A boomer’s memories of sex, drugs, rock’ n’ roll and Vietnam

“Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll… and a distant place called Vietnam.” That’s how Amazon.com begins its summary of David Westwood’s fourteenth novel, The Paisley Tree House. Back in the Sixties, David had been flown out from England to Los Angeles to sing with a rock band there. The book centers around a family dealing with the swirl of those turbulent times. Here is an excerpt, recreating a performance of another band.

The Corral was packed. Of all the bands that played here— Spirit, Little Feat, Taj Mahal— Canned Heat were the locals’ favorite.

When Bob Hite, known as “The Bear” because he weighed over 300 lbs, walked onstage you could hear the boards creak. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson stumbled over to his Les Paul guitar, arranging his harmonicas in a different pocket for each key. Larry Taylor strapped on his bass, and their drummer “Fito” de la Parra adjusted the angle of his cymbals. Henry Vestine hooked up his Stratocaster on the side of the stage away from Taylor — it was said they didn’t get along.

Canned Heat

After a brief “Hello again, Topanga!” from Hite, they pitched into their signature “Going Up The Country,” with its catchy falsetto, perky flute, and vaguely back-to-the-land lyrics. The crowd roared its approval. Then the band played B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen,” a slow 12-bar with plenty of room for arabesques high up the neck of the lead guitar.

David Westwood today.

Canned Heat had started with Chicago blues and bent it into their own version of rock ’n’ roll, adding a jaunty irreverence that, in Southern California at least, seemed to encapsulate the attitude of the times.

David Westwood back in the days.

The band launched into a syncopated “Wish You Would,” with plenty of cowbell and a hypnotic repetition of the main motif, followed with “Evil Woman,” with its sneering guitar tone, and slid into “I’d Rather Be The Devil,” a shuffle heavy on brushes and harmonica.

Tonight was one of those rare performances where both audience and musicians were fused with a kind of mutual magic. The atmosphere made you feel as if you had reached a state outside of mundane life where everyone was related in a kind of glorious, high, family.

After a short break, the band played “When Things Go Wrong,” slowed to the point of lethargy, a second and a half per beat, leaving room for intentionally sloppy drumming. Couples shuffled together close and slow.

But it had to end.  Canned Heat had saved “On The Road Again” for their finale. Wilson played a tamburato, giving the song a spacy drone, joined by eerie harmonics picked from the guitar. It turned it into a long drawn-out boogie of a jam, but after half an hour Wilson could blow no more blues harp, Parra threw down his sticks, and Wilson and Vestine unplugged their guitars and gratefully accepted a beer.

Once it was clear there would be no encore, people drifted out into the sudden ear-ringing vacuum of the night. An owl hooted somewhere. The hills smelled of hot sage.


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