In memory of Leslie West, a true American classic

Leslie West, front and center, with his Mountain co-star, Felix Pappalardi.

Maybe the greatest hard rock song of all-time is Mississippi Queen by Mountain. At just two-and-a-half minutes long, it does everything hard rock should do. You’ve got a cowbell, some freight train riffs, a louder-than-life vocalist singing about sex, and sweet, bluesy, lyrical lead guitar. The song has, as of this writing, 108 million plays on Spotify.

The lead singer, guitarist, and writer of Mississippi Queen was Leslie West. He died of cardiac arrest on December 23 at the age of 75.

West was the “mountain” in Mountain, a big, burly guy with huge hair, a fat guitar sound and a room-filling growl. Blessed with soul and charisma, he was destined for greatness. When West formed the band Mountain in 1969, with Corky Laing on drums and former Cream producer, Felix Pappalardi, on bass, he reached his commercial and artistic peak.

The combination was totally unique. Mountain could be considered the first truly great American hard rock band, with a creativity and tastefulness that kept them fresh. Pappalardi added psychedelic elements, complex chord changes, and a cerebral philosophy to the gruff, distilled rock and roll of Leslie West. Their live performances featured exciting, extended jam sessions and their cover versions of songs like Satisfaction were highly original. Songs like Don’t Turn Around, Nantucket Sleighride, and For Yasgur’s Farm showcase West’s guitar playing and the dual personalities of he and Pappalardi.

Despite a series of health problems in his middle and old age, West remained a prolific recording artist long after Pappalardi’s untimely death. His most recent album, Soundcheck, came out in 2015. He regularly teamed up with artists from across generations, including Ozzy Osbourne, Slash, Warren Haynes, Johnny Lang, and much more. The supergroup West, Bruce, and Laing, with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream bassist Jack Bruce, brought the long-running “American Cream” comparisons full-circle.

Leslie West was a true American classic. He performed at Woodstock. He helped build the hard rock genre. He had a dynamic, larger-than-life personality, showcased in his friendship with the Howard Stern Show. His guitar playing, particularly his thick fuzz and smooth vibrato, made him widely influential on players like Eddie Van Halen. He held court with rock royalty, even performing with The Who. His death knocks one more pillar out of the coliseum of rock gods, and he will be missed.

Essential tracks:

Don’t Look Around: Nothing gets in the way of this song’s relentless momentum. It rocks as hard as any song of its era or any other, and the organ heightens the tension and suspense of West’s thunderous power chords, angry lyrics, and some of the most aggressive lead playing he ever recorded.

Mississippi Queen: The classic of classics, naturally.

Satisfaction: The Rolling Stones’s version is already fairly minimal, but West strips it down even further, turning Keith Richards’s famous 9-note riff into just a few syncopated chords with a slide guitar. His singing is similarly great. It’s one of the most inventive interpretations of any famous song, and helps restore some freshness to the overplayed original.

Nantucket Sleighride: Apparently, a Nantucket sleigh ride is what happens when a whaler throws his harpoon into a whale and the whale dives as deep as it can, causing an intense tug-of-war and dragging the boat all over the place. The song captures the loneliness of the sea and the violence of the act itself, alternating between soft, romantic verses and stormy rock instrumentals.

Alisan: West could play acoustic guitar, too. This pretty instrumental shows another side to the man. Later in his career, he would often introduce songs with lengthy instrumental passages, using delay and other effects to achieve a pensive ambience that contrasted with his normal rock and roll fury.

Blood of the Sun: From West’s first album as a solo artist, somewhat confusingly called Mountain, Blood of the Sun contains one of those early immortal rock and roll riffs.

Baby Don’t You Do It (with The Who): Pete Townshend always wished he had been a better lead guitar player, and here he gets to work with one. Released as a bonus track on the Who’s Next deluxe edition, West punctuates this ferocious rocker with his lead licks. All of West’s bands, as well as The Who, had a reputation for outstanding live jams, and this shows what all the fuss was about.

Founder of Third Rail News, where I put the “current” back in current events. http://www.thirdrailnews.com

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