Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com
Though throwing my drink viciously in the face of Yngwie Malmsteen only required but a split second, I could see it all happening in slow motion.
The gin and tonic seemed to hang there in the air between us like the globules of liquid you’d see floating around in a space capsule when astronauts were having breakfast. I watched the alcohol cut an arc and splash in the guitarist’s face and eyes, temporarily blinding him.
In that moment when he brought his hands up to his eyes to try and wipe the alcohol out of them, I thought to myself, “This is like a western movie. Two cowboys in a saloon and the bad guy in the black hat offends the good guy in the white hat. The hero of the movie takes his drink, holds it in front of him, and splashes it all over the villain.”
I could see it all and I knew what was coming next. With the empty glass in my left hand, I cocked back my right arm, made the tightest fist I could muster and…
But to hear the ending of that movie, you first need to travel back in time with me to somewhere around 1983 when the script was first being written. When the gauntlet was first thrown down. At that time, Yngwie Malmsteen was newly-arrived in America from his home in Stockholm, Sweden. Just another European with a funny name, he had played briefly with Steeler on their first and only self-titled album, a record which went largely unnoticed.
Then in late 1983, he was asked to join Alcatrazz, a hard rock band formed by keyboardist—and my best friend ironically enough—Jimmy Waldo.
Jimmy knew I was always interviewing guitarists and always on the lookout for great, new players. We shared the same musical tastes so he told me I had to check out the guitar player in his then newly-formed band. “Yngwie Malmsteen,” Jimmy said. “Who is that?” I questioned. Like I said, Steeler had never amounted to much of anything and the guitarist’s reputation was still a well-kept secret.
“What’s his name?” I asked. “Eengwee?” “No,” Waldo responded. “Yngwie,” which I would remember from that point forward because it rhymed with stingray. My buddy went on to tell me that he had a bit of an attitude.
Jimmy saying to me that Yngwie had a “bit” of an attitude was like saying a great white shark was just a big fish with a healthy appetite. He said he also suffered from a swollen ego, which would ultimately balloon to such a huge size that it would end up consuming everything Malmsteen touched—including himself.
So I can’t say I walked into that interview without having been pre-warned. I had advance notice of what to expect but nothing could have prepared me for that first meeting. I drove out to his apartment in the San Fernando Valley, a 20-minute drive from my little guesthouse in Laurel Canyon. I was met at the front door by a tallish, blond kid holding a Stratocaster. I thought that was cool—here was a young musician so devoted to his instrument that he never put it down. Edward Van Halen was the same way.
We said hello to one another. I unpacked my trusted, rusted and sometimes busted piece of junk cassette player from my bag, set it atop a little coffee table and retrieved the typewritten questions I had worked out.
“So, Yngwie, could we start…?”
Barely five words into the first question and he stopped me.
“No, man. Not yet. I have to finish practicing,” he said in a thick Swedish accent. It came out sounding more like an order than a simple statement but I understood. He had been holding one of his scalloped Stratocasters when I first entered and I could see he was running through what looked like some warm-up finger exercises. That was fine with me.
If he wanted to practice while we spoke, that wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, I’d done other interviews where a guitarist held his instrument and they all turned out beautifully. Cradling necks in their hands, these musicians seemed to be comforted and made serene by the feel of wood beneath their fingers. Listening back to the conversations, you could hear them talking about their music and punctuating their verbal statements with six-string exclamations.
But that’s not how it was going to work with Yngwie. He didn’t want to riff verbally and musically and even that I could understand. If he had been in the middle of some daily guitar ritual, I didn’t want to interrupt that since I figured he’d be done in just a few minutes. So I let him continue and I waited. Watching him run insanely complex scales up and down the Fender fretboard in a combination of lightning speed, classical precision and virtuoso technique staggered me.
Jimmy was right—this was a guitar god in waiting.
I allowed him another 10 minutes to complete his routine and began the interview a second time. “Watching you play, it’s obvious how much time and…” I never finished that sentence either.
He cut me off again mid-phrase and told me in a voice dripping with what sounded like contempt and disgust that he still wasn’t finished with his guitar workout. Once again, I sat there silently waiting for him to complete his guitar exercises. I waited and then I patiently waited some more and then my patience left the building to be replaced by ennui. Then boredom turned to anger and I sensed he was making me wait simply because he could.
I don’t know how long I sat there but it was at least 30 or 40 minutes. At a certain point, though he was still holding the Strat and playing, I just started talking. Five minutes into the interview, I was ready to leave because it simply seemed like a waste of time.
I returned to the earlier comment I tried to make about how much energy and focus he must have devoted to his craft. He told me he never really practiced. I thought he was making some kind of Swedish joke or it was some sort of European humor I didn’t understand. But he was serious. After sitting there for the better part of an hour with a guitar in his lap, he told me he never practiced.
I changed the subject and asked him about his guitar influences. He mentioned Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix. “What about Jeff Beck?” I said. “Who?” he answered. “Jeff Beck. Have you listened to Beck?”
What Yngwie said next would be the mouth heard ‘round the world. It was a response that would haunt him—and me—for years to come. He said, “Jeff Beck? Never heard of him, man.” Again I thought this was just some sort of Swedish humor so I asked him very slowly and deliberately. “Yngwie,” I said, “are you telling me you have never heard of Jeff Beck?” I spoke each word very slowly and very clearly so as to make certain he hadn’t misunderstood the question. Again, the same response: “No, man. Never heard of him.”
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