One of the great musical talents who died too young were Paul Kossoff. He died from heroin-related heart problems and it is quite eerie to read this interview with him, in print a year before his untimely death. He was cremated and interred at the Golders Green Crematorium. His epitaph reads “All Right Now”.
No, Paul Kossoff didn`t win any of our 1975 pollawards, though he must have taken more than a passing interest in the fortunes of his former associates in Bad Company. In fact, about all he`s done in the past two years is lie low, struggling with a drug habit of terrifying proportions. Here he tells Steve Clarke how he climbed…
OUT OF THE WISHING WELL
Throw down your guns, you might shoot yourself
Or is that what you`re trying to do
Put up a fight you believe to be right
And someday the sun will shine through
You`ve always been a good friend of mine
But you`re always saying farewell
And the only time when you`re satisfied
Is with your feet in the wishing well
Paul Rodgers wrote these lyrics some time in 1972 with Paul Kossoff in mind, the guitarist with whom he`d spent the last four years of his professional life in Free. “Wishing Well” gave Free their last singles hit and pinpointed one of the reasons why Free had fallen apart – Kossoff`s drug problem.
Koss, as he`s affectionately known by those close to him, had had it in him to join the ranks of Great English Rock Guitarists (hopefully he still has). Hadn`t Clapton himself sought Kossoff`s advice on just how he achieved his unique tremelo sound, when as part of Blind Faith, who were topping the bill over Free on the latter`s first American tour in 1969, he`d seen Koss play in a New York club?
“They (Blind Faith) came to see us and we were dead nervous, what with them sitting twenty yards away. Afterwards Clapton came round and said, `How do you do that tremolo?` I looked at him and said, `You must be joking` cause that`s exactly how I felt – I thought he was taking the piss, but he wasn`t,” is the incident as Kossoff remembers it.
But instead of establishing himself as the kind of guitarist who everyone would want on their session, he became further and further embroiled with heavy drugs after the initial Free split in 1970, so that Paul Kossoff became, as one person involved with Island Records at the time said, something of a bad joke.
Kossoff`s performance on Free`s debut “Tons Of Sobs” album had made it clear that here was one of England`s most promising blues-based guitarists. THat was in 1968 and Kossoff was a mere 18. As Free developed it became apparent that Kossoff had a style all his own; intense screaming lead phrases, coupled with menacing power chords.
He looked pretty startling too, with a lion`s mane of hair falling half way down the back of his small stocky frame, while Kossoff`s stance was the kind rock dreams are made of; his right arm crashing mercilessly down on a helpless black Les Paul, his face a mess of contortions (“I don`t contort my face deliberately when I play, it would probably be hard not to do it”) as the notes howled their way out of the Marshall stacks.
Kossoff had an unlikely background for a rock musician being the son of actor David Kossoff, a man whose public life has always been spiced with a certain religious ambience. And when Koss landed up in court in autumn 1973 to face a charge for driving under the influence of drugs or drink, his father was there to speak up for his wayward son.
Koss remembers the bust, “They found various things on me – some tyranol (a sleeping tablet), and what I thought was a phial of cocaine, though it turned out to be something else that wasn`t a restricted drug, so I wasn`t charged for possession.”
Instead the guitarist was fined £200 on a driving charge, on condition that he took hospital treatment for his problem. If he`d refused it`s likely that a prison sentence would have been effected.
Koss spent three weeks in hospital, and by March 1974 he was “straight” again. His good health lasted some three months, then once more his life became dominated by dope.
“I didn`t start all the drug stuff when I was with Free – that came afterwards. I just came to a standstill and got swept up by something else. I went through just about everything in the last couple of years, and ended up mainlining for a short period which I stopped because that was it, the end,” Koss told me last week.
A few days earlier the guitarist had been gigging with another of Island`s musicians, John Martyn, at Bristol University and at London`s Victoria Palace where the gig was attended by Kossoff`s family. So glad was his father to see Paul on stage again that he`d sent his son a telegram.
Although only contributing to a couple of Martyn`s numbers, his decision to play once more in front of an audience is hopefully a turning point in Kossoff`s career, and he`ll continue gigging with Martyn for the remainder of the tour.
This time Koss has been straight a month, and although it`s simply not on to describe the guitarist, now 24, as freshfaced, he does look healthy, and bears little resemblance to the person I interviewed in 1973. Then Kossoff`s speech was little more than a whisper, his appearance tatty and his manner one that is most conveniently referred to as distant. Last week his eyes were bright, his conversation eloquent and punctuated by mischievous laughter. He`d just had his hair cut, and maybe it was just chance that his visit to the hair-dressers coincided with his first meeting with a journalist and photographer for a long time, but…
As he quickly points out, he`s been “straight” before, but goes on to say that it feels different this time, “Because I`ve started playing again. I`m happy, you know? I just feel happy. It seems that possibilities are opening up again in front of me, and I`m looking forward instead of back.”
Johnny Glover, the ex-Spencer Davies roadie who managed Free throughout their entire career, and who still manages Koss, agrees, “He`s got things he wants to do this time. Also he`s moving from his house off Portobello Road. People would just pour in there with dope, and basically he`s a weak character when it comes to dope.” Kossoff is spending his time between moving at Glover`s house.
Although Koss got into a few pills in his Golder`s Green mod days, it wasn`t until the first Free split that drugs began to play a major part in his life. Says Glover, “Simon and Koss didn`t want to break the band up, they would have been happy to play in Free forever. The split hit Paul worst of all – it took his life away.”
Kirke and Kossoff did in fact stay together to cut the “Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit” album while Rodgers and Fraser had their own shortlived bands, Peace and Toby respectively.
Kossoff himself doesn`t think his reasons for getting further and further into hard drugs are quite that simple: “I`ve been asking myself a long time, Why? I think it`s something to do with my make-up as a person for a start-off. Suddenly I wasn`t travelling about. Suddenly I wasn`t playing. All the natural highs that I was used to had somehow disappeared, and I was almost led by hand into it.”
Elaborating on the possible reasons he says, “Escapism…to heighten things…masochism even – certainly main-lining is that. I don`t think I was attracted in the first place anyway – obviously I was given some and it snowballed.
“Once into drugs you get into fairly morbid trains of thought – morbid interest in death and dead people, stuff like that. It`s quite horrific at times. I got into all that with Hendrix. Also the feeling of being in slight danger was like a romance. It`s very strange…I started to identify with Hendrix for instance. I spent more time listening and dreaming than playing.
“See, it was an escape from playing as well, cause that`s a big responsibility in itself. You have to prove yourself. I didn`t want to pick up a guitar. I felt wrong with it for a long time. It was very heavy on the head. I got it well out of proportion.”
Musically, Koss didn`t do a lot between the original Free split in 1970, and their reformation in `72, with the exception of the “Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit” album, and attempts to get his own solo album together (when “Back Street Crawler” eventually came out in `73 the work on it had been scattered over a couple of years), plus the odd session like those in Atlanta for Jim Capaldi`s first solo record “Oh How We Danced”.
After working on the sessions, Kossoff flew to Los Angeles for a holiday, and according to somebody who was around the guitarist at this time, was stopped nightly by cops on Sunset Boulevard for his somewhat erratic driving. The fifth or sixth night that this happened, the police arrested him. After spending the night in a Los Angeles jail, the charges of drunken driving were dropped on the condition that Kossoff would take the next flight from Atlanta back home.
Kossoff is reported to have been doing a lot of cocaine at the time, and it`s said that he got through a thousand dollars in just one day on nothing in particular.
But, as he acknowledges himself, his biggest problem was mandies, “I used to wake up in the morning and take three, and carry on through the day,” he says, forcing the words out of his mouth very quickly, as though he`d rather not talk so explicitly about the problem.
“I remember falling on my stereo or something and cracking my head open. I was taking so many mandies that when I stopped taking them about five days later I`d have what was very similar to an epileptic fit, though it wasn`t. It was like a withdrawal, only suddenly, like that…” He snaps his fingers to demonstrate the suddeness of these attacks.
“I`d be on the floor – smash, smash, smash – terrible. That`s were I got that scar from,” he says pointing to his forehead. “I knocked two teeth out, and there`s another scar here,” he points to somewhere above his hair-line.
“It was ridiculous.”
When Free re-formed to record “Free at Last” in 1972, it was partly to rescue Kossoff who, in his own words, was still very shakey.
“I really didn`t want to do it. Or rather, I wanted to do it, but I really couldn`t take it. It was very unpleasant. There was a lot of pressure on me – Paul wanted to get me well and I believe he figured that if he got me up and playing that would do it. And there was pressure from Island. I didn`t stand a chance. I had to do it. They sort of dragged me out of my pit.”
Glover goes as far to say that “I conned him into coming back into the band, it was done almost to get Paul out of the drug thing. If we worked all the time we thought it would get it out of him.”
In terms of the actual quality of gigs the reformation was only a partial success. After several months Fraser quit, and Tetsu and Rabbit were brought into the band (it was Kossoff who later put The Faces onto Tetsu). The majority of a British tour had to be cancelled after Kossoff fell over and broke his foot during a sound-check at Newcastle City Hall, and at a gig at The Albert Hall, Koss broke a string and couldn`t retune his guitar. As Glover diplomatically puts it, “The playing wasn`t too great then.”
Of that period in Free, Kossoff says himself, “I got out of it a few times on stage, and I`ve fallen over and not been able to do gigs. I feel really crap about all that.”
Eventually it got to the stage where Free had to undertake a Japanese tour with Rodgers playing guitar himself, while Kossoff stayed at home. And for Free`s last ever gigs, supporting Traffic in early `73, Free took former Osibisa guitarist Wendell Richardson along to America.
Kossoff began to find it difficult to get other musicians to work with him. Glover; “He got himself a bad reputation and people didn`t want to play with him.”
Jess Roden, who sang and co-wrote one of the cuts on “Back Street Crawler” with Koss, agrees; “He has been a difficult person to know through the years. When we did the things for his album he was standing up and coherent, but he was still into a lot of naughty things. People haven`t been able to rely on him. I`ve always believed he was a magical guitar player but if he came in the studio falling down there`s not much you could do. I think if he jams around he`ll be able to settle down again. We`d like him to jam with us. I asked him to come down last night, but he didn`t have any transport.”
Kossoff himself is aware of his reputation as unreliable; “It`s another one of the things you want to escape from – the guilt -because I feel I`ve let all sorts of people down all over the place for a long period. It`s something that`s hard to get over as well.”
According to Glover, Kossoff and his father have been very close recently, and the latter has taken an active interest in his son`s problems, although, again according to Glover, David Kossoff wasn`t always aware of Paul`s problem.
There has been considerable financial help from father to son, as Koss had got to the stage where he`d sold eleven of his guitars to pay for dope, and was running out of money fast.
“Obviously he was getting very concerned about the whole situation,” says Kossoff of his father`s attitude to his involvement with dope. “He was getting desperate. He didn`t do what you think a lot of parents might do in the circumstances, he didn`t shut me out of his life. A lot of parents would close the doors on you. My parents didn`t do that. They were always willing to help in any way they could.”
A former employee of Island Records goes so far as to say that Paul wouldn`t be alive today if it wasn`t for his father, saying, “He`s lucky he had his old man around. His Dad came up and rescued the kid.”
During the past two years Kossoff`s performances have been limited to say the least, amounting to a couple of slightly bizarre gigs with the late Graham Bond, and one rehearsal with the abortive Frankie Miller/Andy Fraser band, which at the time also included drummer Mike Kelly.
He misses working in front of an audience a great deal, something which his recent work with John Martyn has really brought home to him. “There`s such a lot of difference between playing off-stage and on, because I always play to the people, always have. I`ve just realised that when I get up there they open me up, and in turn I try and open them up.”
After the John Martyn tour, Kossoff plans to work with an eight piece outfit calling themselves The Basing Street Band who are getting themselves together for a one-off university tour, and after that his own band.
“I`ve been known to say this a number of times,” he says, as though already envisaging the wave of cynicism that greets his periodic announcements that a new Kossoff band is imminent.
His feelings towards the whole Bad Company success story seem devoid of envy or bitterness; if he`s missed the boat then it`s his own fault, is his way of thinking on that situation. He does, however, think that Free were a much better band than Bad Company.
“They somehow have more appeal than Free ever had. Maybe it`s because they`re better handled. It comes across that way. It doesn`t bother me that Paul and Simon have had such a lot of success recently, I just hope they`re happy. I`d like to be playing with them and I will do again. I know that. We`re just that close.”
Does he see a lot of them then?
“No. But whenever we do meet there`s always sparks of some sort flying.”
Kossoff did in fact see Bad Company at The Rainbow before Christmas, which must have been quite a poignant moment for him. Was he impressed with what he saw?
“Yeah I was. I enjoyed it for what it was, though Mick Ralphs doesn`t knock me out.”
“I don`t know. He seems to…I don`t know how frank you want me to be.”
A long pause before…”Mick Ralphs has got all the notes and the technique. He doesn`t have much drive though. Mind you I`m very fussy. He`s taken a lot of things I used to play in fact, and made them sound a bit watery. That`s my opinion. It`s not big-headedness or anything like that.”
I know what he means. I hope he gets up and proves it though.
Queen on the rise to superstardom.
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This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Led Zeppelin, Pete Kleinow, Caravan, Montrose, Peter Hammill, Blue Öyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Lenny Bruce, Eric Clapton, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Millie Jackson, Richard Digance, Bev Bevan (ELO), Gene Vincent, Charley Pride.
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