Graded on a Curve: Johnny Winter,
Still Alive and Well

Famed music critic Frank Sinatra once called rock’n’roll the “most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” The crooner who liked to eat scrambled eggs off the breasts of prostitutes added it’s the handiwork of “cretinous goons,” and called it a “rancid-smelling aphrodisiac… that fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” Wow! Sounds great! Where do I sign up?

Good thing The Chairman of the Board never (I’m assuming) got a gander at the Winter Brothers, Johnny and Edgar. One look at Edgar Winter on the cover of 1972’s They Only Come Out at Night would have confirmed his every prejudice, and struck him dead with a coronary thrombosis as well. That or he’d have amended his comments to say, “cretinous, undead goons.”

But to hell, says I, with Frank Sinatra. And God bless dem low-down pink-eyed blues. The Winter Brothers have given us so much great music over the years you’d need a fleet of dump trucks to haul it all away. And it hasn’t been all blues by any means. Edgar, an inveterate dabbler, has recorded pop, blues, rock, boogie, jazz-fusion, and whatever the hell you call “Frankenstein,” while Johnny has played his fair share of straight-ahead hard rock.

In any case, I had a heckuva time deciding whether to review They Only Come Out at Night or Johnny’s 1973 classic Still Alive and Well. I finally opted for the latter because (1) Edgar’s a Scientologist, and I’m a bigot and (2) while Edgar boasts one fantastic set of mutton chops, Johnny has better hair. And a less flamboyant taste in neck bling. The choker Edgar sports on They Only Come Out at Night looks like a Versailles chandelier.

Naw, that’s not really why I chose Still Alive and Well. I picked it because it’s one of the hardest boogieing rock LPs ever recorded. The Albino Rambo of Electric Guitar slays the covers, and he kicks keister on his originals, which are top-notch. In short, he takes no prisoners, has a killer band behind him, and can get away with literally anything, including the long flute solo in “Too Much Seconal.”

The Winter brothers were born in the mid-1940s in the Very Pale of Settlement in the long-defunct Balkan nation-state of Albinia, where—Okay, so they were actually spit into the world in Beaumont, Texas, hometown of The Big Bopper and Blind Willie Johnson, and both attended special education classes in high school, which just confirms me in my belief that America’s educational system is in the hands of complete morons. Edgar, a musical child prodigy, mastered a plethora of instruments, while Johnny—the elder brother by two years—focused on the guitar, mandolin, and harmonica.

Johnny recorded his first single at 15, and released his first LP in 1968, after Columbia Record execs caught the Fillmore East gig that same year at which Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper invited Winter on stage to jam. Within a year he was playing Woodstock, and recording on and off with brother Edgar, and by 1970 he was incorporating rock into his blues. He was sidetracked for several years by a bad heroin habit, but cleaned up his act just in time to record 1973’s Still Alive and Well—the title being a kind of “Howdy, folks, I’m not dead!” to his loyal fans.

No ifs, ands, or buts, Winter is one awesome, mind-blowing blues guitarist. Still, I’m a rock, not a blues, guy, which is why hard-rocking Still Alive and Well is by far my favorite Johnny Winter album. It’s rowdy, raucous, and one great comeback, and it doesn’t hurt that he has one doozy of a band behind him, including Richard Hughes on percussion and Randy Jo Hobbs, formerly of the McCoys, on bass. He also gets some help from Rick Derringer—a former McCoy as well—on electric, pedal steel, and click guitars; Todd “Hello It’s Me” Rundgren on keyboards; Mark “Moogy” Klingman (later of Rundgren’s Utopia) on piano; and Jeremy Steig on flute.

The pair of Rolling Stones’ covers on Still Alive and Well—which was produced by Rick Derringer—are both triumphs. “Silver Train” blows the Stones’ version right out of the water, thanks to Rick Derringer’s slide guitar and the knockabout piano of Moogy Klingman, who boogies like the Rapture is afoot. And Winter’s vocals and guitar are both hot, hot, hot, as in hell-raising. I especially like the way Winter sings “But I sure liked the way she called me hon-eeeey,” and his great solo at around the three-quarter mark, to say nothing of the high-spirited vocal back and forth that ends the song. As for “Let It Bleed,” it opens with some brutal guitar, and Winter’s vocals are amazing, badass and deep and punctuated by cries and ad-libs. His guitar solos are positively jawdropping, and Hughes bashes the drums like they just insulted his moms. And best of all is the way Winter exclaims, after the song has ended, “Goddamn, is that good or what?”

Winters’ takes on Derringer’s tunes are brilliant as well. The fast and furious “Still Alive and Well” opens with Winter saying, “I’m hungry, let’s do this fucker,” at which point his surly guitar takes over. Meanwhile he sings like a survivor: “Did you ever take a look to see who is left around/Everyone I thought was cool is six feet underground,” and even throws a joke at his own expense into the chorus (“I’m still alive and well, still alive and well/Every now and then I know it’s kind of hard to tell/But I’m still alive and well”). He plays a pair of flabbergasting solos, and barks and screams, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t the best song about doing junk and living to tell about it since Dion’s great “Your Own Backyard.” Its only downside is its similarity to Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.”

As for Derringer’s “Cheap Tequila,” it’s sublime, a beautiful mid-tempo tune featuring both Derringer on electric guitar and Rundgren on mellotron. A tune about a “sad young hag” slowly doing herself in, the very melodic chorus punctuated by handclaps goes, “Drink up and be happy/Live just for today/Drown in cheap tequila/And flush yourself away/Flush yourself away.” And the guitar solo near the end is nothing less than staggering.

Winter’s guitar on Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” is the seventh wonder of the world, and Hughes’ drumming is right there with him. Meanwhile Winter sings it like he’s in that Buick 6, shouting into the wind, nailing such great Dylan lines as, “She keep my .410/All loaded with lead.” This is one of the greatest shuffles I’ve ever heard: no choruses, no solos, just that sharp plow of an electrified guitar cutting a deep furrow through the loam of your mind. His take on Little Richard’s “Lucille” is funky to the max, thanks to his stupefying axe work, and the way he sings, “Lucille!” is priceless. He plays one tres groovy solo before commencing to really throw himself into the lyrics. Move over, Richard Penniman, you’ve got competition.

Dan Hartman—the Edgar Winter Group jack of all trades responsible for the sensational “Free Ride” and the moody and sublime “Autumn”—wrote the fast-paced “Can’t You Feel It,” which combines blues lyrics with a rock’n’roll beat. Once again Winter’s guitar is sharp as a freshly honed machete, especially on the all-over-the-place guitar solo, and he sings, “If I can’t make you happy/I’ll jump into the river and drown.” Kind of a radical move, if you ask me, but he’s outside her window and trying to get in, so he obviously loves her, albeit in a creepy window-peeping way.

Meanwhile, Winter’s take on the Hoodoo Rhythm Devil’s “All Tore Down” is pure heavy metal, and boasts a big, bodacious riff that’s almost as breathtaking as Winter’s solo, which gives new meaning to the word feral. Poor Johnny’s all tore down and wants somebody to “tell the world to stop/Or just slow down,” because he’s never had nobody and the world seems to take great pleasure in kicking him in the teeth. Why, he can’t even buy a bottle without being hassled by the guy behind the liquor store counter, which so far as I’m concerned is the very definition of being fucked.

Despite its title, Winter’s own “Rock & Roll” is a smokin’ and bluesy number with a “Free Bird” got a chick in every town theme, and speaking of smokin’ that’s the only way to describe Winter’s vocals. He throws in a scream that should belong in the Cool Scream Hall of Fame, shouts “Rock and roll” like he just invented the damn music, and cries (and it never fails to make my day) “Gonna head on now, fuckin’ roll!” all while playing one very nasty and brutish guitar.

As for his bluesy “Too Much Seconal,” it’s another cautionary tale on an album full of cautionary tales. It opens with Winter’s mandolin and acoustic guitar, than Winter sings that hoary old trope, “Woke up this morning, etc.” Ah, but all is right with the world, especially when Steig’s flute joins in. And the three instruments mesh wonderfully, while Winter sings, “And I believe you’re taking too much seconal.” Steig then goes on a long, breathy flute foray, with Winter playing mandolin behind him while throwing in extemporaneous comments such as, “Don’t stop now!” and “Look out now, honey!” It’s a staggeringly excellent song, as folksy as it is bluesy, and for once I’m pleased to discover a flautist who, to quote Bob Dylan on Robbie Robertson, “does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound.”

Winter’s take on the blues standard “Rock Me Baby,” which has been covered by everybody in the world it seems, including B.B. King (natch), Blue Cheer, Robin Trower, and even the Steve Miller Band (gack!), is my least favorite cut on the LP, because while Winter’s vocals and guitar (especially on the solo) are rough’n’tumble and totally up to snuff, I simply can’t handle them old school blues, unless they’re by Robert Johnson, who sang ‘em like he really meant ‘em. It’s just not in me, the way U2 and Patti Smith and Warrant aren’t in me, and I can’t listen to the blues without rejected them like a transplanted heart.

On the other hand, I absolutely love Winter’s countrified take on “Ain’t Nothing to Me” by one E. Dunbar, about whom I can find no info whatsoever. Anyway, this mystery man wrote him one awe-inspiring ode to the drinking and brawling honky-tonk life, which the Brian Jonestown later got around to covering. “Ain’t Nothing to Me” is one perty Kuntry tune and Johnny sings it like he’s been singing country all his life, while he plays one sweet riff on his guitar and Rick Derringer contributes on the pedal steel and click guitars. Meanwhile, Winter sings, “I’d rather have the hot seat in Sing-Sing Prison/Than to sit down by her on that stool” and “Ah well, that’s life/Ah at least I though it was.” As for the ending, when Winter trades lines with a mystery singer, it’s catchy as the plague, without those bothersome buboes.

Still Alive and Well is so good, and such a masterpiece of commanding guitar work, raw vocals, and perfect song selection, everybody should own a copy, including you, your mom, your dog “Rabies,” Hitler, Pablo “Rock music is poison put to sound” Casals, Green Day (they’ve obviously never heard real rock music before), Lord Haw-Haw, Tom T. Hall, Huey Long (I think he’d have liked it), that Turkish family that walks on all fours (really!), Mike the Headless Chicken, D.B. Cooper, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, and Frank Sinatra, naturally. Because rock IS a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac, and Still Alive and Well is as awesomely, wonderfully rancid as they come.

Cretinous goons unite!


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