On September 3, 1970, tragedy struck the LA based band Canned Heat when guitarist Alan Wilson was found dead of an apparent drug overdose. He was 27 years old, a difficult age for rock and roll greatness. Alan Wilson is the forgotten member of Club 27.
To mark the 41st anniversary of Wilson’s death, biographer Rebecca Davis has agreed to join us today and share her experience putting together her book, the Alan Wilson biography, Blind Owl Blues.
TPS: Rebecca, thank you for being with us today. Being born in 1977, you are at least one generation removed from the Canned Heat experience of my generation. What attracted you to their music and specifically to Alan Wilson to the point you were driven to tell his story?
RD: I had long been interested in the music of the 1960s, including bands such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. Collecting LP records was a favorite activity, and eventually in the bottom of a local antique store I found the double album, Living the Blues, by Canned Heat.
I’d already heard their most famous song, “Going Up the Country”, in the Woodstock movie. It stood out to me because the singer’s high tenor voice had such a unique sound. Upon listening to Living the Blues and learning what little I could about the band in rock encyclopedias and whatnot, I became more and more fascinated with Alan Wilson, singer of both their hits (“On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country”).
I felt that someone like Wilson, with such a unique voice, would surely be an equally unique personality. The literature available on him at the time was quite paltry; remember that in these days we didn’t have the Internet. Fito de la Parra had not yet published his memoirs (Living the Blues); all one could learn about Wilson was that he was a musical genius who had suffered from depression, and that there was some mystery surrounding his death.
I wrote a series of essays, just for my own amusement as I enjoyed writing, about Wilson and what little I could learn of his life and music. This developed into a real desire to get more in-depth knowledge about him. I conceived of the idea of writing a book-length biography, and began contacting people who knew him. My formal interviews and research began in the late 1990s.
TPS: Talk about your process of researching the biography? Where there any barriers you had to overcome when exploring Wilson’s history?
RD: There were certainly many hurdles to overcome. One, of course, was the fact that so many people associated with Canned Heat have passed away. Bob Hite died in the early 1980s, Henry Vestine died as I was tracking him down for interview, and many of the band’s associates, such as Bob’s wife Verlie, have passed away as well.
Also keep in mind that my research was done before the Internet became readily available to most people including me. And I’ve never had a large publishing company or other corporation to finance my work; it has always been supported out of my own pocket. So interviews were done as I could afford to travel, or in some cases via telephone. It’s a lot easier to track people down nowadays, and to communicate with folks in far-flung locations, with the Internet.
TPS: During your research did you have any of those “Ah-ha” moments when you stumbled across a surprising fact?
RD: There were definitely a lot of “Ah-ha” moments. One of the most mysterious things about Alan, of course, was his death; the circumstances surrounding it have been obscured over the years. Because of his long term depression, some folks presumed that he had committed suicide. I was shocked to learn that many of the stories told in the popular press, regarding his death, are totally false.
Getting information from Alan’s autopsy provided much insight about his death, and throughout the years, even more details have come to light. Contrary to what many people thought ten or fifteen years ago, and what had been depicted in the media prior to publication of my book, it’s my educated opinion that Alan’s death was not a deliberate action by his own hand. He did not commit suicide. There are still some unknown elements, but I’ve tried to delineate these in my book so that the intelligent reader can form their own opinion about this matter.
TPS: I’m sure you had to be in contact with his family, friends and old bandmates. Please share your experience of engaging with Canned Heat members as you were establishing your credibility and the things you had to do to win them over to your endeavor.
RD: I got to know so many interesting people through my research! I’ll always remember my very first interview, which was with Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel and took place over the phone. I was so nervous! But Harvey was very gracious and took the time to answer all of my questions on that and other occasions. That kind of thing helped me gain confidence as I went on with the project.
One thing I didn’t expect was the personal relationships that developed between myself and some of the people Alan had known. John Fahey, who was a little eccentric, ended up proposing marriage to me (a long story; and no, I didn’t accept!). I became good friends with Bob Hite’s younger brother Richard, and in the last few years I’ve also been blessed by friendships with a couple of Alan’s sisters.
Most people that I encountered were willing to be interviewed for my book. Many were excited to be involved in a project intended to honor Alan’s life and music. Only a couple declined to talk with me. Canned Heat drummer Fito de la Parra is one person that I wish I could have talked to at greater length, but he didn’t want to do an interview by telephone, and I was unable to travel to meet him in person as I didn’t have the financial resources to do so by that time.
So there were a couple of incidences like that, but otherwise most people were very friendly and helpful. I think the novelty of a young woman being interested in Canned Heat (I was only nineteen years old when I began doing research in 1996) might have worked in my favor. I was obviously not a prestigious journalist at that time, but I think my passion for Alan was clear to others who loved him.
TPS: How has the book been received and what kind of feedback have you been getting from Alan Wilson fans?
RD: It took me long enough to finish the book – I started my research in late 1996 and finally published in 2007. But I think it was well worth the wait. I’ve been positively ecstatic to find the book embraced by blues fans around the world, including a number of Blind Owl fans who are younger than I was when I started my research!
Thanks to the Internet, there is a thriving community of Blind Owl Wilson fans. Many are excellent musicologists in their own right, and some have begun assisting me with other Alan-related projects. One very impressive factor is the following that Canned Heat enjoys in Europe and the UK. I’d estimate that at least one-third of my book sales are to fans in those parts of the world.
With a couple of Alan’s sisters, I’ve also been honored to contribute to a website that was established in his honor last year. His family wishes to commemorate his music and also his charitable goals related to the environment. Through the website AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com, we’re providing education on his life and music, along with a way for fans to contribute to his other passion in life, the preservation of California’s old-growth coast redwood forest.
TPS: To wrap things up what would you like to add about your book and the whole rock and roll biography experience? Would you do it again and if so, who?
RD: Yes!! It has been a beautiful experience that transformed my life and consciousness in so many positive ways. I’ve been very blessed; documenting Alan’s life and music was literally the fulfillment of a life dream for me. How many people are so lucky to be able to do something like this by the time they are 30?
I’d love to do another, similar project. I am extremely interested in Stephen Stills, founding member of the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. If it ever became feasible, I’d love to write an authorized biography of him. Another thing I’d like to see is a book on the Hite brothers, Bob and Richard, both of whom played with Canned Heat; they were significant musicologists in their own right as well as musicians of prominence.
Altogether I am just so thankful that this journey has been part of my life. Music is a great connector between people; for so many it reaches a deep level of the heart, and can touch us in a spiritual way as well. In closing I’d just urge everyone, as Bob Hite always said, “Don’t forget to boogie!”
TPS: Thank you for spending a little time with us today as we honor the Owl’s legacy.
Canned Heat is currently in the middle of a short European tour playing dates in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. They are scheduled to do a show with the Fabulous Thunderbirds on November 11th in San Bernadino, CA.