Thursday, January 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter


I remember the first time I heard Johnny Winter: I was a small boy, probably 7 or 8 years old, and my dad was playing some of his records, one of which was Johnny Winter's "Captured Live!" album. I couldn't believe the way he played guitar and sang, and I was even more shocked when I saw the album cover and discovered not only was he white but that he was albino. To my young ears he sounded like the quintessential black bluesman carrying on the electric blues guitar slinging torch from Hendrix. What I didn't realize until years later was not only did he lead a very interesting life and career, but that he was hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s; this was in contrast to the blank stares I got back from my friends when we started getting heavily into playing music and using the classic rock we were discovering as our touchstones after I mentioned Johnny Winter's name.  Needless to say, I was thrilled when I saw that Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter was released recently, and even happier to learn that it is his authorized biography.

***special thanks to Wes at Backbeat Books for sending me a copy of this to review!***

Author Mary Lou Sullivan is a longtime music writer and Johnny Winter fan and friend. She began her quest to write this book in 1984 with Winter's cooperation, only to be stymied by his management multiple times. Finally, years later, management was out of the way and Johnny gave his full cooperation. The result is the only authorized biography of the great bluesman, done with his blessing and direct input. His ringing endorsement in the introduction prepares us for a story filled with incredible highs and some despicable lows, and it's clear from both Johnny and the author that their friendship and numerous sit-down interviews ensure that this will be as true a story as can be told.

No book on Johnny Winter's life can be told without first focusing on his albinism, which is something he refused to let define him. He and his brother Edgar, both albinos, were born to non-albino parents in Beaumont, Texas in the mid-1940s. While the brothers grew up in a very nurturing and stable upper-middle class upbringing, they did endure some hardship due to their condition, mainly in taunts and comments from their peers and other adults who were not used to seeing albinos. Growing up in the still-segregated south made it more pronounced. There were also health consequences from their condition, mainly poor eyesight and sensitivity to sunlight.  However, Johnny and Edgar were very musical from an early age, and the book follows their progression from playing ukulele and singing Everly Brothers songs as small kids to their forming their first bands as teenagers and playing concerts all over Texas and later on, nearby Mississippi and Louisiana. Just as no book about Johnny Winter can neglect to discuss his albinism, it's also true that no book can fail to also include his younger brother Edgar, himself a very talented and successful musician and the co-conspirator in so many of Johnny's musical endeavors, from boyhood to the present day. Contrary to many accounts of Johnny, he's a very intelligent and educated man who is an accomplished musician and singer beyond the blistering guitar solos and screaming bluesy vocals. He's also an accomplished pianist, drummer, arranger, producer, and singer (as is Edgar). Both brothers shared a love of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Hendrix but while Edgar's true passions were jazz and R&B, for Johnny it was, as the title of his 1977 album proclaims, "Nothin' But the Blues."

The book does a very job using new interviews with Johnny and several of his associates, as well as older articles and interviews, in detailing the trajectory of his career and fleshing out a lot of the events in his life. After recording numerous original and cover songs for local labels in the south in the early to mid-1960s, which would come back to haunt and dog him for his entire career, Johnny was determined to play blues and hooked up with "Uncle" John Turner and Tommy Shannon to form his first band. After recording their excellent "Progressive Blues Experiment" debut album, they attracted the attention of Rolling Stone magazine and subsequently, a bidding war broke out between record companies eager to sign him. Eventually signing with Columbia Records in 1968, the next decade was a whirlwind for Johnny. He gigged heavily, released several seminal blues/rock albums, the best of which are his self-titled debut, Second Winter, Still Alive and Well, and a pair of scorching live albums (Johnny Winter And...Live and Captured Live!). Loads of money coming in, late night jams in clubs with Jimi Hendrix, collaborations with Janis Joplin onstage and in bed, appearances at numerous festivals including Woodstock, changing band lineups, drug addictions, deaths, and women all happened to Johnny in a short span of time, and they came on hard. Everything is covered in the book and nothing is sugarcoated. However, I don't want it to sound like it's all salacious stories and negative incidents. In fact, just the opposite; the overwhelming feeling I got from reading this book was the joy Johnny gets from being a musician and playing his style of blues and rock, as well as the deep and genuine affection and love his family and friends have for him as a human being. Career-wise, despite his horrific management situation (which I'll get to in a bit), he's been very successful, both commercially and critically. Besides his own albums and tours, he revived Muddy Waters' career late in the blues master's life (for which they won multiple Grammy awards), has sat in with everyone from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker to the Allman Brothers Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and has been recognized as the premier blues guitarist of his generation, which is saying something given who his peers in that area are (for instance, Eric Clapton, anyone?). He was the first white person to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, which is ironic if you consider that not only is Johnny white, he's as white as one can physically be as an albino! The humor was not lost on Johnny, but that's a towering achievement that's a testament to his talent, dedication, and personality and something he's rightfully proud of.

At this moment, I need to introduce the other main thread that runs through this book which I alluded to above: Johnny's shockingly shady and dishonest management. While this is nothing new in the history of the music industry, what is eye-opening in Johnny's case is justhow long it went on. Raisin' Cain is also the tale of nearly forty years of mismanagement and blown chances that cost people loads of money, opportunities, and in many cases, their lives. Without giving too much away to anyone who wants to read this book, the incredible revelation to me was that, as big a star as Johnny was, especially in the 1968-1984 period, he could've been ten times more successful and popular given different managers who actually cared about him as a person and musician and didn't view him simply as a freakshow and a meal ticket to exploit for their own gain. The feeling I got at the end of the book was that Johnny was a massive success despite Steve Paul, Teddy Slatus, and Betty Johnston (all of whom collaboratively managed his career in some capacity from 1968 until 2004 or so).  From lying to Johnny and Susan (his lifelong companion and wife), skimming money off the top of everything, exploiting Johnny with shoddy releases and gig cancellations that damaged his reputation, sabotaging his attempts to get off drugs, and later on purposely conspiring with shady doctors to keep Johnny drugged up and under their influence so that he could be easily manipulated, the behavior of his management is shocking, disgusting, and I won't lie that I was quite happy to read how they all died lonely and in disgrace. While it's acknowledged by Johnny and those close to him that he does share some of the blame for enabling and tolerating the behavior of Paul, Slatus, and Johnston for so long, it's also true that most of what went on behind the scenes wasn't discovered until much later and that those three cretins did a very good job covering their tracks for decades until they were finally discovered.  The happy ending is that Johnny's bandmates and friends helped him to get out from under management's thumb, overcome the medication he was forced to take, and to get him back to being healthy, happy, and playing the music he loves.

As far as biographies go, this is one of the better ones I've read. It's clear that while the author has affection for Winter and his music, she is also not afraid to document some of the more sordid and bizarre aspects of his life, from his inability to stay faithful to any one woman until he finally married longtime girlfriend Susan in 1992, to his various addictions, strange sleeping and eating habits, and clashes with certain bandmates and producers, it's all in the book.  There are some cases where the book begins to read as if it were just patched together from quote after quote from various sources, and this mainly occurs toward the end of the book which discusses the decline period of Johnny's career in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Overall, however, when the book relies more on firsthand accounts and new interviews (which is how the bulk of the book is presented), it's very enjoyable and interesting.  Something evident throughout the entire book is that Johnny has a great sense of humor about nearly everything and that, while he admits in the introduction that it's painful at times to read the "not-so-good bits" from his past, he has no regrets. In general, it seems that people really like him as a person, which as an albino and respected musician, was all he ever wanted and something he goes to great lengths to reiterate repeatedly in the book. Unequivocally, he states at the end of the book that he wouldn't do anything differently if he could go back and live his life over again. At the end of the day, his goal in life was to be a "pretty good blues player" and on that count, he succeeded in spades.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment