Through it all, Leslie West keeps rocking

Leslie West with guitars. Photo credit, Paul Natkin.

By Pat Prince

One of the most influential rock guitarists of all time, Leslie West is probably best known for his work with the legendary hard rock band Mountain — a band that Rolling Stone once called a ‘louder version of Cream’ — and its seemingly omnipresent single, “Mississippi Queen.”

Through the decades, West has jammed with many well-known rock musicians, critically acclaimed ex-Scorpion Michael Schenker to rock god Jimi Hendrix. Interestingly enough, despite all the Cream connections, West has never gotten the chance to jam with Eric Clapton.

Last year, West and drummer Corky Laing got together with Jack Bruce’s son, Malcolm Bruce, and toured as West, Bruce Jr. and Laing. This new trio continues to tour, and can be seen as a reformation of the popular ’70s band, West, Bruce and Laing. However, there have been suggestions that Malcolm is simply filling in for his father. During their shows, the band plays several Cream songs as well as those known from the West, Bruce and Laing days.

Goldmine had a chance to chat with Leslie West right before a combination Mountain/West, Bruce Jr. and Laing show at B.B. King’s New York City nightclub at the end of June. There is a strong possibility of more Mountain/West, Bruce and Laing gigs coming this fall.

Is Malcolm just filling in for his father, Jack Bruce, during any West, Bruce and Laing gigs? And is there any chance Jack Bruce would play some shows in the future?
Leslie West: Malcolm’s not really filling in. Jack, for whatever reason, can’t do it. And Malcolm got in touch, and we got together and played, and it really worked out great. He’s sounding a lot like his father. He’s a lot younger, and he’s got a lot of energy, so it really works out well.

Has his father been to any of the West, Bruce Jr. and Laing shows to check it out?
West: No, not that I know of.

That would be interesting, if he did.
Yeah, really, that would be interesting. Who knows. You never know.

When West, Bruce and Laing first got together the band played only, what … 63 shows? What was the reason for that? Why the quick disbandment?
Drugs.

It was that simple?
We had a lot of problems. And different management … that was all f**ked up, you know. We never could get it together. It’s too bad. We did three albums … You never know why things fall apart. You look back and say, ‘What a shame.’ And then you move on and something else like this comes along.

If you had to compare it to Mountain’s breakup, was it sort of the same thing?
Yeah, in a way. We had the same problems. And [Mountain bassist] Felix [Pappalardi] didn’t want to go on the road any more, and that’s why we started West, Bruce and Laing. A lot of stuff in a short period of time.

Do you think if it were a different era — for instance, an era without so many drugs — those bands could have survived?
I don’t really know. Who knows?

It has been said that Mountain was one of the best live bands in the clubs back then. Compared to all the good bands around at that time, that’s a pretty big compliment.
That’s really nice. We really worked on our live sound. We did a lot of one-nighters, the first year or two. And Black Sabbath’s first tour was opening up for us. That’s how we became friends with Ozzy. I don’t know how many shows we did with them.

That must have been a great live combo.
It was a great combo. I originally thought that Black Sabbath were an R&B band. I didn’t know what the hell Black Sabbath was. I thought it was some black band or something like that. Then when we met them, and when I saw Ozzy … We had some big memories from that.

Out of all the bands around at that time, who did you respect the most?
I loved The Who, and Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. And I started playing, really, because of Cream, but Cream had broken up already.

It’s been said that Mountain added keyboards so the band didn’t sound so Cream-influenced?
Yeah, Felix didn’t want to be like Cream. But then we finally got rid of the keyboards. We used them in a few songs and the few songs where we used them, it came out good, like “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and from the “Nantucket Sleighride” album. And then we really didn’t need keyboards.

And you have jammed with so many musicians over the years. Who did you enjoy jamming with the most? Well, playing with Jimi Hendrix several weeks before he died in a club in New York, that was quite something. In fact, if you go on Mountain’s Website, mountainrockband.com, you see a picture of me and Hendrix jamming.

That must have been like taking a drug, right there.
Yeah, especially since he [Hendrix] was playing bass. We were in this club uptown [NYC] and he came up to me and said, “You wanna jam, man?’ Just like that. We didn’t have any equipment. I think Steve Miller was playing, and after he finished, we got into Jimi’s limo. We had a loft on 36th Street and we went and got a couple Marshall cabinets and came back to the club and set them up.

I had met Jimi already at the Record Plant, where we were doing our album, Mountain’s “Climbing!” He was recording Band of Gypsys, and he asked Felix and I if we wanted to come in and listen. And I was just a nervous kid from Queens, what the f*ck did I know, and it wasn’t long after that that he walked into that club uptown.

Rolling Stone put out an issue a few months ago about Hendrix [April 1, 2010]. And [in the issue] one of the guys from The Ramones [Tommy] talks about being an intern at the studio and asked [by Hendrix] if he was better than Leslie West. That f**king blew my mind.

Would “Mississippi Queen” be the Mountain song you are most fond of?
No.

Do you feel like Mountain has been pegged too much to that song… that when you think about Mountain, you think “Mississippi Queen”?
Well, I know a million groups that would love to have a song like that. I re-recorded it with Ozzy Osbourne a couple years ago [Ozzy Osbourne's "Under Cover" album]. When it’s that big of a song, people think that it’s the only song you’ve ever did. My favorite Mountain song was “Theme for an Imaginary Western” that Jack Bruce wrote. And “Nantucket Sleighride.” “Nantucket Sleighride” was a theme song for this television show in England for 18 years. It was called “Weekend World,” which was like their version of “60 minutes.” And musicians over there have said to me, ‘Man, we watch that TV show just to hear your song.’ And then to realize we were making all this money from that show. I mean, 18 years is a long time for anything to run, and the show was four hours long. Every commercial break, every 20 minutes, you hear a part of “Sleighride.” It’s more well-known than “Mississippi Queen,” I can tell you that.

Now bands just want to get on “CSI.
Or Rock Band or Guitar Hero.

That’s true, and Mountain is on Guitar Hero with “Mississippi Queen.
I’m really terrible at that game. I don’t know what I’m doing.

Well, you played the real thing.
I don’t think it has anything to do with playing guitar. I don’t know what it has to do with, but I suck at it. My nephew beats the shit out of me. It’s embarrassing.

By the way, it was great seeing you came onstage and jam with Michael Schenker last year in New York City. That was a real thrill.
Oh yeah, at the Gramercy Theater. Yeah, I love him.

You were a huge influence on him. Is that how your relationship started?
Yeah, in fact, Michael’s the reason I have my Leslie West signature guitars. He had a deal with the guitar company [Dean], and he said they wanted to talk to me about doing a Leslie West model. And that worked out really good.

Do you still keep in touch with Howard Stern? Do you still go on his show?
Oh yeah. I was on recently, in January, when we were playing, West, Bruce and Laing. He’s fantastic … Howard.

You should get Howard to play an instrument.
I gave him a Leslie West signature guitar, except he can’t really play the guitar.

Can’t you teach him to play a little “Stairway To Heaven” or something?
He can play a few chords, the few times we jammed together. He tells a story that I made him turn his amp down he’s so bad. When it was Sam Kinison, Howard, me and Joe Walsh …. Joe was turning him up, making him louder, and I was turning him down.

He’s been a big influence on me — Howard — through the years. And he’s brilliant.

VH1 has its “Top 100 Hard Rock Groups of All Time” — Mountain’s in there. Wouldn’t you say Mountain’s more a blues-rock band?
I think we are hard rock, blues based. A lot of people think we are the first heavy-metal band.

Sometimes you are seen as a heavy metal forerunner.
But I don’t know if it was heavy metal. Heavy metal is sort of like pornography. I don’t know how to describe it to you, but when I see it, I know it. I can tell you if someone’s a heavy-metal group, but I couldn’t describe to you what a heavy-metal group is.

Hard rock was basically what we were, and I just happen to like blues, so…

Who’s your favorite blues guitarist?
Of all time … it used to be Albert King, but I like Joe Bonamassa. I played on his album a few years ago. I love the way he plays. He sounds like he could be a 50-year old black man sometimes.

Will you continue to play Cream songs with West, Bruce Jr. and Laing?
Oh yeah. We do “Politician” with Malcolm [Bruce]. “Crossroads.” We do “Themes …,” which Jack Bruce wrote but Malcolm sings, and plays piano.

What we really do is a set of Mountain, then take a little break, show a really nice video of how it’s all tied together with Cream, and then we come up with Malcolm and finish the show.


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