THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Walter Trout: Alive
Walter Trout's double espresso kicks in. It's early in the morning for one of the hardest working bluesmen in the business, 10am in sunny SoCal, and he's talking to The American before preparing for a UK tour that starts October 17th and culminates in a headliner at Blues Fest in London on the 30th. It's a tour he wasn't expected to make. Two years ago he almost died.
He may be an adopted Californian but Walter was born in a grittier part of the States.
“I was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but I was raised in a town called Ocean City, a little island directly south of Atlantic City. You can see Atlantic City fom the north of the island, it's that close. It's long, and so narrow that if you stand in the middle on Main Street you can look in one direction and see the Atlantic Ocean and look in the oher direction and see the Bay. The ocean was always important to me, and now I live in a little beach town in California, a block from the Pacific. I don't know what it is, I find a spiritual something in the ocean. If I have worries, I go down and stand by the water and it calms me down. It did that from when I was a little boy – my upbringing was in a very dysfunctional family and I spent a lot of time on the beach by the water. It was a real nasty divorce, then both parents getting married again and both stepapernts being ...basically nuts. My stepfather had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II, he'd been tortured and he was an alcoholic, and when he'd drink he'd get incredibly violent. It was scary, he'd chase my brother and I around with a hatchet and stuff like that. It was easier for me to hang at the beach. I understand then guy, and I still look at him with love, but I spent my youth in fear of my life.
We moved to a town called Collingswood. I wrote a song with that name about what happened to me and there's a verse about how the only way I could sleep at night was I would move all the furniture in my bedroom up against the door because he'd try to getr in and kill me. But hey, I'll tell you what, it gave me the Blues! [laughs] When I found the guitar it was a great outlet.
Was it escapism, or a way of getting your emotions out?
It's a little of each. I could certainly fall into it and suddenly the world didn't exsist, but it was a way of expressing lots of things – and it still is. I try to play with feeling and emotion, and express things through my music and lyrics. This rule doesn't have to apply to everybody but for me I want music to be emotional. It's personal.
Many British blues musicians seem to come from safe middle class backgrounds, they love the music but don't have the visceral connection to the blues that many Americans do.
I think the Brits got it better that the rest of 'em. Guys like Clapton, and Peter Green in his early days especially. They had something amazing, much more than a lot of the European players I've heard. One of my favorite guitar players from Brtiain, who doesn't play much any more, is Slim, from The Hamsters. He's great guitar player, we used to do a kot of shows with them in the '90s. He used to say, “What is it you Yanks have that we can't latch on to?!” I don't know. It's probably because this music was born out of this crazy ...I don't know if I even want to call it a culture in the States. A crazy melting pot of ethnic people and musical infleunces from all over the world. It's a young nation, full of immigrants. It's music that came out of the streets of this country. The amazing thing is, it all came from one particular area – the Mississippi Delta in the South gave birth to blues and jazz and rock & roll and gospel.
Blues combined influences from white folk music too.
Oh yeah, my wife [the writer, Dr Marie Trout] has a book on the blues out on October 15th, incredibly resreached and detailed, and she writes about how Howlin' Wolf was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman, and used to do some of his songs. Robert Johnson, beside his blues songs, used to do show tunes. There's a song that Alan Lomax recorded called 'O Death', by a black chain gang but it was also done by the Stanley Brothers, the bluegrass group. It went back and forth.
Did you always want to play the blues?
I started off wanting to be a jazz trumpet player! I studied the trumpet from age 5 and played in the school orchestras. I was a very good trumpet player. When I was 10 years old my mom made it happen that I got to spend the afternoon with Duke Ellington and his Orchetsra. I got a lesson from one of his trumpet players, Cat Anderson. I sat with Duke Ellington and discussed his music – I knew all of it – and he told me what to expect if I went into the music business. He told me, don't go for hype and glory, because thepublic is fickle. One year they love you and the next year they don't like you. What's important is to try to be the best artist you can be, devote yourself to the art and develop your ability as much as you can. He was amazing, he talked to me for an hour, at least.
But then, in 1961, my older brother – who was very musically hip – said, you gotta hear this guy and he put on the first album by Bob Dylan. I thought the songs were really good, but very simple – just three chords. My brother had an acoustic guitar that he didn't play and he said I could have it, so I got a book and learned a bunch of Bob Dylan songs that I could sing at parties so kids would think I was cool. I was 11!
I was a fan of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and especially the Chad Mitchell Trio. Then in 1964 – February 9th, 8pm, Channel 2 in Philadelphia – there's The Beatles! Like so many people of my generation – was was 13 – I was destroyed by that. I can't overexpress the effect that show had on my generation. The population of the country at that time was 180 million and that show was watched bu almost 80 million people. That'll never happen again. So then I wanted an electric guitar, and learn more chords.
A year later my brother comes home and says sit down 'cos this is gonna floor you. He put on the first album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and they had a guitar player called Michael Bloomfield. This was 1965. I'd been listening to guitar solos like on 'Ticket to Ride' and 'I Saw Her Standing There' and all of a sudden Michael Bloomfield is playing with all this passion and fire, ripping at the speed of light – it was astounding. To this day Bloomfield is probably the greatest white blues guitar player America has produced. That was it, I knew I wanted to be a blues guitar player. I was 14 and from that moment on, that's all there was for me.
I started jamming in the basement with friends, then in ninth grade I met a guy named Jack Jeckot, incredibly important in my musical career. He was like a young Paul McCartney, music was his life. He wrote songs and Jack was a virtuoso on every instrument – what pissed me off with this kid was, you could hand him some weird instrument, a bouzouki or an oud or something, and he'd go off for half an hour and be rippin' on this thing. We're still really dear friends. He was a mover and shaker in the music world among us kids. He was always starting bands, his basement was set up as a music room, and he taught me a lot on the guitar like my first leads. When we got out of high school in 1969 he started a band which became very sucessful on the club scene and I was the lead guitar player. We had a horn line, and we'd do Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears tunes. Jack would take songs by the Stones and The Who and arrange them as a horn band, and we did a lot of Stax and Motown. We worked all the time. That was awesome, being 18 and playing every night somewhere. There's a huge circuit along the Jersey shore in the summer, lots of clubs, then in the winter we did universities and clubs. We had a lot of cool experiences – we played a club in Philadelphia with this band called Whole Oats, which was Daryl Hall and John Oates before they became Hall & Oates. The Jersey clubs were where you went to dance and try to get laid – they would have two stages, one at each side of the room, and you'd do a 45 minute set and as soon as you stopped another band would start, you'd alternate all night. We did a lot of shows with Steel Mill, which was Bruce Springsteen's band, too.
Some years down the line Jack got married, had a kid and became one of the best music teachers in the world. (He's retired now and he's out on the road playing keyboards for Richie Furay.) When Jack left, I sorta took over the band, got rid of the horn line and we started doing all my own songs. And at that point we couldn't get a gig!
We weren't a cover band doing dances any more, we were trying to be a serious band doing original music ...and nobody wanted to hear us. We struggled. In '73 I came out to California on vacation to visit a friend and I saw there were a lot of clubs where bands like mine could work. I went back and told the guys. We started saving our money and making plans, but one by one they all chickened out. I had $150 and I packed up a Martin D-28, A Gibson 335, a Fender Super Reverb, a trumpet, a mandolin, and all my clothes in a Volkswagen Bug, along with half a pound of weed and 30 hits of LSD and took off.
I started sitting in with people. Two weeks after I moved out here I went into a club in Corona del Mar and there was this country band with some members of Dolly Parton's backup band, incredible musicians but none of them could sing ...at all! I was half drunk and I told them, 'I know every song by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, you name it (and I did). I said I could play guitar, but they said, we got guitar players, we need a singer. I got up and sang a Hank Williams song and so I became the singer in a country music band, five nights a week. After two weeks I got my pay check and went out and bought the Fender Stratocaster that's on the cover of all my records, the white one that's now turned yellow. One night I said, look guys, I just bought this guitar – can I just try it? I played one song and I swear they said., 'You didn't tell us you could play like that!' All of a sudden I became the lead guitarist. Along with the Merle Haggards I got them to do a Little Richard soing, a Chuck Berry, a Stones song and little by little I turned them into a rock & roll band. Then because we were doing som much rock & roll we got fired ...I lost them their gig, I still feel bad about that!
I started getting side man gigs. I'm playing with J.D. Nicholson, a 90 year old blues piano player from Chicago, and John Lee Hooker, and Big Mama Thornton, and Percy Mayfield, and Joe Tex, I played with Bobby Hatfield from the Righteous Brothers ...the list keeps going. One night I'm playing with JD and some guys from Canned Heat came in and asked me if I wanted to join them. Yeah! We did three shows opening for John Mayall and he asked me if I wanted to join the Bluesbreakers. I went from one gig to the other.
Then you started The Walter Trout Band in 1989?
Here's the thing. I was touring the world playing big shows with John Mayall, he was paying me incredible money. In the world of being a side man blues guitarist, John Mayall is the pinnacle, you can't get higher than that. Where are you going to go from there? You can play with Buddy Guy or BB King, but you're gonna stand at the back and play chords all night. With Mayall you're in one of the top blues acts in the world and he features you all night. He nurtures you, and develops you. But when we came home from the tours I still wanted to play. I had the house band in a little bar on the beach and I'd be in there six nights a week playing from 6 to 1:30, playing all sorts of stuff, blues, Beatles songs, anything we felt like, we didn't care. I got to play to my heart's content.
Carloso Santana told me there's 100,000 guitar players in the world who'd give their right ball to be in John Mayall's band, but I wanted to play, and write and front a band. I got the chance to make my first album, and the guys in that little bar became The Walter Trout Band.
You never seem to stop working – you've pretty much done an album and a tour every year. Until a catastrophic health problem hit you.
Yes, I went solo in 1989 and I've done 24 albums. I've worked all the time except the two years I was in hospital getting a liver.
That started in 2014, didn't it? You were recording The Blues Came Calling album– and they really did.
I was incredibly ill – I really thought I was going to die. I was walking with a cane and a Zimmer frame. I thought that album was going to be my last statement on life, my goodbye to the world. Two weeks after we finished the album I was hospitaized for seven months.
I found out what it was after I was on tour in Germany in 2013. I'd been having symptoms for a while, dizzy spells onstage, chronic fatigue, my hands would cramp up so I couldn't play. One night I woke up at 4am and my legs were swelled up like telephone pole and my stomach looked like I had swallowed a basketball. I had two more shows on the tour and I did them sitting on a chair. When I came home they told me I had Hepatitis C that had caused cirrhosis of the liver, and there was a transplant in my future.
My wife and I tried to deal with it by eating organic foods and living a clean lifestyle, but it got so I couldn't walk I was out of breath. I was so filled up with fluid they would put a drain into my abdomen every week or two and take out – and this is not an exaggeration – 50 pounds of liquid. It would press on my lungs and diaphragm. It's hard for me to listen to the vocals on The Blues Came Calling because I would have to record it one line at a time.
What was the cause of the Hep C?
A lot of people of my generation have Hep C, some of them don't know how they got it. From 1975 through '77 I was a heroin addict. I played with a guy called Jesse Ed Davis – he was John Lennon's favorite guitarist, he was on the Walls and Bridges and Rock 'n' Roll albums, and he played with Jackson Brown and in the Concert for Bangladesh. It was not long after the country music gig I told you about. I was at a party and someone told me he wanted a rhythm guitarist so I told Jesse Ed I'd like to audition. He asked me who I'd played with, and I said a bar band in Jersey. He said, 'I play with John Lennon and Bob Dylan, the bass player's with Rod Stewart, the drummer's with Van Morrision – do you think you can keep up with us?' I said, let me play one song and I'll bring you some cocaine. I got the gig! All of a sudden I was in the high life in LA, running up and down the Strip. And in that band, everybody was doing heroin. It was the thing to do. I could have got it then. I don't know – you can also get it from a dentist, or from getting a tattoo…
When the time came for the transplant, your fans helped out via a Crowdfunder campaign.
We did have health insurance, but we have a thing called a 30 percent co-pay so we had to pay 30 percent of a $2 million hospital bill. We didn't know what we were going to do – sell the house and live in a trailer? That beautiful, beautiful gesture by the fans enabled us to keep our home – and to live, because I wasn't out working so we had no income.
I had to go to Omaha, Nebraska for the transplant because there aren't enough donors in LA. I was in the ICU in UCLA and they were telling my wife, get ready to lose your husband, he's not going to get the transplant he needs here. UCLA is a Mecca for the operation, the doctor who invented it is still working there, but my wife found out that in LA you only have an 18 percent chance because in LA there are a lot of actors and musicians who have damaged themselves and there's not enough livers to go around. In Omaha you have an 82 percent chance because there are more donors and not as much demand.
Curtis Salgado, a great blues singer, had had a transplant in Omaha. He called my wife and told my wife to get me out of UCLA and gave her the number of the doctor in Nebraska, Dr Dan Schafer. So off we went to Omaha and we lived there for seven months. And that's where they saved my life. wo weeks ago I went back to Omaha and played a big outdoor benefit concert for the Donate Life charity and Dr Schafer came up on stage.
Your new album Battle Scars is about your experiences, but instead of being gloomy there's a sense of the joy of life.
When I came out of hospital I couldn't play, I had to relearn to play guitar, and I really wanted to make another record. I had a whole different perspective on life and wanted to write about it in songs. But every time I tried, it came out in cliches – 'isn't the sunshine wonderful…'. I had musical ideas but didn't know how to say what I wanted to in words. My wife said I had to put myself back in the bed, think about what I went through, and write about my experience. When I got my head round thatm I wrote six songs in about four and a half hours. The next day I wrote the rest of it – the entire album in two days. I'd sit with an acoustic guitar on the couch and set the recorder on my phone going, and a lot of it came out exactly as it is on the record, musically and lyrically.
They're the most personal songs I've ever written. 'Almost Gone' is about I see it in her eyes, I'm almost done. 'Omaha' is about being in that bed, and people dying in the next room – one night three people died right around me. 'Fly Away' is about a near-death experience I had where I was visitied by spirits. Every song is an aspcet of the experience.
But in the long run, I made it. I am smelling the daisies and seeing the sunshine.
How are you feeling, back on the road again?
I feel great. The chronic fatigue is gone. The cramps and dizzy spells are gone. It was terrifying being on stage the last two tours, not knowing if I could play, but I'm overjoyed to be back on tour, and really looking forward to the Blues Fest in London.
We can't let you go without talking guitars – or rather, one guitar. You mentioned it before, the white Stratocaster. Unlike many famous players, you've stuck with one instrument.
I'm a one guitar guy, man. To me, I develop a relationship with an instrument and it becomes an entitiy to me. I can tell you, that old Strat, that I used on every record I've made, and on tour for years and years, I've now retired because I'm afraid it's going to get stolen out there, and I couldn't bear it. That guitar has my spirit in it. At gigs, if I used a different guitar for one song for a different tuning, when I put the old Strat back on it would be pissed off – it would be jealous, it was mad at me and it would play like shit. I would literally be apOlogizing to it then it would suddenly play really good again. It all sounds weird, but it's the truth. It's a being, and that's what I want in an instrument. And it's a '73. According to the collectors, you shouldn't use '70s Strats, but when people tell me not to do something that's what I do. I bought it new – take a look at the pictures of it, when I bought it, it was blazing white. Johnny Winter played it one night, and Mick Taylor, a few other people, but only for a song. Everything on there, I did. Where my arm goes, there's no finish left, just wood. It's my arm that wore that finish away!
Walter's UK tour dates:
October 17th Rock City, Nottingham; 18th Academy, Manchester; 19th The Sage, Gateshead; 21st The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen; 22nd The Queens Hall, Edinburgh; 23rd Picturedrome, Holmfirth; 25th The Brook, Southampton; 26th Phoenix, Exeter; 27th Tramshed, Cardiff; 30th Blues Fest at the O2, LondonClick here for tickets
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