Rising son of rebel music
I performed with Eric in Sarajevo in 1999.
27 November 2003
Eric Burdon, the tough frontman of 1960s band The Animals, has remained a performer. Now he has documented his memories and thoughts in the book Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. He talks to Rosa Shiels.
"How many minutes do we have?"
"It's up to you, my lass."
The avuncular Geordie on the end of the phone is one of Newcastle-upon-Tyne's most famous sons.
As the founding singer of English band The Animals in the 1960s, Eric Burdon - now also in his 60s - set the standard for white boys doing R'n'B way back when white boys were better at saccharine pop.
Growing up in the industrial north of England, Burdon's natural musical tendencies were always towards black soul and blues, and his growly, authoritative voice stood out way above the light romantics on the international charts when the Animals broke through in 1964 with a song about a New Orleans brothel, House of the Rising Sun.
Decades on, almost anyone who picks up a guitar for the first time tries to pick out the arpeggio opening chords of this anthematic blues ballad.
Along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Animals made up the victorious British Invasion when they took their stylistic originality across the Atlantic and broadened the scope of modern music.
Burdon chose to stay stateside, which is his chosen base to this day.
Although Eric Burdon's name will be linked forever with the Animals - perpetuated, in part, by Burdon, who has formed various New Animals bands through the years - he is a singular man.
His life and times are marked as much by his own experiences in the heady '60s and '70s as those of the wild and talented people with whom he associated, from Jimi Hendrix and Elvis, to John Lennon, bluesmen BB King and Jimmy Witherspoon, Janis Joplin, Steve McQueen, John Lee Hooker, and Jim Morrison - the list goes on and on.
Burdon's take on the apocryphal, often jaw-dropping events that shaped him and those of his contemporaries who managed to survive the wild hallucinogenic swerve of the era is all there in his new book, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.
Written with Jeff Marshall Craig, it is a loosely chronological collection of music-biz insider insights and anecdotes about the festivals, the drugs, the crazy times, the successes; Jimi Hendrix's last lonely hours, John Lennon's uncomfortable reunion with his father, Brian Jones' death; the middle men, managers, roadies, groupies, and rip-offs.
Read about backstage at Monterey; about Burdon's short spell in jail in Germany as a suspected associate of the Baader-Meinhof gang; about performing in the Joseph Stalin Hall of Culture in Warsaw and the Sarajevo war zone.
Turn him on with a question and this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer answers in gritty, familiar tones.
"I had a terrific book many years ago that I once loaned to Nina Simone. It was a book of newspaper clippings, songs, and ideas. I managed to get every artist in it to sign their autographs, so it was quite a treasure, you know. Unfortunately, it was stolen and disappeared, and I haven't seen it since. That was my first lesson in letting go.
"Then I had a fire in my home in Palm Springs in California and lost all the photographs that I'd taken - a lot of really good collectable stuff. That was my second lesson in lettin' go. So I gave up on collectin'."
Somehow, despite the excesses of spirit he readily admits to between the covers, Burdon's recall is fairly lucid, and despite leading a full-on touring schedule, he was able to get his recollections down.
"Jeff would help me stay on track, because I was continually touring. I'd go away on tour and we'd pick up the pieces when I came back. It was his job to a), help me with research and b), tell me 'stay away from that subject, develop this one'. So he was kind of like an in-house editor. The writing process for me is long- hand notes, going to tape, and then handing it over to him. He would take it from there."
A quick look at his website will show you that this year he's been in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand for performing engagements and book signings.
"This last year has been the busiest in living memory. I've moved from one agency to another, so I had to work off the old gigs that the old agency had put in place, and the new agency were tryin' to prove themselves."
On his rare time off, he retreats for soul refreshment to his Palm Springs home, which he shares with his Greek lawyer partner, when she's there.
"I live about 50 minutes outside of Palm Springs up in the mountains in Joshua Tree, and October's when the desert starts to go, 'Aahhhhhhhh, it's over'. It starts to cool down, and I really resent not being there during this month. Joshua Tree is a unique place. It's where all of the B westerns were shot that I used to see on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. And so I get to live among those rocks, among those vistas."
It's a long, long way from Newcastle where his grandfather was the groundsman for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Football Club and his grandmother had a boarding house in the shadow of the football stadium.
The dry air is good for his asthma and his only daughter lives close by ("She's given me four grandchildren, so I'm up to my knees in kids whether I like it or not").
"It's the only desert region in the world, the only arid zone that I can live in, without having children point AK47s at you. Pretty much every other arid zone is steeped in violence," he says.
Always a peacenik and an anti-establishment rebel, Burdon has taken his music to many edgy and dangerous situations.
"It sounds perverse, but it's always a buzz to go to a war zone. I mean, you suddenly start to see everything much clearer than you do in your day-to-day experience. And then you see a place that's absolutely flea-bitten, you know, the madness of weaponry, and you start to notice that every third person has a limb missing. It was really a moving experience. I was only there for three days but for those three days I was wide awake, totally in tune with what I had to get on with, why I was there, and what music means to people."
What does music mean to him?
"I love performance. It's a great way of expressing yourself and being able to exercise your spirit and soul, you know, as well as your physical self. I've found out over the years that music really does have healing power.
"And when you're in a place like the bombed-out building site that we performed in in Sarajevo, you could see the people who were enemies come together, and see soldiers in uniform listening to the ethnic music of the people who they probably were subjugating 24 hours earlier. It's a moving experience.
"Something that struck me as a dark spot in the whole visit, though, was as I was leaving and I thought the concert was over, making my way through the crowd and I looked back and the stage suddenly changed from a warm and colourful arena to a sort of Albert Speer kind of light show.
"A heavy metal band came on stage and suddenly the audience were Nazi fists in the air screaming 'Serbia! Serbia! Serbia!' And I thought, 'Wow, man, they've hijacked the whole concert!' And that's what is going on worldwide. You've got people hijacking religion in order to further their own interests. It's scary."
On his last break from touring, Burdon bought himself a new car "to satisfy my boyish fantasies". Then there's always his Harley.
"I have the obligatory Harley Davidson in my garage. If I get a really good ride in once a month I'm a happy camper.
"I'm the only person on the block who has a Harley Davidson instead of a horse. I'm surrounded by horse people.
"I'd love to have animals, but it's totally unfair to have an animal and live my kind of life.
"I've had dogs in and out of my life since I was a kid, but until my woman comes home and she's gonna be around long enough to look after an animal, that'll be when we get some animal life.
"Life is definitely more fun with animals, that's for sure."