A really good article with a very honest blues musician who sadly no longer is with us. He overcame what must have been a difficult childhood, being teased and probably bullied because of his albinism, to become one of America`s leading white blues guitarists. His story is a story for the big screen.
Breaking through, breaking up, breaking back
Tales of Johnny Winter
By Laurel Dawn
His hair flavoured French vanilla, his eyes barely blue, Johnny Winter, at age 11, ate spinach (because it worked for Popeye) and Cheerios (the source of the Lone Ranger`s strength) for a solid week. Riding on self- fulfilling – prophesy – confidence, Winter headed for Harold… the kid who`d teased the young albino the most… and “beat the hell out of him”.
“That was my breakthrough,” Johnny recalls. Canned greens and tiny little o`s changed Johnny Winter from a “horrible pussy” who played with dolls into the playground`s prince.
“I`ve been this size since I was 12 years old,” he says, smiling down on his slender silhouette, “but I was the best fighter in school.”
Surely America`s most famed – and perhaps its finest – living guitarist started going through them changes long before his much publicised breakdown some two years ago.
Assuredly, Winter`s reaction to rock and roll`s rigours precipitated the tragedy. However, that reaction was equally assuredly precipitated by the early seasons of his 29 years.
“I had never had any faith in psychiatry,” Winter admits, “all that talk about how the first year of your life is the most important: I thought it was ridiculous. But, I found out,” he says with an authority few of us can claim, “that it`s true.”
“The things that happened when I was six-months-old helped me understand what caused the breakdown. Mostly, it was the world.”
Mostly the same world that helped Johnny acquire the meticulously stacked equipment cases which occupy nearly all the space between the living room and kitchen of his New York City apartment: a silver train metaphor.
His black satin loft bed uses a railing for its headboard. The two stories are joined by a spiral-tracked stairway. Walls, furniture – even ashtrays – all either black or white. Except for his long-train-sofa; silver leather.
Wearing denims, Johnny sits on his silver train smoking Kools, sipping Southern Comfort and revealing them changes several seasons behind him.
“I always thought the problem was people, not parents. My parents gave me all the love and affection anyone ever needed. I loved them. I still do.”
At Johnny`s birth, February of 1944, his father was overseas, with the military. His mother, then 28, was told that her son was an albino. “She didn`t even know what the word meant,” says Johnny.
“She thought it meant someone who was half black and half white, a mulatto, and she knew she hadn`t been fooling around with guys – black or white. She figured, I Guess, that it just wasn`t true.”
Although Johnny`s mother did understand that he lacked normal pigmentation, she never told her husband… who did not see his son until Johnny was two years old.
Shortly after returning to the States, Johnny`s father – whom he still calls “my daddy” – left the service and became a building contractor. His success allowed the Winters to live comfortably, “upper middle class”, according to Johnny.
So, assured by doctors that “there was no chance they`d bear a second albino”, Johnny`s parents gave him a brother. Edgar and Johnny Winter are the only albinos in family clan history.
They are also two of (mercifully) few who have suffered profoundly the derision engendered by being born different. Johnny fears that his parents felt guilty. “I think, somehow, they thought it was their fault and they had to make up for it. That`s what I mean about what happens to you when you`re six months old. I don`t remember it, but I bet I picked up on that guilt feeling.
“My mother,” he continues, his voice reminiscent of a gentle cowboy, “was definitely overprotective. She used to always tell me to turn the other cheek to insults.
“But at the same time,” he remembers, the pale eyes subtly bluing, “my great grandfather was saying that if anyone messed with me, I ought to kick their ass. I think he had more influence on my life than anyone.
He started with nothing and turned it into something big. He made a lot of money and he demanded total control. He could never share responsibility; he always did everything himself. I`m exactly the same way.”
Not until he “beat the hell out of “Harold” did Johnny adhere to his mother`s grandfather`s philosophy. For all the in-between seasons, his sub-conscious festered war; rising above the taunting vs. hitting it at eye-level.
When his mother`s philosophy gained on its enemy, Winter played with dolls. His ability to view himself in retrospect is reflective of his generally disarming honesty.
“I think my feeling towards dolls was basically a sexual feeling,” he admits – with a grin as flashy as the silver-train sofa.
Disarming honesty contagious; we ask if his love for dolls might reflect a then unrealised need for domination? Perhaps also a sense of freedom unleashed by the dolls` sightlessness? “Wow,” says Winter, “I haven`t ever thought of that one. Yeah, you might be right.”
He flings the French vanilla strands over his shoulders. “You probably are right,” he says delightedly. But, Johnny Winter`s delight emerges not from a new insight.
Simply because he felt that no one – except his family – cared, Johnny Winter coursed from his great grandfather – induced breakthrough to his music-manufactured breakdown. Winter`s mental mechanics call bitterness the name of the road.
“I was subconsciously bitter,” he admits with dimly preceivable embarrassment. “I wanted to show those people something. I probably shouldn`t say this,” he hedges, “but regular people are stupid. I knew I could be successful; in fact, I had an insane drive to be successful.
“That`s why I had to be a great fighter in school,” he explains. “I couldn`t see well enough to play sports. And I couldn`t get a far out, fast car because I couldn`t see well enough to get a driver`s licence.”
Poor vision`s imposed limits can only have bred more bitterness. Because of the albino`s often totally unpigmented eye (the red appearance is actually only the blood vessels hidden by colour in the normally pigmented eye) so much light bombards the vision that distinguishing outlines can be difficult at best.
The condition cannot be significantly improved by glasses, but Johnny expresses hope in ongoing medical research.
Bitterness is not, however, what drove Johnny to learn guitar; music was always his medicine. Bitterness drove him to be the best. He explains: “I believed then, and I still do, that if you`re gonna be here you`ve gotta try for a lot more than you think you can get.
“If I didn`t think I was the best at what I did, I couldn`t see why I should do it at all. Being the best and trying for more is the only way you can get anything,” he concludes.
And Johnny Winter got everything. That he paid dues to get it is well-documented… what happened when he got it isn`t.
The road Winter ran was essentially paved just outside of Woodstock by his introduction to the McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy”), hence, Rick Derringer. The former teenybopper “fave rave” group, save Derringer, was suffering what Winter terms “understandable psychotic depression”.
Young teenagers when they made the cover of 16 Magazine, the McCoys matured musically seemingly by magic.
They were the magicians. Successful in an era when pop musicians were usually scored by “serious” musicians, the band was simply not credible. Winter recalls with painful clarity, “those guys were great musicians, every one of them. But they couldn`t make it.
“The teenyboppers wouldn`t let them change and no one else would ever listen to them.” Seated, he hunches forward, his chin in his hands. “They had no money. What they had was worse than the blues.”
Winter had the blues too… in his hands. Managed now by Steve Paul, “Johnny was making the big time / everything was going his way”, as Edgar sang it. Derringer, working with the brothers, was at last recognised as a “serious” musician.
While the remaining McCoys idol-watched, Johnny and his “Second Winter” were frenzy-watched by thousands. In retrospective report, Winter says: “The McCoys changed the way they thought about me. I never thought I was any different from what I`d been.
“You know,” he says, “one of them started worshipping me. He asked me once if he could sit and watch me while I slept. The cat actually sat in my room for twelve hours! I woke up and there he was, just staring at me.
“The McCoys, and other people,” he continues, “wanted me to take over. They suddenly wanted to know what kind of toothpaste I used and how often I washed my hair. Every albino in the country was trying to learn guitar. I just couldn`t stand the pressure.
“I was weak,” Johnny openly opins. “That was the dangerous part. I`d been born a reject and suddenly I was worshipped as a God. If I wasn`t worshipped, I was hated by jealous people. Both attitudes pissed me off.
“Either way, I felt left out, lonesome. I couldn`t handle it. But, people thought that was exactly what I wanted. They thought I was trying to make myself into a superstar.”
Stars – in any genre – are surely made; but, they are created by an audience`s need. Just as America needed Sinatra or Brando, so it needed Winter. An artist is incapable of making himself a star… that is the public`s position.
However, any stratosphere-dwelling-star, the proverbial superstar, wears a special symbol. It says he or she deserves the adulation.
Winter`s blues licks are incomparable. He employs them less often now because he must emphasise what he feels is right: right – on – rock – and – roll – right – now.
“`Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo` is probably as good a rock and roll song as there is,” Winter`s ego intones. But exaggerated egos reflect intense insecurity…
“Before I committed myself,” he discloses, “I understood that I couldn`t relate to people. It`s a horrible, painful thing that people relate to stars in a way that makes it impossible to relate back.”
He cites an example: “Like Dylan,” he suggests, with quiet respect, “after all his years, he`s so paranoid, it`s hard for him to relate to anyone… especially at first.”
But, back at the fantasy factory, radios roared, stereos soared with the snow-pure clarity of Johnny Winter`s guitar. In production`s first stages, Winter was “a libertine and a hedonist.
“But,” he qualifies, “whatever your obsession is, if you get enough of it, it gets boring. It`s like if you`re really horny and you start balling fifty chicks a night, you think it will make you happy, but it bores you fast. That`s what happened to me. I got bored and jaded.”
And addicted to junk.
“I never thought junk could take me over; no one ever does,” Winter reveals. Although his attitude seems matter-of-fact, it is melancholy. “I thought I could do a little junk and I used it on-and-off for a year and a half. It never occured to me that I`d get to a point where I couldn`t stop.
“I don`t really know why I started,” Winter says, still painfully puzzled, “but it was long after junk that I realised that there was nothing left that could turn me on.
“I think the hardest part was when I realised that I couldn`t face the world without junk,” he continues. “But, I committed myself out of self-hatred, I despised myself for being addicted. I never, ever, shot-up, but I was still addicted. That`s why I took the year off.”
Drugs, it must be noted, are never the addict`s problem… they are merely a symptom of a critical cause, often a bluff at blocking out the pain`s precipitate. But, it is only the fortunate few who find the faith to fade out.
“I committed myself, like I said,” Winter repeats, “out of hate. I knew if I stayed on junk, I`d die. I suppose there are a few people who can keep doing junk and pull it off. But,” he adds, feeling full of lost friends, “most of them who tried have already died.”
“I didn`t want to die; O.D.ing and suicide are the same thing. I thought if I locked myself up for a year, I`d be away from junk, at least. I was still afraid I`d either kill myself or become a mailman.
“But I think I had a better grasp on what was going on than other musicians did; I knew I had to ask them to lock me up. But, I`m not bragging,” comments the insecure egoist, “I was scared shitless. I shook with fear that I`d never play music again.”
Found friends visited him. Delaney was one. “I`ll always love Delaney,” Johnny beams. “Maybe the public doesn`t know much about him, but the musicians do. He`s one of the best producers there is… and one of the best people.”
Lost friends didn`t. Janis was one. “Janis told me,” Johnny states, the intensity of his sorrow smouldering, “`I`m gonna end up in the gutter. I`m not a strong enough person to be a star. I`d like to get married and have kids.`” Johnny understood.
“No one would let Janis be a normal person. She couldn`t relate to people either. Janis was capable of being a wife and mother; she wasn`t for Women`s Lib. Getting married and having babies was the only way she knew to live.”
Perhaps the greatest white blues singer we`ll hear died… because, like Johnny – for a while – she “couldn`t face the world without junk.”
His hospitalisation taught Johnny – whose psyche was catalytic – to like himself. Rick Derringer puts it this way: “I know it`s hard to see/and it`s kinda hard to tell/but I`m still alive and well.” So his latest (Columbia) album proves.
Working with his long-time bass player Randy Hobbs and a young drummer named Richard Hughes – discovered by Derringer in a high school Winter-copy band – Winter has successively broken through, broken down… and broken back.
Never the proselytzer, Johnny Winter remarks, with softest simplicity: “You may be able to play on junk but I know you can`t live on junk. I`ve been everything from a Southern Baptist to an atheist.
“No one really knows what you`re supposed to be. Maybe it`s really all the same. I just think people should try to feel as good as they can all the time.”
You won`t find ads like these anymore. From a time when they thought more instruments would be sold with help of a naked, young lady. Did they? I don`t know.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Justin Hayward, Allman Brothers Band, John Martyn, Mickey Jones (Man), Keith Moon, Steve Goodman, Bob Calvert, Matthew Fisher, George Wadenius, John Peel, Mick Jagger, Capability, T-Bone, Gary Brooker, Nazareth, Bread.
The original music paper this article came from (pictured at the top) is for sale!
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