“I don’t sit around and try to copy what’s popular now. That’s not a musician; that’s a pop star.”


Roy Trakin’s July 2012 Interview With the English Guitarist, Whose Ten Years After Was Inducted Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008
Last July, Roy Trakin sat down with Alvin Lee in conjunction with the release of Still on the Road to Freedom, a sequel of sorts to his 1973 album with Myron Lefevre, On the Road to Freedom. It would be one of the Ten Years After auteur’s final interviews. Lee’s death on March 6 renders his final words in the Q&A especially poignant.

Do you still play much live?
I still do a handful of European festivals each year just to keep my hand in and to stop me feeling like a retired accountant. I just performed at a Dutch festival.

For many you are indelibly remembered singing “I’m Going Home” 43 years ago at Woodstock. Have you gotten there?
I don’t think I ever will.

This album is kind of like the sequel to On the Road to Freedom.
When I first released that album, my fans were not happy. They kept saying, “This is not Alvin Lee, the hot guitarist from Ten Years After,” It wasn’t until much later, maybe ten years after, that people started saying, “Hey, this is a really good album.” It still is one my best-selling solo albums to date’ It just keeps selling because it’s kind of timeless. It’s the same with this album. I’m not playing all hot-shot guitar all the way; I play more acoustic guitar, a little more tastefully, although I’m probably not the one that should be saying that.

You weren’t trying to be the fastest guitarist alive?
Being Captain Speedfingers, the fastest guitarist in the West, was never a title I encouraged. It’s better than some other things. I didn’t set out to be that. I just got excited and played a lot of notes. I remember doing the London sessions with Jerry Lee Lewis, did the first song, straight in, no rehearsal, I played the solo and he said, “Why do you play so fast, man?” And I said, “I can’t help it. I just get excited.” The second take, we did “Memphis, Tennessee,” and I did a real tasty guitar solo, and he said, “Now you’re talking. Now I hear you.” I’ve always had the two sides. I listen to everyone from Joe Pass to J.J. Cale, and there’s a vast difference in those two guitarists.

Tell me about “Nice and Easy.”
That was the first track we recorded. I actually wrote it almost three years ago. It definitely is a J.J. Cale influence. I like him because he plays so little… I actually put on a J.J. Cale CD the other day and played along with it, and when the solo came, vowed to try to play less notes than he would. Come the solo, I played around six notes and he’s only played two.

You’ve never bowed to commercial or public pressure.
I don’t sit around and try to copy what’s popular now. That’s not a musician; that’s a pop star. For me, I have to like it. If I like it, and nobody else does, then I’m happy. If I like it and other people do, I’m even happier. But if I don’t like it, what’s the point? If you do a commercial track and it’s not a hit, then that’s really embarrassing. I just never played that game. I make an album I like and hope other people like it, too.

This album seems to express your own musical tastes, along with the roots and influences of your music, from down-home blues to ’50s rockabilly like “I’m a Lucky Man.”
Scotty Moore
was my big hero in the early days. I remember joining the Elvis Presley fan club not because I was a fan of Elvis, because I wanted a picture of Scotty Moore with his guitar. This is my hobby, and I suppose it’s my career. But I don’t look at music that way. It’s just something I do. This is a homemade album. It’s me and my mates, who just happen to be the best musicians in the world. I work out of my home studio on the bottom floor and take my time doing it. Lots of experimenting. I wrote 33 tracks for this album, and had a great deal of trouble trying to bring them all along together. So I cut it down to the best 13.

Tell me about “Midnight Creeper.”
The midnight creeper used to visit my house and creep around…but I can’t tell you who it is.

How about the country blues and honking harp of “Save My Stuff”?
I was a big fan of Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee…that sort of thing.

“Walk On, Walk Tall” sounds like a nod to Johnny Cash.
That’s actually a personal song to a friend of mine, but it fits everybody. I was always keen on Chet Atkins and Merle Travis as guitarists… Reggie Young. They are all fantastic.

“Blues Got Me So Badis a delta stomper.
That’s a real down-home blues. My blues name is Deaf Lemon Lee.

“Song of the Red Rock Mountain” has a neat south of the border sound.
I was just testing a microphone, and that’s what came out of nowhere. I planed to try to do it again and make it better, but I never did. It was sort of a magic moment. It just came out like that. And I thought, “Where did that come from?” That’s what I like about writing songs. I’m just the medium. They seem to come from someplace else. You can’t always tell where they come from.

“Back in ‘69” has that Bo Diddley “Not Fade Away” beat to it.
Actually, the working title for that song was “Bo Did” for a long while, looking back on the ’60s ideals of peace and love. They’re not totally lost, but I think generally, when you look at the situation today, there’s not much peace and love around, is there? Not as much as there should be, anyway.

“Rock You” is funky.
I don’t say “all night long,” do I? It’s about rocking you with my guitar, but it never only means one thing, and people see different stuff. That’s what I like about music. That’s what makes it interesting.

“Down Line Rock” is a traditional rockabilly train song.
It’s great driving music, as long as there’s not a speeding cop around.

“Love Like a Man 2” is a new version of the classic song from Cricklewood Green.
It’s a different treatment. There’s a chug-a-lugga rhythm to it, like New Orleans R&B player Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking.”

Any regrets for the way your career has gone?
I had to turn away from playing those big venues. I was playing clubs like the Fillmores, the Aragon Ballroom, the Boston Tea Party, great specialized blues venues, to 3,000 people. They were the best gigs. After the Woodstock movie, I was playing the Houston Coliseum, and there was no comparison. Just keep your mouth shut, take the money and laugh all the way to the bank. But to me, that wasn’t right. Even then, I had to play what comes naturally. And it wasn’t happening. The music I played turned into arena rock. I didn’t care to play that music. A lot of it was the people around me. I found myself spending more time with lawyers and accountants. It was all going in the wrong direction for me. To get away from that, I was doing everything possible to numb my brain, which certainly wasn’t good for me. I’m anti-celebrity. I became a rock star and a celebrity and I hated it. It didn’t suit me. It was like pretending to be someone, like Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. It wasn’t me. I’m a musician. I lean towards blues, but I like rock and roll, country, funk, jazz… anything with a guitar in it. Hopefully, I’m getting pretty good at it by now. I don’t know. It’s up to other people to say, isn’t it?”

What’s in the future for you?
I’ll continue to put out albums until the day I die, and will continue to play the odd festivals. Rumors of my retirement are totally untrue. I’ll do my last gig when you come to my funeral, how about that?

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You're gonna make a poor boy outta me.
...than 24 hours in a day.
on a Saturday night
Lamborginis and caviar Dry martinis, Shangri-La

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