Stuff.Co.NZ blog, June 11, 2012

Blog: The sad story of Bob Welch


Bob Welch killed himself last week. It's sad when we hear about the passing of a musician we admired. It's devastating when you find out that it's suicide.

Welch was a singer/guitarist/songwriter. He had a solo career and was in a band called Paris. But he had also been a member of Fleetwood Mac.

Though history seems to have conveniently forgotten about the in-between years (when Fleetwood Mac was no longer a blues band, but wasn't quite the group that put the FM in FM radio), Welch was a crucial member of the band.

He helped to steer the ship through choppy and uncertain waters.

I  first learned about Welch when I watched the documentary, Fleetwood Mac at 21. I've watched that film dozens of times, more than I've watched any other music documentary. It might be the film I've watched the most. Period. I started watching it when I was 10 years old and a fan of the RumoursTusk and Miragealbums/eras of the band. It was this doco that got me hooked on the blues-band version of Fleetwood Mac. I wore out a VHS copy of the documentary.

It would be a while before I heard any of the music Mac made with Welch, but I picked up his key solo albums, 1977's French Kiss and 1979's Three Hearts. Imagine putting those out and the band you used to be a member of releases Rumours and Tusk in those respective years. Geez!

If those albums were buried or forgotten then plenty of people still remember the songs Ebony Eyes andSentimental Lady (Welch had recorded the latter with Fleetwood Mac in 1972 - he covered his own song five years on making it a solo hit).

Welch was a very good guitar player. He wrote plenty of great songs - and he worked well with Christine McVie, the two sharing the songwriting duties as Fleetwood Mac moved around a lot, stylistically and line-up wise, between 1971 and 1974; a short timeframe during which a lot happened.

Before Buckingham and Nicks ever entered the equation the band was already a soap-opera; various members were fired for drunkenness or conducted sneaky affairs with other band members' partners. There were battles over the sound and shape of the music - and through this all Welch stepped up and impressed. He was part of a six-piece line-up and part of a four-piece line-up. He had centre-stage at one point; at other times he was just a part of the puzzle.

He coped, as Lindsey Buckingham has had to do also, with covering Peter Green's key material too.

He was the rhythm guitarist. Then he was the lead guitarist - including one album where he was the only guitar player in the band; a group that had, up until that point, always entertained duelling guitarists - even having three players in the line-up, a huge luxury and a huge sound.

All of the albums that feature Welch - Future GamesBare TreesPenguinMystery To Me and Heroes Are Hard To Find - contain some great music. They're overlooked/under-discovered. 

So much of that great music feels like it's been conveniently left out of the Fleetwood Mac story. You can still find those albums of course, you can dial up the clips on YouTube, but unless you knew to look you probably wouldn't stumble onto them.

Welch was a caretaker of sorts - a night-watchman even. He kept Fleetwood Mac together at a time when the only constant was the rhythm section. He added touches of jazz (certainly in his guitar playing; the phrasing) and moved the band towards a version of soft-rock and pop that, ultimately, would be the band's great legacy. It's just that the real success arrived when Welch, burnt out and bored, struggling to keep a marriage together and to get through life, quit the band.

Enter Lindsey Buckingham - bringing with him his girlfriend Stevie. The rest of course is the huge success story of one of the biggest, most enduring pop bands of the 1970s and 1980s.

I love all facets of the Fleetwood Mac saga and story - the music and the mayhem that inspired so much of that music. And I love all versions of the group - the early blues years through to the stadium sell-outs. But albums like Bare Trees and Mystery To Me, Heroes Are Hard To Find and Penguin still offer up surprises. 

And Welch was - in so many ways - the glue.

His solo hit Ebony Eyes has endured. And that was, for many, the song to reach for when hearing last week's sad news.

What an awful and sad end for one of rock's more underrated and sadly undervalued guitarists. 

He left a note. He died from a fatal gunshot. He had had spinal surgery and doctors had told him that he would not improve, he did not want to be a burden to his wife. 

He was 65. 

Welch didn't want superstardom - and his caretaker role in Fleetwood Mac met his goal of wanting "to be in a good band" and wanting to make the music he loved. He wanted "to travel the world and have adventures". Fleetwood Mac gave him that opportunity. As did a solo career after he left the band.

And then Fleetwood Mac refused to acknowledge him when the band was honoured at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Welch had sued his former bandmates over a royalties dispute. In recent days they have told of their love for him and for how crucial his role was in the band. As is the way when someone dies.

It seems a lot harder to eulogise a musician when the death is a suicide.

I still play my French Kiss and Three Hearts LPs often. And I couldn't be without the Welch-informed version of Fleetwood Mac. With the exception only of Tusk I listen to the four albums from 1972-1974 (Bare Trees, Penguin, Mystery To Me and Heroes Are Hard To Find) more than I listen to anything else by any of the versions of Fleetwood Mac.

A very sad end for Bob Welch. Fleetwood Mac had three Bobs in the band - at various points. Bob Brunning, the original bassist, and guitarist/vocalist Bob Weston (who played on Penguin with Welch). All three Bobs have passed in the last couple of years.

But Bob Welch should be remembered for offering so much more than what feels like a bit-part in the revised history.

What do you think? Were you/are you a fan of Welch's solo work or his material with Fleetwood Mac?