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Behind the Curtain: Ritchie Blackmore
For his latest Behind the Curtain, writer Steve Rosen recounts a memorable experience with guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore…
In December 1974, I flew to St. Paul, Minnesota to meet Ritchie Blackmore for the first time. Creem Magazine wanted me to go out to the Twin Cities to interview Deep Purple’s brooding cat in the black hat.
There had been a renewed interest in Purple after they made a killer appearance at the California Jam concert seven months earlier. I had been there on April 7, 1974 when the band stunned a crowd of 200,000 Ontario Motor Speedway fans by turning in a monster set that blew co-headliners Black Sabbath and Emerson, Lake & Palmer off the stage [though both of these latter bands were insanely good in their own right].
Purple’s performance was one of their first gigs featuring the revamped Burn lineup that included singer David Coverdale and bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes. Their set boasted pyrotechnics—a misplaced flash pot ignited just inches from where the guitarist was standing and almost turned him into a human candle—guitar and amp destruction, and an extremely annoyed Blackmore shattering the lens of a very expensive television camera after the operator ventured too close to Ritchie’s hallowed spot onstage and the guitarist angrily jabbed the headstock of his Fender Stratocaster into the glass eyeball.
Yes, I was there and saw it all from a media pit directly in front of the stage. The Cal Jam show had gone on all day and featured performances by Rare Earth, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Eagles, Seals & Crofts, Black Oak Arkansas and Black Sabbath before Purple took the stage [ELP headlined]. I’d actually spent some time with Sabbath backstage before their performance. I’d interviewed them several months earlier when I flew out to their show in St. Louis, Missouri [Behind the Curtain readers may remember the Sabbath story on these same pages] and I wanted to say hello.
I wouldn’t meet Blackmore at that Cal Jam show but I would be introduced to his guitar. During Space Truckin’—the last of their seven-song set—Ritchie channeled his best Pete Townshend and destroyed his Strat. He smashed it on the ground and bashed it angrily against his Marshall cabinets. Ritchie kept beating on the Fender and swinging it around his head.
Though this was a second and not one of Blackmore’s expensive Fenders, nobody knew that at the time. He tossed it in the air and jammed the guitar headstock-first into the stage floor.
Eventually the black-clad guitarist broke the neck from the body, which was his intention from the beginning. Walking to the edge of the stage, he tossed the splintered memento into the pit directly in front of and 20-feet below the performance stage. Like an animal trainer tossing a piece of meat into a cage full of wild beasts, a phalanx of media people and guests converged on it like hyenas circling a dead body
The neck landed literally about a foot in front of me and instinctively I put out my hand to catch it and I did. Sort of. I had hold of one end—the part that had come loose from the body—while the headstock end remained in the firm grasp of several other rabid concertgoers with bloodlust in their eyes and a dogged determination to walk away from the concert with a unique memento. I tried to wrest it away and every time I thought I had it all to myself, some new set of claws and paws would forcibly try and wrench it from my grasp.
Finally I released. I let go because the exposed truss rod protruding from the wood was dangerously close to severing a major artery in my wrist or at the very least slicing open one of my fingers. And I had the nightmarish vision, “Oh, my god. If that happens, these cannibals will start feeding on me!”
[Visualize those African travelogues you’ve seen on television. Two lions are feeding on a wild boar carcass. One lion is chomping on the neck while another one is munching on the hindquarters. Both animals have tasted blood and are totally consumed by the moment. Neither one is about to relent and consequently the beasts continue gnawing while the carcass is split in half].
I didn’t end up with the guitar. Years later, Eagle Rock Entertainment released a DVD of the band’s performance on Deep Purple: Live in California ’74 and if I look closely, I can see my hands hanging onto that obliterated neck. It was an amazing memory and when I found out a few months later I’d actually be meeting Blackmore, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with him.
At the end of ’74 when I found out I was flying to St. Paul to interview Ritchie Blackmore, I was ecstatic. I loved Purple and thought Blackmore was truly one of the great guitar players in the world. I wanted to ask him about Machine Head and Burn and wanted to share my story about almost walking away with a piece of his Strat from the Cal Jam Show.
But none of that would happen and in fact my time with Ritchie would completely change my feelings about him. Not musically but certainly as a human being.
After landing, taking a taxi to the hotel and cleaning up, I was invited to a private pre-gig cocktail reception the band was throwing in the lobby bar. I saw Jon Lord, Ian Paice, David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes indulging in the cocktail hour but no Ritchie. I wandered around and saw a familiar face in veteran writer Cameron Crowe. He was out on the road covering the band for Rolling Stone or somebody heavy like that. I knew Cameron socially and had met him a few times earlier in Los Angeles and I said hello. He said it was cool to order a drink and so I stepped up to the bar and asked for a Diet Coke. I never really drank.
I wandered around the bar and at one point I saw Jon Lord coming up to me. Figuring he was just going to say hello to the visiting journalist, I extended my hand in order to shake his but it was nowhere around. Lord was a pretty imposing figure with a full beard and big walrus-like moustache.
His eyes penetrated mine when he said none-too-cordially, “Did you order that drink and put it on Purple’s tab?” I stuttered, “I d-did.” Jon retorted, “Why would you do that?” I gulped and said, “Well, Cameron said it was OK. I’m very sorry.”
At that point, the organist lost his edge and his eyes softened. He explained how all kinds of hangers-on would order drinks and run up huge tabs on Purple’s credit. I told him I understood. He apologized and we shook hands. I eventually said hello to David Coverdale who couldn’t have been more cordial.
I wish I could say that was how Blackmore received me later that night but it would be a lie.
Purple was performing at the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, and would travel there on their private plane. I accompanied them for the 675-mile flight. After the hour-plus journey, I was driven over to the venue and escorted backstage. There was a buzz of energy when I was finally ushered into the inner sanctum.
If you’ve never been backstage at a major rock show, it might be best described as choreographed chaos. Roadies, techs and crew scuttle around making last-minute adjustments to amps, doing final tweaks to guitars and drums and just generally making sure that anything that can break, go out of tune, or blow up doesn’t. Out front you could hear the Bloomington auditorium filling up, the crowd happy to be out of the 47° weather and growing ever louder in anticipation.
I was finally ushered back to Blackmore’s private room. I saw him standing with one leg propped up on a small practice amp. He was running through what must have been his pre-show routine and was oblivious to the commotion around him. Standing just a few feet away and watching him fly around the fretboard was pretty mesmerizing.
At one point, a member of the crew came up to him and asked a question. He continued playing for another few seconds, raised his head and without uttering a word, simply stared at the source of the question and shot him a look that withered. He then lowered his head and continued practicing while the roadie slinked away like a beaten cur.
I had seen that exchange and it stabbed me like a dagger. It felt like sitting in a dentist’s waiting room and watching the patient who was there before you walking out the door with blood dripping from his chin. So when I was brought over to meet him, there was more than a little apprehension. The roadie introduced me—“Ritchie, this is Steve Rosen from Creem”—and walked away.
Several minutes passed while he continued with his finger exercises and I actually think he had forgotten I was there. I could feel the blood pooling in my mouth. I broke the silence by saying something like how cool it was to be there. He muttered something that sounded like an insult. It was and it wouldn’t be the last.
I began the conversation by asking him some questions about working with Coverdale and Hughes and his response left me baffled. Literally. He’d begin to answer and then fall into this very crude English double-talk, which was essentially nonsensical verse meant to sound like he was imparting some sort of essential wisdom.
He spoke the words in the same cadence he would have used had he been answering my questions normally so that I had to really listen to what he was saying lest I miss a legitimate response. He did this several times and I knew in the context of the dialog that he was insulting me and belittling me in front of the road crew who had gathered to witness the spectacle. I kept asking questions and he continued with this charade though occasionally breaking character and providing a real response.
Blackmore’s antics were not surprising. I’d read about his treatment of writers and even band mates and while it didn’t shock me, it did hurt like hell. He embarrassed me and made me feel the fool. I soldiered through the interview and hated every second of it. During the entire conversation, Blackmore simply seemed angry. Pissed off. This ran as an undercurrent with every comment he made and was there later during his performance.
Blackmore had been completely anti-social but Purple’s set that night on December 9, 1974 was nothing less than remarkable. Performing songs from Burn and the recently-released Stormbringer, the band blew away the sold out audience. I had brought my Nikon with me [the same camera mentioned in my Humble Pie story] and was allowed to shoot photos from the side of the stage.
I was a terrible photographer and had only brought the camera for giggles. Blackmore saw me shooting pictures—I was on his side of the stage—and would dance in front of me using a champagne bottle as a slide. The foam sprayed everywhere and I was never sure if he was trying to dazzle me or drench me.
As I watched the show, I realized he rarely interacted with the band and never even acknowledged there was an audience out there. But that was his shtick—his character—and I understood that. I also understood that Ritchie Blackmore was one of the most inventive and unique guitarists to ever play the instrument. Nobody sucked the sounds out of a Fender Stratocaster the way he did and though he went out of his way to be unfriendly and unprofessional with me, I could not deny the beauty and the passion in his playing.
When the plane landed back in St. Paul, I headed back to my room when I saw some of the band head to the hotel lounge where there was live music playing. Drummer Ian Paice, Coverdale and Blackmore were sitting at a table. I ventured over though I feared Ritchie would start insulting me again.
But he acted like he didn’t even know who I was and Coverdale—who was and still is one of the nicest rockers around—invited me to sit down. The house band realized who was in the audience and invited them up to play. Coverdale and Blackmore declined but Paice accepted the invitation. Up onstage, I could see Ian adjusting the drum kit to fit his left-handed profile. The guitarist had taken off his guitar and kept holding it out at arm’s length in hopes of Blackmore changing his mind but that wasn’t going to happen.
At that point, something inside me snapped. I thought, “F—k it! I’m gonna go up there and jam with Ian Paice. When would I ever get the chance again?” I walked up to the stage and though the guitarist didn’t know who the hell I was, he knew I had been sitting at Purple’s table and must be cool.
He handed me his instrument. I put the strap around my shoulders and nervously looked behind me. I had to blink twice to make sure that it was Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice sitting back there on the stool. There was another guitar player in the lounge band and he counted off the intro to Johnny B. Goode [I think it was the Chuck Berry song though all these long years later it’s hard to recall]. I can only remember that it felt like there was a freight train behind me. Ian played so ferociously and relentlessly that he broke the snare.
I was only up there because I later wanted bragging rights with my buddies in being able to tell them I jammed with the drummer from Purple. It was that and I thought maybe Ritchie might have cut me a little slack if he realized I was also a guitar player albeit a novice. I looked back at the table where he’d been sitting and he wasn’t even there but I still had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play music with Ian Paice.
The following year, I’d interview Blackmore for the second time right around the period when he first formed Rainbow. I drove out to his house in Oxnard, CA from my place in Laurel Canyon. On this particular night, he was relaxed and cordial—though intense— and I don’t think he even remembered mistreating me. I’m not even sure if he remembered me at all.
A Jethro Tull album played in the background—he loved Ian Anderson—while a very buxom blonde sashayed around the room. Ronnie James Dio was there and this was also the first time I had the opportunity to talk with him. As he ever was, Ronnie was charming, open and honest and would remain that way during our many encounters down the road.
Three years later, Ritchie and I would meet for a third time when I was assigned to interview him for the cover of Guitar Player [September 1978]. Blackmore was holed up at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood and when I first entered his room the shakes began. I didn’t know which Ritchie I was going to get: the rude one or the cool one.
Thankfully, I was greeted by the latter. He was remarkably open, funny and emotionally engaged. Maybe he was simply in a bright mood that day and knew that I was there to interview him for the cover of the biggest guitar magazine in the world at that time and treating me like some second class citizen wouldn’t be in his best interest.
I wanted to bring up the incident several years earlier in St. Paul but I didn’t want to push my luck. We talked about guitars, music and why Deep Purple never fed his creative soul. “Purple had no sense of what I liked,” he said. “I was still at the stage where I didn’t feel I had proved myself. I still wanted to do more but I got the impression sometimes they were quite happy to sit back and let things ride a bit. Another LP would be coming up and I never got very much emotion out of Deep Purple music.
“I did when I was onstage and except for Machine Head and In Rock, there wasn’t a lot we did that moved me. I could never figure out why that was but usually it was misinterpretation between the guitar and the vocal, which wasn’t their fault. It’s just that I had a very bad way of explaining myself. Plus it got to the stage where I couldn’t tell the singer what to say. I didn’t want to—he was the singer.”
Maybe that was the problem—maybe Ritchie Blackmore just had a very bad way of explaining himself. That could have been part of it but it’s not the whole equation. He was a very, very intense individual and there was nothing wrong with that but Blackmore tended to focus that intensity externally and it usually fell on whomever was closest to him. I felt the force of that laser beam anger and it shriveled me.
A year later I was seated at a table at the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard. It was a favorite hangout spot for rockers and groupies and for those who just wanted to be seen. I was indulging in some of their famous chicken soup when something hit me on the side of the head. I looked down on the floor at my seat and saw a stale roll.
I swiveled around to see where the offending baked good might have come from and who did I see? Yes, Blackmore was sitting two tables away. I smiled and nodded as if to say, “Yes, very funny. Thank you for hitting me in the head with a dinner roll.”
He looked back at me with an innocent expression meant to convey, “Who me?” I continued sipping my soup when another roll whacked me on the temple. This time I didn’t even look up. I figured it must have been Ritchie’s playful way of apologizing for menacing me so many years earlier. Or maybe he was just trying to draw blood. I suppose I should have been thankful he hadn’t thrown a fork.