Alvin Lee is dead. Taken at just 68 by the evasive ‘complications from a routine operation.’ The passing of musical prodigies like Alvin Lee means the passing of a great generation. A generation that had more deep, original talent per square yard than one usually expects to find in a whole century. But then the musical revolution of the 20th century sped up our creative development in just about any genre you can think of. For me as a geeky kid in a tough mill town in the 1970s what got me through the long, dark adolescent day was rock ’n roll.
My best buddy, Billy McGillivray, was Stoney Indian and didn’t care that I wore glasses and preferred reading books to bashing someone’s brains out. We helped each other survive those lean weird years through middle school, mostly with that goofy bathroom humour unique to boys of that age. Helped ease each other through that strange stretching sensation between childhood and pre-adolescence when you’re not quite sure who you are. And anything the least bit different is punished. Remember that for Billy to be Indian in a remote northern community in those days was to have to take a lot of shit. I had to walk a different way home every day to avoid being ambushed. In our school, assault and battery was an everyday occurrence. Probably a mirror of what was going on at home with alcoholic parents.
Then one day I walk into the instant town’s shabby, blank new mall and there in the record racks along one wall is Ten Years After, Rock and Roll Music to the World. When you’re 13 years old and stuck in the bush country with a bunch of violent hicks, you can imagine what an event this was. I used to play it on my little turntable below the blacklight posters radiating like prisms from my white bedroom wall, the album cover open like a painting or a poem. I’d been reading books since I was a tyke so my imagination was already pretty well greased. Sitting on my bed listening to Ten Years After, playing like hell and singing lyrics that echoed my own fucked up head really rang a bell in my brain. And there it’s stayed for 40 years.
The haunting strains of Religion really nailed it for me:
I never really understood religion
Except it seems a good excuse to kill
I never really could make a decision
I don’t suppose I ever really will
I can’t relate to any power structure
Where ego is the driving energy
I let mine go long, long time ago, now
When I decided that I would be free
Only thing I understand is living
The biggest sacrifice to make is death
Once you’re dead, there’s noting left for giving
Life means fighting for your every breath
It had particular resonance for me because I was fighting my parents over religion at 13. Mostly I found any God who was all sweetness and light one minute and in a murderous rage the next kind of puzzling. And here was a guitar player—Alvin Lee—half a world away, voicing my doubts in a few short lines. In a strange way it was priming me for a couple of years later in free school when I’d have my mind blown by Dylan Thomas. Though at the time, critics would laugh anyone to bits who gave popular rock music that much artistic credibility. Still, if it walks like a swan, sings like a swan….
And then there was the moment I walked into my first high school dance—lights all down except for the glittering ball and a few blacklights. And like a jet taking off straight through the stacks of speakers comes roaring out Smoke on the Water. It’s easy to scoff if you weren’t there. It was as if a door had suddenly swung wide open in my brain—a door I hadn’t known existed. It dug a deep groove in my synapses. Then a recovering heroin addict and Jesus freak turned me on to the Stones’ Let it Bleed, Exile on Main Street, and Goat’s Head Soup. Remarking on the inner sleeve with the goat’s head boiling in a cauldron, he said, “Just throw it away and enjoy the music.”
Those were momentous years, being gifted with albums like Machine Head by Deep Purple; Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, plus the eternally new Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Look at Yourself, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday by Uriah Heep—the often overlooked progenitors of what later became known as ‘heavy metal’; the spellbinding intricacy of Argus by Wishbone Ash; Stand Up and Aqualung by Jethro Tull; Pink Floyd’s brilliant Meddle, not to mention the immortal Dark Side of the Moon; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, among the best of Elton John’s heyday; the utterly unsurpassed Queen I and II; Black Sabbath’s Volume IV (to this day listening to Supernaut gives me chills); the sheer perfection of Who’s Next; Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV (gasp); the mind-numbing virtuosity of Yes on The Yes Album and Fragile; Roy Harper’s ascerbic libretto on civilization HQ; quintessential pre- and post-Gabriel Genesis with Selling England by the Pound and Trick of the Tail… I could go on for about three days.
Gold was dripping from speakers everywhere, and I don’t mean the kind you can only count in dollars. For one brief moment in our history, fulfilling the human spirit’s potential mattered more than dollars and sense. And the Renaissance it fostered was incredible. In many respects I believe my timing was misbegotten but not when it comes to music. I was privileged to hear all this brilliant music as it was newly flown. After living with these songs a lifetime, they have emblazoned my synapses. They are literally a part of me.
So to start seeing your rock ’n roll heroes dying off is tough. Sure, you could argue on one level that they were just as much advertising constructs as pop stars are today. But that would be to miss the point, which of course is the music. If it matters to someone, then it has a life of its own far beyond its creator. If it brings them comfort and joy then it has profound significance. Like it or not this is what creates that much-abused term, ‘great art.’
Although not of his generation, I was among Alvin Lee’s audience. I can feel for someone I only know at a great distance because he gave me something of himself that meant a great deal to me. Not just once, fleetingly, but year in and year out. When I was lonely that music was always there. When I wondered if it was worth carrying on, it was there. If that is indeed a small sliver of the spirit that was Alvin Lee—and all of his generation—then I am blessed indeed to have known it.