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Canned Heat

Category: Musician or composer

 

Canned Heat was an American rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965.  They still exist, however, their line-up is different and we want to explore the music, inspiration and line-up of the original group during the 60s, principally because it is so fascinating.

Canned Heat was launched by two blues enthusiasts, Alan Wilson and Bob Hite, who took the name from Tommy Johnson's 1928 "Canned Heat Blues".  After appearances at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals during the 1960s, the band acquired worldwide fame with a line-up consisting of

  •  
    Bob Hite [February 26, 1943 - April 5, 1981] - the lead singer of Canned Heat from 1965 to his death in 1981.
    His nickname was "The Bear".  He was introduced to Alan Wilson by Henry Vestine and by 1965, Hite [aged 22], Wilson and Vestine formed the core of Canned Heat.
    On April 5, 1981, during a break between sets at The Palomino Club in North Hollywood, Hite was handed a drug vial by a fan. Hite stuck a straw into the vial and snorted it. The drug turned out to be heroin and Hite turned blue and collapsed.
    Some roadies put Hite in the band's van and drove him to a nearby home where he died, aged 38

  •  
    Alan Wilson – known as the Blind owl, owing to his extreme nearsightedness, roundish facial features and scholarly nature (July 4, 1943 – September 3, 1970) was the harmonica player, singer, guitar and tamboura player and primary composer for Canned Heat. 
    On September 3, 1970, Alan Wilson was found dead in his sleeping bag on the hillside behind Bob Hite’s house.
    He was just 27 years old. 
    He died from a drug [barbiturate] overdose.  It was ‘accidental’. 
    Doctor prescribed, but accidental.


  • Henry is on the far right of the photo, and to his left is Larry Taylor
    Henry Vestine (December 25, 1944 – October 20, 1997) - was with the group from its start in 1966 to July 1969.   Shortly after Canned Heat’s first album was released, Vestine burst into musical prominence as a guitarist who stretched the idiom of the blues with long solos that moved beyond the conventional genres.
    He had his own style and a trademark piercing treble guitar sound’.
    Vestine quit the band in 1969, over tension between him and bassist Larry Taylor.  Vestine died from heart and respiratory failure in a Paris hotel on the morning of October 20, 1997. He was 52.

  • Samuel Lawrence "Larry" Taylor (born June 26, 1942) is an American bass guitarist, Taylor played with Canned Heat from 1967 to 1970. Before joining Canned Heat he had been a session bassist for The Monkees and Jerry Lee Lewis

  • Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra (born 8 February 1946, Mexico City) is a drummer.  He replaced Canned Heat's original drummer, Frank Cook and played his first gig with the band on 1 December 1967. He also joined in time for their second album, Boogie with Canned Heat, and has played on every subsequent album up to present day.   For much of the 1990s and 2000s, de la Parra was the only member from the band's 1960s line-up. 
 

Two of the bands early songs – "Going Up the Country" and "On the Road Again" – became international hits. "Going Up the Country" was a remake of the Henry Thomas song "Bull Doze Blues", recorded in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1927. "On the Road Again" was a cover version of the 1953 Floyd Jones song of the same name, which is reportedly based on the Tommy Johnson song "Big Road Blues", recorded in 1928.

Many of Canned Heat’s other successful songs were also based on existing blues songs.  But what made their interpretations so special, were the arrangements, with the harmonica and veena like sound produced by Alan Wilson, the thumping up tempo beat, and the countertenor voice of Alan Wilson.  Occasionally Alan also rewrote the lyrics as he did on "Going Up the Country".  As such Canned Heat were defined by Alan Wilson and ultimately owed much of their success in the 60s to his highly individual approach to music.

Canned Heat Forum
Terry will confirm with me this incredible and actually I mean totally incredible "wash of sound" that [the group created].  You would go out to all these gigs and …. the sound waves would literally take over the whole body, spirit and soul……I am very lucky and count myself blessed that I had the very good fortune to see Canned Heat in their hey day.

 

Canned Heat and the drug scene

Read any description of the group and the era in which their music was played and you would be forgiven in thinking that the group virtually lived on various forms of mind bending substances.  But did they?  This myth appears to have arisen principally because their fans and followers were quite definitely on drugs.  Let us take an example quote from the forum for fans of Canned Heat:

Most of us were running around stoned out of our minds most of the time 60s/70/80s etc, and CH most probably got up late for their flight after some heavy duty "session" getting totally "off their faces" most of that night….. as Terry will tell you most of us lot were total spaced-out cadets during those eras. ….. totally stoned out stupidity…. ….. how I ever survived personally is a bit of a mystery to me…  I guess the music was so uplifting when the sound waves hit you then nothing else mattered…………

and alcohol and cigarrettes .....

There was a belief amongst the fans that drug use was ‘cool’, and because the band was undoubtedly ‘cool’, they had by virtue of the warped reasoning used at the time, to be on drugs too.  But it doesn’t follow.  These creators of the myth weren’t with the group, so they didn’t actually know.  Bob Hite was, it is true, a marijuana user:

I can pretty much visualise in my mind Bob Hite with his chillum showing off how much of the room he could make disappear in a cloud of colombian grass smoke

But there is a world of difference between cannabis and LSD or cocaine.  Furthermore, he was the vocalist, whereas Wilson and Vestine were both gifted musicians of a class and standard that has no need for any form of ‘assistance’.  In fact, there is every reason to think that drugs would have been entirely detrimental to the creative force that appeared to be surging through both Vestine and Wilson at the time.  The word 'Inspiration' hardly does justice to it.

Down Beat Magazine
Technically, Vestine and Wilson are quite possibly the best two-guitar team in the world and Wilson has certainly become our finest white blues harmonica man......they performed the country and Chicago blues idiom of the 1950s so skillfully and naturally that the question of which race the music belongs to becomes totally irrelevant.

 

Amongst those who were there at the time, there are those who claim that Alan in particular “liked getting stoned like the rest of us”, but there are also those who were closer to him that say he really did not like getting anything, and appeared to join in merely to fit in – something he found extremely difficult to do, because he was sensitive, gifted and a world apart from everyone else.   “he seemed to have a lot more going off in his head than the others.”

Wilson was eventually destroyed by drugs given him by doctors.   Wilson died from a barbiturate overdose – not cocaine or LSD or cannabis.  Barbiturates were legal and prescribed by doctors in those days for people with ‘anxiety problems’–which Wilson suffered from because he was young, gifted, did not fit in and was not at all sure what to do with his talent.  They were also prescribed for insomnia, headache, and something called ‘malaise’.   Barbiturates were and are addictive and hugely destructive to the brain, they cause brain damage and depression. 

 

When commentators of today, pass judgement on the many musicians who died in those days of ‘drugs’, they conveniently forget which drugs killed them  - - and it was not LSD, not cocaine, not marijuana, but doctor prescribed drugs.

Jimi Hendrix, 27, was found dead in his girlfriend’s London hotel room. The cause of death noted on the coroner’s report was “inhalation of vomit” after “barbiturate intoxication (quinalbarbitone)”.  His death was 'believed to have been accidental'Marilyn Monroe died from doctor prescribed barbiturate overdose which was again entirely accidental. 

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was prescribed barbiturates when he had a nervous breakdown; he is still alive, but only just and they virtually destroyed his brain.  Judy Garland died from a barbiturate overdose.

 

Michael Jackson died of acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication on June 25, 2009.  Benzodiazepines are a truly nasty set of pharmaceuticals and also addictive, with appalling effects if you try to come off them.  I urge you to read the section on these vicious pharmaceuticals, to get some idea of how much Michael must have been suffering when he died.  Michael was not on 'drugs', he too was on doctor prescribed pharmaceuticals. Jackson’s personal physician Conrad Murray, was charged with involuntary manslaughter by prosecutors in Los Angeles on February 8, 2010.

But lest we forget, illegal drugs too can destroy talent.  Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was not unlike Alan Wilson in some ways.  His ability was inherited and part of him from the start. As a young boy, Roger played the piano, the ukelele, banjo and then the guitar.  Mason said this about Barrett:

"In a period when everyone was being cool in a very adolescent, self-conscious way, Syd was unfashionably outgoing; my enduring memory of our first encounter is the fact that he bothered to come up and introduce himself to me."

But he then took LSD – an overload mechanism which was totally unnecessary given his personality and abilities, and the LSD destroyed him.  He became as a consequence mentally ill and was reported variously as suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia,  and any number of other syndromes doctors have dreamt up which actually mean he damaged his brain – he had brain damage from the overload of the drug.  LSD poisoned him.

Wilson had recently undergone psychiatric care [sic] in a hospital and, upon his release, had been placed under Hite’s care.

It was the psychiatrists who gave him the barbiturates.

Gifted people do not need drugs – of any sort, ANY SORT.

A bit more about Alan Wilson

 

Music major at Boston university

Alan Wilson grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where he became a music major at Boston University and a frequent player at the Cambridge coffeehouse folk-blues circuit.  He was an excellent harpist, slide guitarist and vocalist with a unique tenor style. His friend, Mike Bloomfield introduced him to Charlie Musselwhite as “the best goddamn harp player there is. He can do things that you’ve never heard before.”

The study of Indian music

- Wilson enjoyed a wide range of music, but he was particularly captivated by the underlying drone tone that Mississippi delta blues and classical Indian music share.  Drones are an absolutely key mechanism used in some forms of spiritual experience and it is not an accident that Indian music includes drones or for that matter Scottish pipe music [the Picts] and Aboriginal music.  Alan played the Veena, which is an Indian stringed instrument that uses the drone, that he studied while at UCLA.    

In the 1960s, John Fahey was a guitarist and then-owner/founder of Takoma Records.  Fahey and Wilson were great friends, it was Fahey who gave Wilson the nick name "Blind Owl".  Fahey, while researching a book on bluesman Charlie Patton for his degree in Folklore at UCLA, invited Wilson out to California to help with the project. Wilson was then a music major at Boston University, and Fahey needed someone who could transcribe, chart and notate Patton’s material correctly.  In 1966, Fahey created a compilation album John Fahey: Guitar Vol.4: The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party, which included “Sail Away Ladies,” a twelve minute track featuring “The Mysterious Al Wilson” playing Veena.

This is perhaps the only recording of Wilson’s interpretation of the eastern instrument. Alternating between ragas and experimentation, “Sail Away Ladies” gives some insight on what influenced Wilson to choose the Tambura for the background of “On The Road Again”.

 

The Bob Hite connection

Bob Hite was born into a musical family in Torrance, California. His mother was a singer and his father had played in a dance band in Pennsylvania. As a young man, he became obsessed with records and he purchased old jukebox records for nine cents each, regardless of who the artist was. By the time he reached the fifth grade, he had amassed more records than the rest of his classmates put together. He soon expanded his collection to include 78 r.p.m. and blues records.  Hite would later manage a store that specialized in old records, making many useful contacts with fellow collectors and musicians as part of his job.

Through Fahey, Wilson (the blues scholar) met Hite (the record collector) which led to the collectors’ meeting at Bob Hite’s house in Topanga Canyon, a meeting place for people interested in music.  It is however, important to add that Alan was also an avid collector of music, notably ‘world music’:

Canned Heat forum
Anyone know anything about the music contained on those records from Alan's collection? Anyone listened to them? I have. The Ali Akbar Khan record on World-Pacific, "Sounds of the Sarod", is simply mind-blowing!! To get a real feel for what Alan loved about Indian music, listen to those ragas, or anything else by the great Ali Akbar Khan. He was a brilliant artist.

 

Wilson and drugs

Following a one week gig at the Ash Grove from August 22-26, 1967, the band went on their first national tour. Disaster struck when the group was arrested in Denver for marijuana possession.

Only Wilson, a pioneer eco-warrior who had been out collecting leaves at the time, escaped arrest.

The group, with the exception of Wilson, ended up spending the weekend in jail before being released on bail. The arrest would have disastrous financial consequences for them in future years. Lacking the funds to mount an adequate legal defense, the band was forced to sell half of their publishing rights to Liberty Records for $10,000 so that they could secure the services of a top Denver attorney, the trial ended up with the band members only receiving probation.

Wilson’s love of Nature and the environment

 

Wilson was a passionate lover of Nature and the countryside and a much misunderstood early eco warrior. His love and concern for Nature is evidenced by his essay Grim Harvest [see observations]. 

His band mates knew Wilson as a sensitive, devoted environmentalist and ecologist who, with Skip Taylor, established the Music Mountain Foundation, an organization formed with the goal of preserving redwood trees in an area called Skunk Cabbage Creek in northern California. They had seen him become more and more distraught over L.A. smog and the destruction, not only of redwood forests, but the environment in general.

He was also desperately worried about the direction science was taking with its insecticides, pesticides, nuclear bombs and toxins; one suspects he would have been even more upset now.  The song Poor Moon [again see observations] is an outpouring of concern in this respect.

A lone mystic genius

 One of the overwhelming impressions one receives from reading the biographies or comments about Alan, is that he must have been unbelievably lonely, because the comments made about him are crass, lacking all understanding of what it feels like to be inspired or gifted or sensitive.

The Star of David the badge of the mystic

According to Alan’s Biography, “Blind Owl Blues” by Rebecca Davis Winters, for example, John Fahey said:

Only if you got to know him real well would you realize that there were certain things that he didn’t feel.  He didn’t have certain emotions like affection, or love, or even strong hate. He might get mad sometimes, but not half as bad as I can get, or anybody else.

Everyone has love and affection as part of their make-up, but they may not find a fellow spirit able to share it with.

Heidi Galgowski, Alan’s 1/2 sister (mother’s side)
As a member of Alan’s family I would like to offer my own insight into …. his “seemingly” limited emotional range. Certainly he had the emotions required to feel a strong longing for a romantic relationship; to cry when rejected by a woman; to study, in detail and with wonderment, his niece’s tiny fingers as she sat in his lap; and to worry obsessively about the degradation of our environment. He felt the emotional pain of his isolation acutely.
I believe that Alan had some degree of Aspergers. These “disorders” weren’t well understood or recognized in his time so he was dismissed as brilliant, but a little odd. I’m sure it caused him much pain, though, not to have the emotional where-with-all to relate to others within standard social norms.

We medicate now against genius, call it Asperger’s, autism, smother it by using pharmaceuticals.  In those days it was crushed using barbiturates.  Wilson joined the “27 Club”, a term used for famous musicians whose lives were cut short at the age of 27 – others included Jimi Hendrix [as we mentioned above also from barbiturates], Janis Joplin [died of a heroin overdose], and Jim Morrison [cause unknown].  You can tell which are Morrison's songs – they are a cry into the wilderness – a great wail of distress at injustice, hurt, the American dream and what it can do to the gifted. 

Who would break a butterfly on the wheel?

Finally

And a final message from the entire group – this was written in the 1960s and the full version is provided as an observation.  It is based on a true story about a friend of Hite’s, it became one of their most enduring songs and one of the first "anti-drug" songs of the decade, for those who think the band were into drugs - think again.....

Canned Heat – Amphetamine Annie

This is a song with a message
I want you to heed my warning
I wanna tell you all a story
About this chick I know
They call her "Amphetamine Annie"
She's always shovelling snow
I sat her down and told her
I told her crystal clear
"I don't mind you getting high
But there's one thing you should fear"
"Your mind might think its flying, baby
On those little pills
But you ought to know it's dying, 'cause
Speed kills"

Observations

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