Johnny Winter

Is it a privilege to photograph Johnny Winter?
I must be frank I am not sure any longer.

A famous Italian song translate somehow as “…All heroes are young and beautiful…”. Unconsciously I must have believed it.

I am a blues fan. I was looking forward to this; approaching Johnny Winter is not only the closest I could get to Muddy Waters in 2008 (he played and produced Muddy’s latest albums) he is a key part of blues history in his own.

Winter became one of my legends since a schoolmate passed me a tape with his version of Johnny B. Goode. It was more than 20 years ago, one of the first guitarists I fell in love and one of the reasons I am still in love with this music.

Johnny Winter influence on the blues is substantial. He is the one who picked Texas blues heritage into rockland keeping alive a path paved by the likes of Lightinin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Freddy King. He is the one who inspired Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stevie, a teenager when Jimi and Johnny were changing respectively rock and blues history, needed just a few years to write the ultimate chapter about electric blues guitar.

1969 was his year.
In 1969, after few years in the band of his brother Edgar, the 25th years old Johnny signed with Columbia and published two landmark blues-rock albums.
Johnny Winter his first, is the bluesy one, the one where Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson got an electric restyling.
Second Winter, is the definite ovation. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode rocks as ever and Dylan’s Highway 61 revisited is indeed revisited again. Johnny rousing slide guitar U-turns on Highway 61 and heads Dylan’s masterpiece toward south, back to blues-land. With him, a huge crowd of aficionados follows, charmed by minor pentatonic grooves.

Despite people forgot it, mainly because it is unpublished on official releases, Johnny Winter was on the Woodstock line-up. His long white albino hair, his cowboy hat and the Gibson firebird sunburst guitar are a key figure in the visual imaginary of rock-blues explosion, seen on any stage around that time.

So why such an overwhelming sensation of demise at the Astoria?

When I saw Johnny arriving on stage, barely walking and quickly sitting on a chair, my hero’s icon collapsed in the twinkling of an eye. All the images I had in my mind roll by as if I was looking from a window of a time machine. Today he is an old man, his white long hair the last shiny thing on his shattered face. The years of drugs and excesses all well recorded on his bent, tattooed, skinny body.
I realised that my picture of Johnny Winter was stuck to 1969.

Standing 30 cm away from his frail body, listening to the blues in a quite empty theatre (the balcony was even close) on a 1st of May which had just been a hard working day, condensed so many discouraging truths that my night was permeated by a feeling of misery that didn’t leave me until the morning after.

Inside the Astoria an old man sings and proves that the devil isn’t available to trade for any bluesman’s soul. He plays a music from the past for few people trapped in their past. Audience’s worn-out T-shirts tell stories about their golden age. Beer bellies and the rare, grey, long hair left tell about their present. No much more than a caricature.

Johnny Winter left rock few years ago to play the blues. The concert opens with Freddy King instrumental classic Hideaway, supported by guitarist Paul Nelson, than they carry on as a trio with just drum and bass. His hands play the guitar so instinctively to seem automatic. His eyes stare into the distance, his mind lost in unreachable thoughts. Is the magic of the blues, a music that comes from archetypal regions of bluesmen minds, a music from the inside.

Johnny’s voice is feeble but present, singing the blues is more difficult than playing it, he still sings the blues but looks tired. Instrumental sections are recurrent and fluid.
The concert finds its peaks when immortal hits are played, more Freddy King with I’m Tore down, Jimi Hendrix’s Red House, his own Johnny Guitar and the immortal closure, finally leaving his odd instrument to embark into his “slide journey” on the Gibson firebird for Highway 61 revisited. It’s the end of the night.

Is it the end of blues?
Despite Johnny Winter perseverance, Buddy Guy passion, Eric Clapton fondness and John Mayall love, blues is not living its strongest period.
Willie Dixon’s said “blues is the root everything else is the fruit”, it looks the fruits are blooming but root is desiccating. Few musicians for few people, no youngsters, a difficult future.

I am optimist. I’ll be right here at the Astoria for the Black Keys in a short while, I hope they prove me wrong, I hope the blues can find a renaissance. I hope the rumours that the Astoria might be saved become a certainty.

“Go Go,
Go Johnny Go
Go Go,
Johnny B. Goode”

(Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry)

Johnny winter is online here [website] [myspace]

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It’s black, it’s old, it’s dirt. What you can reach is filthy and sticky, what you can’t is full of dust and cobwebs.
It has the mixer desk trapped into a odd egg-shaped metal cage.
It has a Keith Moon bar serving junk food but to get there you have to adventure through a maze of stairs.
It has some very wanted tables on the edge of the balcony.
It has stalls with the only bouncing floor I have ever experienced.
It has the oddest basement toilets; saturate with a strong hurine smell, partially hidden by burning incense sticks and cheap perfumes scent. If you go for a wee you’ll meet a man standing down there. He hopes you wash your hands offering soap and a full range of Eau de Cologne for a tip.

It is The Astoria. It is the quintessential rock venue in London.
Since 1927 the most coveted theatre in town. The place you have to play before being considered a real band. A must-play location.
The Astoria hosted the most legendary and raucous gigs in rock history, from Nirvana to the last Manic Street Preachers legendary concert with Richey.
It was recently chosen by U2, Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Manics and Radiohead to play low-key shows.

Photography-wise it has the perfect two thousands people capacity with probably the best photo-pit in London. Large and comfortable, you can move along the stage which is big but not too big, high but not too high.

You get to the pit walking through the stalls, no side entrances. You get out of it after 3 songs and the policy leaves you into the theatre, with your bag. If you got a photo-pass you automatically have the gig for free, no cloakroom, no-one kicking you out.

Bad news, the Astoria is going to be tore down to leave space to a(nother) tube line.
So please join the 37.000 people who already signed the petition to save the Astoria.
London needs the Astoria much more than another train.
[save the astoria]

“The tears burnin’
Tears burnin’ me
Tears burnin’ me way down in my heart

I’m gonna buy this town
I’m gonna buy this town,

Well I wait around the train station
Waitin’ for that train
Waitin’ for the train, yeah
Take me, yeah, from this lonesome place”

(freely adapted from Hear my train a-comin’ – Jimi Hendrix)

~ by Valerio on May 18, 2008.

18 Responses to “Johnny Winter”

  1. Wow.
    I was very sad when I saw Mick running on the stage almost falling, but running. Also his wrinkles were an headache cause.
    If I was at Johnny Winter’s concert I think I would have cry all the time.
    Impossible to look at without suffering.
    See you.

  2. Ehi Vale, you don’t sound THAT optimistic! That’s why your post is one of the best, both in text and pictures (very nice the front porch of the Astoria). I start suspecting that you are more cimiterial than you try to convey to your readers. That’s right, people get old and what they do becomes old fashioned. It’s happening to me as well (though I never was really very very fashionable). Wow, celebrate it!

  3. OK. Good Good Blog. And Very good images. I linked in my blog. Thanks.

  4. I’m moved by your mention “..all heroes are young and beautiful”.
    Forgive my bad english :)

  5. But I know when it all happened, I know his job
    beginning of the century locomotive machinist

  6. I was actually at the show at the Astoria in London just a few weeks ago… not sure YOU were there. You keep referring to Mr. Winter’s looks – I would be very curious to see photos of you from 1969 and compare them to photos of you now – to see if you have aged – like ALL people do! Taking into consideration that Mr. Winter is legally blind (all his life) and has in recent years recovered from 2 broken hips – and that he is still trying to walk onto the stage by his own efforts – hmmm – frail or not – it is commendable more than anything.

    Then to what really matters, – his voice, his music, – and his passion for bringing blues to the people even in his older years… If you could take photos and write reviews 1/4 of how well he sings and plays… you might be just as famous for what you do – as Mr. Winter is for being one of the best blues icons of our time.

    So – who are you again?

    And get your research straight, would you before you poison people’s minds with this crap – Half of Mr. Winter’s set was in true blues tradition a combination of music by his favorite artists and traditional blues done the Johnny Winter way – the other half was – please note – from Mr. Winter’s GRAMMY NOMINATED “I’m a bluesman” cd – released just a few years back…

    hmmmm – are you sure you were there???

  7. Brian,

    Unfortunately they hadn’t invented cameras that go to gigs on their own, then comeback home full of nice shots while I am at home sipping a tea. But even if they existed, I actually wouldn’t use them for Johnny Winter, since I am so much into the blues that I wouldn’t miss him live for any reason.

    But let me ask you, have you really read my writing? Where did you find a single bad word about johnny’s music, voice, blues?

    My sadness (liveon35mm is a blog not the Observer so I speak for my emotions) came by the fact that I had this image of himself “young and beautiful” and seeing him sitting on that chair, I realised he is obviously not that young anymore, while heroes are supposed to be “young and beautiful” forever.

    I find it is difficult to argue, isn’t it? as well as to debate that Astoria is being tear down, the balcony was closed to ticket holders and open to a bunch of VIP, the blues doesn’t have young followers but mainly men in their fifties and 1st of May in UK is neither a festivity nor people remember it as workers’ day.
    All of these depressing realities condensed my melancholy on that night, nothing related with Johnny’s blues which is still magnetic and raucous, and I wrote it.

    About my pictures in 1969 they would be difficult to find, I am young enough to be just a project in my parents’ mind at that time, unfortunately not so young to ignore Johnny’s greatest albums. I am a bluesman is a good record, but both Johnny’s career and electric texas blues history have a couple of hundreds better CD I could suggest before going for that one. But this is my personal opinion.

    Thanks for writing

  8. Her are some of the bad word your asking about in your review posted all over the internet!
    “Johnny’s voice is feeble”
    “looks tired”
    “my night was permeated by a feeling of misery”
    “No much more than a caricature”
    I was there too. What about the standing ovations he received all night! what about the fact that he was in 10 times better shape that last years performance?
    what about the fact that you are plastering your comments all over the internet in every blues forum you can find for what looks like personal gain.
    Your just a hack who had a camera! Johnny Rocked!

  9. Hey Pissed,

    You are unfair if you act improperly and misinterpret my writing…

    For the sake of correcteness (hoping you read again my article…)

    “Johnny’s voice is feeble but present, singing the blues is more difficult than playing it, he still sings the blues but looks tired”

    There is quite a difference, from the way you cut it leaving just “Johnny’s voice is feeble” + “looks tired”, this is neither what I wrote nor what meant, is it?

    “No much more than a caricature”

    I WAS REFERRING to the audience, I WASN’T talking about Johnny Winter, pay attention to my writing and think twice before writing.

    Yes, I WROTE
    “my night was permeated by a feeling of misery”

    Now, you can disagree on everything I write on anyone music, personal taste is a subjective issue, but you can’t disagree with MY emotions, because those are only mine, if I feel them, I am free to express them, am I not?

    My misery WASN’T about Johnny performance, which was a good night of blues-rock, but about the fact that blues-rock on the whole is a dying genre, ignored by youngsters and left for some people in their 50s who don’t sum up to a 1000 out of a city of 10 millions. Since I love the blues I felt miserable to realize I am among the few still considering it in 2008.

    To finish, as I already explained to someone else, I haven’t written a bad word on Johnny’s performance which was quite good and probably even better than previous year (I was present there as well), I just wrote how I felt sad to realize that heroes get old…as anyone else, unfortunately.

  10. I see there is a heated discussion going on here can someone explain what this means?
    “Is it a privilege to photograph Johnny Winter?
    I must be frank I am not sure any longer.”


  11. I am from the great state of MAINE…seen Johnny 22 times, and I
    will see him 22 more if I could…He is the greatest Blues man
    left on the Planet!!! Seen him thru the good times and bad…
    he now is the real deal!!! Come back to Maine Johnny!!

  12. Well Michael,
    I won’t argue on this, I am just wondering if you have seen 22 times any other living bluesman to state that Johnny is the greatest. It would make the comparison fairer and your statement more believable!
    Thanks for visiting, by the way…ciao Vale

  13. I’ve seen many, many blues blues men including Freddie King
    and a host of others, and Johnny is still the best…
    I am 58 and seen a ton of guitar slingers…he is the best!!!!

  14. Not sure what Astoria you shoot in but I’ve never entered the pit from the stalls. Always the gate at the side of the stage…?

  15. nice honest article!

  16. I have been a good friend of Johnny’s since 1985 and although he went through a real bad time in the 90s, believe me, he’s kicking ass and looking damn good and quite healthy again. None of us look like we did in 1969 and Mr. Winter has aged very well. For a guy who is now 64, he’s still rocking the places he plays to their foundations and supplies some of the greatest guitar work you will ever hear. Johnny hs always been the best in my book and still is. You can see some nice pictures of me with Johnny and Edgar on my site at .

  17. I just got back from a Johnny Winter concert in Virginia, and when he shambled on stage and hurriedly sat on his chair not 5 feet away from me, I almost cried. In a sold-out event, with hundreds of people around me, I almost broke down and cried. But when he picked up that Lazer and started playing, I knew then what John Lee Hooker meant when he said that “blues is a healer.” It was the most amazing and inspirational concert I have ever been to, and the realization that a 65-year-old, blind, albino guitarist is a 1000000x better player than I will ever be in my life is just fine with me. Here’s hoping that he continues his fantastic career making extraordinary music, and maybe the blues won’t just go away.

    P.S. I turn 21 tomorrow. Not every blues fan is going through mid-life crises ;)

  18. Thanks Steve,
    basically you felt what I did.
    I never wrote he’s not great or doesn’t play good blues.
    Long live Johnny!

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