Print E-mail

Q Magazine, Don't Tell Me...It's a Guitar!

Q Magazine, August 1997
(Page 86-90)

Don't tell me...It's a guitar!
by Michael Snyder

He has, it's fair to say, had his bad times. In 1970, he swapped pop stardom and guitar godhood for narcotics, gravedigging and mental trauma. Now, as the Fleetwood Mac founder tells Tom Doyle, Peter Green is coming out of the darkness.

As MTV flickers on the television screen in the corner of a suburban South Croydon living room, a contentedly rotund 51-year-old man suddenly breaks out of the daydream that - despite the sound being turned down - had found him glued to the screen for the past 10 minutes. "Have you seen East 17?" he enquires in a lilting East End accent, his eyes suddenly lighting up. "Have you seen that one called Let it Rain? The girls are fabulous in that one - they've got short jumpers on and these kind of army surplus trousers and army hats and they look really good, just dancing all around. There's loads of them. It's fantastic."

Bit of telly, spot of fishing, and, significantly, a regular couple of hours each day flexing his guitar playing in between gigs with his band The Splinter Group - these are the things that occupy Peter Green's time nowadays.

After the three decades of emotional turbulence and chronic mental illness that followed his success as leader of the original Fleetwood Mac and his subsequent disappearance from the public eye, it is a pleasure to report that the reluctantly legendary guitarist is alive and well and presently dunking his biscuits in his tea.

Close to two years ago, after 20-plus years as a regular patient of London's psychiatric wards, Green stopped taking the prescribed antidepressants that were causing him to sleep as much as 20 hours a day. The result was an awakening in every respect.

Around that time he moved to this house. It belongs to his old friend and current manager Michelle Reynolds. Although still in such an isolated state that "he couldn't string two words together", his mind slowly began to thaw until the characteristics of the young Peter Green, whom Reynolds had known in the 60's, began to gradually resurface. More encouraging still, after a 10-year period in which the hermitlike Green had grown his fingernails to witchy six-inch extremes, and was too psychologically detached to even consider playing guitar, he had begun to spend evenings watching Nigel Watson, Reynolds's builder brother, pick away the blues on a six-sting electric. One night, to Watson's delight, Green asked if he could have a go.

"He was playing Robert Johnson, and I said, Blimey, that sounds just like the record," Green explains with child-like-awe. "How did you work that out? I couldn't work that out. So it made me feel different. I'd been feeling pretty dead and it got my memory working again, I guess. I started with the rudiments, because whatever I used to know was no good to me anymore. Something was wrong somewhere and it stopped me playing altogether..." He smiles uneasily. "Someone took advantage of me somewhere along the line and set me up and took me for all the kinds of idiots, all kinds of fools."

The cranium may be bald and the long hair lapping over his collar may now be grey, but Peter Green's eyes give it all away. Droopy and world-weary for the most part, they will suddenly sparkle when a particularly lucid memory flits through his mind. These days, the chief evidence of the mental trauma that dogged Green in his translucent appearance and tendency to ramble. Still, there is nothing to suggest the full extent of the psychological horrors that have haunted him. Sometimes, he addresses the events of his troubled past as if merely a spectator. At other points, he will become sharp and challenging and keen to re-write those aspects of his personal history that have since been over-exaggerated.

In these moments, he becomes the Jewish Cockney formerly known as Peter Greenbaum, the "cockney punk" that John McVie remembers being fired along with Mick Fleetwood, from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in 1967 ("Don't take him seriously when he says I was cocky," Green warns McVie as if they're still bandmates. "He's the bass player"). By November of that year, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac had formed and released their debut single, I Believe My Time Ain't Long. Over the next two years, under Green's direction, they would develop a looser, more progressive style as evident in such hits as Albatross and The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Prong Crown) and seriously rival The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the music papers' annual readers' polls. In 1968, Peter Green's fortunes suffered a fateful twist when he was spiked with LSD one night in San Francisco.

"I didn't find that frightening," he remembers in his endearingly singsong way, "because I only took the tiniest little sip. I had a little smile on my face and they said, You haven't taken any LSD. I said, I'm tripping, my son. Then all of a sudden the smile sort of dropped as it wore off and I thought, What a horrible feeling. It's horrible when it wears off because you want to see everything like that."

Much has been made of the terrible effects that LSD had on Green, but the fact that after this first experiment he continued to indulge in hallucinogens suggests that he must have enjoyed it.

"It's nothing but good when you're on it," he admits cheerfully, "but when you come back, it's like, what was all that about? Your head feels different. When you're on LSD, there's no such thing as a brain. It's not a big fear, it's a comfort. That why people have gone mad down through the ages, people have gone crazy rather than take in knowledge. They don't want knowledge, they don't want learning. But LSD will kill you knowledge. Your mind goes to somewhere where you're distracted. It's like an electricity."

According to his fellow group members, it was while on tour in Munich the following year that Green was spiked with acid and suffered one too many ("I wasn't spiked in Munich, I took it of my own accord"). As rock legend has it, he suddenly alienated himself from the rest of the group, became terrified of his own success (he snorts at the notion) and then - as the music press sensationally reported in February 1970 - flipped out and decided to give all his money away to charity.

"IT SAID 'POP STAR GIVES MONEY AWAY' and it didn't say how much," he relates. "Clifford Davis (Mac manager) came up to me and said, Do you still want to give your money away? And I said, Yeah, I suppose so. But I was coming down off a trip, you see, and there was a big thing about asking the group about it. I took a tiny bit of mescaline and I had a vision - our brothers and sisters are starving over in Africa and I want to give them some money. But I wasn't going to give the whole lot away. The stuff in the newspapers made me think that I did want to give all my money away. Nowadays I don't know what to do. I've been through so much myself. If I hadn't taken the drugs it would've been alright."

Does he wish he'd never taken LSD at all?

"Yeah," he states quietly. "'I'd like to know, just to be sure whether that was what it was all about. People say that I could've taken the shine off Eric Clapton in my time, and they're my personal, y'know, dark shadows."

The rest of the group have claimed that he began to freeze out their input.

"Input"? he snaps, a hint of anger in his voice. "They never had any input. They weren't interested in nothing but saying goodbye to me. I was glad to be out of their group because it was like a circus act, a lot of out-of-work clowns."

On May 24, 1970, Green played his last gig with Fleetwood Mac at the Bath Festival. "I don't remember why I quit the group," he says. "Just for a change, I think. Just to see what would happen to me, just to be free and try something different (Blankly) I just left."

In the autumn of that year, Peter Green released a fried jam of a solos album, significantly entitled The End Of The Game, and then effectively gave up music. As a result of his continued use of mescaline and acid, his mental health deteriorated and after a spell working up a succession menial job - hospital orderly, gravedigger - before suffering a breakdown as an overweight and confused 28-year-old in 1974. Green now insists that he only began to feel ill when, as he sees it, he was "tricked" into being sectioned and taken into hospital.

"I remember it roughly," he says, brow knotted in concentration. "I smashed a rack of plates up in the street. I don't know why (sighs). Don't know. I think they were planning to put me in anyway. I was running around a bit crazy. I could hear voices. They're funny things." Unhappily, Green's treatment incorporated electro-convulsive "therapy".

"I don't know why they have me that," he shrugs. "I don't even know what they did, because they put you out first. When you come off it, your head feels a certain shape. You don't feel like you did before. Then they put me on tranquillisers and let me out at the weekends. Terrible things, tranquillisers. You don't feel like yourself any more - you feel like you belong to someone else. After all that freedom and taking LSD and doing what you shouldn't do, suddenly you're right back somewhere you never dreamed you would be - in a mental hospital being told that you're going to be given ECT. You ask what for, but it don't matter, you're gonna get it. They used to wake me up early and give me sleeping tablets. They thought I'd lost my mind."

Matters worsened in 1977 when Green was arrested for threatening behaviour and owning a gun without a license. History states that he tried to shoot Clifford Davis when the ex-manager attempted to deliver a £30'000 royalty cheque to Green's house in Westbourne Park, West London. Green admits that there was some disagreement about royalties at the time, though he still vehemently denies the accusation.

"The papers were saying these ridiculous things like, He went to the accountant's office with an air rifle trying to get him to hand over a £30'000 cheque," he explains. "There was no £30'000 cheque. I did get on the phone and threaten to shoot the windows out of the accountant's office, but it was only a threat."

"The best way to take the heat off them about money and everything," Nigel Watson reckons, "was to accuse him of being a nutter."

"The police came to me and they said, Did you make that phone call?" Green continues. "I said, Yeah. It was only a .22 fairground kind of rifle and I didn't have any bullets anyway. They put me in a couple of different prisons - Brixton, Wandsworth. It was nice because I didn't do nothing. It was alright, y'know, walking around the yard once a day."

At the same time, the reinforced Fleetwood Mac were suffering their own drug-derived difficulties, although the band's predicament was sweetened considerably by Rumours - well on its way up to 15 million sales.

"I suppose I didn't know what they'd do without me," Green says. "I'm quite surprised that they did well. They became millionaires. I've heard Rumours and I like it. It's not my kind of music, but it could be, quite easily. They're lovely people. Christine Perfect, she's great, and Stevie Nicks and that. To my knowledge they (McVie and Fleetwood) didn't know Stevie and Lindsey but might've. They could've been foxes from the start - they didn't tell you nothing about themselves.

"Sorry to sound regretful or mistrusting, "he adds with sudden clarity, "but those shadows come into your mind. John McVie's got his yacht and it's like, Where's Peter now? It would kind of hurt him if I said to him, Ain't you sort of a bit grateful to me for that yacht?"

Throughout the 80's, the threads of Peter Green's life frayed further. At the beginning of the decade, he was living alone in Richmond, but such was the extent of his illness he subsequently spent time in the care of a Christian fellowship, and could sometimes be found sleeping rough. Photographs from that time show him to be grossly overweight with matted hair and scarily long and blackened fingernails. Although he would occasionally re-emerge for a pub gig - through his brother Michael, then working as a promotion manager for independent PVK Records - and return to the studio, sporadically, to record three best-forgotten solo albums, was essentially a vagrant.

"I had some strange times in Richmond," he recalls. "Horrible it was. Very, very, very strange. Very put-upon by people and persecuted. People seemed to be down on me, laughing at me. I used so smash things. The pills can put fear into you in the most torturous way. I kept hearing voices."

Event took on an even more bizarre twist when in 1992, an Essex farmer, Patrick Harper, nicknamed The Egg & Potato Man, began claiming to be Green on the comeback trail, dumping Queen drummer Roger Taylor amongst others into leading support.

"I saw him one day," Green claims, a touch hazily. "He looked like a Hell's Angel - a bit taller than me, looking kind of strange. I heard a rumour that he went into EMI and to call his bluff they offered him a quarter of a million pound record deal, and he said, No, I better not."

NOWADAYS; PETER GREEN ENJOYS A suitably sedate life, although the extent of his rehabilitation can be measured by the fact that The Splinter Group (comprising himself, Watson. Drummer Cozy Powell and bassist Neil Murray) have performed over 100 gigs in the past year and recently released a live album with two new studio versions of blues standards, Hitch Hiking Woman and Travelling Riverside Blues. It is hoped that Green will be sufficiently engorged to write new songs and - ivory of ironies - there are plans for The Splinter Group to support Fleetwood Mac on forthcoming UK dates.

Still, Green appears surprised by the reverence with which his older material it treated (he refers to Oh Well as "nothing special" and the moving, confessional lyric of Man Of The World as "far-fetched") and laughs off references to his legendary status.

"Like yesterday, this guy said to me he never thought he'd meet a real legend," Green barks incredulously. "I said to him, I ought to punsch you right on the nose! Even if it was true, you wouldn't say it to someone, would you?"

When he sees old footage of yourself in the 60's, what does he think?

"Dunno. Same as whatever the last bloke who made a comeback thought."

Some days, apparently, he will claim to regret nothing. Today he feels different. "I'd change loads of things," he says with a peculiar breeziness. "All of it. It didn't work out too well. I'd change every mistake I've made. When I was a very little kid, I found myself firing up at a bird's nest with an air pistol. I thought it was empty, but if I'd known it was full for certain, I don't think I would've fired it."

And then, exhausted by this trawl through the murky depths of his past, he turns his heard away and gaze returns to the TV screen, blissfully happy, it would seem, just being there.


Those other faintly "eccentric" Fleetwood Mac members in full

- Mick Fleetwood (drums) Joined 1967

  • Never left. Solo album and band Zoo forgotten by mutual consent.

- Bob Brunning (bass) Joined 1967

  • Left 1967 for Sunflower Blues Band. Mistake with hindsight. Became a teacher in London.

- Jeremy Spencer (guitar) Joined 1967

  • Fled 1971 for religious sect, Children of God. Born, unusually for rock star, in Hartlepool. Now godless and in Italy, allegedly.

- John McVie (bass) Joined 1967

  • Never left. Liked a pint. His Gotta Band sideline never quite took off.

- Danny Kirwan (guitar/vocals) Joined 1968

  • Fired in 1972 for unheralded solo career now at Anthology stage. Once in a band called Boilerhouse. An alcoholic who lives in hostel for homeless in Covent Garden.

- Christine McVie (keyboards/vocals) Joined 1971

  • Left 1990 in a huff after Mick Fleetwood's autobiography. Solo career without sales or merit. Rejoined in 1997.

- Bob Welch (guitar) Joined 1971

  • Left 1975. First American Mac. Nice bloke. Later formed Paris trio, followed by solo Career nobody cared about. Lives in Phoenix, dabbles in soundtracks. Fired 1973. A bit metal and hairy chested. Liked a pint. Briefly joined Black Sabbath.

- Bob Weston (guitar) Joined 1972

  • Left in 1974. Once in Long John Baldry. Had affair with Mrs Fleetwood. May not have bothered with solo career.

- Lindsey Buckingham (guitar) Joined 1975

  • Left in 1987, in general huff. Solo career "uneventful" despite alleged genius status. Rejoined 1997.

- Stevie Nicks (vocals) Joined 1975

  • Left 1990. Solo career included 1 US album, Bella Donna. Then it when tax difficulty - led downhill. Rejoined 1997.

- Rick Vito (guitar) Joined 1987

  • Left 1990 for solo career (ignored, apart from the support slots for Stevie Nicks)

- Billy Burnette (guitar) Joined 1987

  • Left 1996. Son of Johnny Burnette. Unloved solo career before joining. Later made similar unloved album with Bekka Bramlett.

- Dave Mason (guitar/vocals) Joined 1994

  • Position in doubt. Previously in Traffic. Very old. Solo career unlikely.

- Bekka Bramlett (vocals) Joined 1994

  • Left in 1996. Daughter of Dalaney & Bonnie. Once in Mick Fleetwood's Zoo. Later made unloved album with Billy Burnette.

Thanks to Jessica Backsell for transcribing this article and sending it to us. Thanks to Les for the scans.