Leslie West: “This is probably the heaviest record I’ve made”
Leslie West’s follow-up to his all-star cast Unusual Suspects, which featured guitarists Slash, Billy Gibbons, Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa and Steve Lukather, sounds even better than that illustrious disc. “It’s probably about the heaviest record I’ve made in a while,” admits West. “Some of it is autobiographical. The title Still Climbing [which references Mountain’s debut Climbing!] shows where I’m at. And there’s a song called Tales Of Woe which is an acoustic ballad that isn’t a pity party on my behalf, it’s just the truth about where I’m at.”
Having survived bladder cancer five years ago and then had his lower right leg amputated when problems with chronic diabetes led towards gangrene, West could have been forgiven for throwing in his lot but he didn’t. Forty-five years may have passed since Mountain played at Woodstock and West made his debut album, but he remains chipper. “Some people start at the top of their game and after twenty years you wonder what happened to them. I like to joke that the older I get the better I used to be, but after giving up drugs and smoking, my voice can hit notes that I never could reach before. I’m thankful for that.”
Still Climbing [full tracklisting here] is testimony to West’s survival instinct. “I made it over a year with my producer Mike ‘Metal’ Goldberg, and the guests fell into place. Mark Tremonti from Alter Bridge is now a good friend. I love that band, and I loved Creed long before I ever met him. In fact I first hooked up with his brother Dan Tremonti who did the film on me called The Sound And The Story, and Mark said nice things about my playing with Mountain. He plays the middle solo and the fast melodic outro on the opening track Dying Since The Day I Was Born. I played that to Slash and he said:, ‘Wow, that’s about as heavy as you can get.’”
Other contributors include the 32-year-old soul-blues wizard Jonny Lang, who West first met when Lang was an 18-year-old with three albums under his belt, including the acclaimed Wander This World.
“I interviewed him for a guitar magazine, and then his name came up during the sessions. So Jonny dropped by when he was in New Jersey on a day off with Buddy Guy, and we sat down in the control room, jamming nose to nose. Not only can he play, but also his voice kills me. We did Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman side by side, and afterwards I told him: ‘I wish I could sing like you.’”
Another friend of West is Dee Snider. “I always loved Twisted Sister, especially We’re Not Gonna Take It and Heavy Metal Christmas, plus I’ve known Dee since he made the Stay Hungry album. I knew he’d be perfect for the standard I wanted to do, a song which I associate with Traffic – Feeling Good [sung by Steve Winwood on Traffic's album Last Exit, although the Anthony Newley song is an oft-covered chestnut, famously done by Nina Simone, Muse, Eels and the usual Broadway suspects]. Dee is great with show business and he nailed that for me.”
Perhaps the most poignant fellow traveller is the great legend and veteran Johnny Winter, who races West home on duelling slide guitars during the stand-out track Busted, Disgusted Or Dead. “The story there is I’ve known Johnny the longest out of any of these people. Now, I’ve been clean from heroin for a long time thanks to undertaking the methadone-detoxing programme where you go on a step-by-step ladder to sobriety. A few years back Johnny’s manager and guitarist Paul Nelson asked me how I did it, so I told him backstage in Toronto what is involved; how you take a course of wafers, once a day and so on, until your mentor withdraws the dose and you don’t even know. Anyhow, last summer Paul and Johnny came to see me and said: ‘Thank you!’ I’m like, ‘For what?’ They told me Johnny did the programme with Paul’s assistance. He’s now clean too. That makes me very happy. I know how hard it is because of all the heroin involved in Mountain. Even when I left and did the two West, Bruce And Laing albums we had exactly the same problem. It became a serious battle for me. I know it’s a problem that underlines the destruction of many groups, whether it’s heroin, cocaine or pills. It ends up killing creativity because it halts the longevity of a band.”
West credits his wife and lyricist Jenni for saving his life. “When I was in a coma they told her: ‘Either he gets his leg amputated or he dies.’ And she took the decision for me. We’re a great team with an unusual method. She sends me lyrics via my iPad or Cloud, and so work in a different way to the norm, but it’s more pleasant than the worst times in Mountain. Working with Felix Pappalardi was an honour. He was so talented as a producer, arranger, bass player, guitar player – all those things I aspired to be. We had some great years together, and some rocky roads. His wife Gail [who shot and killed Felix in 1983] could suck the fun out of a clown. That left a terrible taste in my mouth about working with Jenni. I didn’t want to take the same risk where our wife is involved in every aspect of your musical life. But she is so good at expressing thoughts to paper she has become my primary collaborator.”
These days Leslie is largely confined to a wheelchair, and breaks off conversation now and again for insulin injections – “which you don’t wanna fuck up”. He sounds to be in a reasonably good space, if understandably battered by events. But his NJ rasp is as strong as ever, his humour is remarkably intact, and one listen to Still Climbing vouchsafes for another important fact: he is still one of the greatest guitarists on the planet. Climb on, big fella.
Leslie West – Still Climbing is released October 28 on Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group