Book Review: Blind Owl Blues by Rebecca Davis Winters

Blind Owl Blues
by Rebecca Davis Winters
Publisher – lulu.com
Copyright 2007
225 pages

Rating – 8/10

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Summary – Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (1943-1970) was the guitarist for the blues-rock band Canned Heat. In Blind Owl Blues, author Rebecca Davis Winters recounts Wilson’s journey from his Boston childhood, to fame with Canned Heat, to his early death. While readers may wish for more details on Wilson, Blind Owl Blues is a good account of a talented musician who has been unfairly neglected.

Review – Blues rockers Canned Heat enjoyed a brief time in the sun (1967-1970) before death, drugs, and bad choices ruined the group. Canned Heat’s drummer – Fito de la Parra – recounts the band’s history in his aptly-titled book Living the Blues. In my humble opinion, Living the Blues is the best rock biography ever published; it’s incredibly graphic and recounts the band’s early successes and its later, dismal failures.

Fito’s book certainly piqued my interest in Canned Heat. Perhaps the most-intriguing figure in Canned Heat is guitarist Alan Wilson. “The Blind Owl” died at age 27 and – unlike other rock music casualties – slipped into obscurity before attracting the interest of music fans.

The Blind Owl Returns

Now, the Blind Owl has his own book, thanks to author Rebecca Davis Winters.

Many readers will no doubt be familiar with the outlines of Canned Heat’s story – founded in Los Angeles, the band appeared at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, then hit it big with the 1968 single “On the Road Again” [not the Willie Nelson single of the same name]. Success bred more success, as the band had two more hit singles, played Woodstock in 1969, then recorded a 1970 album with their hero, John Lee Hooker. Sadly, that was the end of the glory years, as Wilson died of a barbiturate overdose in September 1970. Years of lineup changes, declining sales, and more deaths were to follow.

Early Years – Life in Boston

Davis takes readers beyond the glory years and delves into Wilson’s background. He was raised in Boston, where he was an outcast among the local kids. As a teen, he became obsessed with music and eventually majored in music at Boston University. However, he soon quit college to “hang out” in the blues revival scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The contacts Wilson made in Cambridge would help lead to his fame with Canned Heat.

Eventually, Wilson moved to Los Angeles to help a friend write his UCLA masters thesis on bluesman Charley Patton. Wilson soon drifted into L.A.’s small community of blues fanatics. By chance, blues-rock began to catch on and Canned Heat soon had a recording contract. (Manager Skip Taylor signed Canned Heat after he saw them play at a fraternity party at UCLA; he also signed the other band that played the party – The Doors).

While the material on Wilson’s early years is good, the reader wishes that there were more detail, as Wilson’s pre-Cambridge life takes only pages 8-15. Some insights into Wilson’s early family life might help the reader better understand him.

Talent & Green Concerns

Winters focuses her narrative on Wilson’s years in Canned Heat, but also on two of his main interests – the blues and environmentalism.

Throughout Blind Owl Blues, Winters includes examples of Wilson’s musical talent and understanding of the blues –
– He possessed perfect pitch, and was able to use a telephone dial tone (a perfect B-flat, he said) to tune his guitar.
– His knowledge of the blues was so deep that – when listening to records – he could explain not only who played on the recording, but also who was present in the studio.
– John Lee Hooker said that Wilson was the greatest harmonica player he had ever heard.

Winters points out that environmentalism was still an obscure movement in the late-1960s, but Wilson was a true believer. When Canned Heat was on the road, Wilson often slept outside instead of in hotels with the band. Also, he carried large botany books with him so that he could identify plants. When the band was at home, Wilson used much of his free time to go camping. He even attempted to put his concerns for the earth into Canned Heat’s music by writing songs such as “Poor Moon.”

Tortured Life

Certainly, Wilson was complex and puzzling. By all accounts, his personal hygiene was abysmal, making him difficult to be around. Also, as he cared nothing for clothes, the band’s managers would often dress him in “cool” outfits just before he went on stage (so that he wouldn’t ruin the clothes before appearing in front of the audience). He was forgetful and could not remember airline tickets, or even when he was supposed to take flights. Money was also of minimal interest; de la Parra states that he used his royalty checks as bookmarks.

For all of his abilities, Wilson was always bitterly unhappy. He was unable to form relationships with other people, particularly women. The fact that the other members of Canned Heat were often knee-deep in groupies only added to his dismay.

As a result of his problems, Wilson was hospitalized during parts of 1969 and 1970. At one point, he had a car wreck that some Canned Heat members believe was a suicide attempt. More than once, he overdosed. Winters does a good job of recounting Wilson’s death and the many different notions people have advanced about what really happened; forty years later, there are still many unanswered questions.

Winters’ Sources – and a Few Other Comments

Forty-plus years after Wilson’s death, it is clear that much of his story has been lost and Winters deserves credit for taking on some difficult detective work. Still, readers will wish for more on some topics.

Of Canned Heat’s members, she was able to interview only Frank Cook (the band’s drummer before de la Parra joined), Harvey Mandel (who belonged to the group for about a year, in 1969-70), and Richard Hite (younger brother of Canned Heat’s singer, Bob Hite; Richard became bassist for Canned Heat a few years after Alan’s death). Interviews with some of the other surviving Canned Heat members could have helped provide additional perspective.

The book includes many black-and-white photos. These are excellent, but most are from the early-to-mid 1960s. The reader wishes that there were photos from Alan’s early years and from the Canned Heat years in the late-60s.

Finally, the book closes too abruptly. I would have liked to have read some of Davis’ thoughts on Wilson’s ongoing influence (or “legacy”). She might have mentioned what his loss meant – personally and musically – to Canned Heat.

Where to Start? An Apple and An Orange

Despite my quibbles, I really like Blind Owl Blues. Given all that has been lost in the intervening years (including the deaths of original Canned Heat members Bob Hite and Henry Vestine), Winters did as well as anyone could in piecing together Wilson’s story.

So, should you start with Blind Owl Blues or Living the Blues? Either is a good choice. It depends on what you want. For an overview of Canned Heat, go with Living the Blues. For a portrait of a talented, tortured artist, try Blind Owl Blues.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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