The name Peter Green still means a lot to anyone who has ever enjoyed the sound and feel of an electric guitar. Although he himself will argue the point, his name is legendary among players everywhere. The tone, the pitch, and the sheer feeling Green invested in the soulful, economical solos of his Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac days have made that technique and fat Les Paul tone admired, sometimes even envied, by just about every player who's listened to him. Almost 30 years ago, he was young, rich, famous, and good looking--some would say he had it all. Then, it all started to go wrong for Peter Green. He candidly admits that he took too many bad acid trips, but that can't be the only reason he turned his back on fame and fortune. If you look deeper into his story, you see a soul gifted som uch musically, but one that was perhaps too sensitive to handle the life style of a rock star. Green hated being famous with a passion, and as a result, he left Fleetwood Mac and disappeared into obscurity. Today, the guitar legend has come out of hiding and is rekindling both his health and his career. In a rare interview, Green talks--with startling honesty--about his great tone, musical instincts, and past troubles.
Behind his amazing story is a long tale of triumph and tragedy. From near obscurity, John Mayall picked him in 1966 to replace Eric Clapton in the fabled Bluesbreakers. The result was the brilliant album, A HardRoad, as well as several great singles. The following year, Green left to form Fleetwood Mac, a fiery blues band featuring himself and two talented co-guitarists, Danny Kirwan (whose soulful lead style highly resembled Green's) and the slide-playing Jeremy Spencer. The band released fine album sand a few hit singles, such as 1969's "Albatross," a languid ballad whose fat, reverby guitar tones were copped by the Beatles for several tracks on Abbey Road. But then drugs and the pressures of fame hit the Mac like a hurricane. First Green left, eventually to be followed by Jeremy Spencer, who reputedly joined a religious cult in South America.
As the '70s progressed, Peter Green retired completely from music (he released an unmemorable solo album in 1970), and then from life entirely. He gave away most of his money from his Mayall and Fleetwood days, and either parted with, or had stolen, most of his beloved guitars. He even sold his favorite 1959 Les Paul Standard flametop to Irish guitarist Gary Moore, who still uses it to this day. There is also a famous, though untrue,story that he threatened his accountant with a gun and told him to stop sending royalty checks. The tales grew with the years--the most famous of which is that he grew his nails long to prevent himself from ever playing the guitar again. As usual with such legends, the truth is far more mundane, and more deeply tragic. Green eventually suffered a series of mental breakdowns that saw him in and out of psychiatric hospitals for a number of years. When released, he lived alone, unable to look after himself and to monitor his intake of medication; he became almost vagrant--the famous fingernail simply one more example of his inability to look after his personal well-being.
It was at this stage that by chance he found Mich Reynolds, an old friend from the early days, who took him into her home and looked after him. Mich became Peter's band manager, as well as his closest friend. Meanwhile, her brother Nigel Watson--a builder by trade, and a guitarist by nature--gradually coaxed Peter back into the idea of playing guitar again. Peter found he enjoyed playing, and was persuaded to try putting down a few demos. Old friends like bassist Neil Murray and drummer Cozy Powell were delighted to help out, and veteran keyboard player Spike came on board to help roundout the sound.
A few demos and a jam with friends ensued; gigs followed not long after. At last, after 25 years away, Peter Green was playing guitar onstage again. The following interview was conducted after a gig at the Wheatsheaf, a small club in the middle of England. It attracts loyal audiences with its policy of trying out new bands, plenty of which go on to bigger and better things (Oasis played to a small audience there once upon a time). It was easy enough to book "The Splinter Group," as they are called,into the gig and a second night was added when the first night's tickets flew out so fast that they had scorch marks on them! Green came and played, and those who were there will remember it for a very long time. The intervie wwas arranged to take place during the soundcheck, but Peter decided hed idn't want to do it then; he wanted to save his voice. He and Mich argued quietly, but Peter was adamant, and Mich looked pretty put out. Actually, she was delighted: His willingness to argue with her, and to get his own way, is a significant step forward in Peter's long and still very much ongoing recovery.
Did you enjoy the gig tonight? You looked as if you were having fun.
Yes, I did; it was wonderful. Wunderbar!
Was the decision to play live again an easy one to reach?
No. I wasn't going to bother playing the guitar again, but Nigel [Watson]came along, and he was doing various things, playing guitar, making some money here and there. So he got me back into practicing, and just playinga long to see if I still enjoyed it. I did go through a time when I didn't touch a guitar and I had really long fingernails. I was still listening to music, but I wasn't playing at all. So Nigel comes around and he says,"I've got two guitars here--why don't you play a bit?" And Isaid, "Nah, I don't play anymore." But he kept on saying, "Comeon, come on, help me out a little bit," and I thought about it, andsaid, "Well, I'll have a go for you, Nige," and that was it. I was off and playing again. Nigel showed me various bits and pieces he was doing, like some Robert Johnson things, but I never thought of myselfas playing that kind of thing. He has a few guitars, a Dobro, and a couple of others, so we started playing a bit. I remember playing "Baby PleaseDon't Go"--do you know that one? [Sings and claps beat with his hands]"Baby please don't go...baby please don't go...baby please don't go down to New Orleans, you know I love you so, baby please don't go, bahbah do bah bah," and I was sitting there in the lounge of his house all afternoon just playing that over and over again.
Guitar playing is sometimes like riding a bike or driving a car: It's a skill you just don't forget. I guess it doesn't go away. No, I can see doors opening for me, and all kinds of people being there to help me out. I'm not too proud to take advice and help of all kinds. I wasn't proud before, but I was just kind of stuck on how successful I was.
That was a big stumbling block for you, wasn't it? You didn't manage to get to grips with being successful.
I was the writer of the hits for the Fleetwood Mac, and I guess I just got big-headed and stopped practicing. I had to go right back to the beginning again, right back to learning three chords, then four chords, and so on. I didn't mind doing it at all. I've got some help. There's one particular girl who's like a spirit guide. I can't really talk too much about her, but she's showing me the door to learn how to play again. I've got some friends who are helping me to clean up my composer credits, as well. I've got bits that I've used in my famous tunes, and I've got to sort all that out.
What do you think people come to see when they come to watch you play? Do they come to see a guitar legend?
I don't think they do. I think they come to see what I come to see when I watch someone play. The thing is, usually when you go to see someone famous, they're disappointing, aren't they? They're a bit meek when you see them play live. It's something that worries me .
Well, I came to see you play tonight, and I certainly wasn't disappointed.
I usually find I'm disappointed. I've gone to see loads of American guitarists and I've been disappointed. [R&B singer] Wilson Pickett was the only one--I went to see him and he was good.
Do you think to yourself that you don't want to disappoint people who come to see you?
I fear it . . . I do fear it.
But can you at least say to yourself that you are a gifted musician?
I quite like the idea of that. [Smiles.] Yeah, I'd like to think of myself as gifted. I'd like to think that was true.
What about the guitar legend status, how do you feel about that, because basically, you are a guitar legend.
I don't think that's true.
Who in your mind is a guitar legend?
Bo Diddley. He's a guitar legend. I think he's a legend because of the ay he does that strumming, that ch-cha-ch-cha sound. He does loads of things like that. He's amazing.
Can't you think of songs you've written that you think, "Yes, that song reaches people the way Bo Diddley reaches me"?
I don't do any Bo Diddley songs! I'm thinking of doing "I'm A Man."That's a great song; the Yardbirds covered that and I'd like to do that one day. It's got such a lovely harmonica line on it.
But aren't there songs you have written that you think must reach people like Bo Diddley reaches you?
Nah, there's far too many great artists out there--Sonny Boy Williamson, people like that who've written dozens and dozens of great songs, and they're all unique. I know when I think I'm close to what those artists have done,but I don't know where it comes from. But you can only be a legend afteryou've died.
I'd have to disagree with you there--you can still be a legend in your own lifetime.
Nah. Now Davey Crockett, he is a legend, I heard about him when I was three years old. You can call him a legend, but I'm not a legend, no way!
Come on now, Peter, you must surely see that if you never wrote another song, never picked up a guitar, never wrote or played another note, that you have created a body of work that qualifies you to be known as a legend.
You're not selling me on that idea; you won't get me into bed with that one! [Laughs.] No, you can't pull the wool over my eyes. No, I'm not a legend at all.
Okay, let's move on to gear. What equipment are you using these days?
My amplifier is a Fender Blues DeVille. It's only a small amp, and I mic it up; it gives me a good sound.
Do you experiment very much with equipment and with sounds?
Not an awful lot, but I do mess around enough until I find the soundthat I like and that I'm comfortable with. I always have my eyes open,and if I see something that takes my fancy, I'll have a try.
In most people's minds, especially guitarists, you'll always be associated with Gibson guitars.
That's true, I do play Gibson guitars. I used to play Gibson Les Paul guitars exclusively, but I don't now. I've still got a black Les Paul, but I play other things, as well. I don't tie myself down to just one thing.
Is it true that you obtained your own particular sound by taking the pickups apart and putting them back together incorrectly, and putting one pickup back in upside down?
It's not true that I did it to get a new sound; that's not true at all! It did happen, but I put it back together with the pickup in the wrong way 'round just by accident. It wasn't some sort of plan to see how it sounded--it was a fluke, really.
Are you curious enough about the workings of guitars to take them apart and see how they work?
I used to be very curious when I was a kid. I used to take my record player to bits and put it back together again, and I did the same sort of thing with clocks and things like that. I was just a kid messing around the way kids do. I did end up back at the shop once or twice when things didn't work out!
Do you regard your guitars as something special, something to be treasured and looked after carefully, or are they just tools of your trade to you?
A bit of both, really. I wouldn't say I regard them as tools of the trade; no, they are more than that. I have had guitars which I've justused and played, and not got especially attached to. I had a Framus Nashville,which I was attached to, and that got stolen. I wasn't happy about losing that one. The ones I have now are becoming important to me--I am becominga ttached to them as time goes on.
What makes you attached to one guitar more than another?
Various things, really: the color, if it behaves itself, a nice sound, a nice neck. I have got two Telecasters, one of which I really like, but Mich says I've got too many guitar changes onstage, and I should cut them down a bit. I use three guitars onstage at the moment, including a Stratand a black Gibson [Howard Roberts] Fusion that's made up of various bits and pieces and has a hollow cutaway body. I use a midnight blue Stratocaster,as well, which is Japanese, and it's got the most beautiful feel to it.T he wood used in making the neck is superb. I really love the feel of it,and playing it. I borrowed it, actually, and I've held on to it ever since. I don't like the color at all--horrible color--but it's such a nice guitar to play.
Is the feel of a guitar as important as the way it sounds for you?
Well, I'm not actually very good with sound!
Nah, not really. I just kind of hope that the sound comes out all right. The physical feel of the guitar is what matters to me, y'know, if I liket he feel of my hands on the body and my fingers on the fretboard.
Do you like to experiment with new guitars that come out, or do you prefer to stick with the ones that you know?
I do tend to be happier with the guitars that I know, but I will have a try with new instruments when they come along. The Gibson Fusion is agood example. I'm really happy with that; it's becoming quite an old friend of ours now. It's going very nicely. I tend to try Nigel's guitars and see what he's playing that I like.
The rhythm section of Cozy and Neil is very tight. It sounds wonderful.
Not as tight as it's going to be, I think! We still have nights wher ewe backslide a little bit, and we get a little bit despondent.
There are probably plenty of people out there who wish they could"backslide" as well.
That may be true, but for all the people who think like that, there could be an equal number of people who see it my way, as well. You just never know.
When you worked with John Mayall, was he a "this is the way we do it" kind of musician?
Not really--he always let me enjoy myself and put my interpretations on whatever it was we were doing. Titles were always a funny thing. I thoughto f the title "Supernatural" for a song, and he said, "You can't have that! It's not a proper title." I thought he was just having a joke with me, but he did explain what he meant by what he said, but Ican't remember now what that was--it was a long time ago! [Brief pausewhile the night porter brings a drink of hot chocolate--suddenly everyone wants one, and Peter wants a sandwich, as well. The night porter disappears, looking very harassed.] This is what the reality of life on the road is, isn't it? People think it's cocaine and groupies, but the reality is trying to get a cup of hot chocolate and a cheese sandwich at quarter past one in the morning.
Let's look ahead a little bit, to the prospect of recording somematerial: Are you planning to produce it yourselves or have another outsidep roducer come in and take charge?
I'd like to have an independent producer come in. I don't want to do it myself. I think producers are good for a band, since they bring in fresh ideas and give you a new way of looking at things. A good producer will stretch you and make sure they get the best out of you. I think it's so much better to do it that way--things are taken care of for you. There isn't loads of time wasted while you think about getting equipment sortedout, and making sure the tape is running properly, and all those hassles. You just get to play, and that's wonderful.
It seems that you enjoy playing, but the peripheral stuff that goes with it drags you down. Is that true?
What do you mean by peripheral?
The extra stuff that goes with it--being a "star."
Santana has the right idea. They just play. They don't do any interviews, or things like that; they just go on stage and play their music. I'd like to do that, but I am tempted to talk to people, to have a chat. People want to come and see the band play; that's what it's all about. That's what they pay to come and see.
Given the vast variety of musical styles that have evolved over the years, do you still long for the purity of the blues?
More than ever. We did a couple of Robert Johnson numbers tonight. Everyn ight when whoever it is announces that we're doing Robert Johnson, I always think I'll get to the microphone and say, "We're addicts!" Do you know what I mean? We are true Robert Johnson addicts--that's what his music is like. It's truly addictive. When you listen to those songs, you can smell the smells and see the things he saw, and it really gets you right in the essence of what blues is. Robert Johnson is a godsend . .. He truly is.
Let's move into an area which you may not want to discuss--yourhealth and past drug problems. How well do you feel now?
I feel better all the time, and I'm enjoying myself a lot now. I don'tlike to go too mad, you know what I mean? We used to go absolutely ape shit when I was in the Fleetwood Mac group, but I don't do that so much anymore.I like to take it easy, let the boys in the band pull their weight along with me, and people appreciate it--you know?
When you were ill, do you remember how bad it was?
No, I don't remember at all, I was just. . . destroyed. I think it was someone doing it to me--I'll never accept that it was just me. I've always known that someone made it happen to me, someone mucking about with me. I took LSD and I had a hard time . . . getting back. I didn't want to ge tback, but I had to get back. And now we've got a big tour coming up in Germany--a lot of nights. I just hope we don't wear ourselves out. I just remember touring around Europe in the early days, not much money, just chugging around. The ghosts from those days are very real to me.
It is very different now; you are surrounded by people who won't let you hurt yourself.
I think they will, because they won't notice it happening to me.
Fortunately, you seem to be among friends. What's your favorit esong of all those you have written?
[Long pause.] I don't know. I think "Green Manalishi" is the most interesting. It's all about having too much money, and all the harmit does, because I was the writer of hits for the group. I was the sole writer--at least it felt like I was.
Do you have a message for your fans, of which there are very many out there?
No. [Laughs.] I'm sure I could think of something to say, but it'd just be false. I don't think of myself as being a messenger for fans. I'm just playing my music, and I like to give them the best show I can. I went through a stage for about three years when I did feel I was going through the motions, but that was when I was taking LSD. People thought I left the Fleetwood Mac because of the LSD, but it wasn't just that. The whole fame thing was just dragging me down. Still, after I left, they did "Dragonfly."It's a Danny Kirwan song, and I really like that--it's beautiful.
Do you ever think what might have been if you'd stayed with Fleetwood Mac?
Not really. There's no point thinking over things like that--we just wanted different things, I think.
Have you enjoyed the interview, Peter?
Aaaaah . . . no, not particularly. I still think about the way Santana does it: no interviews and just playing the music. Maybe I should go and do that.
We're glad you don't. It's been fascinating to talk to you. Here's your cheese sandwich arriving; enjoy it.
Thank you again.
After the interview, Peter and his band joined the low-key after-show gathering at the other end of the hotel lounge. If you're lucky, by the time you read this, he may well have played your town, and you will knowthat the 6-string skill, feeling, and soul of the old Peter Green are still there, however fragile the mind and body of Peter Greenbaum (as he signs his legal name) may be. He's been away, but now he's back. Let's hope the'90s will give him the respect and care he needs and deserves. May his musical genius enrich us all for a long time.