Monday, November 30, 2009

Mountain Lays Down the Law

Josh, Corky Laing, Leslie West, Ian Hunter, backstage Bottom Line, NY, 1982
(photo by Peter Hudson for High Times)

Out of a hundred concerts at the Fillmore East, the greatest were the four times I saw Mountain there. Twelve years later, I did this interview for High Times. I hoped to follow it in High Times with a Felix Pappalardi interview. But, alas, the great Pappalardi was gunned down by his wife, Cream and Mountain lyricist Gail Collins, shortly after this meeting was conducted. Reprinted from High Times, April 1983:

From the golden age of concert and album rock, by now a phenomenon of America’s past heritage, rode the folk heroes Mountain. Though only three songs remain FM radio hall-of-famers today—“Nantucket Sleighride,” “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and “Mississippi Queen”—Mountain was the heavyweight champ of crystal-clear, high-volume ecstasy during the era in which they reigned (1969-1972). Leslie West, who could outweigh and outplay planeloads of skinny English guitarists, remains a mythical figure to the drooling, boneheaded beer drunks from Queens who still flock to see him. (Mountain was probably the first hard-rock band to begin with placid hippie music connoisseurs and, through little fault of their own, cultivate a rowdy, beer-drinking audience—which to this day remains associated with their order of rock.)

Leslie’s bass-playing counterpoint in those days, 130-pound Felix Pappalardi, had made his bones quite sweetly, producing the Youngbloods and Cream, though he never fully realized his brilliance until Mountain. Corky Laing rode drums over the unique power triad, cowbell and double bass pedaling him trademark. He was also one-third responsible for the songs and showmanship, breaking thousands of sticks behind Pappalardi’s Beethoven stance and West’s electrical power field. A mysterious fourth member, Steve Knight, added subtle keyboard colorings; his presence assuaged Pappalardi’s anxiety that people might accuse Mountain of copying Cream’s three-man attack. The essential Mountain albums remain the first three: Mountain (Leslie’s “solo” debut), Climbing and Nantucket Sleighride.

Leslie and Corky joined with Jack Bruce after Felix left. West, Bruce & Laing, as they were known, relied on their massive reputations more than the quality of the music, releasing three albums and touring Europe for three years. Eventually the band collapsed, a drug heap of spent rock stars. A handful of solo records ensued, including Corky’s own, and one that was a Leslie West/Mick Jagger collaboration. West fired Mick Jones from his ill-fated “Wild West” band, launching Jones into the high-finance circles of corporate rock, in Foreigner. Corky drummed in a new band, the Mix. Leslie gave guitar lessons.

And so, after traveling with a convoy of semi trucks (one for each rock star in WB&L), the legendary guitarist and drummer worked themselves down to traveling with zero equipment (save for personal effects, guitars and cowbell). West and Laing have seen the glory, fallen from grace and come to a fresh start. At New York’s Bottom Line in October ’82, West’s playing was tighter and more polished than any time since Mountain’s peak. He employed an octave box, echoplex, utilized more feedback than he used to, and seems able to coax the world’s absolute best tone out of any guitar he uses—it doesn’t have to be his old Les Paul Jr. West puts more expression into a flurry of fast notes than anyone, and can still smack out the meanest harmonic in the business. His blues shouting has a sweeter edge now. Corky is, in my opinion, the finest hard rock drummer there ever was, and together, when they’re on, they blend together like nothing else.

The two began playing dates this past year with no rehearsals, equipment supplied in total by the clubs—they walk onstage to a strange drum set and some Marshall amps. But God help us. Says Corky: “We’re on the line. There’s an audience, here’s the equipment. Play. That’s what I mean by war. I adapt to a new kit every night. Leslie and I are never comfortable at a show; we’re pretty fuckin’ scared. Anybody can rehearse. We never know where it’s gonna land. We don’t jam—I can’t stand that fuckin’ word. We concentrate on trying to get somewhere.”

With former Savoy Brown bassist Miller Anderson, they’ve just signed with old manager Bud Prager, and changed their name to LAW.

The fat jokes are unavoidable. Leslie West’s Upper East Side apartment has a skinny entrance way, a claustrophobic elevator and a cramped hallway. Certainly not befitting the ominous size and charisma of a rock star that loomed over his Fillmore audience like Goliath, 12 years ago. The first floor of his duplex is narrow, but this is where the fearsome figure of Leslie West resides in 1983, like it or not. Leslie is actually not that tall, under six feet, and less than jolly to boot. He sometimes catches his temper and instantly reverses to being friendly as pie.

Though Mountain albums line the wall, it looks like the apartment of a man who’d rather be on the road. Leslie rolls about his carpet like a huge puppy, playing his TV video games, grabbing for the wireless phone. He plays a cassette of some new songs banged out in the studio, switching back and forth between this and “Never in My Life.”

“Listen to how flat the old stuff is compared to this,” he jests, dismissing the recording quality of the classic cut from the quintessential Climbing album. “I just want to show ya—I don’t care how great I thought some groups that I saw were—they weren’t shit, it’s just the memory of the show and the magnitude of the artist.”

High Times: How come you’re so much better now than when we last saw you in 1975?

Corky Laing: For good reason. We were strung out then. We were riding the crest of a slump. We were on the way out. It was the end of something, not the beginning. When we came back together, it just kicked in, we had a great time. No ulterior motives, it wasn’t like we wanted to make a million bucks—

Leslie West: I started my guitar school, a couple hundred students. There were amateurs and pros, but no matter who it was, it forced me to play something. I’d have to think back to the most basic thing in the world. I had to give them stuff to work on, and I got so many ideas. After those two years, I told Corky, man, I’m happy doin’ this, I don’t wanna be on the road anymore. I was makin’ a lot of money... But all of a sudden we’ve got more original material.

Corky: My band, the Mix, played with Judas Priest when they were soaring. They’re all motorcycle, Hell’s Angels-type English guys, big boys. The fucking guitar player came rushing in with his bodyguards, cleared the dressing room. I was scared, I didn’t know what the hell was goin’ on. But he said, “I saw Leslie, man, took some lessons, and he’s taught me more, showed me a lot of shit.”

High Times: How do record company A&R men see you now?

Leslie: If we had to start Mountain cold today, I don’t care how good we are, it’s just too much. The record companies are oversigning groups. Polydor wants to be CBS overnight. They don’t know what they’re doing, they think this new wave is going to take them into a low tide.

Corky: You’ve got a lot of these young executives who were big fans of ours when they were kids. If they really liked ya, though, they don’t want to go near ya, they want to keep it that way.

Leslie: I don’t want to meet Eric Clapton, man, and we played with Jack. Corky’s played with Clapton.

High Times: You actually never met him, he still looks that big to you?

Leslie: C’mon, you know what he’s responsible for? Never mind that he hasn’t—

Corky: Same way as I felt about Ginger. I never met him, never wanted to. I don’t say it’s the same adulation with the A&R executives, but they wanna know how we’re feelin’, whether we’re healthy enough to go on the road. The fact is, nobody ever did more roadwork than Mountain. We did 285 dates a year, for three years. Even now, in the past year, we covered the entire country twice, because we carry no equipment.

Leslie: New wave became a fashion. You get all these groups, you throw ’em at the wall like darts to see which ones stick. The Police, Dire Straits, Sex Pistols, they had something to say. But most others weren’t around as long as some of the groups when we started. We were at Woodstock, that was the beginning of Santana, us and sort of Crosby, Stills & Nash. For years before that [with the Vagrants, a Long Island party band] I worked in discotheques, six sets a night. These groups today aren’t old enough, they go to CBGB’s, and the starving record executive is there picking one on their sixth month together—next month they’ve got an album out, and then they’ve broken up.

Corky: The executives never fall in love with music, they fall in love with the fashion.

High Times: What are royalties like now from early Mountain albums?

Leslie: We only get ASCAP publishing royalties from radio, jukebox, not any from album sales. “Mississippi Queen” was the most, it was a hit single. Get a penny every time it’s played in the jukebox.

Corky: Nantucket was the biggest seller, after Climbing.

High Times: What broke Mountain up after the Flowers of Evil album? Was it because you wanted to play with Jack Bruce?

Leslie: Felix didn’t want to work anymore, he didn’t want to tour. He traveled with Ian and Sylvia around Canada, but it wasn’t the same intensity. He was a session guy.

Corky: Leslie and I always loved the road. We come from road bands. The only band he’d ever really been on the road with was Mountain.

Leslie: He did not enjoy the success we had in Mountain as much as we did. When we first got our gold record, he called me up and said, “You’re gonna have your gold record on this day, I guarantee it.” I said, “Well, you will too.” He felt he’d gotten his already, producing Cream; but now he was an artist. Felix was not as much an essential part of Cream’s music as he was to Mountain’s music. Anyway, me and Corky decided to take a vacation in England when Felix decided to leave. We had three more dates to do with Mountain in England.

Corky: Just as an alternative, we called Paul Rogers and Mick Ralphs, and had them come down to jam. We ended up introducing Bad Company.

Leslie: I was thinking to myself, we gotta call a singer, a bass player, or call Jack and get the whole thing solved right now... We went into Island Studios, did a tape, and that was the beginning of West, Bruce & Laing.

High Times: Backtracking a bit, what was Mountain’s reception in England?

Corky: Incredible, we were bigger there than here.

Leslie: Guitar players were more respected over in England, for some reason.

Corky: And also, they were all skinny, little Peter Frampton types, and when Leslie came over, they said we gotta check this freak.

Leslie: And the English groups we toured with—Mott the Hoople, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After—they were our publicity agents. We were all great friends, we talked them up, they talked us up.

Corky: And we helped a lot of them open here—Black Sabbath opened for us.

High Times: When did you first hit England?

Leslie: In ’71.

Corky: Island Records had just released Nantucket Sleighride in England. There was a guy named Peter Rudge who was our tour manager over there. He did The Who over here, but over there, just us. Since then, the Stones picked him up because of how fast Mountain came up in England, he was personally responsible.

High Times: Yeah, but promotion was still beside the point.

Corky: But there was that soft-sell promotion thing, which wasn’t heavy like billboard shit, it was authentic.

High Times: Who came down to see you in England?

Corky: Paul McCartney came down... Dylan and Hendrix came when we did the Fillmore.

High Times: Hendrix mentioned Mountain as the only band he went out of his way to hear, in a posthumous Guitar Player interview.

Leslie: I played with him the night before he died, at Ungano’s Discotheque. He went to England the next day. He played bass and I played guitar. Some stupid fuckin’ magazine reviewed it and said that I played louder than him; I mean, usually guitar is louder than bass. The next day we went to Detroit, and the hotel clerk said, “Another one of you rock ’n’ rollers kicked the bucket.” Just like that. His father called me and asked if I wanted to buy some of his guitars. He called a lot of guitar players—

High Times: Did you take any?

Leslie [registering disgust]: Ugh. I thought it was phony at first, but it wasn’t.

High Times: I think Frank Zappa took some, he boasted of having a Hendrix guitar.

Corky: I’ll bet he did. He’s that kind of guy [laughs].

Leslie: Probably figured it would help his playing, ya know?

High Times: What was your experience at Woodstock?

Leslie: Nervous.

Corky: I played on Ten Years After’s record, the soundtrack of “Goin’ Home.” Ric Lee’s drum mikes fell down and there was twenty-five minutes of bad timing.

Leslie: The drums didn’t come out and Corky had to overdub it.

High Times: Woodstock was one of Mountain’s first gigs.

Leslie: Third. We had to rent our own helicopter, ’cause the highways were jammed, we were on Saturday night; we had a great spot, ’cause our agent was Jimi Hendrix’s agent, Ron Terry. He was holding Hendrix over everybody’s head—“Jimi’s not showing up if you don’t give me a good time for Mountain.” Poor Jimi went on when nobody was left, he wanted to headline so bad. Anyway, in the helipcopter there was a first-aide kit, and I took out an amyl nitrite, a snapper. I saw all them people down there, I looked down and I did it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

High Times: Did you usually get high before concerts, did you ever trip onstage?

Leslie: No. I never took Quaaludes—

Corky: I’ll tell you something. We used to have such a good time onstage, get so blitzed out. When we got offstage, we’d have to take drugs to hopefully raise us up to that plateau again.

Leslie: You try to relive that onstage moment of high all your life, until you go on again. And it’s impossible to get there, chemically, if you’ve been there naturally. And you’ll try... Trouble is, when you’re so fucked up, and you’ve gone as high as you can get, someone says, “You’re really fuckin’ up, ya gotta straighten out.” And you’re sittin’ there floatin’ away, not listening to them. Finally, I came up against a brick wall, I had no more choice. That’s the only way to really stop. Nobody’s gonna wake up one morning and say, “Yes, I think I’ll clean up today.” Not when you’re fuckin’ around with that stuff.

High Times: Have you been trying to re-create the feeling of an encore at the Fillmore East all these years?

Corky: You can’t. But you try and get back up there again, you try to just inflate it a bit. And you can’t.

Leslie: And ya keep tryin’.

Corky: You know you’re gonna get there when you get onstage.

Leslie: In fact, if you do it before, it’s wasted.

Corky: You sweat it out in about two seconds. Any intoxication is gone in the first five minutes between the lights. I’m talking about any drug. I don’t know how these fuckin’ acidheads did it.

Leslie: The San Francisco groups were on acid, that’s how they were able to play six hours.

Corky: I don’t know how, if you’re touring twenty-four hours a day. We did three festivals a day in the summer. In those days, at festivals, after the first fifty rows, that’s it. You can only see tits and cleavage for the first fifty rows. You keep an eye out for what’s gonna get you off that day, but after that, after the first five or ten thousand people, what are you gonna do, you can’t count them—

High Times: You might as well be at the Bottom Line.

Leslie: The only way you know people are out there is when somebody tells ya it goes back about a mile.

High Times: How did you feel about the notion that Mountain was the natural successor to Cream?

Leslie: A lot of the press said that. People put me down, they said I copied Eric. I idolized the guy. Felix produced him, so there was that influence, and when West, Bruce & Laing came along, Jack was part of Cream, so there was that influence. And it’s pretty hard not to admit to it, because they were my favorite group in the world. The reason we had a keyboard player is because Felix didn’t want to look that way. But the music was that way, that’s the way I played. I didn’t have any roots in old blues, like all of these guys say they did.

High Times: Old articles credited you as coming from the “B.B. King school.”

Leslie: I loved Albert King. But I didn’t learn from him, I learned from The Who and Cream.

High Times: But you were so close to their time, it’s not as though you were brought up on them, they became successful two years before you.

Leslie: Cream changed the fuckin’ business. You had guys strumming away and playing the drums nice—all of a sudden three guys came and played the shit out of these instruments.

High Times: They were the second musical coming of the decade.

Leslie: Hendrix and them, no doubt about it.

High Times: But you were right behind, when only a handful of guitarists could play that way.

Leslie: Behind? That don’t count at the Kentucky Derby... Led Zeppelin only came out about the same time as us... Cream was the first group, as players, to be able to do what The Beatles were doing as singers. John and Paul. Those are the ones. Unbelievable. Ever look at their songs in alphabetical order? Like a fuckin’ yellow pages.

High Times: Sure. Did you hear the recent BBC radio release from 1962?

Leslie: Amazing, huh? But everyone’s excited about it except them.

High Times: Did Mountain play the Fillmore more than any other group?

Leslie: The Who might have played a little bit more. If you count the Fillmore West, I think Grateful Dead might have.

High Times: What was the magic of those Fillmores that’s lost today?

Leslie: It was a church.

High Times: It’s a gay disco club now.

Corky: We could sit here for hours discussing whatever happened to that consciousness. But I can’t blame anyone else but the industry, they’re the culprits. I don’t think they know it, I don’t think they meant it consciously.

High Times: What were Mountain groupies like?

Corky: Leslie had the most beautiful ones. Unbelievable. He always used to fix me up so I’d get the clap. He needed most of them. Leslie got the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in my life goin’ after him. I don’t know why.

High Times: Where did they congregate at the Fillmore? At Ratner’s?

Corky: As a matter of fact, the Fillmore wasn’t that terrific. It would be after, they would get in touch. They might come back holding their panties, having pissed their pants or fudged their silks, to show their appreciation. Fine, I’ll accept that, if that’s the way they want to demonstrate it.

© 1983, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman


  1. They NEVER got their due for being THE great cowbell band, either!

  2. Last I checked those albums still sounded great. Felix knew how to get sound. Leslie's style was fully formed from the Vagrants days. Thanks for posting this.


  4. You are wrong to dismiss W, B & L. Saw them in '72, and they managed to wow the jaded LA crowd at the Hollywood Palladium. Following Mott the Hoople (in their prime) is not easy.