From Rock's Aristocracy to South Baltimore Gigs A Letter From Johnny Winter's Bus


"THE MAD ALBINO from Beaumont" is just beginning to warm up the crowd at Hammerjack's in South Baltimore. Tattoos of flaming monsters and shooting stars ripple blue and green and red on his milk-white skin as his muscles tighten around his guitar.

At the back of the club, roadie Bobby Peterson sells "Johnny Winter . . . 25 Years on the Road" T-shirts for $20 each with the help of a portable American Express charge plate.

Nearby, a skinny young woman in a puffed white party dress balances her rear-end on a railing, snapping gum and swinging her legs like a little kid on the playground.

"I never even heard of Johnny Winter before tonight," she says. "I'm just here to drink Kamikazes."

Twenty-five years on the road, and the little girls don't even know your name.

It reminds me of a favorite quote from Winter, once an unknown guitar phenom who signed with Columbia Records in 1969 for a reported $300,000 and went on to play Woodstock and record some 20 albums: "Man, in 1969 I couldn't walk outside of my house. What happened to all those Johnny Winter fans? Did they die?"

For a brief moment 20 years ago, Winter walked among rock's aristocracy, trading the deep blues of his Mississippi birthplace in Leland and his Texas upbringing in Beaumont for sonic interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon while making all the groovy scenes.

"Musicians always feel [empathy] with other musicians and John [Lennon] was the Beatle I felt most like. I hated it when he died," Winter has said. "He went through a lot of the same stuff I went through, being a junkie and everything. I could relate to him."

Because of drugs, exhaustion and constant touring, many did not expect Winter to survive the early '70s.

But he did, eluding the hellhound who took Jimi Hendrix, with whom Winter played the Newport Rock Festival in Northridge, Calif., in June 1970, and Janis Joplin, who appeared with him at the Atlanta Pop Festival the next month.

"I did not like [fame], I did not like it. It scares me to death thinking about getting big again," he once said. "I'm much happier now than I was when I was really big. It's not a real feeling. You don't feel normal. I hated it."

Winter's reward for enduring obscurity, fame, drugs, recovery and the loss of fame while becoming a living footnote to rock history is a spot on the cover of the Beaumont telephone directory.

He has the respect of fellow guitarists and people who cherish his seldom-displayed mastery of Delta blues, and he still carries enough name recognition to play year-round gigs across America at joints like Hammerjack's.

An old brick warehouse that straddles Interstate 95 and will soon sit in the shadow of the new Camden Yards baseball stadium, Hammerjack's is a wet T-shirt palace where it only costs $5 to get in to see a guy like Johnny Winter and an artist's performance is judged by how many empty liquor bottles get thrown away at the end of the show.

Winter played about an hour of high-speed rock and charged up blues this month, ending his show with "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "It's All Over Now."

Legally blind, he was helped offstage by men pointing the way in the darkness with flashlights.

After the show I sat in an office and waited for the nod from Winter's manager to hop on the tour bus parked behind the club, eager to ask Johnny a few questions. Like why he panders to a core following of motorheads with velocity instead of seducing a new audience with nuance?

There wasn't time for too much conversation but Winter was cordial and patient, complaining about his cramped living quarters on the bus, and hoping for the best in his upcoming album deal, which should produce his first album in three years.

"In the negotiation stages everything is always beautiful and we love you and you're the greatest and we're going to support the album and put money behind it," he said. "And as soon as you make the record, it's completely different. These guys are salesmen, you hope for the best."

Winter is a man who can lay the human heart bare by moving a pick and a hunk of metal across the strings of a National steel guitar while moaning and yodeling the blues like the pale ghost of Robert Johnson.

Yet, he says he is a prisoner of high-voltage rock because it seems to be the only thing his audience wants.

"When I do the ballads or some of the pretty stuff I like, it goes right by them. People don't care," he said. "When I was playing bars before I got known, people wanted variety. You had to do a country song, a jazz song. . . all kinds of stuff. People don't want to hear the softer side, and that bothers me because I really miss doing those songs."

A student of all forms of American music, Winter started off playing the ukulele when his father, the mayor of Leland during the Depression, gave him one during the Arthur Godfrey craze.

Then came the guitar, and then came Elvis Presley, whom Winter said rescued pop music from such tofu as "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?"

"That was the first real rock and roll," he says. "I loved Elvis in the early days. It was just so different."

Just about the same time, within months of each other in 1955, Winter went to summer camp at the age of 11 and discovered the blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. "That stuff changed my life," he said.

After that, he no longer had much use for Elvis, although he did tour Graceland in 1988 while recording an album for MCA in Memphis.

"It definitely showed me that just making it doesn't make you happy," said Winter, remembering the Presley mansion. "I walked through his hall of gold, with all these gold albums just stretching for miles and I thought, 'Man, this guy had everything you could want and it definitely did not make him happy.' "

Today, at age 47, with nearly all of the blues heroes from his youth passing over to the next world, Johnny Winter is more aware of his mortality than he was during the spooky years of his early fame.

Someday, he said, a hot young rocker might come along and do for his career what Winter did for Muddy Waters when he produced the last of Waters albums, earning Muddy his only Grammys.

I will never forget the sight of Winter's limousine pulling up to the side of Waters' Chicago grave in 1983. Johnny wore dark shades and sat in the back with his head in his hands, mourning his good friend, the grand old man of blues.

Once, more than a dozen years ago in a damp, cold room at Baltimore's old Marble Bar on Franklin Street, Waters told me that "Johnny Winter is the only white man who really understands the blues."

Muddy Waters has been gone for almost eight years now and it seems that Johnny Winter hasn't adjusted to the loss.

"I still talk about the young white guys and the old black guys. . . . I enjoyed having idols, older musicians to look up to and most of them are gone now," he said. "I keep having to remind myself, 'Wait a minute. You're not a young white guy anymore. You're an old white guy.' "

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.

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