We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock; seems like the right year for a tribute to forgotten rock blues genius Alan Wilson (1943-1970).
Most people who think they don’t know who Alan Wilson is will be wrong, for they know his music, at least. He was a key member of the band Canned Heat, the guy with that highly distinctive high pitched voice who sang their hits “On the Road Again”, which made it to #16 on the U.S. singles charts, and “Going Up the Country”, which made it to #11, both in 1968. Canned Heat performed at both Monterey Pop and Woodstock.
But Wilson wasn’t just a singer, he was a musician of genius, and an important preservationist. He literally knew and studied at the feet of guys like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Skip James, and John Lee Hooker, and was also steeped in the music of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Muddy Waters. He brought a scholar’s devotion to the music. He wrote articles about it, he collected it, he interviewed the practitioners. But it wasn’t a museum thing. He was also an artist. He expressed himself within the form. Like others of his generation, like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, etc, there were experimental, psychedelic elements to what he did. Not only did he play traditional blues instruments like guitar and harmonica, he would throw in exotic oddities like a Turkish tanbur (that buzzing sounding instrument on “On the Road Again”).
So the loss was great when at the peak of his fame Wilson was found dead on a desert hillside near his bandmate Bob Hite’s house in Topanga Canyon (Charles Manson’s old stomping grounds). The cause was a barbiturate O.D. Wilson was known to have been depressed and suicidal in the past. A deep character to begin with, he also suffered from the rare and frustrating predicament of being a major rock star who was unappealing to women. He had bad skin (see photo above, and that’s a publicity picture), and was extremely near-sighted, one of the reasons for his nickname, the Blind Owl. And he was an introvert. In another era, he might have ridden out the tough emotional times, but it was the ’60s. Drugs were plentiful, and what happened, happened. Sadly he is seldom mentioned as a member of the “27 Club”, though he was 27 when he passed and would have been spoken of in the same sentence with the better remembered stars back in the day. Wilson’s death came right after that of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, and just shortly before those of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Alan Wilson still has a cult of devoted fans. Check out the website dedicated to him here.