The last time I saw Johnny Winter, one of the truly magnificent guitarists of all time, was in 2003 at a South Baltimore shithole called the Thunderdome.
Johnny, who died last week in Switzerland at 70, was addled and frail and the bartenders made fun of him behind his back. I regret not telling them to go fuck themselves, wish I had gone backstage to punch Johnny’s longtime manager—the late and conniving and greedy and larcenous Teddy Slatus, now chasing Johnny through the afterlife for 10 percent—in the face.
Instead my friends and I—Glen Burnie photographer Richard Snyder and vacuum-tube-amplifier broker Joe Mooney of Hampden—shouted from the edge of the stage: “We love you, Johnny!”
Winter ended the show as he always did, with slide guitar on a Gibson Firebird that charged through his infirmities in a way his once-ferocious vocals no longer could. We left blue and angry.
Almost 20 years earlier: graveside on the far south side of Chicago in late April, 1983; the Restvale Cemetery in the town of Alsip.
To my right, Muddy Waters in his coffin (Pops Staples had sung behind it at the wake) and Marva Jean Brooks, the great bluesman’s young widow, held back from following “Daddy” into the ground. To my left, Johnny Winter, a portrait of woe in white in the back of a black limousine, too bereaved to get out and join others mourning the man he loved and from whom he learned.
“That was just too sad,” Winter said by phone from his tour bus a few weeks ago, the last of our many conversations over the past 30 years. “He’d been sick for a while. I didn’t even know it.”
I was at the graveyard to file a story and pay respects to the great link between the rural blues of Mississippi and the electric blues of post-war Chicago barrooms. But I also hankered to filter the experience through Johnny, who played on and produced Muddy’s final albums, the big man’s only recordings to earn Grammys.
I’m a suburban white boy who came of age getting high in a Ford Pinto and listening to Robin Trower on 8-track during the Ford Administration. My first concert, at the Baltimore Civic Center, was Johnny’s brother and fellow albino Edgar, the sax and keyboard pop artist best known for the 1973 smash hit ‘Frankenstein.’
But without Johnny, who screamed “Rock and Roll” like a phlegm-choked Viking, sold-out baseball stadiums, detonated the best cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” ever, and sold millions of LPs, I might not have known Muddy Waters.
And though I knew better, I struggled to understand why, after his incendiary 15 minutes cooled for decades from Woodstock to South Hanover Street, the rock public forgot about him.
Perhaps because he used his fame to preach the blues for the past 30 years, turning his back on rock ‘n’ roll and often admonishing fans from the stage: “I’m gonna say it again, people, if it wasn’t for the blues there wouldn’t be no rock ‘n’ roll.”
The popularity plunge puzzled Johnny as well.
“Man, back in 1969 I couldn’t walk outside of my house,” said Winter when I interviewed him for The Sun in 1983. “What happened to all those Johnny Winter fans? Did they die?”
John Dawson Winter III began his career as a teenager on the Gulf Coast of Texas by asking and getting permission to sit in with B.B. King at a juke in his hometown of Beaumont in 1962. At the height of the blues-drenched hippie era, only Hendrix—whom he counted as a friend—was bigger.
Hospitalized for the first time for addiction and depression in 1971, Johnny had a good dollop of Keith Richards’ “human versus heroin” resiliency in his DNA and liked joking with reporters that, “Maybe I died years ago but God was on my side.”
His last gig was a July 12 concert in Wiesen, Austria. Death found him on the road in a Zurich hotel room and it found him in the midst of a comeback, not as big as the one in ’73 when he came roaring out of rehab with “Still Alive & Well” but significant and heartening.
Beginning about 2004, a new band member—Paul Nelson—orchestrated a coup d’guitare for his hero, not unlike the way Tom Petty championed Del Shannon before the latter’s suicide in 1990.
Nelson, an accomplished guitarist, played rhythm behind Johnny and became his manager in 2005. He spent several years weaning Johnny off a 35-year methadone habit, helped him quit cigarettes and booze and anti-depressants, got him into physical therapy after carpal-tunnel damage and a hip replacement, and provided healthy food on the road.
This year, Columbia released a four-CD career-spanning anthology of his work, including a mighty take of ‘Leland, Mississippi Blues’ from Woodstock. A Greg Olliver-directed documentary, “Down & Dirty,” debuted at the South by Southwest Festival and a new album—“Step Back,” with guest stars Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and Billy Gibbons—will be released in September.
Johnny was back!
Last week, as I drove to Vermont to see Johnny at a scheduled July 26 date, Mooney texted me that the blogosphere was saying Winter was dead and asked if it was true.
It soon became clear that it was; that the great line written for Johnny, by Rick Derringer—“Every now and then I know it’s kind of hard to tell, but I’m still alive and well”—was no longer true.
The Beatles changed my life for good and forever, Frank Zappa taught me that if you did the work you could be artistic and strange and make a living out of it, and the Stones will always be the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.
But Johnny Winter is the only musician I have listened to every day—every single day for the past 40 years.
For years, I have tried to school folks who think they know the blues that Eric Clapton is a lounge lizard compared to Johnny Winter; that there is no ‘Lay Down Sally’ in the Texan’s catalog; and if you think that Cream’s ‘Crossroads’ is an acceptable embrace of Robert Johnson it is only because you have not heard Johnny fingerpick and yodel his way through ‘When You Got a Good Friend.’
That last phone call with Winter, an awkward call from my parents’ basement, the same spot where I played Johnny’s records for the first time back in high school, was difficult.
He answered dutifully, sans exposition. He didn’t remember me from 20 years ago when he and Edgar sat in the back of Johnny’s tour bus harmonizing lullabies their mother once sang to them—harmonies on display in the 1976 album “Johnny and Edgar: Together”—as I listened with astonishment and joy.
But I knew I was headed out to see him again, real soon and hoped for better in Vermont.
“It’s good to have you back,” I said.
And he answered, “I never went away.”