Leslie West Takes His Music, Not Himself, Seriously : Rock: Guitarist, who appears tonight at the Coach House, has lost 85 pounds and gained a new moniker: ‘Alligator Man.’
Leslie West, the Alligator Man? The guitarist has an accent that suggests the closest he’s ever been to the bayou is Queens, N.Y., yet he’s the “Alligator Man” in a current record label bio, one which also proudly qualifies West as one of loudest guitarists in the history of rock.
“That’s all just Miles fooling around,” West maintains, Miles being I.R.S. label head Miles Copeland. Although frivolity is a characteristic rarely attributed to Copeland--not while terms like blunt and unrelenting are still in the dictionary--he does seem to have his fun with West.
“I talked with Miles about being obsessed with these alligators in Florida a few years ago, how they were almost extinct and now there’s so many they snatch babies off porches,” West said by phone from his New York home. “Then on this European tour I bought this pair of $600 alligator loafers, and they were all goofing on me. Miles said, ‘Why don’t you call the album “Alligator”? You can make more money on the merchandising than you will on the album. We’ll get alligator this, alligator that.’ ”
If his label boss wants to inject some whimsy into his career, that’s fine with West. “I’m trying to have fun, too. I don’t take myself seriously. I take the music seriously. So any which way I can have fun around it, I’ll try. If I do a video for the album, I’ll wrestle an alligator.”
There was a time when West had albums named for his size; “Leslie West--Mountain,” the title of his debut in 1969, was a reference to his then-300-pound weight. He had been lead guitarist with the legendary New York club band the Vagrants, from which he was marked for a solo career by bassist-producer Felix Pappalardi, who had produced Cream. Pappalardi soon joined West to form the group Mountain, described by one critic as being “more like Cream than Cream.” The band’s third gig was in front of half-a-million or so people at Woodstock in August of 1969.
West recalled, “It was real nervous playing in front of that many people so soon. I thought there were better festivals, really. I remember it as one big hassle, with so many things going wrong. We were lucky. The only time I remember things going right was Saturday night and that’s when we got to go on. Friday and Sunday were disasters. I felt terrible for Jimi Hendrix; when he went on Sunday there was nobody left there to see him.”
Mountain hit the charts in 1970 with the crunching riff-rocker “Mississippi Queen.” In the following years, West worked with Mountain, in a group with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, and as a solo-billed artist (one 1975 LP was entitled “The Great Fatsby”) with varying degrees of success. Then West disappeared from music for a time.
“I wanted to get my health sorted out, away from drugs and away from New York. I went to Milwaukee for about two years. There was a special doctor there I went to see. It’s been over 10 years now since I stopped fooling with narcotics. (The treatment) saved my life. Some of these kids think the one goes hand in hand with the other, playing music and drugs. I just hope that they get the message.”
West said he doesn’t link drug use to the playing of music so much as he does to the doldrums between gigs. “It seems when you’re not on stage playing, or in the studio recording, that’s when you get into trouble.
“I used to always envy Phil Collins, always jumping from one project to the next--everyone in Genesis does. Then my wife said, ‘If you want to do these things, just get off your ass and do them.’ And sure enough, I really found that out. People sit around and whine, ‘Man, why does this guy get to do this and that?’ It’s because they get up and do it.”
West seems to be heeding his own advice. In addition to the “Alligator” album, he participated in Guitar Speak, an all-instrumental tour, devised by Copeland, which has provided a creative outlet to several of West’s contemporaries. West has been on the road incessantly, including four tours in Europe in the last 18 months. Two of those were Guitar Speak “Night of the Guitars” tours.
“Those went really well,” he said. “We were sitting on the bus--Steve Howe, Robbie Krieger, Alvin Lee, myself, Phil Manzanera, Randy California and all--and we realized there was over 130 million in album sales between us. You couldn’t really throw your ego around, in company like that.”
West also served as musical director on Sam Kinison’s hit remake of “Wild Thing” and on a Kinison version of West’s own “Mississippi Queen,” due out in March.
“I’m really proud of that. It’s hard to reapproach something you had a hit record with, but we got a 20-girl black choir in there, and bagpipes instead of lead guitar. And Sam really came up with a great theme, about the whole rise and fall of the PTL thing.”
West’s own album originally was going to be all-instrumental, until Copeland suggested that West include vocals. It was also Copeland who brought bassist Stanley Clarke and Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano into the project.
“Miles is really great at coming up with that last little bit of icing on the cake, even when you think it’s done,” West said. “Some record executives you only see twice, when they sign you and then when they throw you off the label. Miles is there every step of the way.” West said Copeland won’t accept any nonsense “because I think the Police’s first album cost him about six grand. So you can’t go to him with ‘Yeah, I need a quarter of a million to finish this album.’ ”
Copeland has suggested that West host another Guitar Speak tour, this time showcasing younger guitarists. West isn’t sure yet, however, which young players would belong in such a project.
“I used to think of Edward Van Halen as a younger guitar player, but he’s getting on up there. And after Steve Vai and Edward it drops off drastically. . . . I read something the other day that was saying Van Halen’s style in the hands of some of these young kids is turned into just a cliche. They all sound the same, all trying to do the hammering and the speed. There’s no identity.
“The thing that most impressed me when I started was how, with Clapton, you could identify his sound like a signature. I wanted to have a sound you could identify like that, and that’s what I work for. I never was a speed player. I only use my first and third fingers; I never learned to use all four like most normal guitar players do. So I tried to capitalize on my vibrato, and I have a great knack for getting unusual tones out of the guitar. I hope I’m regarded as a melodic guitar player, not just someone up there going ‘weinie, weinie’ all night long.”
While he said he’s always searching for new tones and ways of expression, he isn’t worried about losing his musical personality. “I’ve noticed a lot of guys from the ‘70s, when Mountain was active, are now trying to play stuff that they never played in the first place, and their credibility goes out the window. I’m not doing anything different than I did before, so in that respect it’s been easy. I’m not having to force anything or pretend. I just do what comes naturally.”
One thing that may be less recognizable than West’s sound at concerts is his appearance.
“I recently lost 85 pounds. I found out I had type-2 diabetes, so I started to watch my sugar. Once you decide to do it, it’s easy. I ain’t thin--I still weigh 200--but I look like I lost a person.”
Leslie West plays tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.