Alvin Lee

Alvin Lee in all his glory… (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

By now most of you have heard the news reports: the incendiary guitarist Alvin Lee of Ten Years After died unexpectedly of complications following routine surgery. He was 68.

It’s fashionable now to dismiss the classic rock musicians – they’re old now, some have retired and, truth be told, others should have long ago. Ten Years After flared like a solar event for a brief period after their explosive breakthrough at Woodstock (and their immense good fortune in having Michael Wadleigh capture Lee’s iconic rock star turn on the 11+ minute “I’m Going Home” for the epochal film of the same name).

After a string of uneven albums, some superb (Cricklewood Green, Ssssh), some mediocre or worse (Watt, Rock and Roll Music to the World) Ten Years After fizzled by the mid-seventies and Alvin Lee, like many of his brethren from the Woodstock moment (Country Joe McDonald, Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian) faded from the public consciousness: they could still draw fans to shows, but they had become, fairly or unfairly, nostalgia acts.

Still, it is important to understand why they became stars in the first place. As a musician friend of mine noted in his Facebook post about Lee’s passing, the Ten Years After segment in the film Woodstock (with Lee wailing on that Gibson 335, Leo Lyons beating the shit out of his Fender Jazz bass, and Ric Lee keeping time on drums through an incredible performance of the song mentioned above – all while keyboardist Chick Churchill wishes it weren’t so damned hot and tries to keep his hair out of his face) is one of Rock’s Grand Moments. Here it is in full, with Lee sharing the stage with a watermelon as a finale:

Rock on, Alvin…

8 replies »

  1. I’ve never seen the movie, although I was part of the rock festival era and saw Hendrix, Duane, Alice, et al at various festivals. But like everyone of my generation, I knew of Alvin Lee because of it. Maybe that’s the moral here. All you need for immortality in this day and age is 11 minutes, but they better be 11 really fucking good minutes.

    • You know, Otherwise, you’d find the film a fascinating document of the times. I personally think “Monterrey Pop” is a better film (and was a better festival with more great performances) – but for a record of the glory and the gore that was the explosion of Boomer energy run amok, “Woodstock” can’t be beaten.

      That 11 minute thing has a subtext that we both have thought a lot about, I think. If one is a writer, especially a writer really trying to say something about the human condition, one must in almost all cases accept that one if writing for posterity, not the immediate gratification of public acclaim in one’s lifetime. And who got more public acclaim in a more immediate fashion that rock stars?

      Alvin’s performance is electrifying and his acclaim as a result justified if unrealistic in terms of what an artist should expect from life. But for me that moment at the end when fans roll a watermelon onto the stage and he picks it up and waves in gratitude humanizes that entire superhuman unreality of the moment – and adds a pathos that makes me even now, writing this, feel like I would have liked AL had I known him. He was a guy with a genuine talent – but he was a guy. A guy – like you and me and every other guy.

      That, for me, is the truth I spent a whole freakin’ book on. For his and all his brethren’s sake I hope I did justice to that….

      • deep down, when someone tells me they are an actor or a performing musician or the like, i immediately drop them on my internal ranking scale. one of the reasons i never got over the top when i was on the pro speaking circuit was i never managed to quite get over the feeling that trying to get applause is unseemly–not unlike breeze. not quite sure why the applause of posterity is more “seemly” than the acclaim of the public in front of you, but for some reason I do feel that way.

  2. I heard this while my radio wake-up was on NPR. As soon as they started playing the song I knew they were going to say Alvin Lee had died. I was surprised how much time they spent on this story, I kinda figured it’d just be the announcement with no background, so that was nice. A remarkable guitarist.

  3. There’s that moment in ALMOST FAMOUS, where the kid is trying to get the band to pay attention to him, and he whips out the word that gets the guitarist’s attention: “incendiary.”

    This is what he meant.