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Behind the Curtain: Fistfights (and Apologies) with Yngwie Malmsteen
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.”
I knew there was no way on this earth he had never heard of Jeff Beck. It was impossible. So he was either a complete idiot, lying, or just saying that to appear cool and controversial. Little did he know what kind of firestorm that comment would ultimately spark.
Though I had been ready to walk out of the interview five minutes into it, I continued because I wanted to help my friend Jimmy get some press on Alcatrazz and because when I told Guitar World I was interviewing this Swedish guitarist with the strange name, they said they wanted the story.
So I sat there and asked my questions and barely even heard the answers because I was so burned out from being forced to sit there while this big-mouthed, sarcastic narcissist spouted off with one ridiculous comment after another.
Yngwie never did put that guitar down. He held it during the entire interview and many times after a question was asked, he’d zoom around the neck for several minutes before even making any attempt at providing an answer.
It had become a cat-and-mouse game and I had grown really tired of playing the part of the rodent.
Maybe the gods in the rock and roll heavens looked down at that point and said, “Enough is enough” or maybe it was the mouse’s turn for some payback.
Whatever the reason was, by whatever twist of fate, what happened next was evidence that karma did exist and when it did come you better close your eyes and pray for mercy. Because Yngwie had apparently been playing on this particular set of strings for such a long time, they had become a bit dirty.
Rather than take the time to wipe down the strings with a cloth or some kind of cleaning solution, he simply took his thumb and first finger and ran it along the length of the high E string. As he clamped the string between the fingers of his left hand, it sliced into the pad of his first finger like a scalpel cutting through flesh.
As I watched it happen, I could feel the pain all the way across the room. Blood began seriously flowing from the cut in what must have felt like somebody trying to cut off his finger. You know what a paper cut feels like? Magnify that by a thousand times.
Blood was truly pouring from the cut within seconds. Yngwie acted nonchalantly and as if this sort of thing happened all the time but I could tell he was freaked out. He walked into his bathroom and wrapped several inches of toilet paper around it but his makeshift dressing was soon saturated with blood. This was a deep cut that could even have required stitches.
I wasn’t happy seeing him hurt that way but I can remember thinking, “You can’t treat people like garbage. There are consequences.”
I wrote the story and sent it to Guitar World and they told me if my original version was printed, we’d all end up in court being sued. It was a mean-spirited piece and so I rewrote it. The main thrust of that feature was that Yngwie Malmsteen was a highly-gifted guitar player with a bright future if he could only stay out of his own way.
Several months later in December, I ran into the musician at an after-concert party for Ronnie James Dio. Malmsteen was there and he saw me standing near the bar of the Cat ‘N Fiddle, an English pub on Sunset Boulevard and approached.
Immediately, curses and insults came tumbling out. He lambasted me with invectives and taunts of being a terrible writer. He had obviously seen the story. “You suck, man,” he said.
In his defense, the manner in which the feature was finally edited did magnify his shortcomings [the article was titled The God With A Chip On His Shoulder and that Jeff Beck quote he made was highlighted in bold letters] and quite honestly, they hadn’t done a very good job.
So, part of me understood his anger. But I had nothing to do with that final version: I had written a truthful account of what had transpired between us.
I endured his verbal lashing and simply told him, “Every word in that story was true. You can listen to the tape yourself.” That did nothing but enflame the situation. He kept mouthing off, standing right in front of me and yelling at the top of his European lungs. I ignored him. I didn’t care. I didn’t think much of him as a human being in any case, and whatever he had to say to me had no real consequence.
Until he started belittling me with religious slurs. I let the first one go by because I knew he was completely drunk and just trying to make me mad. But after the second one came spewing out, I was ready to destroy him.
That is when I threw my drink in his face and while the alcohol temporarily blinded him, I pulled back my right arm, clenched my fingers in the tightest fist I could make and socked him in the jaw. I wasn’t much of a fighter so the punch resulted in more of a heavy slap than anything else but it had done the trick. He staggered to the floor and by that time the adrenaline was pumping through me like a freight train and I wanted to tear his head off.
Malmsteen regained his balance and came at me and grabbed me around the neck. He was actually trying to scratch me and though he was bigger than me, at that point I knew I could kick the crap out of him. We scuffled for a few minutes and then several bouncers in the club came and separated us. In fact, my mate Jimmy Waldo was also at the party and he waded in. He felt no love less either for Yngwie and actually wanted to break his fingers. Yngwie was eventually thrown out of the party and Wendy Dio apologized to me several times.
My first inclination was to write about what had happened and to somehow make this debacle part of every story I ever wrote from that point forward. I wanted to destroy him in print. Then I thought, “No, not like that. I’ll get back at him by never mentioning his name in any story I write from this moment forward.” And I didn’t. In my own way I was saying, “Yngwie Malmsteen, you’re not even important enough for me to write about you.”
I forgot about him. Then about 10 years later, I received a call from Player—a Japanese magazine I had written for for years—because they wanted an interview with Malmsteen. They hadn’t known about the history between us and wanted me to fly to his home in Miami, Florida to do a piece on him.
Photographer Neil Zlozower would accompany me. I was less than enthusiastic. I told myself that the moment he opened his front door, if there was even a hint of barbarism or childishness, I was heading straight back to the airport and coming home.
Neil and I arrived at the guitarist’s Miami home following a 30-minute taxi ride and as I stood there on his porch, my mind continued to race. As if the blood hadn’t already drained from my face, hordes of mosquitoes swarmed and attacked me to suck out any life juices I might have had left.
Standing on his porch between stately, old plantation-style columns, I knocked on the front door. I was torn between turning around and running away or standing my ground, adopting a fighter’s pose—for the second time—and being ready to throw the first punch. I trembled as the door slowly opened and a presence filled the archway. I heard the bell for round two—for whom was it going to toll this time?
I was ready for combat but he completely disarmed me. In fact, he was so upfront and vulnerable in his admissions that I was visibly shaken. I had hated this person and wanted his career to fall to pieces.
But he apologized over and over and couldn’t say sorry enough times. He realized the terrible mistake he had made and now he was asking forgiveness. “I’m not a saint,” he said. “I can do bad things and I can do good things. Previously out of frustration, I would say things that maybe I shouldn’t have. You live and learn, right?”
He had learned and for the next day-and-a-half, he proved to be the world’s best host and truly one of the sweetest and brightest people I’d ever met. We did the interview and he was articulate and funny and we ended up staying at his house until three in the morning. We would talk about a piece of music and he’d say, “Dude, wait a minute. Let me show you” and run into another room, return with a particular Stratocaster and play the riff he was trying to explain. Instead of using the guitar as a weapon, this time he was using them as tools.
We played pool—Yngwie won every game—and played with his pet ferret named Nicola. We drank Diet Pepsis and beers and just hung out. He brought out some collector guns he owned including the piece Robert De Niro used in Taxi Driver.
He showed Neil and I his collection of Ferraris and then we all took in a midnight dinner where everyone in the restaurant knew him by name. We watched laser discs of performing at the California Jam while he would pull out one of his Strats and mimic what Ritchie Blackmore was playing note-for-note. He even played a track from a Jeff Beck tribute album he’d worked on and this was the same person who years earlier said he’d never even heard of the English legend.
I was so moved by the time I spent with him that the next day, upon arriving back in Los Angeles, I called him to express my feelings. I told him anything I may have felt about him had completely vanished. He told me he’d just bought a second ferret he’d named Ludwig. We made some small talk and then he said, “I feel like I made a friend.”
What better ending for a movie could you ask for than that?