There’s an old saying that if you remember the 60s, you didn’t live through them. Well, I don’t know about that, but I can tell you as a young, confused guitar-playing fart, there was one guitarist who inspired: Alvin Lee.
Alvin Lee burst on to the world stage at Woodstock in 1969, with his searing rendition of “I’m going home.” He was a rock star in every sense of the word, even though he didn’t want to be a rock star. He just wanted to be a musician, he had repeatedly said down through the years. Interesting how life doesn’t always turn out the way any of us planned.
Graham Alvin Lee died this past Wednesday, March 6, 2013, in Spain after complications marred a routine surgery. He was 68.
This column, this day, is a tribute to Mr. Lee, lead guitarist for Ten Years After.
I was 19-years old when I first became aware of Ten Years After and Alvin Lee. I had been screwing around with the guitar since about 15. I had a really nice guitar, a Guild steel-string beauty. In fact, I still have it, and sometimes bring it out to play a little bit for my kids, who pester me to do so.
I was never any good on the guitar because I refused to do the necessary work. I was, however, in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands because of an innate ability to scratch out silly stuff on paper, later to be put to music.
When I saw and heard Alvin Lee play guitar, I knew then I would never be a competent guitar player. I was, instead, going to be a fan, and that suited me just fine.
After Woodstock, Lee and Ten Years After came to San Francisco and played a famous venue of the times, Winterland. I hustled off to see the show with a long-time confident of mine, who was a true guitar hero. This friend could play. Actually, and although adept at the guitar, I never like his songs because they were too confusing. Too advanced perhaps.
But Alvin Lee was a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player – true blue. His concert at Winterland was one of the best shows I ever saw. The closest to his performance has to be the Jerry Garcia-led Grateful Dead of that same time frame – when they were on – and Van Morrison, when he was on. I saw them and many more at the Fillmore and/or Winterland. I was roaming the streets of San Fran and the music was literally busting out of the seams.
The night I saw Ten Years After was electric, pardon the pun. Lee was on fire. He had just come from his big Woodstock showing. The documentary of the same name had just been released and Ten Years After had gone from the small-club circuit to the arena circuit. Lee was to say later this transition actually destroyed the band because they became a jukebox of sorts, playing what the audience had come to expect – hit after hit, ending always with “I’m going home.”
That all may be true. And I’m sorry for that. Fame and money can screw a person up. That’s for sure. I know a little about this because my dad was a bit of a star, although as an actor. I saw first hand the darker side of fame. But that’s another story.
As a young fart-pusher, Alvin Lee was an icon to me. When his Winterland performance finally came to an end after several encores, and the four-man group hustled off the stage, a single spotlight rested on his red guitar, which was still in full feed-back mode. Show biz all the way.
I now this sounds a bit silly, but after the realization that I would never be a competent guitar player, I did try to improve and found myself getting better.
That, it seems to me, is a true example of excellence. When the best of the best lifts the rests of us up to heights unattainable of our own accord. The artist catapults us to another dimension by way of his hard work and talent. Such a gift. Alvin Lee did that exact thing for me. I will always be grateful for his artistry.
Alvin Lee has left us but his music lives on. I will always listen to “I’m going home” as I run my daily four miles. Thank you, sir.
Alvin Lee, by the way, is survived by a wife and a daughter. My thoughts and prayers go out to them. May God bless you and keep you safe and sound.