Print E-mail

The Times Magazine, Return of the Bluesman

The Times Magazine, Saturday, July 31, 1999

Return of the Bluesman

Peter Green has been to hell and back. The founder of the superband Fleetwood Mac disappeared into a haze of drug abuse and mental institutions at the height of his fame. But now he has emerged from the wilderness with a new band, a new album - and some scars that will never fade.

Alan Franks meets a rock survivor. (Photographs by Paul Massey)

For a rock music comeback to be more implausible than Peter Green's, it would need to involve resurrection. This is the guitarist who founded Fleetwood Mac, a group which, for a period in its late-Sixties heyday, was out-selling the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Green's life story since then has been so full of darkness and disappearance that he was regularly assumed to have joined the celestial supergroup with Elvis at the microphone, John Lennon on guitar and Keith Moon behind the drums.

His was not just another sad decline, for at his best he was reckoned to be as good a player as any thrown up by the English discovery of electric blues. When he joined John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, an essential training ground of the period, he proved himself to be as passionate in his performing, as inventive in his soloing as his immediate predecessor, Eric Clapton. Some said he was the best of the lot, never mind Clapton, or Jeff Beck, or even Jimi Hendrix.

His fall was proportionately great, involving drug damage, schizophrenia and mental institutions. For a while he worked as a grave digger. He went abroad, to Germany, Israel and elsewhere. There was an incident involving a shotgun and his accountant. There was a wife, and a daughter whom he never sees. There were half-remembered wanderings and tramp-like appearances outside church halls. The outer suburbs of London come and go in these years but the order of them is indistinct. He grew bloated and grey, and frightened children off with his mandarin fingernails. It was said he has given all his money away, and wanted nothing to do with the new flood of royalties that came with the re-release of his greatest hit, Albatross, in the late Eighties. The hair turned to wisps and he took on the air of a gentleman vagrant forever putting distance between himself and some unbearable circumstance.

And now this, a hardly believable return to gigs, albums and international tours. It has been going on quietly for a few years, with tentative appearances at modest festivals. The shows may have been small, but the response was huge. In no way was he playing as in the old days, but as he eventually says himself, that was never the idea. The applause was for simply being, as much as for having been.

For all these reasons, his appearance on stage is the oddest affair. His name is forever tied to the shout and wail of a young man's blues. It still conjures images of skinny frames and Seventies hair. Now this Dickensian publican moves sedately towards the microphone and looks as if he is about to sing. This performance by Green's new band, the Splinter Group takes place on a Friday lunchtime at Tower Records in the underground complex at Piccadilly Circus. Some of the shoppers are surprised to find a concert being set up among the shelves. They see these portly men doing a sound check, and move on to the dance racks. Others, mostly older, know exactly who there are watching, and can hardly wait until he gets a solo break.

He starts like a man picking his way back along overgrown footpaths. His hand knows where to go on the fretboard but it won't be rushed. He shuts his eyes as if he is summoning memory as a guide. It comes, slowly and not quite surely, but it does come. There are autograph hunters who might be grandparents, and they approach him with reverence.

One of the women watching is Michelle Reynolds. She is the same age as he, 52, and was once married to Fleetwood Mac's first manager, Clifford Davis. She is one of the long-standing friends who has helped to rehabilitate him. another is her brother, Nigel Watson, his co-manager and fellow guitarist with the Splinter Group. Today, Green has a room in Reynolds's house at Warlingham in Surrey. He plays along to records or the television on one of his 46 guitars. She says it is rather like having a very gifted teenager living in, and although there is not a romantic link between them, she is intensely fond of him, and remembers his kindness of long ago. Apart from doing the cooking and the laundry for him, she helps him when he is on the road. She knows as well as anyone that there is a voyeuristic element in the audiences, just as there is in audiences of the concert pianist David Helfgott (subject of the Oscar-winning film Shine), but she insists that it soon gives way to straightforward appreciation. His playing, she says, is getting better by the month.

Green's real name was Greenbaum. He was the youngest of four children from a Jewish family in Bethnal Green in the East End of London. His father was a postman. While he was at school the family moved to Putney, in south London, and Green worked for a while as a butcher before turning professional. By the time he was 24, and leaving Fleetwood Mac, he had written a string of hit songs for the band, starting with Black Magic Woman in 1968; Albatross went to the top of the UK charts later in the same year, and Man of the World and Oh Well reached number two in 1969. When he went his own way, Fleetwood Mac embarked on a hardly less erratic course, with members coming and going like soap plots, and love tangles upstaging their musical lives. He has no more reverence for them than for himself. He reckons they look like a bunch of clowns, with Mick Fleetwood, the drummer, a man on stilts, and Danny Kirwan, the guitarist and singer "like Bluebottle from the Telegoons".

Before meeting him I had been warned that he is still apt to nod off. Until a few years ago he was on medication, and it took a while for him to get over the soporific effect. Some said he was asleep 16 hours a day. We have lunch with a mutual friend at Chelsea Arts Club. The bar has its quota of drinkers who have damaged themselves in the more conventional way. He is slightly confused by the place, and he falls into long silences among the dark wood of the dining room. They can appear like another form of opting out, but the friend assures me he is happy sitting quietly in his own reverie. After lunch he is not sure how long he might want to talk for, but once he has started, there is no stopping him. Years, names, places, people litter the air. Sometimes they seem to be tumbling out of the bottom of a dream, and sometimes they are tethered to reference points.

Not long into our conversation I realise I am talking to that rare thing, an utterly self-effacing rock star. Any more effacing and he would surely become invisible to himself. Perhaps that is what happened in the past. When I suggest that he being too modest about his attainments, he shakes his head in disagreement and says he would accept the word humble. "Humble before God." When I remark that there was some very interesting music being made by the bands of his youth, he replies at once: "Not by us." His flat delivery makes this hilarious. Talking about money, he freely admits to being "a disaster area...but I survive from day to day. Any day I could hear them say I haven't got any, and then I'd have to go and find a job. I'd probably look through the music papers and get work in a group. I'd have to shrink my opinion of myself down. Like Rod Stewart sings in that song, 'Find myself a rock'n'roll band that needs a helping hand'. I could use my name, and say I used to be with Fleetwood Mac."

He remembers once going into a timber yard to get a job. "I decided I would go out and work, build houses, do something practical for this society, this country. Something solid. I did get to the yard and they said come back later and we will probably fix you up. I kind of got the job. You imagine you can do it and it's not as heavy as you think. But sometimes you need two or three [people]. They do look quite strong, those blokes."

If stories like this sound as if they have an important bit missing, it is because they have. The bit is him. When he went to the timber yard, he was on one of those LSD trips that were to damage him almost beyond repair. The timber yard story goes into this: "We tried to repeat this trip, a successful trip, but it didn't' work. There were some people who came along, and they acted, well, not exactly hostile, but....he thought I was after his girlfriend. It all backfired. This wasn't a whole trip, not enough to get things going. I was trying to get back to this other one, which was a week previously."

It is unnerving. Of LSD he says without hesitation: "It was my downfall." Barely seconds later he continues: "There has to be something good about it to make such a big, you. I mean, the Beatles haven't cancelled their recommendation of it, have they? Well, it wasn't a recommendation as such, but they haven't downed their use of it. And psychiatrists use it, don't they. Of course, you can have a bad trip, where you roll up and scream."

Was this the case with him? "No, it's just I wish I hadn't done it. I had nothing but good trips, but they didn't agree with me. I didn't take the whole tablet, just a tiny little bit. It was working. I did feel good, and with pure intentions. If there is something to be gained by LSD, I hope I did gain it. If there is nothing to be gained, then it is just a hallucinatory drug, and you hallucinate your poor brains away. I don't do anything like that these days. I don't drink, I don't haunt the pubs, I don't smoke cigarettes. I thought maybe I could do chocolate liqueurs, but last time I got horrid pains in the chest and felt sick."

The drug messed him up appallingly, even though he says he probably took no more than four or five trips. It drove him through a series of mental hospitals, electro-convulsive therapy, and years of shambling, blank despair. Yet now, apparently touching the serenity which was an ideal of his generation, he harks back to it as a man might hark back to a devastating but unmatchable love affair.

Without romanticising his condition, the integrity seems to have survived all the ravages. There are no delusions of grandeur about his past status or the significance of what he does; not even a mildly heroic sense that his life has been as much of the stuff of the blues as a white English boy's life can be. We come back inevitably to the business of money. Was it really true that he was pushing it away as fast as it came to him? The unreliability of rumour and the lapses of his own memory left a gap which was filled with mythology. The idea of a rock star on the run from the fruits of his success was too strong to resist.

"I wasn't actually trying to give all my money away," he says. "It's easy to give money away. What's stopping me? What I said was that I wanted to be someone who contributes in his lifetime. It was when there was all that terrible stuff going on in Biafra, and I did want to help. The rest of the band didn't want to do it. I thought that perhaps we could live in a commune, like other groups did, and give away the money that we didn't need for ourselves. They said no, and as I was on a little bit of mescaline, organic stuff, I said I'm going to do it anyway."

In 1977 he was committed for treatment after going to his accountant's home with a .22 rifle, apparently bent on resisting the payment of royalties due to him. "I can't understand how they reverse everything," he says, with a hint of paranoia. "It can't be on purpose, can it? They put a story in the papers with me going round and preventing him from giving me a cheque for £30,000. The whole thing was that I wanted money."

According to the Jewish Chronicle, Green once turned up at the offices of the Jewish Welfare Board, asking it if it would like some money. Not recognising him, and pitying him for his dishevelled look, the receptionist referred him to the department for relief of the needy. A few weeks later he played concerts which raised thousands of pounds for that and other organisations.

When asked if there was a faith that brought him through the worst times, he replies: "I have a strength of some kind. I don't know. I'll have to think about it. I can't answer that by firing at it. I won't get an answer that impresses me."

Even if he never gets round to impressing himself - and he leaving it late - he has done the trick with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation of America, which has given him the W.C. Handy Blues Award for his 1998 album, The Robert Johnson Songbook. It is the first time that this honour has been given to a UK musician. He was also voted the third-best guitarist in the world by Mojo magazine in 1997 after Hendrix and Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs. Even if you detect in this acclaim some collective will to claw back a past greatness, it would be hard to dismiss all 12 tracks of his new album, Destiny Road, the first to feature new material for nearly 20 years. Occasionally, there are bursts of the terrific fluency, the indefinable feeling born of confidence, technique and other virtues which Green insists he lacks.

I ask him what drew him to the blues in the first place and he says, typically, that he could give it up. "Too dark and dismal for me." Then he goes without a join into a reminiscence of wandering about in New Orleans and being asked to play the guitar in a pub called The House of the Rising Sun. "But I'm a white person, I know nothing about the blues." Then he is talking about credit cards, and how he is not allowed them, and about the lawyer who used to take the alimony payments from him and leave him with what he needed. Again it starts to sound like the English counterpart to a Delta bluesman's hard-luck story. Except that Green could do himself down quite well enough without help from anyone else.

Peter Green and the Splinter Group are about to embark on a summer tour of Europe. A British tour is planned for October. Their album Destiny Road has just been released on Artisan.

Thanks to Angela Morris for transcribing this and sending it to us.