Not on any map: Peter Green’s blues country (03/27/2020)

In the March 2020 edition of Real Life Rock Top 10, Greil Marcus wrote:

4–9. Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac was a blues band at the start, and no one before or since ever matched their sound at its most distinctive: light, clean, uncluttered, emotionally and sonically transparent, with a sense that there is a place for every note, if you can find it—a tone that called up fated blues, if you could feel the edge of fate. The guitarist, singer, and songwriter Peter Green (5) formed the group in London in 1967 with the drummer Mick Fleetwood and, soon after, the bassist John McVie; when the guitarist Jeremy Spencer came on to make it Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer, Green cut back and named the band after the rhythm section, which meant as long as Fleetwood and McVie stuck together the band could go on forever, which it has—after Green left in 1970 after a mental collapse, after Spencer in 1971 disappeared into the Children of God, where he remains to this day, after they kicked out Lindsey Buckingham in 2018, after whoever is next is spun off into the rings traced by those the band has forgotten.But Green cast a long shadow. He survives today as a ruin; he was unique in the history of the blues. His songs “Oh Well,” “Rattlesnake Shake,” “The Green Manalishi,” and “Black Magic Woman” shot through the charts in the UK, but in his deepest work he took the music to places Robert Johnson would have recognized, but never described. “I just wish that I’d never been born,” Green sang in “Man of the World,” in his plain English voice, no down-home mannerisms, no drawl, and he could stop you dead with that line, the song going on but you not hearing a thing, frozen in contemplation of how a line that first took shape in the fourth century BC in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus—“Not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words; by far the second-best for life, once it has appeared, is to go as swiftly as possible whence it came”—had traveled the millennia whole until they found a voice that could make them seem at once like words spoken for the first time and the end of history. Even Green’s playing seems to have an English accent: clipped, precise, lucid, each line an aphorism, all governed by a sense of restraint, as when after the shockingly loud first note in his almost unbearably sustained, nearly two-minute closing solo in “Love That Burns” he pulls back and over the next measures leads the song into silence. There are many Fleetwood Mac collections where, among Spencer’s ridiculously satisfying Elmore James covers, Green seems to arrive from some blues country not on any map—the most recent is (6) Before the Beginning: 1968–1970 Live and Demo Sessions (Sony). It can stop you anywhere: “Worried Dream,” “Trying So Hard to Forget,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” If his most indelible songs aren’t here, it hardly matters: what you hear now is that it was all one song, a song no one else could sing.

On February 25, Mick Fleetwood hosted a concert at the London Palladium (7) to celebrate Peter Green, though he did not play. There was a train full of famous names, from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith (did he really need to tie all those signature scarves to the microphone at a show that was supposedly about somebody else?) to Pete Townshend of the Who and so many more, who added nothing, and nothing of themselves; the one exception was (8) Noel Gallagher, late of Oasis. Carrying an acoustic guitar, he came on to sit down with a small band for “The World Keeps on Turning.” “I know what some of you are thinking,” he shouted at the crowd. “What does he know about the fucking blues? Well, you’re about to find out.” After that it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d played “Wonderwall,” but he crawled into the song, and every word rang true: “I need her like the sky needs the sun.”

Mick Fleetwood was seated next to him, tapping sticks on a block. “Did you learn a lot from Peter Green?” he was asked last year on the Raised on Radio podcast (9), and he spoke with an eloquence that you can read back onto any Peter Green song:

“Did I learn a lot— learned pretty much everything as a player. I learned, one, that someone believed that I could actually play—which was a huge help. And he found whatever trigger that was that I could identify with being okay with myself playing. Which is the perfect slot to be suited—a sort of simple, groove drummer, that maybe thought I didn’t think I was very good, or I thought I wasn’t clever enough. And he saw, and had the perfect music, sort of diagnosis for it, which was playing blues, as long as you listen like a hawk, and you know how to swing, and you are on the edge of collapse, and therefore vulnerable—which leads you to empathizing with feeling. It was the perfect lesson that I learned from Peter Green.”

On the edge of collapse—that was it. That’s what Peter Green reached for, over and over again, and what he left behind.

I never saw it happen. I could have: the band played its first show on August 13, 1967, at the Windsor Music Jazz and Blues Festival in Berkshire, England. But I was there to see Donovan, then deep into his shimmering Pre-Raphaelite period, with a small band at his right, a string quartet to his left—and, to its left, a helipad, where a machine carrying musicians landed and took off throughout his set, which didn’t do a lot for the sound.

Los Angeles Review of Books, March 27, 2020

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