Hazy Shade of Winter

When I was just a wee little rocker of about 15, my dad brought me to see my first live concert -- Dr. John, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and headliner Johnny Winter. I’d barely heard of the albino axeman before that night, but after hearing his southern slide style and watching his lightning-fast fingers tickle out guitar solos that would leave Eddie Van Halen in the dust, I acquired a profound new appreciation for the blues -- and for the long-haired, tattooed virtuoso who turned me on to it. So when Johnny’s manager contacted me requesting an interview, naturally I jumped at the chance. 

You can’t help but look upon this unlikely icon with awe. A pale, frail Texan teen who struggled through alienation, addiction, injuries and illnesses to become one of the greatest guitarists of all time. From his humble debut playing with his brother Edgar in the early ’50s, to his historic performance at the final night of Woodstock in ’69 and beyond, he’s entertained audiences for over half a century with an incredible legacy of soulful blues and rock music. 

Sadly, like many other blues men before him, Johnny developed problems with heroin and alcohol. But eventually, after many years of addiction and depression, Johnny finally kicked the junk in 1973, and celebrated by recording Still Alive and Well with longtime friend and collaborator Rick Derringer. He would again battle addiction in the early ’90s (this time anti-depressants), as well as injuring his hip (which forces him to perform seated). But with the support of new manager and bandmate Paul Nelson, Johnny is now clean, relatively healthy and touring again. 

Winter’s long career has been filled with honors: In July 1980, his image graced the cover of the very first issue of Guitar World magazine. In 1988 he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was inducted into the Southeast Texas Walk of Fame. He’s also been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards over the years, winning three for albums he produced with his longtime hero Muddy Waters. Tonight, just a week after his 65th birthday, he’d be adding a new, smokeable trophy to that collection -- a HIGH TIMES Doobie Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

HT associate publisher Rick Cusick and I headed down to the Fillmore NY bristling with excitement -- not only to see Johnny and Edgar perform, but to meet and interview this most unique guitar slinger. But despite being the politest of southern gentlemen, Winter turned out to be a man of very few words. Very, very few words. I was desperate for him to relate some revelation he’d had, or some wild time backstage, but no. I kept fishing, but he just wouldn’t bite. He seemed either too humble or too shy to talk about himself, and I must confess to feeling a bit exasperated. That is, until he took the stage later that night. As I sat there next to my parents watching him perform (as I did 20 years earlier), I realized that there was no mere quote or anecdote he could have told me that could ever compete with that electric hum of a bottleneck scraping down the neck of his trademark ’63 Gibson Firebird. Whatever Johnny needed to say, he said with his music. 

After their set, the band invited us on stage to present Johnny the award in front of a cheering capacity crowd. And though we were technically there to honor him, the honor was all ours. 

“When I get the blues, there are two things that are absolutely guaranteed to make me feel better,” confessed Cusick, “One: really, really good marijuana, and two: every time without a doubt, the music of Johnny Winter.”

HIGH TIMES: What was it like for you growing up in Texas? Did being different make it hard for you as a kid?
Johnny WInter: Oh yeah, it definitely did. But it was a pretty good place to grow up though. There was a lot of good music around. People like the blues in Texas.

What was the first blues record you ever heard, do you remember?
Umm…yeah, it was “Somebody Walked In My House” by Howlin' Wolf.

How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Twelve.

How much did you practice?
About six or eight hours a day at least. I practiced all the time.

Were you a natural, or did you have to work at it?
I worked at it real hard, but I was pretty good by the time I was 15.

How old were you when you played your first gig?
Fifteen. Well, I’d played little gigs before that, but that was when we started our first club gig—Johnny and the Jammers. 

Did you and your brother start playing together right away in the beginning?
Yeah, we played ukeleles and sang together when we were about eight or nine.

Your axe of choice was always the Gibson Firebird, and then later you kind of switched over to the Earlewine Lazer. Is there a technical advantage to having a guitar without a peghead?

Nah … it just sounds real nice. It’s just a good sounding guitar… easy to play. 

How many guitars do you own?
I probably have 50. I’ve got five Firebirds, several Lazers, and four or five Nationals. And a Thunderbird bass. But I pretty much stick to those same two.

You’ve collaborated with some amazing guitarists over the years… Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and of course your idol Muddy Waters. Who was the most fun to jam with?
Probably Muddy. He was a lot of fun to play with.

Would you say you learned anything from playing with him?
I’d pretty much it all already by listening to his records. By the time we started playing together I already knew all of his stuff. 

How much of the blues can be taught, and how much has to come from inside?
I think everything has to come from inside. You just can’t teach somebody to play the blues. 

In the past few years, you’ve shied away from playing your rock songs and just played blues. Was this a conscious decision to go back to your roots?
I just love the blues -- it’s just my favorite thing.

You played with Eric Clapton at his Crossroads concert, right? What was that experience like?
Oh that was great. I got to play with Derek Trucks -- he’s one of my favorite new guitar players. He’s really good. 

Had you played with Clapton before that?
Yeah … once with Muddy.

What about Woodstock? Who did you hang out with? Who had the best drugs?
I don’t really remember. 

You didn’t take any brown acid, did you?
No, I don’t think I took any acid at Woodstock. 

But you have tried acid?
Oh yes. I took plenty of psychedelics. I liked them.

Do you remember the first time you ever got stoned?
Yes sir -- it was in New Orelans. It was a joint. I was about 22 or 23… something like that. We were playing in New Orleans at the time and another musician turned me on to it. I’d smoked a couple times before and didn’t never get high so I wasn’t expecting much. But I got so high that I couldn’t even stand up -- I had to lay down. I loved it … I’d never felt like that before.

How influential would you say marijuana’s been in your life and career?
I’d say it’s helped me a lot … mostly just to relax. And I think it enhances music—makes it a lot more fun to listen to. 

How often do you smoke?
About every hour. I usually smoke about half an hour before I go on, but I don’t smoke right before.

I heard you have a prescription card for medical marijuana, is that true?
Yeah, for glaucoma. 

You struggled with heroin addiction earlier in your career … what’s the biggest difference between being high on heroin and weed?
Heroin’s just not a good thing at all. It makes you feel good at first, but then pretty soon you get used to it and you have to use it just to feel normal. You don’t even get high anymore. I hated it.

Did you ever have an epiphany moment when you said to yourself, “That’s it -- I’m done with this shit?”
Yeah. I went back to Beaumont and I told my parents I thought I was going to die. They talked me into going into rehab and it worked. I was in rehab in New Orleans for nine months.

A lot of people that were into heroin back then didn’t like weed.
At the time I liked both of them. There never was a time when I didn’t like smoking weed.

So all you do now is smoke weed?
Yeah, that’s it -- just weed. 

For some stoner musicians, their bong can be as dear to them as their axe. Did you ever have a favorite pipe or bong?
No, not really.

Well … you do now! [Cusick hands him the Doobie award].
Yes I do, that’s for sure! That’s so nice … thank you.

For some people winning a Doobie award might be considered a somewhat “dubious” honor. How do you feel about getting an award from a marijuana magazine?
I’m very happy about it -- I don’t think it’s dubious at all. Thank you HIGH TIMES!

See video of Johnny receiving his award: