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A quirky chat with Corky Laing

Mountain's drummer reflects on the highs and lows of the classic rock band.


By Jason Hillenburg

GOLDMINE: It’s interesting to hear you reflect on how Mountain, in your mind, never quite reached the levels of the Deep Purples of the era and things like that. I’ve read you talk about how Mountain was on the same kind of treadmill shared by their peers — tour, record, tour, record, etc. The constant refrain ... if they just would have had some time off then their breakups might not have happened, they might have been able to get each other for a little while and recharge and regroup. I was just wondering if you felt the same about Mountain’s workload.

CORKY LAING: The Who or Deep Purple would come over from England and do six week tours or three month tours, then they would take two to three months off, if you call it off, where they recorded but that still left time to tour America two or three times a year. Mountain, since we were an American band, we were constantly playing. We did every gig that they called in. When we had a No. 1 hit we were playing high schools that were booked basically a year in advance. They started booking Mountain in ’69 and there we were in 1970 and ‘71 playing previously booked gigs that we had to make, so we did not have those big open months off. And, again, I don’t know whether The Who took time off or Led Zeppelin took time off, but I always loved the idea of “Why don’t we do a six week tour, then take a break, record and, in other words, get some sort of flow going?” We never had that in Mountain. As a result, I think the pressure and the familiarity with each person — because we were on top of each other the whole time — caused contempt between our old ladies, we got into drugs … it was all really congested, so that contributed a great deal to the unhappiness, the weariness of touring and recording.

Like, we’d play a great deal around New York, then we’d go to Chicago, Detroit, you know anywhere we were able to get to and still get to wake up the next day in a different city and, basically, I think we bashed the sh*t out of New York for like a whole two months. All of the universities, bam, bam, bam ... upstate and just one after another, which I loved, by the way, but when you look back on it you go, “Yeah, we couldn’t breathe.” And if we can’t breathe we were suffocating ourselves metaphorically, and I think the music again… I don’t think it suffered that much in the beginning of Mountain. When we started doing “Avalanche,” you could feel the filler and I was very much aware of it. You know there was a lot of Chinese food before we actually recorded, if you want to use that metaphor, and we were sitting around doing a lot of eating in the studio writing the songs and you know some of it was really cool. I mean, rock n’ roll is not brain surgery, some of the best stuff that came out was, “Boom,” wrote itself in the limo and it was kind of cool, so, yes, there was that aspect of it and you add all of the spicy ingredients like ego, greed, hedonism, drugs — which goes with hedonism — and you have the female partners constantly at each other’s throats ... it gets redundant, it gets boring. But at the time though it was all new, there was no industry. I was starting to play music, pop music ... like I did the Sweet Sixteen parties, the Italian weddings, the bar mitzvahs way back in the early ‘60s. I was like 13 or 14 years old and I was playing pop. That was pop. Pop is kind of, if you don’t mind the metaphor, the sound you hear when you put milk in certain cereal. That’s pop. But what happened is guitars started kicking in and, all of a sudden, volume and amplification of the bass and then all of a sudden you had heavy drumming and, by the late ‘60s, you had rock. I don’t like the expression rock ‘n’ roll; I think it sucks but rock makes sense. You know what I mean? All of a sudden you put down the brushes, you put down the mallets and you f**kin’ hit hard and that’s what happened in the late ‘60s. There was no plan. It was all chaos. Nobody had a handle on it, no one, and so it was just totally over the top and it was out of control and then the money started controlling it. Not the music. At first it was the music, the music was ubiquitous, it was there, you could swim in it, you could sleep in it, it was beautiful. And then people started saying, “Wait a second, I could make some money here,” and a lot of it was under the radar as we read about it over the years and you look at the books that all of the rockers are writing. It was all starting to creep up and all of a sudden that money came in, and big money, but again, there was no organization. You remember those days where you were actually selling albums out of the back of your car for cash, and that all changed. I don’t have to get into the historic record, but I think the most important crossover was when it went from pop to rock. The pop industry was happy; you had Fabian, Elvis, that was pop. Even when The Beatles came in, they were pop. You know the Stones they started to rock a bit, you go into the blues and then Hendrix, Cream and as soon as those guitars were turned up to 11 and you had some players that were able to handle it and control it the way Leslie (West) did ... He had this little Junior and he would just squeeze some amazing sh*t out of the guitar, and people are saying, “How the f*ck is he doing that?” And this is before the pedals and all of that sh*t and, of course, a drummer with my style helped free us to do whatever the f*ck we wanted. It was f*ckin’ heaven. All you had to make sure is that you were loud enough to show the band where the 1 was, so at least you could start and finish a phrase, and I loved it. It was before click tracks. No click tracks, it was just f*ckin’ go for it. And that’s why you had drummers like Bonzo, Keith Moon and Ginger, no click track. The drummer was a f*ckin’ amusement park on his own and that’s what really made it work. That’s why people got excited about live performing. You watch Keith Moon and you don’t even need anything else, it’s just him doing his thing, and you know that would inspire any kid to say, “I want to be like him.” Look at this f*ckin’ guy, he looks as happy as any person could ever be. You know, it was better than sex! That’s f*ckin’ great!

GM: I wouldn’t dare diminish your personal relationship with the band and Felix (Pappalardi), but I was wondering is it fair to say that reforming Mountain was a much simpler proposition for you emotionally than it was for Leslie (West)?

LAING: There were a tremendous amount of insecurity for him and for me, but the fact is that, in retrospect, there was a love/hate relationship between Leslie and Felix. Leslie didn’t know if he had made it on his own or if he made it because of Felix. Do you know what I mean? Because Leslie couldn’t get arrested before Felix produced him and Felix knew exactly what to do with Leslie. Felix, he was an amazing conductor, arranger, musician and teacher. He actually was the reason why Mountain was the way it was. Between you and I, he was the reason why (Cream’s) “Disraeli Gears” was as good as it was.

GM: Whenever Felix wanted to step away from the band, the public reason that was given was that Mountain had so completely damaged his hearing, which he wanted to heal and get away from those extremely loud volumes. Leslie has said that the story was a complete concoction. What it boiled down to was Felix was really more or less strung out.

LAING: Yes, that’s exactly right. Leslie is exactly right. Yeah, that was Felix’s cover. He was having a tremendous problem with drugs. He felt very insecure. He had a lot of ‘tissues’ I call them. Very Tangible Issues, tissues, and yeah, I would agree 100% with Leslie. Felix actually destroyed his career by saying that because he never really had damage. He probably had tinnitus which I have but, you know, he wanted an excuse to get out of the situation clean. That was stupid, he should have kept the band together and said he needs a break. It’s alright, you’re allowed to have a break, but he didn’t. He had his ego, keeping in mind he ran his management, production, he had all of these things on his plate and I think he just wanted out.

GM: You once mentioned in an interview with Goldmine that you were going to write a movie about Felix’s life and death and I was wondering whatever became of that.

LAING: Well, it’s funny you mentioned that, it’s still there. I still have it; it’s called “The Life and Death of Felix ‘Boom Boom’ Pappalardi.” His nickname was “Boom Boom” on the bass and it’s still there. Odd that you mentioned that because there’s been a lot of movies about musicians and stuff.

It’s all written and put together, I have about three or four versions of it and, well, what can I tell you? It takes a whole lifetime to put behind that. At the time I really did put a lot of work into it and I’ve got a box full of notes. I’ve got the script. I’ve got everything. At this point, I guess I’ve just dropped the ball at this stage. I’ve got other things going on.

Here’s what the problem is, a lot of people just wanted the celebrity. You’ve got Ray Charles, you’ve got huge celebrity musicians that people will put money into and a lot of people don’t remember Felix at all, number one, and at the time it was the only murder in rock n’ roll that I can think of… What I’m saying is it stood out and I remember a friend of mine put me in touch with the head of NBC; the Sunday Night Movie. Her name was Nora Bloom and we sent it to her. She loved it and kept on saying, “I love the idea. Now what did Felix do to Gail (Collins, his wife)? How did Felix abuse Gail where she finally shot him?” And I said, “No, you don’t understand. Felix didn’t abuse her, she was nuts. She was jealous.” “No, no, no, it’s Sunday Night Movie like a Farrah Fawcett movie where the woman’s abused.” Do you remember 20 years ago they had Sunday Night Movies always aimed at the wives, you know the abuse, and how a woman survived. But I kept telling Nora, and she said, “We can’t do it unless we have the reason why she shot him.” And I went, “Oh, I don’t know.” So Felix’s uncle, who takes care of his estate, I called him and said, “By the way, they want to do this movie about Felix’s murder and stuff on NBC and I thought I’d run it by you.” He said, “What’s the problem?” I said, “Well, they want to know what Felix did to Gail that she would plot away to murder him.” And he went nuts. He said, “I can’t believe that. Don’t forget it,” the Pappalardi family knew that Gail was going to murder him no matter what. She was going to kill him. That was just in her head. So that movie never happened and that was one reason why it fell through the cracks. I was right there, but they didn’t want to use that theme at all.

The story of the band Mountain