IT’S ONE THING to be influenced by Jimi Hendrix, it's something else altogether to be hounded by Hendrix' ghost, as Robin Trower has been for a decade-and-a-half. When the now 40-year old guitarist launched his solo career in 1973 after leaving Procol Harum, Jimi's forlorn legions identified Robin's Stratocaster underseascapes as the genuine article – if not quite The Real Thing – bestowing an almost cosmic significance to his quicksilver runs and hazy astral atmospherics.
Throughout the 70s, Trower dutifully flew the Hendrix freak flag high as he fashioned a body of work that explored the outer limits of the Strat-o-sphere, mesmerized by the possibilities Jimi had left unexplored. From the viewpoint of the introverted Englishman, however, the adoration of Hendrix devotees initially came as something of a shock - according to Robin, not only had he never seen Jimi play, he'd been little more than a casual fan. The truth be told, Trower didn't even begin playing the Stratocaster till (by his reckoning) 1970 at the earliest.
"With Procol Harum, I was using a Les Paul until the last couple of years," he clarifies. "I like the Les Paul because of its characteristic voicing - the darker tone, it was so long ago, it's hard to remember the exact set-up; as I recall, I was playing through a Marshall head with a Marshall bottom. When I switched over to Strat, I was using a 100-watt Hiwatt stack and an equalizer as well. It was a fairly primitive set-up, really; they didn't have the technology in those days."
In truth, the technology hardly mattered - Robin Trower was one hot guitarist from the gitgo. And what he may have lacked in the way of gear he more than made up for in sheer emotiveness and facility. The fact is, those fans who only discovered the guitarist during the course of his solo career are missing some truly remarkable rock 'n' roll. While Beck, Page, Clapton and Hendrix were becoming marquee names during the halcyon days of the late sixties, Trower was building a devoted cult following of his own as the chief sorcerer of Procol Harum - which remains one of the most underrated bands of that growing progressive musical period.
This writer will never forget the night he got his introduction to Procol Harum and Trower. It was at a party in '68 - the smoky kind of party that was so common in those days. The spooky-looking album cover was propped invitingly in front of the stereo; the pull of the '67 single A Whiter Shade of Pale’ was still strong. "Play me," the album beckoned. And what indelible sounds it emitted: the martial rhythms, the baroque piano/organ interplay and above it all, Trower's willowy, seductive licks. The guitar came on incrementally, murmuring at first, then by turns coaxing, pleading. snarling with hostility, begging for mercy, breaking the chains, finally exploding with pent-up passion. As the piece built, this first-time listener, lying on his back with eyes closed. found himself being pushed down through the floorboards, then being levitated till his nose was pressed against the ceiling! The song was Repent Walpurgis; the listener was utterly transfixed.
A few months later at the Fillmore East, the revelations continued. On the darkened stage, Trower swayed to the music, his lank hair flopping like Ringo's as he waited for the right moment to begin stroking his Gibson . When he initiated his ascent, he threw back his head, arched his back, shut his eyes, growing rigid as the energy flowed out of his fingertips. That night, Trower took Repent Walpurgis light-years beyond the recorded version, into a starry synaptic realm where micro and macro were interchangeable. And this novice concertgoer had an epiphany: "Oh I get it - this is about doing it!" Indeed. Long before he picked up a Strat, Trower - like Hendrix - was well acquainted with the erotic potential of the electric guitar.
While they may have been tilling the same ground, Trower discovered the primal bond between Hendrix and himself almost inadvertently - and it didn't happen until the great one's death.
"What actually started it was, when Hendrix died, Keith [Reid, Procol's
enigmatic lyricist, now Trower's manager] and I decided to write a tribute
to him for the following Procol Harum album. We came up with Song For A
Dreamer [which appears on 1972's Broken Barricades, the last LP
Trower cut with the band], and I thought , 'Well, to make sure I get it right,
I'll sit down and study some of his albums' - because in fact I only owned
the first one Are You Experienced?, at the time. And then, from studying
and then doing the tracks - making it sound as much as his
playing as possible - I got inspired. Otherwise, I don't know whether I would've been influenced by him. But when I really listened to it, I just dug it."
Trower frequently speaks of Hendrix in the present tense, it's clear that the man's music remains alive for Robin. But what is it about Jimi's playing that most impresses his brother in arms?
"It's just that he's very, very, soulful: he's just so soulful. I don't think anybody's quite brought that kind of soul out before - not from that deep. He was playing the blues, but he was taking it somewhere else. He's one-of-a-kind, like Albert King, like Hubert Sumlin. He had great technique, but it really isn't about that. Like one note meant so much - he could play flurries as well as any guitarist, but it was what he did with one note that mattered the most.
"One song that really impressed me a lot," Trower continues, "was And The Wind Cries Mary. The guitar playing is such a groove, and again, it's very, very, soulful. It's that combination of soul playing, and blues that I love about it."
So it was that Trower became a convert, releasing a series of solo albums (on Chrysalis) that were less a formal tribute to Hendrix's brilliance than a passionate commentary from the head, hands, and heart of a gifted contemporary. "We were influenced by the same people," Trower points out. "Steve Cropper, B.B. King, Curtis Mayfield, Albert King..." Devotees of electric guitar virtuosity ate it up (particularly his second release, the platinum-plus Bridge of Sighs) - even if Trower's material was far subordinate to his emotive virtuosity.
Ironically, while the public's seemingly insatiable hunger for Hendrixisms brought quick fame and fortune to the soft-spoken veteran, in time it came to ensnare him in an ever-tightening sonic strait-jacket. Eventually, Trower became so disillusioned by the bizarre predicament he'd created for himself that he chucked the whole thing, retreating to his peaceful home in the forests of Sussex. The fact is, the Hendrix thing is still on his mind.
"I'll tell you an interesting story," Trower offers. "You know the guitarist Roy Buchanan? I played with him about a year-and-a-half ago; we were talking after the show, and he said to me, 'You never should have said that Hendrix inspired you. That was your biggest mistake.' Maybe he was right. But I have been influenced by him - I'm not gonna lie about it. Obviously I've been influenced by other guitarists as well - particularly B.B. King, Albert King and the other great blues players - but nobody want to know, really... Anyway, what the hell. It's history now."
Somehow, Trower's once vibrant spirit had become lost in the long shadow cast by the dead guitarist - although he wouldn't put it quite so melodramatically. "In 1980, I felt I'd come to the end of what I'd been doing during the past few years," he says cautiously, "so I decided to take some time off, which ended up being about five years. I mostly wanted to improve myself as a songwriter - another reason was so that I could be with my family. And I wasn't too happy with the music I was making; I did get sort of sick of that sound. That Bridge Of Sighs stuff was all about guitar parts . It's not that I don't consider guitar parts now, but I've begun to think in terms of the song first."
The new, song-oriented Robin Trower re-surfaced in 1985 with Beyond The Mist, released by Jem. He followed that comeback attempt a year later with Passion, a mainstream rock album on which the guitarist played with impressive economy while sounding as fluent as ever. In commercial comeback terms, Passion fell well short of, say, John Fogerty's Centerfield, but the outcome was pretty much preordained. The album was released on tiny, unhip indie GNP Crescendo, which necessarily gave it a low profile in the marketplace. Why would a big-timer like Trower sign with such a small-time outfit?
"When I finally managed to get away from Chrysalis [for whom he'd recorded 10 albums altogether, including a pair with Jack Bruce and drummer Bill Lordan] a couple of years ago, they [GNP Crescendo] were the only ones, really, who were interested in doing an album with me; none of the other majors were interested. It's a strange business, isn't it?"
Had his relations with Chrysalis become strained? "Yeah," he answers with finality. Essentially, the problem was financial - lagging sales and bad managerial decisions had left Trower deeply in debt to the label. Worse yet, he discovered that his business manager had funnelled a half million pounds of the guitarist's money - Trower's entire fortune - into his own pockets. At that point, Robin was forced to accept the fact that he had no choice but to go back to work - once more, he couldn't afford to be choosy about the details.
"It's taken a while to get back from that time off, that whole period," Trower admits, the anguish apparent between the lines. But he claims that his motivation to return to the fray was based on more than financial necessity: "You start to get the itch to play live again - that was the start of it. So I decided to run it up the flagpole and see if anybody saluted. The thing is, you start off thinking you want to get away from it. And then after a couple or three years, you start to realize that you don't know who you are unless you're working. You don't know what you're suppose to be doing. And it gets to you. I'm a guitar player - that's what I do. And if I'm not doing it, it leaves a big hole. You gotta work; that's who you are...you work. It's my" - he pauses, feigning self-importance - "raison d'ętre."
Trower's climb back may be the biggest challenge he has yet faced in a career that has spanned more than 20 years . But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel: Atlantic Records recently bought his contract from GNP Crescendo and plans to release the album Trower began recording for the latter label. He's using the same unit that first appeared on Passion - singer Davey Pattison, bassist Dave Bronze and drummer Pete Thompson - and he claims to be excited about his prospects once again.
"I'm more inspired to do this album than anything I've done, really. This is the best band I've ever had, I'm happy with my sound and my song writing, and I'm playing well."
In the long run, Trower's problems - the self-imposed exile, financial duress, and career confusion - may prove to have a positive effect on his artistry. He's already gained some much-needed perspective, and enough time has passed that his name no longer automatically evokes the response "Hendrix derived" or, worse yet, "Hendrix clone." One day, perhaps, Trower will find the means to lose himself completely in the music he's playing - as he did so long ago on the Fillmore East stage - and re-measure the depth of his own formidable soulfulness. At that point, the spell will be broken, and Robin Trower will once again be free to simply do what he dose - without disclaimers.
|Robin Trower's page at BtP||Lots about Repent Walpurgis||Other Procol writing by Bud Scoppa|
|More Procol history in print|