The Tragic Tale Of The Green God
(Originally Posted on http://www.ameriblues.com/ in 2009)
Ironically by the mid-1960s good ol’ fashion American blues and rock ‘n’ roll had become the music of choice for England’s budding young musical talent. Bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Bluesbreakers were putting a very British and very “white” twist on one of America’s only truly original art forms.
At the forefront of the elite group of British blues guitarists that would eventually become international rock legends, was an egotistical young blues purist named Eric Clapton. By 1965 in an attempt to preserve his integrity as a “blues musician”, Clapton left The Yardbirds (who had pop-star aspirations) for John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. It was during this time that Clapton’s star shone brightly and he was universally considered to be London’s premier guitarist. Graffiti calling him “God” began to sprout up all over the city and with the accolades, his ego began to grow; often resulting in his not showing up for gigs, just to spite the band’s leader, John Mayall. Despite his attitude and difficult nature, Clapton’s popularity and fan base had grown to mammoth proportions, forcing Mayall to “grin and bear” the young guitar prodigy’s childish antics. One of Clapton’s many fans was a young bassist from London’s working-class East End, named Peter Allen Greenbaum.
Greenbaum was a self-taught musician who learned the tricks of his trade on a cheap hand-me-down acoustic guitar that once belonged to his older brother. Going by the name “Peter Green”, he played bass in several amateur bands before joining Peter B’s Looners as a lead guitarist in 1966. That same year Clapton decided to officially leave The Bluesbreakers for the greener pastures of rock’s first psychedelically charged power trio, Cream. With the vacant position replacing Britain’s ‘premier guitarist’ in his sites, Green badgered Mayall with outrageous claims of his being “London’s greatest blues guitarist, even better then Clapton”, until Mayall finally caved; giving him the job.
Green left Peter B’s Looners after just 3 months, but would eventually recruit their drummer, Mick Fleetwood, into The Bluesbreakers. Green’s early months filling Clapton’s shoes were rough. Mayall had asked that he switch guitars, forcing him to play Clapton’s weapon of choice, the Gibson Les Paul. Fans were openly hostile at gigs, shouting out that they wanted the guitarist they called “God” and calling Green names…such as “big nose”. Eventually his perseverance and impressive musicianship allowed him to step out of Clapton’s shadow, proving to skeptical audiences that he was a formidable talent in his own right.
Peter Green played with The Bluesbreakers for one year and like Clapton, his time spent with John Mayall’s band earned him a substantial fan base, an almost mythical reputation and a deific nickname, “The Green God”. Even though his time with the band was relatively short, it proved to be fruitful, resulting in a critically acclaimed album titled A HARD ROAD, several singles, an EP with Paul Butterfield and an LP with blues great Eddie Boyd.
In a fortuitous twist of fate, Mayall gave Green free recording time as gift. Green entered the studio with The Bluesbreakers’ rhythm section, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood and as a trio they recorded 5 songs, the last of which Green named Fleetwood Mac, after his bandmates. Not long after the sessions Mick Fleetwood was thrown out of The Bluesbreakers by Mayall, due to repeated incidents involving alcohol abuse. Green’s decision to leave the band soon followed. He called on Fleetwood and McVie for a new project and though the tall and gangly drummer eagerly joined Green on his new venture, bassist John McVie was hesitant to give up the weekly paycheck that Mayall was providing.
Green and Fleetwood went forth without their bassist of choice, enlisting slide-guitarist Jeremy Spencer and bassist Bob Burning for their new project. Green named the group Fleetwood Mac in hopes of luring McVie away from Mayall. Within weeks of the band’s debut at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival on August 13, 1967, McVie grew tired of the jazzier direction The Bluesbreakers were going in and decided to jump ship, joining his former bandmates for a musical venture that, now 40+ years later, has become legendary for its music, personnel changes and soap-operatic behind-the-scenes turmoil.
Though Peter Green was the founder and driving creative force behind Fleetwood Mac, his time with the band only lasted 2 years and 8 months. During that time the band added a third guitarist named Danny Kirwan, recorded 6 singles, 4 albums, embarked on an extensive international touring schedule and by 1969, was outselling The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. He also wrote the song Black Magic Woman, which found an enormous amount of popularity and radio play when Santana covered it 1970. Like so many people suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Green had a great deal of trouble dealing with his new found fame and fortune. He wrestled with extreme bouts of depression, which he so poetically captured with the lyrics to his hauntingly sad composition Man of the World, “I guess I’ve got everything I need. I wouldn’t ask for more. And there’s no one I’d rather be, but I just wish that I’d never been born.”
While touring in the USA, the band was introduced to the drug LSD by Grateful Dead soundman and LSD cook, Owsley Stanley. Green began experimenting with the drug while on the road; presumably to deal with his depression and emotional troubles, but it reportedly resulted in “negatively altering his personality.” During a stop in Munich on the European leg of a tour in 1970, Green was seduced by a group of opulent hippies (sounds like an oxymoron, I know) and was invited back to their commune for a party. It is speculated that while at the party, Green and (fellow bandmate) Danny Kirwan’s drinks were spiked with LSD. Reportedly Green disappeared for three days and upon his return, he was “different” and would never be the same again (as was Kirwan). Regarding his time in Munich, Green has said that he “went on a trip, and never came back.”
Green became extremely religious, experiencing prophetic visions and wearing crucifixes and flowing robes on stage. Following a vision in which he saw “an angel holding a starving Biafran child in her arms”, he proposed to the band that they give all their money to charities that aid in ending world hunger. He also requested that he be the one that actually gives the food to the poor and didn’t want to rely on the charity to do so. When the band refused to give away all their monetary gains, Green decided to leave Fleetwood Mac. Before departing, he responsibly finished a number of concert dates that he had previously committed to, playing his final show as a member of Fleetwood Mac on May 28, 1970.
He recorded an unfocused avant-garde solo album titled THE END OF THE GAME in 1970 and had a brief reunion with Fleetwood Mac when guitarist Jeremy Spencer left the band to join a religious cult (I know it sounds crazy, but it is true). Green helped the band complete the remaining dates of their American tour, but insisted that their sets consist entirely of extended jams of the song Black Magic Woman.
By the mid-1970s both Peter Green and guitarist Danny Kirwan were diagnosed with schizophrenia, presumably as a result of their time spent in Munich. Green spent much of the 70s in psychiatric hospitals undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. In 1977 he was arrested for threatening to kill his accountant with a shotgun, reportedly because Green believed that the accountant was not giving away all of his money to charity.
He spent the remainder of the 1970s and the 1980s in and out of psychiatric institutions and heavily medicated; described by many as being in a lethargic, trancelike state. During this time, he reportedly lived as a recluse, let his fingernails grow to upwards of three inches long, and ate strictly with his hands. He would stalk people that he knew around town and would even show up on friends’ doorsteps acting like a dog scratching at their front door. He was eventually rescued by his brother and sister-in-law who moved him into their house and nursed him back to health.
The 1990s found Green slowly being weaned off of many of the medications that were leaving him comatose. He also found himself in the midst of a comeback. He formed a band called Peter Green Splinter Group and recorded several CDs (into the 2000’s) including two critically acclaimed tributes to Robert Johnson, THE ROBERT JOHNSON SONGBOOK (1998) and HOT FOOT POWDER (2000). In 2007 he was the subject of a very good BBC documentary/profile titled THE PETER GREEN STORY: MAN OF THE WORLD and is presently playing live gigs with a group called Peter Green and Friends.
Though he technically survived the 60s, like so many of his contemporaries he is an unfortunate victim of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and experimental decade. The last 10 to15 years have found Green mentally well and creating quality music once again, but just as so many music fans try to imagine “what Hendrix would be like today if he survived”, one can’t help but wonder if LSD pre-maturely robbed the world of what could have been Peter Green’s greatest work.
Green stands out as one of my favorite guitarists from a period that was more than abundant with guitar “Gods”. At a time when Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix were experimenting with feedback and pedal effects and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were playing the blues with a (borderline) hostile fury of fast guitar runs, Peter Green subscribed to a more economical playing-style where “less was more”. Known for his distinctive vibrato, he could say more musically with a few string bends and sustained notes then many of his contemporaries were saying with entire diarrhea-of-the-fingers laden solos. His style was derivative of players like B.B., Albert and Freddie King and while he was certainly influenced by his peers, Green managed to find his own “sound”…both technically and stylistically. Ironically the “out of phase” tone that his 1959 Gibson Les Paul has become so famous for was in fact an accident. Somebody had inadvertently reversed the magnet of the guitar’s neck pickup. Accident or not, Green had a sound that was original and unique and a playing-style that followed suit.
As a singer, I find that his voice is the most mature and authentic sounding out of all of the young mid-60s British blues vocalists and as a bandleader he was almost generous to a fault. He named his band after the rhythm section, which even today is unheard of. Despite the fact that he was one of the most competent guitarists of the era, he welcomed two other guitarists into his band and gave them both more then a fair share of playing and singing time, both on the albums and on stage. To be honest even though Jeremy Spencer was a very good slide player, the band could’ve done without so many Dust My Broom-style Elmore James covers.
As an interpreter of the blues, you need not look any further then Fleetwood Mac’s version of Need Your Love So Bad to realize Green’s passion and genius. As a songwriter, his compositions have been covered by the likes of Santana, Aerosmith, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, The Black Crowes and even Judas Priest. Black Magic Woman found great success as Santana staple. Oh Well has become a classic rock standard and Fleetwood Mac’s subdued instrumental Albatross, was an enormous international hit and according to George Harrison, inspired The Beatles song Sun King. Green Manalishi, a dark and haunting composition about LSD, money, greed and his own descent into madness, was the last song Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac. Today looking back, the song seems to play more like progressive rock then blues and is arguably a precursor to heavy metal.
Peter Green is a survivor of a bygone era, but like many of his contemporaries (Brian Wilson and the late Sid Barrett to name a few) he did not make it through the psychedelic drug laden 1960’s without his share of battle scars. His story has become one of rock legend and myth. His “sound” has been sought after by generations of budding rock and blues guitarists and despite his issues with mental health, he managed to create (arguably) some the best music of the late-60s. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him at #38 on their list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and during his collectively short music career, he has managed to gain the respect of both his peers and idols. Of Peter Green, B.B. King said “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”
Peter Green is a true blues treasure.
Copyright © 2009 – J. Blake. All Rights Reserved.