One of my personal favorite kick-ass bands of the 1960s. A somewhat nerdy and introverted kid hanging with the biker-types who made up the rest of the band, Alan Wilson looked like he was from another band. But make no mistake, this kid was the heart soul of Canned Heat. Wilson was a veritable encyclopedia of blues history and its musicians from the early 20th century on and was sought out by others in the music business for his insights. This knowledge led the band to meet John Lee Hooker, the legendary bluesman who became a major influence on the band and on many others, including the Rolling Stones. Hooker called Wilson the greatest harmonica player he ever saw.
Wilsons death, like the more famous deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendricks a few months later, drew very little notoriety at the time. The musician had had a long history of depression, and to this day, some speculate that his death, on September 3, 1970, in Topanga Canyon, at age 27, was a suicide.
Canned Heats two big charters were Going Up the Country and, On the Road Again. The former was a remake of Henry Thomas’ 1927 song Bull Doze Blues. The latter was a cover for the 1953 song On the Road by Floyd James. Wilson was called The Blind Owl because of his near-sightedness and wisdom and knowledge of all thing’s blues. The band got its name from the 1928 song by Tommy Johnson called Canned Heat Blues, whose lyrics told a tale about an out-on-his-luck alcoholic who resorts to drinking the toxic Sterno Canned Heat mixture, when no liquor was to be had.
I first heard Canned Heat on my cousin Johnny’s 1968 Firebird car radio while on the way to Lake George in upstate New York in August 1968. On the way from New York City, we passed near Woodstock, where Canned Heat would play a year later. Their two hits went well with traveling in the Catskills and the Adirondack Mountains along the New York State Thruway. I was obsessed with the 1920s and 1930s then, a time less than 40 years in the past, and was always reading about the loosely organized gangs of bank robbers and kidnappers of the Midwest like John Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde. I had thought then that that was so very long ago.
As I look back on 1968, wow, that was 51 years ago. In 1968, ‘51 years ago’ was 1917, almost 17 years before Bonnie and Clyde. The point I’m trying to make is that time is relative to how old you are at a particular time. Time seems to speed up as you get older, and past the age of about 50, it starts to move like a car on the New York State Thruway. In those relative terms, Canned Heat is playing on the car radio in my head, but it’s from a recording they made in 1917. Indeed, it took me some 50 years to really appreciate their music. I liked their sound and soul then, but I listen to it now with increased intensity and appreciation.
Part of this whole time-relevancy thing has to do with video film quality and YouTube. In 1968, images on film of fifty years previous depicted figures moving with often hilarious inhuman quickness. Also, it seemed that the world had undergone extraordinary changes during those fifty years. In my estimation, the greatest 50-year transformation up to that time in United States history. Two world wars and major depression, in addition to the development of radio and television and other massive technological advancements, highlighted this metamorphosis and an utterly new universe had been hatched. If one considers just the development of the music industry during that time, the changes are profound indeed. Enrico Caruso on a scratchy phonograph to Led Zeppelin on your car radio.
Today I can watch YouTube and be taken back fifty years right into the studios of the top rock music television shows of the period such as Shindig, Hollywood A-Go-Go, and Hullaballoo. All featured English Invasion bands, Blue-eyed Soul, Motown and US Garage Bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders. It also takes me right into Woodstock, (not that that event was a personal favorite) to watch Canned Heat. The video and sound quality are very good, and much of the footage has been digitally remastered. This is a time-warp and a rocket ship ride to that other universe. A universe I lived through, though apparently while in a thick cloud of myopia! I can now see and hear hundreds of groups and solo artists that I had forgotten about through the time-portal of YouTube.