Walter Trout Interview


DM) I want to start back with your Canned Heat experience. That was a pretty infamous group. What was some of your favorite memories from back then?

WT) Can I be honest?

DM) Of course.

WT) I don't remember much about it at all. I think I had fun, but I don't know. Some of the memories I've had would definitely not be for publication either. That's really a blur for me I have to say. I spent 20 years as a sideman. Besides Canned Heat I've played with John Lee Hooker, Big Momma Thorton, Joe Tex, Percy Mayfield, Pee Wee Craton and a lot of other people, but I didn't quit drinking until 12 years ago when I was with John Mayall, and before that it's all pretty much a blur. I would say if I had to get specific with Canned Heat, so you'd have something, I would say my favorite memories with that band were some of the tours I did in Australia.

DM) Why Australia?

WT) We just had a great time down there. When I joined that band it was right after Bob Hight had died, and the band was going to break up and stop. And then there was a promoter in Australia who called them up and offered them a door. And at the time I was playing with John Lee Hooker. The guys from Canned Heat knew me through John Lee Hooker's band because Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker have a close relationship you know. They knew me from playing with Hooker and they called up and said, "Look, we have a tour of Australia and Henry Vestien is drinking so much right now that he can't do the tour. Do you want to do the tour with us" And I said, " Yeah, sure" and I ended up being with them for four and a half years. But I wasn't drinking much less then Henry was! I was just somehow able to stumble up on the stage and play.

DM) When you say drinking, how much drinking are you talking that you couldn't play?

WT) Well, drinking and drugs. Everything. I mean as much as I could get. I would have to do a fifth of Jack Daniel's a day to feel like I could play.

DM) You're off of drinking and drugs as of now?

WT) For twelve years, yeah.

DM) Totally clean?

WT) Totally Clean for twelve years.

DM) What made you stop?

WT) I started realizing that it wasn't fun anymore but the catalyst of it all was when I was in East Germany, in East Berlin when it was communist before the wall went down. I was there with John Mayall, and Carlos Santana came to one of our shows and came up to me afterwards and basically said to me, "You're an A$$hole." And he came and said, "You have this gift to play the guitar. God gave you a gift and you can play the guitar and you're in this world famous blues band playing with John Mayall, and there's 100,000 guitar players on this planet who would love to be in your shoes, and you're so drunk when you go on stage that you're playing really sloppy and you're basically giving the finger to God who gave you this gift. And you need to change your ways and get it together. When you go on stage you need to be focused and aware and at your best." And then he gave me a book to read. And he and I hung out for three days and talked about life and after that I went to John Mayall and said, "You'll never see me drunk on stage again." And that was when I stopped. That was July the 9th, 1987 when I quit. So I just celebrated 12 years.

DM) What did you do to celebrate?

WT) I went out and got drunk. Just kidding. I played a gig and thanked God for giving me a second chance. I really should have been dead a long time ago.

DM) Do you still have the book that Santana gave you?

WT) Yep, it was called, "Discover your possibilities" and it was by Rev. Robert Schuller. Santana said to me, "There's religion and there's psychology, and there's a lot of stuff you can get out of this. If you don't want to read the religion, you don't have to but you need to read this book." And basically what it was about was realizing your own potential that you had in you, and doing everything you could do, and focusing your life on achieving your greatest potential and being the best that you could be with what you choose to do. So it really hit home with me.I read the book, I hung out with Carlos for three days. We had a lot of talks. We both happened to have three days off in East Berlin and we were staying in the same hotel. And there wasn't much to do in East Berlin at that time. It was a dead city. And we hung out in the restaurant of the hotel and drank cups of coffee together and talked for days. He was the catalyst of change in my life.

DM) Are you still close to Santana now?

WT) You know our paths haven't crossed in the twelve years but we've exchanged greetings through mutual friends. The guy who produced my last two albums, had done seven Santana albums, and they're close and they see each other. We exchange greetings through our mutual friends but we haven't cross paths. I'm sure that some day we will.

DM) Santana was an influence in your life. Have you tried stopping somebody else from doing the same?

WT) Well, I've done it in Europe where I'm... in Europe I'm sort of an icon. I play shows with Elton John and Jimmy Page and people like that. I have two different fan clubs that publish magazines about me over there. One in English and one in Dutch, and I get a lot of young guitar players to my shows, and I'm very willing to sit down and tell them the pitfalls of this business and maybe they can learn from my mistakes. Just yesterday I got to hear a 17 year old guitar player and I got to sit down with him, "When I see you I see myself at 17 and what I hope for you is that you don't become me at 48, so you don't have to sit down and tell people you were a heroin addict for 3 years or any of that kind of stuff. Take my word for it all that stuff is going to do is slow you down in your quest for recognition as a musician and also slow you down in your growth as a musician. You might think you needed to get loaded to play but it's just the opposite it just gets in the way. And if you think of music as a language and you think of guitar playing as a language, well what happens to a drunk when he tries to talk. He slurs his words. And when you're playing guitar and you're wasted, you do the same thing. You slur the words on your instrument. It takes away that edge, so keep your edge". So yeah, I'm very willing to sit down with any young person and tell him my experience and hopefully stop them from making the same mistakes I've made.

DM) Did you notice an immediate difference in playing when you stopped?

WT) It was immediate man. The first night I went on stage with Mayall and I was sober and I had not been sober on stage in over 20 years. I didn't even play a chord with out breaking down and weeping. I couldn't believe the difference in the emotional connection to the music. The drugs and the booze had dulled my emotions. And what I found when I was sober was that I was so much more deeply involved in what I was doing that just literally to play an E Chord would tear my heart out of my chest and I could barely do it without having a breakdown on stage. And also in what I call the edge in your playing. The edge, the energy, the focus and the precision. Suddenly it was all there.

DM) You were talking about getting pretty heavy into the drugs at one point. How bad did it get?

WT) Well I spent 1974 through 77 down in the alley out in the street. It got that bad.

DM) Literally on the street?

WT) Yea, heroin addict.... Looking for the next fix. I have to say I got into that... I'm from New Jersey and I moved to California in 1974 and the first person I got into a band with was a guy named Jesse Ed Davis. He played on the first four Taj Mahal albums. He was one of American's greatest studio players. He's the one who plays the guitar solo on "Doctor My Eyes" by Jackson Brown and he also played at the concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison and Bob Dylan. If you get the movie, the opening shot is Jesse lighting George Harrison's cigarette on stage at Madison Square Garden. Jesse also played on the first three or four solo John Lennon albums. If you look on Walls and Bridges and also the rock and roll album by John Lennon you'll see that not only was Jesse the lead guitar player, he was the band leader. He was the musical director of John Lennon's band. He was at the pinnacle of the world. He also played on Atlantic Crossing by Rod Stewart. He was one of the greats. And I moved to California and into a band with him, just sheerly through luck. Through going up to him, meeting him at a party and saying, "I know you have your own band and you need a rhythm guitar player and I play guitar and I want to sit in." And he said, "Leave me alone" and I said, "Tell you what, if you let me sit in I'll bring big drugs. " And he said, "OK, you're going to sit in." and I showed up with some drugs and then I put the guitar on and played and he thought, "Hey, not only does this guy have some drugs but he can actually play the guitar" and I was in the band.The drummer in the band was Gary Maliber who played on Moon Dance with Van Morrsion and went on to be the drummer in the Steve Miller band on all of his big hits. The bass played was Bob Glob who played with everybody and is currently on the road with John Fogerty. So it was one hell of a band, but unfortunately Jesse was very involved with heroin and through looking up to him as one of my idols and getting in a band with him was how I got into heroin. And I stayed with that for three year and I stopped doing that in 1977. I stopped heroin and never did it again.But then I discovered cocaine and alcohol and I just went another ten years on cocaine and alcohol. I mean heavy, heavy... I thought, "Well I'm not doing heroin. I'm OK", but I wasn't okay."

DM) In your eyes back then, you thought cocaine was better then heroin?

WT) Well I thought it wasn't addictive, because when I would run out of heroin I would get physically sick.

DM) When you were down and out on the street, didn't you have any friends or family who wanted to help you and take you in?

WT) I had friends who wanted to help me and I wouldn't take their help. I finally ended up coming on a methadone program and having them decrease my dosage until I was clean. I realized I had to get clean. And I realized my desire to be musician was messed up by being a junky. The funny thing was that before I moved to California I lived in Philadelphia, and I was a drug counselor and worked in a very well know drug program named "Transitions", and I was counseling people not to take drugs or take heroin.

DM) This was while you were on heroin?

WT) No, this was before. I did it backwards. Most people they give up heroin and became a counselor. I was a counselor; I stopped being a counselor... let me explain how this program worked. If you were in prison and were busted for drugs, you could go into this clinic and if you did good for one year, you were free. You had to have clean urine tests and you had to go through certain steps in this program. I was a counselor there. Now if you didn't do good, you had to go back to prison. I was twenty years old, I was a counselor there, they gave me accelerated classes in group therapy and I was running therapy groups. I was the only guy who wasn't a psychologist. They just hired me because I went there and did interviews with them, and they thought I'd be a good student. And it was at Jefferson University in Philadelphia. And the next thing I knew I was running group therapy sessions with hard core ghetto junkies.Now I was assigned certain people to be my personal patients. And when they did bad I had to warn them, "You do a dirty urine test. If you don't do good you're going back to prison." After my second warning I had to send them back to prison. So, I was 20 years old and in essence I was sending people to prison.One guy came in there, he was 17 years old, he got a girl pregnant, he was trying to work to support her... the program told her he wasn't allow to work, but he had to support her. We didn't know at the time. Now he had to have money to support the little girl he had impregnated so since we didn't allow him to work, the only thing he could do to make money was sell drugs. So he started selling drugs and when we found out about that I had to send him back to prison.When I sent him back to prison he hung himself. After I heard this I had a nervous break down, I quit the job, and I moved to California to become a musician, and I said, "F*&% this s---, I'm going to be a guitar player because I caused this guy to hang himself. " Not truly but in my mind I had, because this damn program wouldn't let this kid get a job. He had to stay in the damn program all day.

DM) It sounds like the type of thing that can haunt you for the rest of your life.

WT) Yea, so basically I had a nervous break down and moved to California. I got into this band with these famous guys and immediately got involved in heroin. So that's when my downfall started. And it took me until 1987 to get out of it.

DM) That's incredible. The idea alone about finding out about the guy killing himself.

WT) Yeah, I don't know what happened to the little girl with the baby either. We never found out.

DM) That must have taken you awhile to get over that.

WT) Yeah it did. Even to this day I still l think about it. I still remember those people I had to deal with. You know it was not really a good experience for me at age twenty. I went into thinking I was going to try helping people and I ended up f*&*%ing myself up.

DM) Have you ever tried writing a song about it?

WT) Sort of... I made an album in 1993 called Transitions and I just told people it was about change and there's a song on there called transitions, but it was really inspired by the clinic, that was the name of the clinic. But I've never really told that story to many people I just told you. I don't know how we got around to it. I've done 300 interviews in my life and I've only told that story to one other journalist who was a guy from the LA Times. But that sort of started me off on the road to being fu*&$ed up and dealing with the emotional state I was in when I left that job.

DM) Well, I appreciate you telling me that story then. Especially knowing the impact it has had and how few people have heard it.

WT) Well it's not really something I normally bring up and actually when I do interviews I sort of prefer to talk about my music and my albums, and not go into detail about drinking and drugs but for some reason we sort of went there with this interview and I just went with it.

DM) Well, I think that's okay because your life also has a message in it besides your songs. To me, I learned a little something about this whole experience of yours at Transitions. It does sound like it's all connected. It does sound like one might have caused the other. I wonder what would have happened if that guy never killed himself.

WT) One thing I can tell you is that the whole time I was working there, I still was playing in bands and I was a devoted guitar playing. And I had this hypocritical side to me because when I would go off on the weekends and play with my band I would smoke pot and take acid. And then I would think, "Here I am smoking pot and taking acid. I'm a hypocrite." But, it was like, I was in this band that wasn't making any money and I couldn't' live, and this chance at a job that paid really good money came up, and they were looking for somebody to train to do this job. This friend of mine had gone there and they hadn't hired him. And they told me about it and I said, "Sh*& and I did the interview." And I went over there and did the interview.They called me back and I did another interview, and they called me back and the next thing I know is I'm sitting there by the president of Jefferson University getting interviewed by him, and they hired me. I did it for money to live. But in the back of my mind I was always going to be a musician, but I wasn't making it as a musician, and I needed some way to pay my bills. And I thought, "I'll just do this as a job because they're going to pay me a lot of money." And I didn't realize what kind of commitment this job was going to take. I would have done better with manual labor because I wouldn't have to deal with people's lives. Do you know what I mean?

DM) Yes I do. It sounds interesting to me that this one incident... this catalyst of an incident... where you wrote a song about it years later.... You didn't even want to mention to people you wrote the song about it... you even had a story to say instead of what the real story was... that's pretty powerful.

WT) I've written songs about the drug addicts I knew all the time. There's one on this album, this brand new album called, "Junkyards in your eyes" which is about drug addiction.

DM) Do people know it is?

WT) I think if people read the lyrics they just can't help it. I'm really trying to write songs that can have a message in them. If people listen to them and open their hearts and ears, maybe they can get something out of it. Other then the normal, my baby left me and I got the blues.

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