari Surdoval