|Peter Green, Chicago Blues Recording Sessions|
Photo © Jeff Lowenthal
Clapton, Page, McLaughlin... yeah they were brilliant too but for me the art is in the soul and Peter Green had soul. Loads of it. Maybe even too much. BB King said "He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats" and Green’s stunning solo on Fleetwood Mac’s officially unreleased live rendition of BB King's "I've Got A Mind To Give Up Living" (recorded live at The Warehouse, in New Orleans on 31st January 1970 - see clip below) demonstrates how really spot on the mark BB was.
But this is really not just a case of the cold sweats. This is the blues and if something can be described as "achingly beautiful" this is it. The 4 minute solo is an agonizingly moving, heart-aching, bare knuckled exploration of the despair the song’s stark lyrics only hint at.
I've got a good mind to give up living, and go shopping instead.
I say, I've got a good mind to give up living, and go shopping instead.
To pick up me a tombstone, and be pronounced dead.
When I read your letter this morning that was in your place in bed.
I read your letter this morning that was in your place in bed.
And that's when I decided, that I would be better off dead.
It read, there is no use you looking, or ever hoping to get me back.
Oh, there's no use you looking, or ever hoping to get me back.
Yes, because it's all over now, and baby you can bet on that.
(Songwriter: Carl B. Adams)
It’s bleak. The first line comes complete with a punchline that might bring a smile to your face but it's then forcibly removed by the following line which comes almost as a slap. It seems humour has no place here. There is only loss and despair and the final line is a killer. We’ve all been there, fleetingly if we are lucky, but this is a dark place and no one would want to stay for too long. Anyone who has experienced depression or the pain of loss knows that words are often inadequate yet the musicality, tone and development of Green’s solo seems to evoke and communicate that despair in a way that forces us to empathize and be moved by it. Around the 4:30 mark the solo becomes almost so unbearably intense, with notes scattering like firecrackers, that the listener is left stunned by the emotion it lays bare. Truly breathtaking. Take a listen.
And yet where does this ability to transform a situation so dark and painful into something we can all relate to and be moved by come from?
Peter Green had soul but it came at a price. He was a man who must have profoundly understood the song's despair. He was, by the time of this recording, a man beset by his own personal demons. In 1970 Fleetwood Mac were the most successful band to come out of the second British Blues boom of the late 1960s. They had even crossed over into mainstream success in the UK with hit singles like Albatross, Black magic Woman and Oh Well. They had put out three very successful albums and were building a strong reputation touring the USA. The Live in Boston box set (recorded in February 1970) and other unofficial recordings from this time show them to be a live band to be reckoned with. The Fleetwood / McVie rhythm section were rock solid and Green and second guitarist Danny Kirwin’s fiery duel leads on songs like Rattlesnake Shake and The Green Manalishi turned them into mammoth jamathons that, not only maintained intensity, pace and structure but also rocked liked merry hell. For me, Fleetwood Mac's Live in Boston ranks alongside The Who Live At Leeds and The Grateful Dead's Two From The Vault as one of the best live sets of the rock era. Hard rock with power, precision, and passion.
They looked like a band who were about to be one of the most successful international rock bands of the 70s. Another Zeppelin, Who or Stones. Yet five months after this New Orleans performance Peter gave it all up and Fleetwood Mac would have to wait until the end of the decade and with a very different line-up to achieve the success that seemed so close in 1970.
The first signs of Green's alienation from fame and success can be heard in the lyrics of 1969’s "Man of the World" single. "I guess I've got everything I need. I wouldn't ask for more. And there's no one I'd rather be but I just wish that I'd never been born." Green was also consuming large quantities of LSD, had started to wear robes and appeared almost messianic on stage. He also wanted to give away all the band’s earnings. The monster in the 1970 single The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown) was money.
In late March 1970, a few weeks after the New Orleans Warehouse show, Green had some kind of LSD freak-out at a commune in Munich and according to Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Davis his mental decline became far more pronounced from there on.
Green left Fleetwood Mac after a final performance at a festival in Bath on 23rd May 1970 where one audience member described him as looking lonely and dejected. There were a few live appearances after that. He appeared at the June Bath Festival with John Mayall, and also recorded a solo album which was pretty much just a long jam session (The End of the Game). There was also a brief temporary reunion with Fleetwood Mac in 1971 when Green helped the band to complete a US tour after guitarist Jeremy Spencer quit but nothing more came of it..
Green then became a recluse, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and faded into obscurity for the rest of the decade.
He returned to recording in the late 70s and, as his health improved in the 90s, he even toured with his new Splinter Group but for me, those recordings, good as they are, come nowhere near what he achieved with Fleetwood Mac. As far as I know he has now retired from performing. The BBC made a documentary of his life called "Man of the World" in 2009 (see below).
The Blues of Despair.
That someone can create music of such delicacy and feeling from so dark a place does, I suppose, beg the perennial question - Is great art dependent on pain? Pfff... Maybe. Sometimes. If that is what drives the art but I'd like to think that is not always the case. There must be other forces at work. Imagination, a need for personal exploration, a desire to communicate....
And the salvation?
Depression is cruel and bleak and it can affect all of us to varying degrees. It’s a disease that one suffers alone in a kind of mental solitary confinement. "A Mind To Give Up Living" may be a just a song and a guitar solo but if the artist moves us and helps us to empathize with that suffering then he or she also helps us to understand it. It unifies us.
And that is a start...
Man of the World
2009 BBC documentary on the life of Peter Green directed by Steve Graham. It features archive performances and interviews with Carlos Santana, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green.
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