Today marks the 40ieth anniversary of bluesman Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson’s suicide in Topanga Canyon, California, on Bob Hite’s property. Blind Owl is an oft-forgotten member of the fabled 27 Club and his death marked the first of three 27s over the course of the fall of 1970; Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were to follow.
Alan Wilson grew up in a Boston suburb and studied music at Boston University. From an early age he was, using a contemporary label, an ardent conservationist and environmentalist. Out of all the musicians who played Monterey in ’67 or Woodstock in ’69, Wilson truly held nature sacred, both in actions and in words. Canned Heat’s Future Blues record included a short plead in the gate-fold where Alan Wilson urged people to save his beloved California Redwoods from extinction. At the time, logging posed a huge threat to the last swaths of these primeval, majestic forests.
Instead of sleeping in hotels while on tour, Blind Owl preferred to roll out his sleeping bag in nearby fields and spend the early morning hours collecting samples that he’d stuff in a huge botany book that he liked to travel with.
When it came to playing music, Blind Owl’s chops on the harmonica and guitar, be it acoustic, electric or slide, was in a sense unrivaled. He possessed an in-depth knowledge of all forms of the blues and a true blues scholar. During the Hooker N Heat sessions, which took place shortly before his death, he proved seasoned enough to follow John Lee Hooker’s odd beats every step of the way. You can hear Hooker mutter in amazement that the pale, bespectacled kid always seemed to know where the old master was going. “You musta been listenin’ to my records all your life!” Hooker says. But Hooker was just one of many masters whose style Alan Wilson knew intimately. Six years earlier, in 1964, Wilson taught Son House, who had long retired from music, to play the songs House had recorded back in the 1930s.
While Alan Wilson’s chops were top-notch, he suffered with severe and chronic mental illness. His bandmates in Canned Heat provided support, but probably not the kind of stability someone like Wilson needed. He had already attempted suicide a couple of times before he did himself in with a handful of reds and a bottle of gin.
During the research for The 27s–The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll, manager and friend Skip Taylor told us that when he discovered Alan’s body, the musician finally looked peaceful and happy.
Wilson’s songs and music live on through “On the Road Again” and “Up In the Country,” but his talent covers obviously much more than the famous hits. Seek out his work with John Fahey, the aforementioned Son House and John Lee Hooker, as well as “Five Owls” and “Raga Kafi” from Living the Blues‘s trippy “Parthenogenesis.” Yup, that’s Wilson on the hypnotic sitar.
Skip Taylor is currently shopping around a “solo” record that features released and unreleased Alan Wilson material with and without Canned Heat. We’re not holding our breath for this one, but hope it’ll be released sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Be sure to listen to the Stephen Stills clip below where he dedicates “Blues Man” to our tragic guitar hero.