Peter Green, inheritor of Eric Clapton’s spot in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and co-founder of Fleetwood Mac, was, said B.B. King, ‘the only guitarist who gives me the cold sweats.’ Renowned guitarist Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, et al) was profoundly influenced by Green’s playing, his sensitivity in dynamics, phrasing and tone, as well as his melancholic, spiritual songwriting. Gary Lucas shares a moment, melancholic yet inspiring, that he had with his guitar hero.
As a young guitarist schooled in the snarling, overdriven Yardbirds school of classic British rave guitar, hearing Green’s soulful liquid touch for the first time was a revelation.
Sure he could rev it up in spades if he wanted to, and he frequently did. But his overall sensitivity in terms of his sense of dynamics and phrasing and tone I found totally refreshing in a world of mediocre hot piffle guitar hotshots. And that is what makes him so great in my book (he rarely used pedals, for instance; he went right straight into his guitar amp, using the volume knob on his Les Paul to crank it up when he wanted to get nasty). As far as great musicians go, he remains today in a class by himself, both for his guitar playing and his unusual, melancholic, very personal songwriting. It is no accident that his friend B.B. King once called him “the only guitarist who gives me the cold sweats”.
The first thing that alerted me to Green’s brilliance was his stellar playing on John Mayall’s second album A Hard Road, I picked it up due to a rave review in Playboy around 1967– and it floored me. His playing is aggressive throughout but he does not fall back once on any blues cliches or standard-issue blues guitar licks in his soloing. (He’s playing a Les Paul through a Vox AC 30, stepping into the group to try and fill Eric Clapton’s rather deep footprint). His sense of melodic invention on the Freddy King cover “The Stumble,” for instance, is a rare example where the cover is greater than the original version.
“The Stumble” John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers (Peter Green, guitar; John McVie, bass; Aynsley Dunbar, drums):
Then there is his Beyond Category journey deep into the Mystic, his original instrumental “The Supernatural”—on the face of it a minor key blues melody with his guitar drenched in deep reverb courtesy of producer Mike Vernon, but it is something more than that also by a long shot—call it an overwhelming sense of immanence. Peter hits some high-register holy notes in there that he sustains with feedback that ring out like the chimes at midnight. It is in the brewing numinous. There seems to be a direct connection between his heart, head, his fingers, and a Higher Power, I cannot really describe this any other way.
“The Supernatural”-John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, featuring Peter Green:
But this was just a mere warm-up for his singular masterpiece the album Then Play On. That is when I tuned into Peter Green again, the first couple of Fleetwood Mac albums not really coming up on my radar screen after his stint with Mayall although I was aware of their existence of course (their complete non-promotion by Epic Records in this country could have had something to do with this). I’ve written extensively about Then Play On before, so will cut to the chase here; suffice to say, as a young Jewish guitar player very cognizant of my Jewish roots, the nakedly devotional and spiritual sentiments expressed in the lyrics and the music of many songs on this album touched me to the core when I first heard it. “He totally gets it!”
It is no accident that his friend B.B. King once called him “the only guitarist who gives me the cold sweats”.
Beginning with his angry protest unto God “Oh Well (Parts One and Two)”, this album was my Eureka Peter Green moment, subsequently reinforced by a deep dive into his amazing and intense singles “Man of the World”, “Need Your Love So Bad”, “Albatross”, “Love That Burns”, and “The Green Manalishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown”).
Fleetwood Mac-“Albatross”, live on German TV (ignore the birds):
His influences on here? Many electric and acoustic blues guitarists, especially Otis Rush in both the guitar and vocals category…Hank Marvin and the Shadows…Santo and Johnny…Ralph Vaughan Williams…and so on.
Fleetwood Mac-“The Green Manalishi”, live in Sweden, 1970 (three guitarists! Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer, Peter Green):
That he fell into the abyss of drugs is well known. His subsequent comeback output was uneven at best. I was made very sad by this, but it made me determined to meet Peter eventually. I wanted to reach out to him and tell him just how he meant to me as an inspiration, and how much he’d touched me with his music. In the late 1990s, I did some recordings in London with two young musicians, Riz Maslen and Paul Fredericks, whose aunt turned out to be one of my favorite UK soul artists, Linda Lewis. Paul told me Linda was a close friend of Peter’s. So I sent Peter an autographed copy of my Evangeline solo acoustic album with a personal note of appreciation via Paul to Linda to (hopefully) Peter, but never heard anything back, which isn’t surprising as you rarely do, especially with your heroes.
I finally got my chance on Aug. 29, 1998, when Peter Green and the Splinter Group, his newly constituted comeback touring band, made a rare appearance in NYC at Tramp’s on West 21st Street. His appearance was billed as Peter’s “First NYC gig in 38 years!” I had to be there! I’d played the club myself a couple times with the Killer Shrews and with Jeff Buckley, and I knew the booker, Steve Weitzman.
But it was a dispiriting and disappointing show—as although the typically rowdy crowd of yahoos who largely comprise the NYC music loving scene cheered him on (loudly) after every solo, a close inspection of the goings-on onstage revealed Peter’s second guitarist Nigel Watson doing all the actual soloing (including reproducing note for note such indelible everGreen riff-age as his classic “Black Magic Woman” solo), Peter basically content to stand back at these soloing moments and comp the rhythm guitar chords with a large grin on his plump face (sad to say, his previously willowy, shamanistic figure had ballooned alarmingly since his days as the Green God).
“Black Magic Woman”-Fleetwood Mac, live at The Tea Party in Boston, 1970:
All of this was profoundly depressing to me. Actually his inability or refusal to play his own solos didn’t seem like it was a matter of lost technique or anything—it was more like he JUST DIDN’T WANT TO GO THERE mentally; ie, a general reluctance to venture into areas he used to explore and tread fearlessly, but which now seemed to make him uneasy. His playing and singing can best be described as tentative here—it was like he only had come back halfway from the hell he’d been in. This is admittedly speculation on my part as I’m not privy to the guy’s medical records, but if true (and it seemed to me then and still seems to be now the only logical explanation here), then this is a vivid testimony to the potential and possibly permanently damaging effects of too many psychedelic drugs. Okay, ‘nuff said.
His playing and singing can best be described as tentative here—it was like he only had come back halfway from the hell he’d been in.
But that’s generally how it went at Tramp’s that night, an hour-long live trawl through the Peter Green / Fleetwood Max catalogue. A familiar anthem would be wheeled out, the local crowd would go ape-shit and howl “Peee-duh!! Peee-duh!!” as soon as they recognized the song–and then when it came time for the solo-ing, Nigel would step up to the plate and do his soundalike guitar thing, and Peter would happily pull back into the shadows. Honestly, it not only saddened me, it fucking irritated me—it made my blood run cold. It was like– the royalties were running out, and somebody was intent on propping the poor guy up (“Get out there and earn, goddammit!”)—putting Peter in a place he really shouldn’t have been in at that point. It was a degrading public spectacle quite honestly. But wtf, the great paying unwashed were oblivious, so….THEN PLAY ON!
Anyhow, Steve Weitzman taps me on the shoulder when the show finishes and says “I know you want to see Peter”– and he brings me straight back to the dressing room. I was first in there. I go inside and Peter eyes me warily from across a table (hey, I didn’t insist on rushing in there, trust me– normally most artists are given or ask for a grace period of at least 10 minutes to cool down once they come off stage). I smile at the guy shyly—hey, this is my fucking idol, for better or worse–and say sincerely, “Peter, it’s fantastic to meet you! You were always one of my favorite guitarists!!” Whoops, shouldn’t have used the past tense there!
Peter eyes me coldly and then says cryptically in a low voice: “There’s always someone out there better than you are…and I’m sure you know who that is!” I laugh and shrug off this rather pointed remark, saying “Yeah, I guess so…but I don’t ever think about that!” I smile again and say, “Here’s something I brought for you Peter—from one Jewish guitar player to another”—and hand him the first of two gift offerings, a copy of my new album on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records entitled Busy Being Born. Peter looks at it and chuckles, nay guffaws, at the cover art– a painting by German artist Franz Von Stuck from the 1920s entitled “Dissonanz”, portraying two demons, one large and one small, the small demon blowing a Pan’s pipe, which is causing the large demon to cover his ears in irritation. Rock and Roll!
Peter turns this album over and over and over in his hands studying it, and finally looks up at me with a very confused look on his face, and says in all sincerity: “Am I on this??” “Peter!” I say, alarmed. “That’s Then Play On!”
Having now warmed up to each other (kinda), I then inquire: “I sent a copy of my last album Evangeline to you through Linda Lewis—did you get it?” Peter looks uncomfortable, and then Nigel, who is sitting next to him, chimes in: “Oh, superb album!!” Damn, maybe Peter received the album from Linda Lewis and gave it to Nigel is all I can think. Then I whip out my second offering–a vinyl copy of the UK edition of Then Play On, which sports a solid black front cover with the group name and album title in white typeface, and on the back, a full cover photo of the band lounging up on Hampstead Heath.
Peter turns this album over and over and over in his hands studying it, and finally looks up at me with a very confused look on his face, and says in all sincerity: “Am I on this??” “Peter!” I say, alarmed. “That’s Then Play On!” He smiles and finds his name printed under his figure in the photo, and then carefully writes in black marker pen his real name under that: “Peter Greenbaum”. “Okay Gary”, Peter’s Asian female minder Michi breaks in, “We’ve got a whole line of people waiting to see Peter!” Like, move along now, son and get the fuck outta here. Which I do, shaking my head sadly, kind of shuddering actually once I’m outside the club with my pal, the critic Glenn Kenny.
Peter eyes me coldly and then says cryptically in a low voice: “There’s always someone out there better than you are…and I’m sure you know who that is!”
I make a vow to myself, and I tell Glenn angrily: “You know what? I’m not going out like that! I’m going to be playing with the same fire when I die as I’ve always played.” And I keep trying.
R.I.P. Peter Green. You were the Best. You remain an inspiration to the world for all time—and you remain an inspiration to me for whatever time I’ve got left.
“The End of the Game” from Peter Green’s first post-Fleetwood Mac solo album: