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Age, health struggles are no match for the musical beast in Eric Burdon

Frontman Eric Burdon reflects on The Animals' early days, why he's kept singing despite lung disease and what he thinks of his influence on other musicians.

By Mike Greenblatt

The release of ”‘Til Your River Runs Dry” (ABKCO) finds legendary Animals and War vocalist Eric Burdon in a soulfully rockin’ mood, still singing the blues and pouring his heart out in the kind of originals that point to a personal renaissance. The weathered belter is riding the wave of critical acclaim for his latest solo album and planning to pen his (third) autobiography.

Time has been cruel to Burdon’s body, crippling him with severe asthma and back pain so bad he had to postpone the release of “‘Til Your River Runs Dry” so he could recuperate from back surgery. Drugs and alcohol didn’t do him any favors, either. But none of that is a match for Burdon’s powerful pipes, as his rough-hewn voice is in fine form on the album.

Eric Burdon of The Animals publicity photo

While Eric Burdon accepts that his music has influenced other musicians — Bruce Springsteen among them — he tries not to dwell on that. “I try to keep my two feet firmly on the ground. It could be dangerous for any individual to start subscribing to too much personal praise.” Publicity photo courtesy Fabrik PR.

GOLDMINE: Growing up as I did, it was always The Animals and The Stones for me. Did you ever feel any sense of competition with them early on?

ERIC BURDON: I think for a short period of time, all the English bands felt like we were brothers in arms in a blues army. Then, when the big money started to show up and bands started to tour internationally, especially in America, things started to change. But I’ve got to hand it to the Stones for their sense of organization and management. They would be the guys who would plant girls in their audiences on live TV shows, and we would get mad. They were like the Viet Cong. They just didn’t fight fair. I used to jam with them, but one time they arrived at my local club in Newcastle on my turf — I call it my club because I had a hand in building it — and they looked at me as if to say, “We’re going to chew you up and spit you out.”

Eric Burdon and The Animals vintage publicity photo

While some might think the The Animals’ band name was negative, it holds a different meaning for Eric Burdon. “Animals don’t kill for the fun of it. They only kill when they’re hungry. Only human beings kill for fun. Animals are quite honest.”

GM: That’s because they knew you were a badass.
EB: Yeah, maybe. For a time, though, both Mick [Jagger] and myself both [touted] Chris Farlowe as an unsung [vocal] hero of Great Britain. Mick wrote a song for him. I produced a track for him. We had hoped we could promote him internationally, but it never did happen. There were very few guys like Chris who had the raw material to be true frontmen.

GM: Why do bands always wind up hating each other? From The Kinks, Beatles, Moody Blues, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Emerson, Lake and Palmer to Oasis and The Black Crowes, the list goes on. The Animals, too, right?
EB: Yeah, well, y’know, uh, OK, you’re right. A lot of groups end up that way, but as far as my own personal experience, I had good reason! I wouldn’t say hate, though. I hate the word “hate.” Sometimes, though, it gets down to the bone. There’s no other explanation for it. The Animals were a band that was eating itself alive from the inside out. I knew it as soon as we got on the road — having to deal with the competition from the Stones and others — that we were a band who could not live up to its name. The Animals, man! It’s supposed to conjure up something dangerous! Nevertheless, in my mind, the soulful part of calling our band The Animals came from the fact that animals don’t kill for the fun of it. They only kill when they’re hungry. Only human beings kill for fun. Animals are quite honest. Well, that was blown apart when our keyboard player — who shall remain nameless for the sake of this interview —walked off with the royalties from “House Of The Rising Sun.” I mean, hell, I’ve been singing that song all my life. The up side of that is it gives me the feeling I’m not stealing anything, that I’m not the perpetrator. Every time I sing that song, it’s from my heart, not my wallet.

GM: It’s about a New Orleans whorehouse. And “’Til Your River Runs Dry” includes a song about Hurricane Katrina: “River is Rising.” What is it about New Orleans that you feel so close to?
EB: Let me tell you something: I was in New Orleans in my head before I ever even left Newcastle [England]. We had two jazz clubs back home, and one of them was called The New Orleans Jazz Club. I would go there at least twice a week. It’s where I first started gettin’ up on stage singin’. I’d walk out of there like I was floating on a cloud, even though it was sub-zero temperatures and raining sideways. We were close to the river Tyne that runs through my hometown. I would stroll down to the riverside after a night of jamming and, in my head, the river in my hometown would become the Mississippi. All of the reading I did, the music I’d listen to, the original blues stars who came through my hometown, I’d manage to meet most of them, so even before I arrived in New Orleans, I had been there in my heart and in my soul, if not body. Now, that didn’t mean that I wasn’t in for some surprises when I got there.

The Animals House of The Rising Sun

GM: Like what?
EB: The first time The Animals performed in New Orleans, we shared the same venue with Aretha Franklin. I remember we managed to peek in on her show. There were all black folks in the audience. They were throwing bottles all around and I went, “Man, these people are really different!” I couldn’t figure out what had upset this audience so much. Was it something Aretha said? I mean, with us, we were always in trouble with the police. I was thinking about writing a book, actually, on the history of rock ’n’ roll riots. They’re almost always started by the authorities, not the kids or the musicians. I have many bright, clear memories of the way riots were instigated by the police, and we were hated by the authorities in most of the places we went. Strangely enough, though, in New Orleans, I made friends with the cops. Later on, when I came back by myself, I was in a position where cops were protecting me at the various venues. They would make sure I got back to the hotel safely late at night. I’d be in the patrol car with the flashing lights, and it wound up as a great discovery for me personally. But that only happened to me in New Orleans.

GM: Why do you think the police had it in for The Animals? Do you think it had anything to do with your dirty, rock and roll, gutbucket, black-based rhythm and blues that turned white kids wild completely beyond their comprehension?
EB: Yeah, I like that. Let me put it this way. I’d be watching the TV news in England on the BBC, right? I’d see cops in blue shirts carrying .357 Magnums and hosing down kids trying to change the education system here in England. I hated those guys, man! They were on the same level as Nazi Storm Troopers in World War II. I felt it when cops would guard us as we came off airplanes, a phalanx of the same cops who were now trying to befriend us. But I’m sure they felt our attitude, too. We certainly wouldn’t say anything. You learn quickly not to open your mouth in certain places. But they smelled our disease. And it went on from there. Some of the riots were unbelievably fascistic. There was one famous rock riot in Zurich, Switzerland. When The Animals arrived at the gig, called MonsterFest, a big event with Jimi Hendrix and The Move, we noticed 40 or 50 riot wagons outside. It was in a really bad hall. The stage was too high. People couldn’t feel close to the artists. At the end of the concert, they came in with rubber truncheons and beat up everybody in sight, even the people who worked there. And for the next 10 years after that festival, kids in Zurich went downtown on that date to smash every window in sight in protest.

GM: Another song on “’Til Your River Runs Dry,” “27 Forever,” is in tribute to your peers who didn’t survive. Why do you think you did? You’ve certainly battled your own demons.
EB: Newcastle kids are tough, that’s why. But I want to go back to your New Orleans question about my deep personal connection to that town. If you look at a lot of maps of Great Britain, Newcastle, a lot of times, is not even on the map. We’re not even there! And yet we’re the sixth or seventh largest town in terms of population and the birthplace of the industrial revolution. So we really have a kind of an attitude of being outsiders. And with New Orleans, if you visit there enough and get the locals talking about the United States in general, when they say, “My decedents were in the war,” they’re not talking about World War II. They’re talking about the Civil War! That’s the way they feel. That’s how deep they go. And let’s face it, the Mississippi has turned into a sewer. All kinds of stuff has been thrown in there. And where does it all end up? New Orleans. So right there is the collective attitude that I felt between myself and the people in the Crescent City.

Eric Burdon Til Your River Runs Dry

GM: What does the expression “Carrying coals to Newcastle” mean?
EB: Well, we mined coal, we cooked with coal, and we smelled like coal. Hell, I used to take a lump of coal to school and chew on it. And the pollution was horrendous. The smog was so bad you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face at times. The first school I went to I called The Evil School. It was jammed between a shipyard and a slaughterhouse. I had to go to summer school, and if the windows were open, it was really bad. The smell was awful. The rest of the year, all you heard were rivets going into walls all damn day long. I’m writing my third book at the moment, and I’m determined to paint a portrait of immediate postwar Britain. People think that “the English army had just won the war.” We lost the war financially, so bad. There’s a saying in England that if you want to plan prosperity as a country, just declare war on America and lose. That’s what happened to Germany. Germany was rebuilt by The Marshall Plan, and they did an incredible job of raising cities of total rubble up from the ground. Britain had lost all its resources in fighting the Germans. As far as we were concerned, the war went to 1953. We had food rationing! I didn’t see a banana until I was 14! Forget about a pineapple! It just didn’t exist. So that’s where I formulated my attitude toward the world.

GM: This has to be part of what draws you to the dark side, to constantly be the outsider, the rebel, a white man singing a black man’s music. It’s that mysterious part of your charisma that my generation latched on to.
EB: …and it’s all because of where I came from. Exactly. That always has so much to do with everything. Look at The Beatles. They came from Liverpool, south of Newcastle, a port that brought in all the Irish to find work in England. Lennon has that Irish in him...

GM: ... and McCartney wrote “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” as a direct result of what was called Bloody Sunday in 1972.
EB: I’m sure there’s Irish in all of the Beatles. It’s what probably formulated their cheeky sense of humor, too, and their attitudes toward the world in the same way it did for us Geordies up in Newcastle.

Eric Burdon of The Animals photo courtesy Fabrik PR

Eric Burdon has only about one-third of his lung capacity. But that won't keep him offstage. "The thing is with stage performance, even if you’re not feeling too good, when you peek around the side of the curtain before you go on, and you look out and see that audience, you feel a rush of natural adrenaline. It helps me overcome it," Burdon says. Publicity photo courtesy of Fabrik PR.

GM: You’ve been quoted as saying, “I have a life beyond performance. I love it, and it’s probably the best part of me.” What were you talking about?

EB: I have to be honest and say my two concurrent “lives” are interfused, you know what I mean? Being in a popular rock band forced me to travel to places I probably would have traveled to eventually anyway. I mean, before the band was successful, I was ready to forge papers to say I was old enough to become a merchant seaman just to get to America. Then The Animals came along, and it allowed me to get on the trip, a free ride, even better, getting paid for it! But, yeah, I, uh, got to the point in ’73, ’74, I’d been working every day, every night for years and years in the rock clubs by that time; I just wanted to get away. I drove to Mexico by myself and traveled the length and breadth of the country, all the way down to Belize in Central America. I did that with no command of the language other than a very few Spanish words. I was alone, never had a problem, and met some of the most gracious people. I’ve been to Paris in France, and to me it was so wonderful meeting Parisians and looking at their art and being introduced to such a strange mixture of different personalities. Then there was Amsterdam in Holland. This is the other life I’m talking about. Discovery! Those towns were all populated by the kind of people who had their own lives, their own opinions, were sharing and open, and sometimes I think that’s what I was born to do: travel and meet people in their own environment and culture. That’s the best part of me, yeah. I learned from all these people. I drew from them and tried to use that somehow within the context of my performance. I had hopes of being involved in another kind of art. I went to art school for five years, y’know. And that formulated my attitude, as well. Being a rebel at art school like a lot of other people was right up my alley. My parents used to say I was born to go to art school.

GM: How’s your health?
EB: That’s what I’m currently writing about: being able to perform for many years with only 34 percent lung capacity. It’s been an ongoing battle. That’s why I moved to the desert in California. As soon as I got here, I was like, “Wow, I can breathe!” And if you can breathe, man, that’s life. The thing is with stage performance, even if you’re not feeling too good, when you peek around the side of the curtain before you go on, and you look out and see that audience, you feel a rush of natural adrenaline. It helps me overcome it. I mean, sure, during the day, I still fear the various drugs administered to me, because that’s what they used to do, give kids like me a shot of adrenaline. Now it’s against the law, but back then, it was the medicine for the times. But when I look at the audience, I feel their collective anticipation and it has a profound effect upon me while I’m waiting in the wings to go on. There’s nothing like it. No drug, that’s for sure.

GM: Do you even realize the influence you’ve had over every generation since you’ve started? Bruce Springsteen says almost all his songs are based on “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place.”
EB: I guess so, but I don’t know, man. I try not to think about it. If you think about it in that light, you’re going to cop an attitude and turn into not a very likeable person. I try to keep my two feet firmly on the ground. It could be dangerous for any individual to start subscribing to too much personal praise. I don’t want it to become a problem. My theory about life that I learned years ago is that if, at the end of the day, you can walk into your house feeling justified about what you did all day, you can find contentment. GM