Alvin Lee Goes Home
Former Ten Years After frontman Alvin Lee died today (March 6, 2013), and the world is a lonelier place now. Among the great guitarists of the ’60s and ’70s, Lee accompanied his listeners on a colorful romp through the Elysian fields of blues, rock, jazz, and even country (listen to “Me and My Baby” on Cricklewood Green, the band’s fifth album, but the one that launched their modest career in the early 1970s). He could do a mean blues growl (“The Stomp,” on SSSSH), fiddle with psychedelia and electronica (“As the Sun Still Burns Away” from Cricklewood Green, or those famous opening measures of “Baby, Won’t You Let Me Rock and Roll You,” from A Space in Time), or turn damned introspective on a song like “Circles” (Cricklewood Green) or “Think About the Times” (Watt). While Clapton’s fans were attributing divinity to that bluesman, famously declaring that “Clapton is God,” Lee delivered anointed riff after anointed riff in the midst of a world yearning for the simple musical clarity he laid at their doorstep. Clapton seemed unreachable—still does in many ways—but Lee lived with us on our level, “working on the road” and simply carrying on from one song to the next, delivering mightily and never letting us down. He was a musician’s musician, devoted to his craft, always chasing that elusive note and unafraid to try new styles, and musically talented enough to pull it off.
Lee’s death hit me harder than any other musician’s death, and I’ll miss him more deeply than others. Sure, I grieved when Duane Allman was killed in that awful motorcycle crash, and was stunned when Allman Brothers’ bassist Berry Oakley died the same way just a year later; when Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and then Levon Helm died, a bit more spirit went out of me with word of each man’s passing. When I read about Alvin Lee, though, I felt like I’d lost a close friend who’d accompanied me spiritually through the past forty years.
Even though I’d discovered Ten Years After in the late Sixties through their Undead, a live album on which I first heard the now-iconic Ten Years After song, “I’m Goin’ Home,” and Stonedhenge, with its wonderful psychedelic-meets-prehistoric-man album cover, the first Ten Years After I owned was Cricklewood Green. I’d already become Lee’s disciple long before then, faithfully riffin’ on “I’m Goin” Home,” doing my damndest to match him lick-for-lick. When I dropped the needle on the first groove of Cricklewood Green, however, I knew Lee and Ten Years After were taking me to a new place. This was no longer the hard blues of those earlier albums, with a little jazz (“Woodchopper’s Ball” on Undead) thrown in; this was an album that jumped quite easily and naturally from one style to another, without apology. Lee was inviting me to explore, to pick up my guitar and to learn the freedom of roaming over musical styles from a master. In other words, in those moments, I became Lee’s disciple—though he never, so far as I know, would have considered himself a guru and never would have set himself up in such a way; Lee, from everything I have read and heard was never an arrogant musician, solely in it for celebrity and status; he was in it for the love of the music. Lee taught me how to listen closely to notes and to find the most wrenching power from them; he taught me how to be alert to music’s beauty and variety. Lee was always one with his guitar, and he taught me how to embrace that unity of player and instrument. His craft and his music changed me in immeasurable ways, just as he brought a new force to rock and roll.
The band’s performance at Woodstock, and Lee’s lightning fast licks on an extended version of “I’m Goin’ Home,” raised their visibility, especially after the film of the festival was released. In 1971, Ten Years After released A Space in Time; the band gained some modest commercial success with the song, “I’d Love to Change the World” (probably the only Ten Years After song you’ll hear on the playlists of “classic rock” radio stations these days). The song featured Lee on acoustic guitar, and the lyrics took up the spiritual messages that other acoustic songs such as “Think about the Times” and “Circles” had already introduced.
Yet, the little-known, or at least often forgotten 1973 album, On the Road to Freedom, confirmed not only Lee’s tremendous musical virtuosity—if anyone had ever doubted Lee’s deep talent, this album puts to rest those doubts—but also revealed the ways that Lee could carry us to another plane of existence with his music. In a collaboration with the accomplished southern guitarist Mylon LeFevre, Lee explored themes of hope, loss, sadness, freedom, redemption, and love. Many of LeFevre’s fans considered him an apostate for teaming up with Lee for this album (although he’d already started well down the road toward rock with his Holy Smoke Doo Dah Band). Even though LeFevre’s first mainstream album, “Mylon, We Believe,” is often called the first “Jesus rock” album, he had grown up singing and playing with his family, the LeFevre Family, a famous Southern gospel singing family. By the time LeFevre and Lee got together to make this album, rumors swirled and legends developed; at least one legendary story recounts a roof collapse at the mansion that the two musicians had just left after recording songs on the album.
Despite such stories, the richly layered music and the deftly woven lyrical tapestries of the album evoke a palpable spiritual sense. The opening track, penned by Lee, tells a familiar tale of an individual turning away from the riches of this world—much to the world’s disdain—and searching instead for a freedom that comes not from material things but from spiritual happiness. “I’m looking for the road to freedom so I can be free/keep thinking as you walk and one day you will see.” In Mylon’s song, “Lay Me Back,” the singer pleads: “Lord, won’t you help me ‘n be my friend/ Lord, won’t you help me to understand/Lay me back and sing to me a song/’Cause when them angels sing, I love to sing along.” George Harrison penned one of the most poignant songs on the album, “So Sad (No Love of His Own”), and he appears as a musician on the track under the name Hari Georgeson. Steve Winwood, Ron Wood, Jim Capaldi, and Rebop, who also join Lee and LeFevre on this and several other tracks on the album, as well. This haunting song explores the transitory nature of life, with a characteristic Eastern musical riff. Fans of bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs can’t help but hear strains of Lee’s country-inflected “Funny” in Skaggs’ “Honey” (recorded twenty years later).
Listen to this album, or any other Ten Years After or Alvin Lee album, and you’ll discover why the world is a lonelier place without Alvin Lee in it. As he once put it in “Circles”: “Life is goin’ round in circles, wonder will it ever end/if I die maybe you’ll miss me, or just find another friend.” We’ll never find another friend like Alvin Lee.