Blues Revue Magazine, The Return Of Jeremy Spencer

The Return of Jeremy Spencer
by Bill Wasserzieher

The music-biz heavies who serve as doorkeepers for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomed two very different bands among their 1998 inductees. One group epitomized mega-selling '70s and '80s rock; the other played hardcore blues with a British accent. Both were named Fleetwood Mac.

The more famous version of the band was its Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham-Christine McVie lineup. Their 1977 album Rumours stayed on the pop charts for 134 weeks and had sold more than 18 million copies by the time of the Hall of Fame ceremony.

The other, earlier version of Fleetwood Mac began life in 1967 as "Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac Featuring Jeremy Spencer" and barely lasted into the 1970s before guitarists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, and Danny Kirwan left, one by one, each suffering from some combination of mental, spiritual, and emotional breakdowns. Only the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie linked the two bands.

But the stature of that first Fleetwood Mac - the one so steeped in blues that B.B. King regularly shared marquees with them - has continued to grow. The curious can find the early Mac's studio albums, various live performances, the essential two-disc Fleetwood Mac in Chicago 1969 sessions with Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann, and intriguing outtake collections such as The Vaudeville Years, Show-Biz Blues, and Madison Blues.

That night in 1998, both Fleetwood Macs were represented at the Hall of Fame. The Buckingham-Nicks-McVie version performed their hits, and Peter Green jammed with Carlos Santana on "Black Magic Woman."

Jeremy Spencer could have been onstage, too. But he wasn't. He was half a world away - in India, playing charity benefits for the blind. After all, Spencer is the slide guitarist who bolted Fleetwood Mac in 1971 to join a religious commune. Having turned his back on fame, he has wandered the globe, living not only in the U.S. and England but also in France, Brazil, Italy, Greece, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, and Switzerland.

Today he's back in the public eye with a new recording, Precious Little, issued domestically in July on Blind Pig Records. Spencer tells his story to Blues Revue.

How did you come to record a new album?

The promoters of the annual Notodden Blues Festival asked if I wished to play at their 2005 festival. They presented me with a number of choices for an accompanying lineup, one of which was playing with a group of Norwegian blues musicians. Most of the band had been playing blues together for the last 25 years and were heralded as the best in Norway. I discovered there was more interest in, knowledge, appreciation of, and passion for blues in Norway than I'd encountered anywhere else in the world, to the point that they have as many as 25 blues festivals a year.

Not having heard the band, I was especially concerned about Espen Leland, the 40-year-old backup guitarist, as I did not want a "whiz-flash Harry" who could do anything while reading the newspaper. "You want that Delta crap? Sure, watch this: 'ratatatatatatata.' Want jazz, hip hop, funk? No problem."

I pushed the envelope and asked if Espen played like T-Bone Walker! They said yes, with a mixture of early B. B. King and Albert Collins thrown in. Fortunately, it turned out to be true. And playing together with the rest of the band flowed so well, like, hand in glove. For the first time in 27 years, I seriously considered recording a studio album.

I tested them with a couple of my personal, sensitive favorites not in the blues or '50s vein, "Maria de Santiago" and "Precious Little," and they passed with flying colors. Not only did they just play along, but they also got genuinely excited about the songs. I felt I could pull out anything, and they would handle it with sensitivity. So, recording was a serious consideration.

We recorded the album in five days at the analog 24-track Notodden Juke Joint studio, where, amongst antiquated two- and four-track tape recorders, stood the company's pride and joy: the late-'60s Atlantic studios mixing desk!

What are your favorite songs?

I assume you're talking about [my favorites] on the CD. This is hard to answer, as when I listen to it - which, amazingly, I do quite often, as most of my recorded work in the past has made me cringe - each song has its special thing for me at that moment. Overall, I would say "Bitter Lemon," "Maria de Santiago," and especially the title song, "Precious Little."

Do you feel that you've gained a deeper feeling over the years as a musician?

It's hard to say that about oneself. But I can honestly say that I have. I think that the feeling for playing with emotion beyond mere frustration improves with age. It seems especially true of the blues, in my opinion. The phrasing, when to "speak" and when not to, etc. It's not something you can do merely by playing cosmetically minimalist, or with an intellectually conscious "less is more" feel.

Did you find yourself asking, "Do I really want to do this again?"

I had been pretty badly burned by the last commercial attempt with Atlantic in 1978 [Flee], so the idea of going into a studio to record for a major label did not appeal to me. In the '90s, an Indian label released a live CD recorded at an outdoor concert in Bombay, but I was far from satisfied with the results. I'm glad it stayed local.

In recent years, however, I felt I just wanted something to be out there for those that are interested, an album that I was musically happy with and that was representative of me now, with no pressure of opinions, preconceived ideas of how I should be "marketed," and trends. Yet the idea of sitting in a studio with a bunch of hotshot "do-anything" musicians didn't appeal to me, either.

That's why I immediately felt at home with the Norwegian musicians. There was a chemistry that made me feel instantly relaxed. Plus, for the last eight years or so, I've had a whole new lease of life on playing slide guitar, to the point that playing straight-style finger lead or rhythm no longer interests me.

The decision to record again must have required courage.

It did take some courage just to do it, regardless of what I imagined people would expect of me in terms of a "comeback" style - you know, big, flashy, and screaming. "Come on, Jer, give us the ol' piss-takes and 'Shake Your Moneymaker.'" I wanted it small, simple, and uncluttered. Collectively, including the engineers, it seemed we were always unconsciously thinking small, tasteful. If there was anything I wanted to prove, it was that I could do just that and have a listenable product that the public and even I would enjoy.

Bluestown [Spencer's European record label] gave me a lot of space musically and encouraged me. I don't think a big company in the States and especially England would have been so generous. However, Bluestown couldn't afford to be too generous with time, and we had to record it in five days on their analog 24-track. That was good, because we had to get it and like it, and we did. It kept that urgent spontaneity that I like. Analog says "no" for you when you can't say it for yourself. We had no time for ProTools.

These days, do you feel a deeper understanding of the music that so excited you in your youth?

Absolutely. Especially with the heart of sweet blues, not the screaming, down-and-dirty, grunge-and-sweat kind of modern blues that seems to be prevalent today. I still listen to Elmore's "Sky Is Crying," B.B.'s "It's My Own Fault," [or] Otis Rush's "I Can't Quit You Baby," for instance, and appreciate these classics more than ever.

I'll quote an interesting passage from a recent bio of Muddy Waters here. When he was asked why the white guys can't play the blues, he said, "There are some beautiful white bands. But they didn't go to the Baptist church like I [did]. They didn't get that soul down deep in the heart like I have. And they can't deliver the message."

I think he hit the core of it right there. Real feeling in blues - and I don't think it's just grumbling about your lot and complaining, but healing and empathetic emotion - has to come from God. It's not a matter of color, but I think most of those dear ol' black bluesers down in the Delta got the point lots quicker 'n us whitey folks.

What are your expectations for this album? The market for music isn't good these days, and, as always, the emphasis is on youth.

I don't have big expectations for the album. But on my travels in Europe, I have been pleasantly surprised at the reactions of some young people to it, especially, believe it or not, teen girls! I don't know what to attribute that to, as I'm no Robbie Williams or Eminem.

Is it enough to know that it will probably reach only a relatively small audience, but that they will be pleased?

Absolutely. Precious little, precious few. When I meet or hear from the people that have responded to it deeply and sincerely, I am somewhat glad if it stays small. I don't know if the record company will agree with me, of course! Even if I never record again, it's an album I can finally say I'd be happy to leave this world with.

When you were first starting out, what made you want to be a musician?

As a kid, plaintive ballads such as "Unchained Melody," "It's Only Make Believe," and "Young Love" got to me the most, especially when I would hear a solitary guitar in the distance echoing the emotion. That's what got me about Elmore James when I heard "The Sun Is Shining" - that extension of the voice through the guitar. It was just incredible to me. That's why, when it comes to blues, I like the singer and the guitarist to be the same person, even if the two elements are maybe not as technically proficient as a separate guitar player and singer in a supergroup-style lineup. Maybe there'll be some disagreement about this, but I like to hear the voice and the guitar "answers" breathing as one, if you know what I mean.

Was playing music an answer to something missing in your life, or just the natural thing for someone young at the time?

I played the piano and organ at the time, but when I began learning slide guitar, it was like I'd discovered a way to express emotion, and it was very fulfilling.

Beyond Elmore James, who excited you?

Homesick James [Elmore's cousin], Otis Rush, Albert King, and early Buddy Guy. I also liked Blind Willie McTell and Sleepy John Estes.

What was it like joining a professionally experienced band like Fleetwood Mac in 1967? Peter already had the beginning of his "Green God" reputation as a guitar player, and John McVie and Mick Fleetwood knew the ropes from their time with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.

Strangely enough, I did not feel intimidated, as it all just fell into place musically. I did feel a lack of confidence, however, playing without a slide to do riffs to back Pete. That's why I didn't, and he ended up having to recruit Danny [Kirwan] to do that!

Tell us about the early Mac repertoire. Who decided what in terms of the setlist? You seem to have had plenty of "play" time onstage and in the studio.

In the beginning, with just the four of us, I chose the Elmore stuff and Pete chose his B.B. King-style material. For sure, I was given a lot of play time at the beginning. Too much, actually, and I wore out that Elmore riff.

Please tell us about the early shows in the U.K. Were the shows as wild as the legend has it?

They were as wild as legend had it, but legends have a way of developing over the years.

Did things change after Danny joined?

For Pete, John, Mick, and especially Danny, things changed for the better. Danny and Pete were able to develop together, explore new ideas, and the band took off successfully as a result. For me, it changed for the worse, as I just didn't find myself getting anything new. I tried, but you can't work that sort of thing up. As they say, [success] is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, but without that initial 10 percent, it's dry and futile.

How did your reputation for ribald stage humor come about?

I had - and still have to some extent - a silly streak and a penchant for liking to shock people, especially in those days with the staid British. It certainly wasn't all in good taste, and I'm not proud of a lot of those antics [Fleetwood Mac was banned from London's Marquee Club after Spencer appeared onstage wearing a giant phallus]. But we were a bunch of silly kids, really - boys in the band acting up. Nowadays that type of thing no longer shocks anyone; vulgarity is par for the course for supposedly controversial bands. You know, knighted punk stars cursing at a Royal Command performance.

Tell us a bit about Earl Vince & the Valiants - Mac's alter ego incarnation.

The song "Someone's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight" [released under the pseudonym] was a result of an unfortunate experience when Pete, Mick, and John got beaten up in a club in Northern England. I wrote the song as a stab at the type of characters that spoil the fun for everyone at venues. The sad thing was, it seemed that some people didn't get the point, and it became a favored jukebox play for the very crowd it was spoofing.

What are you comfortable saying about the contrast between your old stage persona and your religious leaning, even then?

I believed in God and was searching the Bible and other spiritual books for the answers. I didn't understand it myself, really, why I was such an irreverent little so-and-so onstage and off, yet had those religious inclinations. I realized later that it was true what Jesus said, that the whole need not a physician, but those that are sick. I was just sick, period.

How did you come to sit out the sessions for 1969's Then Play On but record your first solo album with Mac in support?

Pete asked me if I had any new stuff for the album. I said no, only 1950s-style rock 'n' roll stuff, which wouldn't have fit in with the direction he and Danny were going. We thought about putting it on a companion EP to be packaged with the album. The idea grew to be its own full-fledged album, which flopped miserably. But I had fun doing it. Actually, in retrospect, one of the most enjoyable things was working with Danny on it, as it brought out a side of him I hadn't seen.

Tell us about the shock of Peter quitting. How did you and the others create Kiln House without him?

That couple of weeks working with Danny on my solo album sort of set the stage for having to work together without Pete later. However, I was still desperately lacking original inspiration. Hence, my contribution to Kiln House was more of the same, with the exception of "One Together."

What were the dynamics like in the band then in terms of friendships and mutual support?

We did stay friends. We had to! Like the old saying: "We'd better hang together, 'cause if we don't, it's for sure we'll hang separately!"

I believe the rest of the band was concerned about me, and they couldn't figure me out. I couldn't even figure myself out. They tried to encourage me with any shreds of new stuff I had. I was even going to drop "One Together" from the Kiln House album, for instance, but they insisted on keeping it on.

Were manager Clifford Davis and Warner-Reprise pushing hard to "keep the show on the road," so to speak?

I didn't feel that those you mention were pushing, although it was evident that we needed to get down to business in the wake of Pete's departure. We pretty much flopped in England, but an encouraging aspect for us was that Kiln House was our biggest-selling album in the States up until that time, and the accompanying tour was surprisingly well received. It seemed that the audiences were unfamiliar with what we'd done before and had bought that album on its own merit.

If you don't mind revisiting what you were feeling then, how bad was the pressure to keep things going after Peter left, and how unsatisfying was it all?

I think we all felt the pressure to keep things going after Pete left. He had been the main creative force. And, as usual, I was merely filling the role of being a showman, but with unoriginal material and parodying, which pretty much became just mimicking Elvis in a gold lamé suit. This was very unsatisfying, to say the least. I can't say it enough, that the lack of creative inspiration for me was devastating. It was practically killing me, along with my questions about life and what was I living for. Nothing seemed to have any purpose. I really did feel like Solomon, that "all is vanity," although I'd gotten to that point at only 22 years old.

I'm guessing that Mick was a road warrior as usual, John content to order another pint, Danny perhaps a bit lost already, and I have no idea how Christine handled things. I can't help but think that performing had become a wearisome job by then.

We all felt incapable. But Mick was a good morale booster and road warrior of the "old gigs-ter" school, having experienced a musician's life of feast and famine. I was amazed at his fortitude in that. Danny was coming up with interesting new stuff, although he would be hard pressed for lyrics. We would sit around and brainstorm song themes and words, and everything sounded trite. Christine was more of a lyricist, so when she joined later, things started to take shape in that direction. Me? I didn't know what to say. And if I did, I didn't know how to say it. And bottom line, I just didn't enjoy playing anymore.

By abandoning the band to join the Children of God [later called the Family], I assume you found something - a foundation - to sustain you. Have you been happy these last 35 years?

On the whole, I have been happy. It's funny when people ask me, "Are you happy?" It kind of stops me, and I wonder, not because I doubt it, as we all have good days and bad days, but I have to say that I am. It was difficult at the beginning of joining Children of God - more for me than most. As Jesus said, "How difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." He didn't say it was impossible, but squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle is a squeeze!

Now I can honestly say that every day, month, and year has gotten better, and I am happier now and more fulfilled than ever. It's quite amazing. And one thing is for certain: I found inspiration within two weeks of leaving FM. I started getting ideas for songs and tunes and, later, melodies on the piano. I have stacks of unused ideas that I can't see getting around to finishing, let alone recording, in this life.

What has it been like to live in exotic places over the years? What are some of your good memories from such places as Brazil, the Philippines, India, et cetera?

This is a big one! It's one thing to visit; it's another thing to live in a foreign country! However, it's come to the point that England is more of a foreign place for me now than almost anywhere! But I would say that, generally, I have good memories of the people of these exotic places, and I enjoy their cuisine much more than Western food, my favorite meal being a good Brazilian fejoiada!

The climate hasn't always been to my liking; I'm a "four seasons" man. But I am always impressed by the simplicity and humility of the people of the developing world. "The meek shall inherit the earth," and although some of them may not seem to have much, you can see that this saying is true, in that they have wisdom, virtues, gifts, simple faith, and gratitude through the rough times that the richer nations lack.

Did you continue to play as you moved around?

Yes. Sometimes recording in home studios, sometimes for kids in a park, for friends and neighbors, and a few concerts, such as in India for the National Association for the Blind.

Do you mind recapping how the Columbia and Atlantic albums came about?

The 1972 Columbia album came about as a result of meeting one of the company's representatives, Stuart Love. He liked a demo I presented him with, and they gave us quite a bit of slack to do what we wanted, which I appreciated. I regret that we fell short on the mixing side of things, going more by our uninformed inclinations rather than professional advice.

Atlantic's Flee album in 1978 came from a member of the Family's association with a French fashion designer Arianne Brener, who was a friend of Ahmet Ertegun. This was at a time when FM's Rumours was still hitting big. The company wanted to cash in on the ex-FM thing, and although Ahmet was excited about our original material, his subordinates in the company won over and turned most of it into a disco nightmare. For me, the only decent track on it is "Travelling."

An interesting aside I enjoy telling about recording this album was about one evening in the New York studio when we were finishing overdubs on the disco numbers. The vocal arranger could tell I was down about the way things were going, and he said to me, "It's hamburgers." I said, "What do you mean?" He answered, "You wanna know how I reconcile myself with this? It's just hamburgers. Look, I hate this shit as much as you do, but I tell myself, just give 'em hamburgers. It doesn't matter. Give the kids the shit they want and don't worry about it."

Were you able to keep track of what was happening with Peter and with Danny?

I was able to at a distance, as I've been mostly abroad since I left FM. During a temporary stay in England in 2002, I saw Pete a few times and met Danny once. I have kept up regular communications with Mick over the years, and it's always a very pleasant time when we get to meet.

Please recap the recent years. I understand that you are living in Ireland now, doing artwork as well as occasionally performing in public. What are the satisfactions?

In the 1970s I lived in the States, England, France, Brazil, and Italy. In the 1980s I lived in Greece, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Japan. In the '90s I lived in Brazil and Mexico. For the last few years I've lived in Switzerland, England, and currently have been basing in Ireland. But my lifestyle is [one] that many have found, one of a pilgrim and stranger, and I have to be ready to go or stay, sometimes at a moment's notice, depending on the needs of my wife and my work. It's not comfortable sometimes, but it is exciting. And it's not as if, because I'm almost 58, God is going to allow me to settle down too long too soon.

I have done the occasional performance, but it is with a great deal of thought and prayer. I don't have the time or the desire to go back to the gigging grind, although I do enjoy playing, especially with Trond [Ytterbo, harpist] and the Norwegian musicians. It's a pleasure. And I hope to record again with them someday.

Comic strip and graphic novel illustrating is a joy for me, too: black ink brush-line work like Will Eisner and Terry and Rachel Dodson. I get inspired with ideas for that, and writing short novels and stories, too. I am busy!

Rumors have circulated that the original four- or five-piece Mac lineup might reunite for a tour. Is that possible? Would Peter's fragile mental health allow it, is Danny in any kind of shape to do it, and would you want to be part of such a carnival?

You have asked valid questions about reasons that could make it a possible carnival. At this point in time, I have no desire to be a part of it.

How would you sum up your life to this point? All things considered, have you followed the right path?

I was in Fleetwood Mac for three and a half years and have been in the Family for 35. That's 10 times as long. Unless, as some people accuse me of, I'm in a state of denial, that should speak for itself.

Contributed by BklynBlue