Revisiting Johnny Winter's Hell-Raising Memoir

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Raisin' Cain; The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter By Mary Lou Sullivan Backbeat Books, 384 pp., $24.99

As is the case when any musician dies, widespread interest in his or her career and catalog shoots up in the immediate aftermath. And that has certainly been the case with blazing blues singer/guitarist Johnny Winter, who passed away in July at the age of 70 while on the road in Switzerland.

Ironically, even outside of his demise, the profile of the Beaumont native and former Houstonian was on the rise with the release of a career-spanning box set (True to the Blues), a documentary (Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty) and a now-posthumous "comeback" record, Step Back.

So it's a good chance to look back at Raisin' Cain. First published in 2010, it was the culmination of a rocky road for author Sullivan. Based on scores of hours of first-person interviews Sullivan conducted with Winter -- along with his bandmates, his mother and brother Edgar, friends, lovers and others -- the book took more than two decades to produce. It didn't help that a former manager barred her from access to Winter halfway through the project, while his next one restored the relationship.

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It's a pretty raw reminisce as Winter recounts -- with little ego and almost no regret -- his Herculean indulges with substance abuse (mostly heroin); half-assed attempts at rehab (he scored the day after leaving one facility); and shitty business dealings, which either out of familiarity or laziness, he never chose to remedy.

There's also his less-than-admirable treatment of the women in his life as he two-, three- and four-timed them. And when one of Johnny's girlfriends got his signature tattooed on her body (as an alarming number did), it perversely meant they were weak, and subsequently nearly always on their way out of his bed and mind. However, he did finally marry -- and apparently had a later-in-life happy relationship with -- his longtime "main" girlfriend and now widow, Susan.

The book recounts a number of memorable, "only in rock and roll" incidents : how Winter, fried on acid, puked up in the lap of friend-with-benefits Janis Joplin in a helicopter leaving a gig; his early career struggles; and triumphs producing and playing with idol Muddy Waters and other blues giants.

And two of classic rock's biggest tentpole live records -- the Allman Brothers Band's Live at Fillmore East and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! were recorded when both of those performers were actually the opening act for Johnny Winter and his band.

Story continues on the next page.

Also of interest is how Winter rode very high as a stadium-playing blues-rock performer in the late '60s and early '70s, only to see his career tank with the speed of one of his solos. This was due to a combination of his own erratic behavior and stubbornness, bad business decisions and relations, and an avoidance of the media. And partially due to his desire to play a rawer strain of blues, Winter never had the '80s crossover success afforded Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and ZZ Top that he could have.

Houston plays a big role in the book as the place where Winter lived, loved, played at the Act III Club and Love Street Light Circus. He recorded his first single, released on Houston's Dart Records, here with local mogul Pappy Daily. The Houston Press' obituary of early producer/shady guy Roy Ames, written by John Nova Lomax, is quoted.

More recently, Rocks Off spoke with Winter earlier this year.

The book indeed delivers on the subtitle's promise of a raucous ride, and it's a credit to the long-suffering persistence of Sullivan that Raisin' Cain ever even saw print.

And that's a good thing, since it's now likely the only bio ever to be written on Johnny Winter and, since it has so much of his own participation, the closest we'll ever get to him telling his own amazing story.


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