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The Return of Jeremy Spencer
by Bill Wasserzieher
The music-biz heavies who serve as doorkeepers
for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomed two very different
bands among their 1998 inductees. One group epitomized mega-selling
'70s and '80s rock; the other played hardcore blues with a British
accent. Both were named Fleetwood Mac.
The more famous version of the band was its
Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham-Christine McVie lineup. Their
1977 album Rumours stayed on the pop charts for 134 weeks
and had sold more than 18 million copies by the time of the Hall
of Fame ceremony.
The other, earlier version of Fleetwood Mac
began life in 1967 as "Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac Featuring
Jeremy Spencer" and barely lasted into the 1970s before
guitarists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, and Danny Kirwan left,
one by one, each suffering from some combination of mental, spiritual,
and emotional breakdowns. Only the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood
and John McVie linked the two bands.
But the stature of that first Fleetwood Mac
- the one so steeped in blues that B.B. King regularly shared
marquees with them - has continued to grow. The curious can find
the early Mac's studio albums, various live performances, the
essential two-disc Fleetwood Mac in Chicago 1969 sessions
with Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann, and intriguing
outtake collections such as The Vaudeville Years, Show-Biz
Blues, and Madison Blues.
That night in 1998, both Fleetwood Macs were
represented at the Hall of Fame. The Buckingham-Nicks-McVie version
performed their hits, and Peter Green jammed with Carlos Santana
on "Black Magic Woman."
Jeremy Spencer could have been onstage, too.
But he wasn't. He was half a world away - in India, playing charity
benefits for the blind. After all, Spencer is the slide guitarist
who bolted Fleetwood Mac in 1971 to join a religious commune.
Having turned his back on fame, he has wandered the globe, living
not only in the U.S. and England but also in France, Brazil,
Italy, Greece, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, and
Today he's back in the public eye with a new
recording, Precious Little, issued domestically in July
on Blind Pig Records. Spencer tells his story to Blues Revue.
How did you come to record
a new album?
The promoters of the annual Notodden
Blues Festival asked if I wished to play at their 2005 festival.
They presented me with a number of choices for an accompanying
lineup, one of which was playing with a group of Norwegian blues
musicians. Most of the band had been playing blues together for
the last 25 years and were heralded as the best in Norway. I
discovered there was more interest in, knowledge, appreciation
of, and passion for blues in Norway than I'd encountered anywhere
else in the world, to the point that they have as many as 25
blues festivals a year.
Not having heard the band, I was especially concerned about Espen
Leland, the 40-year-old backup guitarist, as I did not want a
"whiz-flash Harry" who could do anything while reading
the newspaper. "You want that Delta crap? Sure, watch this:
'ratatatatatatata.' Want jazz, hip hop, funk? No problem."
I pushed the envelope and asked if Espen played like T-Bone Walker!
They said yes, with a mixture of early B. B. King and Albert
Collins thrown in. Fortunately, it turned out to be true. And
playing together with the rest of the band flowed so well, like,
hand in glove. For the first time in 27 years, I seriously considered
recording a studio album.
I tested them with a couple of my personal, sensitive favorites
not in the blues or '50s vein, "Maria de Santiago"
and "Precious Little," and they passed with flying
colors. Not only did they just play along, but they also got
genuinely excited about the songs. I felt I could pull out anything,
and they would handle it with sensitivity. So, recording was
a serious consideration.
We recorded the album in five days at the analog 24-track Notodden
Juke Joint studio, where, amongst antiquated two- and four-track
tape recorders, stood the company's pride and joy: the late-'60s
Atlantic studios mixing desk!
What are your favorite
I assume you're talking about [my
favorites] on the CD. This is hard to answer, as when I listen
to it - which, amazingly, I do quite often, as most of my recorded
work in the past has made me cringe - each song has its special
thing for me at that moment. Overall, I would say "Bitter
Lemon," "Maria de Santiago," and especially the
title song, "Precious Little."
Do you feel that you've
gained a deeper feeling over the years as a musician?
It's hard to say that about oneself.
But I can honestly say that I have. I think that the feeling
for playing with emotion beyond mere frustration improves with
age. It seems especially true of the blues, in my opinion. The
phrasing, when to "speak" and when not to, etc. It's
not something you can do merely by playing cosmetically minimalist,
or with an intellectually conscious "less is more"
Did you find yourself asking,
"Do I really want to do this again?"
I had been pretty badly burned by
the last commercial attempt with Atlantic in 1978 [Flee],
so the idea of going into a studio to record for a major label
did not appeal to me. In the '90s, an Indian label released a
live CD recorded at an outdoor concert in Bombay, but I was far
from satisfied with the results. I'm glad it stayed local.
In recent years, however, I felt I just wanted something to be
out there for those that are interested, an album that I was
musically happy with and that was representative of me now, with
no pressure of opinions, preconceived ideas of how I should be
"marketed," and trends. Yet the idea of sitting in
a studio with a bunch of hotshot "do-anything" musicians
didn't appeal to me, either.
That's why I immediately felt at home with the Norwegian musicians.
There was a chemistry that made me feel instantly relaxed. Plus,
for the last eight years or so, I've had a whole new lease of
life on playing slide guitar, to the point that playing straight-style
finger lead or rhythm no longer interests me.
The decision to record
again must have required courage.
It did take some courage just to do
it, regardless of what I imagined people would expect of me in
terms of a "comeback" style - you know, big, flashy,
and screaming. "Come on, Jer, give us the ol' piss-takes
and 'Shake Your Moneymaker.'" I wanted it small, simple,
and uncluttered. Collectively, including the engineers, it seemed
we were always unconsciously thinking small, tasteful. If there
was anything I wanted to prove, it was that I could do just that
and have a listenable product that the public and even I would
Bluestown [Spencer's European record label] gave me a lot of
space musically and encouraged me. I don't think a big company
in the States and especially England would have been so generous.
However, Bluestown couldn't afford to be too generous with time,
and we had to record it in five days on their analog 24-track.
That was good, because we had to get it and like it, and we did.
It kept that urgent spontaneity that I like. Analog says "no"
for you when you can't say it for yourself. We had no time for
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