When Roy Buchanan's first album turned up in 1972, it was the aural equivalent of the Abominable Snowman turning up in line for brunch at the House of Pancakes. He was then a little known hotshot guitarist who'd apparently been working the backwood roadhouses near Washington DC, playing a weird eclectic mix of roots rock, CW (he had a noted ability to make his battered Telecaster sound like a steel guitar), flamenco and blues. Author Phil Carson reveals how his technique had caught the eye and ear of such guitar notables as Les Paul, and adds that Robbie Robertson of The Band got a few high harmonic tricks from watching Roy pick. Around the same time there was also a National PBS hour long special-a mix of documentary and performance which had peoples eyes bugging out at his casual guitar mastery. Buchanan had a way of playing with volume and tone knobs using fingers of his picking hand to produce vocalized tones-he could make the guitar cry, moan or scream¼and he did it all without breaking a sweat or c hanging his stolid expression.
This book, a well researched effort with interviews with friends and bandmates, goes into details on his debut gig at Carnage Hall and tours overseas but points out that Roy seemed to prefer the smoky clubs and was happier playing as a sideman to mediocre singers than he was leading the band. He cut four albums for Polydor, three for Atlantic, and after a several year gap, three for Alligator. Over the years he'd struggled with depression and substance-abuse problems with off and on success. Late in 1988 he came home one night drunk with a stranger in tow, his long suffering wife was concerned and asked him to leave. When he wouldn't she called the cops. Roy flipped and split, the law picked him up down the street, and hauled him off to the drunk tank. A few hours later he was dead in his cell-under mysterious circumstances. The police version is that he was a suicide, hanging himself with his undershirt-some friends say it was more likely police brutality, with them dealing overly harshly with an obstreperous drunk. Full details have never been disclosed, and the book quotes people with varying viewpoints.
Author Carson is a true fan and he delves into a lot of little known background data, like the fact that Roy started gigging young and played in a variety of area bands, even winding up as part of an onstage band in a cheesy rock-exploitation flick ROCK PRETTY BABY. The band, the Heartbeats, wore striped jackets and included future Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden as well. Buchanan went on to work for several years in the touring band of rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins, and also spent some time with Bob Luman, until he went into the army. Roy eventually put together his own group called the Snake Stretchers and proceeded to alternate six nights a week roadhouse gigs with high profile concert tours.
The problem was that though Roy had undeniable technique, his versatility played against him in the marketplace-he didn't really fit any one category, and his goateed, flannel shirt demeanor didn't exactly strike charismatic sparks in the Guitar King sweepstakes against players like Clapton, and Jeff Beck. He regularly hired and fired sidemen, alternately drank, did coke and raged onstage or stayed sober for weeks at a time, riding that rollercoaster. At one point things were so out of hand he left behind his $18,000 cash payment, tucked under a mattress in a motel room- luckily his manager got local police to retrieve it. Carson says that Roy had a fear of success and it seems he spent much of his later life doing his best to sabotage it. Buchanan created some real classic music, his "The Messiah Will Come Again" is an instrumental legacy piece still valid today. This book does a good job of showing where he came from, where he went and what he did along the way. A sad portrait of a tortured talent.
Contact author: Genarocarson@aol.com
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