As lead vocalist for the '60s British Invasion band the Animals, Eric Burdon fronted what was perhaps the toughest R&B-influenced group from the era (sorry, Stones fans), and had a second incarnation exploring psychedelic music.
In his collaborations with War, Burdon pushed the boundaries of improvisational jamming and started the group on a career of its own. And as a solo artist, he's freely followed his musical muse with little regard to satisfying anybody but himself, wherever that may have led him.
Now, the 71-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member is out with 'Til Your River Runs Dry (ABKCO). Its dozen tracks, ten of which he wrote or co-wrote, explore a wide variety of lyrical topics, from water conservation and border security to death, drugs, Hurricane Katrina, Obama, his friend Jimi Hendrix, love, and Bo Diddley.
In this two-part interview, Rocks Off spoke with Burdon about the record, his long career, a surprise collaboration with Bruce Springsteen at last year's SXSW, and how he scored pot in Houston during the aftermath of Hurricane Alicia.
Rocks Off: So, how does this record stand out for you artistically from your other solo projects?
Eric Burdon: It took longer to do, that's for sure, the longest recording process I've been involved with. In fact, there's enough material for two albums. I've got to stay in the game, stay on top of it.
I used to be the guy who didn't like to be in a studio. We could cut entire records sometimes in a few days or weeks. But I wanted a lot more for this one. We used three different locations and a lot of different musicians.
RO: I wanted to ask about a few particular songs on the record. You have "The River Is Rising," which was inspired by the story of Fats Domino during Hurricane Katrina. You told Rolling Stone that it was "the greatest piece of music you've ever been involved with." That's saying something.
EB: The story is intriguing. We were in the studio doing a previous album and watching the Katrina debacle on TV. I started to conjure up a song that would be a remembrance. I read the story of Fats Domino being trapped in his house and the first responders [who] thought he was dead and they put a red cross on his door and moved on. And he was actually just asleep! They sent a helicopter rescue and the photo of him being pulled out of the water gave me the idea for the story that goes with the song.
The strange thing is that before I recorded it, onstage I would improvise this chant that went "Yeah....the riving is rising...yeah." And the audiences would sing along with me, and they'd never heard it before. That was an incredible sign to me. So I did more thought and research and we went to New Orleans to record it, with some great players including guys who played with Fats.
RO: Another song, "27 Forever," is about all those musicians who died at that age. I know you were very close with Jimi Hendrix and played with him the night before he died. What would you want fans to know about him personally that they probably don't?
EB: I found Jimi to be really personable and, without a formal education, he was extremely well informed. He was into aspects of life most people don't even think about. He was talking about Kirlan
curling photography when I met him, which was being experimented with at UCLA. They take photographs of the tips of your fingers and read the aura off it as to what your medical condition is. He knew about that.
And then he was into UFOs, which I don't necessarily agree with 100 percent! (laughs), but he was deep into it. And I wonder how he, as a 24, 25-year-old with Indian blood in him from Seattle would know as much as he did about medicines and the history of Native Americans. Then I found out he had been taking sessions with a well-known medicine man called Rolling Thunder. I met him myself, and he was an ordinary guy, but he had a reputation for being a great seer.
And when he stayed at my house in L.A. in the canyons, or if he was recording, he'd tell me to call him if there was a thunderstorm coming. We were near the peak of a mountain that looked down on the San Fernando Valley, and you could be above the storm looking down. And he loved to come up there and chase lightning, bare feet and all. And I told him he'd get killed! We had a lot of fun just up there watching storms above Mulholland Drive.
RO: In the dream-sequence song "Invitation to the White House," you show up and Obama asks your advice on issues, to which you reply he should open the borders with Mexico for the labor pool. Since I'm calling from Texas, that's a particularly hot topic.
EB: I say it can work. You can bring in needed labor forces from other counties, not just Mexico, so long as its controlled and administered properly. Germany does it with Turkey, they're called "guest workers," and they apply for a license and are told that there are certain rules and they can stay and work for a short amount of time and then go back.
Most people who are transient workers, they don't want to leave, say, their island in the sun in Jamaica and go to foggy, rainly England! It's a necessity to survive. Mexico, OK, it's a mess. But it doesn't have to be. It's a country of skilled workers. Why not use it? Let's face it, we wanted those skills in the past, why are we saying no now?
We've made it out of control, because there's big money involved. It used to be guns for gold and gold for guns...two metallic, heavy forces that are difficult to hide. But if you're trading weapons for coke, which disappear up the nose, it's three times the money. The amount of money going into forces to combat what's going on at the borders...we created the situation. It's all our noses the coke's going up!
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In Part II, Burdon talks about the SXSW gig with Springsteen, his stints with the Animals and War... and scoring smoke in Houston. Stay tuned!