My Interview With Rebecca Davis, Author Of “Blind Owl Blues.”
NP- Hi Rebecca, thanks for your time. As a die-hard Canned Heat fan myself, this is an honor for me.
RD- It is always an odd sort of thrill for me to be interviewed about Alan. It makes me remember, rather wistfully, the times that I called John Fahey for an interview in 1997 and went to meet him and others. Now so many of them are gone. And I find myself admitting that I have forgotten some things about Alan (though fortunately I seem to have written most of the important things down).
NP- Of all the people, topics, subjects, why did you decide to write about Alan Wilson?
RD- When I was a teenager, I enjoyed a wide variety of bands from the 1960s, and became especially fascinated with Canned Heat. I could tell by Alan’s appearance and songs that he was a little different; this was something I could relate to. I used to make up little fantasies about Alan in my mind. Since I knew from the Future Blues album that he loved nature, I imagined that he liked to sleep outside in a sleeping bag, as I did during warm weather. Oddly enough a lot of such things turned out to be true, as if I had already known him. This always felt very special to me and I liked to hope that his spirit was guiding me in some fashion, though that may be a conceit.
NP- To say there is any vanity on your end would almost be a crime. You and Alan sound like kindred spirits. Who did you find was the most difficult to track down for information regarding Alan’s life among the living?
RD- There were certainly plenty of people that were impossible to locate or were not willing, for various reasons, to be interviewed. Most frustrating was the case of Henry Vestine, who I was trying to get in touch with through John Fahey. John had just located the contact information when Henry died on the road with Canned Heat. I had really wanted to interview Henry even though John had warned me that it might or might not be fruitful; he claimed that Henry was not always in possession of his full memory and other faculties.
NP- What would you have asked Henry?
RD- I would have asked him a lot of questions about Alan and what the relationships were like in the band. Henry was crucial to Alan’s original vision for the band so I would have had long discussion about guitar style and influences. It also would have been great to talk to Henry about the old blues records like Skip James that were part of his collection. Who knows what happened to all of them.
I also wanted to find Henry’s wife, Sandy, who (I was told) knew Alan well and was a very intelligent person. But I could not find her at all. Generally women were very difficult to find, in part because they are wont to change their surnames.
I was also frustrated because I wanted to interview Fito de la Parra, and spoke with him on the phone, but he refused to do a phone interview and insisted that I had to visit him in Los Angeles. I had run out of money (my research was always self-financed) and wasn’t able to travel there at the time, hence the interview never happened. But Fito’s book has at least one chapter full of his memories of Alan, and I think that all Canned Heat fans should read it.
NP- I read Fito’s book a few years back and that was probably my favorite chapter. Until you released your book, there was nothing else available on Alan Wilson’s life. Did you find most of his family compliant and willing to be open with you about Alan’s life?
RD- There are so many people in Alan’s family, and they all varied in their willingness to discuss Alan. Some did not want anything to do with the biography, for reasons of their own, and I tried to respect that. A couple of his sisters became quite interested, however, and ended up deciding to further Alan’s ecological activism. According to my understanding they have used some of his posthumous royalties to purchase a tract of old-growth redwood forest, just as he had desired. I was delighted to learn of their interest, and honoured by their support of a second edition of Blind Owl Blues some years back. These sisters also created a website at AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com. I am not sure if it is still maintained, but it was a good job on their part.
NP- Its great to know they are keeping that part of him alive. Alan’s passion beyond music was Plant Taxonomy and the environment. And I see the website is still running strong. Alan created the conservation fund, Music Mountain. An organization to raise money for the preservation of the coastal redwood, his favorite tree species. The liner notes for the album Future Blues, written by Wilson, celebrate the beauty of the redwood forest and beseech the reader to contribute to the Music Mountain cause. If Alan were alive today, where do you think he would be in terms of environmental causes?
RD- I have long believed that Alan might have quit the music industry and dedicated himself to ecological causes. I imagine he would have supported a young lady like Julia Butterfly Hill, known in the 1990s for a lengthy redwood tree-sit. Perhaps he would have even joined her, or done some similar activity on his own.
NP- Do you feel Alan is under-recognized for his contributions to botany and the environment?
RD- There is no doubt that he is under-recognized. However, he is not as under-recognized as he was twenty years ago! The internet, and the ability to share information and music online, has certainly helped with that.
NP- I totally agree with you! Moving on – Alan wasn’t known as a savvy dresser and his hygiene was questionable at times. Combined with his social awkwardness, his inability to find a suitable romantic partner could be a problem for him. If you were Alan’s friend, what advice would you have given him in that regard?
RD- I’d have to really consider if this was a hygiene problem or if there was something else going on; for instance, maybe Alan wasn’t meeting the right girls. The groupies on the road, while fun for the other guys in the band, might not have been interested in botany or yoga and Alan wouldn’t have seemed very appealing. I remember John Fahey saying that Alan needed to meet a ‘girl nerd’, or perhaps Fahey told me that someone else had said that; I can’t quite remember. At any rate, nowadays nerds and geeks are a little more in-fashion, so maybe Alan would have been more accepted the way he was. Popular culture gives us characters like Sheldon on The Big Bang theory show; he is not unlike Alan.
I would also remember the need to keep our minds open to other possibilities that Alan might not have been able to express in the sixties. What if he was gay, asexual, or transgender? It’s not my place to suggest that he was, but I see nothing to preclude such a possibility. If something like this were the case, it would have made it even more difficult for Alan to find romantic companionship in that era.
NP- His mental illness problems also played a role in that I’m sure. It’s a known fact that Alan struggled with depression. Do you think if he would have had the same issues in today’s day and age, he would have gotten the proper help he needed?
RD- In my view, we have learned a few more concepts (and chemicals) that allow us to do a little better at addressing and treating mental health issues, compared to Alan’s time. But we still have a long way to go. I view our modern medical system as a sold-out industrial complex that, for political and economic reasons, keeps many potential remedies and treatments from those who could benefit from them, while fostering addiction to pharmaceutical products whose presence is woven into a web of political and economic schemes not there to benefit the patient. This has been my experience. So, I don’t know if the evolution of psychology and psychiatric medicine, in and of itself, would have benefitted Alan so much. I think he would have benefitted more from things like improved recognition and acceptance of a spectrum of sexual identities, increased awareness of the need for ecological activism, and things of that nature.
NP- Do you believe Alan’s death was an accident or intentional suicide?
RD- I believe that Alan’s death was accidental. While he may indeed have experienced suicidal ideation at times, this does not constitute proof that his death was a suicide, and my opinion is that evidentiary aspects of the scene point to an accidental death.
NP- How do you account for Skip Taylor’s version of Al’s exit from the world and Skip claiming he discovered Alan’s body? His claims don’t match up to the official police reports.
RD- Sadly, I am quite unable to account for the fact that Skip Taylor’s account of Alan’s death scene varies (in irreconcilable ways) with the police report that was filed with the autopsy. This document has been reproduced in my published work, along with a version of Skip’s story which he told to me via phone interview. Some years later, as I approached publication, I requested clarification and further explanation from Skip, but he was unwilling to discuss the matter further. Since I was unable to come to any proper conclusion on this matter, I decided to simply present the conflicting stories to the reader, acknowledging that they were in conflict, and allow each individual to come to their own conclusion. A conclusion that the death was not suicide is the best I can do; this is based on various details of the police report, whose veracity I personally accept. I’d give a lot to locate one of the police officers who came to Bob Hite’s house that day, or a fellow named Craig Hoppe who is listed as informant. But who knows if they would even remember anything. That was the most difficult part: when people just didn’t remember, because it had been over twenty-five years. And now it has been even longer than that, and a lot of these people are no longer with us, sadly.
NP- Well said. On a more positive note, what is your favorite Canned Heat album and has this choice changed since you wrote the book?
RD- My favorite album has always been Boogie with Canned Heat. However Future Blues is a serious contender. It is really amazing but it can’t be my favorite as it features Harvey Mandel instead of Vestine. I really like Mandel – perhaps better than Vestine – but to really represent the true Canned Heat sound, in my view you’ve got to have Vestine.
NP- I couldn’t agree more. Vestine was such an integral part of the Canned Heat sound.
RD- For sure! Living the Blues is pretty good too but I get annoyed with the long jams and solos on ‘Refried Boogie’. I can’t really listen to it very often, and parts of ‘Parthenogenesis’ are unlistenable (I don’t like drum solos) so this, sadly, puts the entire album into a lower rank despite great tracks like ‘Pony Blues’ and the many other amazing songs here. Alan’s portions of ‘Parthenogenesis’ are also really cool!
NP- “Living the Blues” is hard for some to digest. But you have to hand it to the band for blazing their own ground with what they referred to as “psychedelic blues.” If I had a fly on the wall moment, it would be listening and watching Alan teach Son House to get acquainted with his music again. What would your fly on the wall moment be?
RD- I’m afraid I’d have to pick the rather sad moment of his death, so that I could finally know what really happened.
NP- Do you have any regrets about this book project? Things you wish you would have done differently?
RD- I wish I had been more wise in the ways of the world when I went about my dealings with the living people involved. I was very naive and that made some things difficult. But now that I am older and wiser, I have different priorities and would not be able to carry on the sustained work of the book as I had more of a passion for it when I was younger. So, it is what it is, and it is an imperfect work, but I am still very pleased and honoured to have accomplished it.
NP- Did you have a moment that you often reflect on while going through the pilgrimage of writing this book? Something that really stands out?
RD- Pilgrimage’ is the perfect word for it. It was indeed a transformative, life changing experience. There are so many moments and memories that are crucial to the person I became. I would like to remember two of the most important people who helped me in my research. One was Richard Hite, a kind and generous soul who sadly died before I could spend much time in the warm sun of his friendship. He was Bob Hite’s little brother and played in Canned Heat for several years himself (Alan had taught him guitar). And I could not have accomplished much at all without the extremely helpful Dr. David Evans, sometime playing partner to Alan and longtime professor of ethnomusicology in Memphis. In the very early phases of my research, he provided crucial information and contacts that encouraged me to keep going, and though I know that my final product is not up to the academic standards he purveys in his publications, I count him as my biggest inspiration when it comes to music scholarship and research in general.
NP- Are you planning on writing another book in the near future?
RD- Yes, and it will also be a biography, though quite different to Blind Owl Blues. My next book will be a reader-friendly, popularly accessible guide to the life and career of Lord Thomas Cromwell, minister to King Henry VIII of England and architect of the English Reformation. The hope is to distill the essential points of this great man’s work, and eventual martyrdom, into a concise biography that anyone can read. Unlike Alan Wilson, Cromwell is well covered in the biographical field, but the available books are all rather stout and somewhat daunting to non- academics. My book will be approachable and of great interest to readers of all ages and backgrounds.
NP- That’s quite a 180. Looking forward to it! You performed a real service researching and writing your book on Alan. I, as well as many other Canned Heat fans thank you for the work you did in bringing Alan Wilson back to life for current and future generations. You are probably the best friend Alan never knew he had.
RD- Thank you, Neil, it was my pleasure!