Roy Buchanan- American Axe- from Pixley to Washington,DC

by Lee Gonnella on February 9, 2013

In death, as in life, Roy Buchanan is a mystery.  For anyone interested what his life was like, there’s not a lot out there.  Thankfully,  Roy BuchananAmerican Axe by Phil Carson is well done and thoughtful as a good Roy solo.

Carson certainly did his homework on this one.  Through extensive interviews with family members, friends, managers, and a slew of band members, we get past the myths and as close to a real picture of Roy as is seemingly possible.   The story as we all know, ends tragically, but Mr. Carson shows that Roy’s road to his tragic end wasn’t all downhill.

Indeed, Roy had a wife and large family he loved deeply, and fought the “road versus home” battle that many musicians wrestle with.  In this scenario, an almost Jeckyl/Hyde type personality emerges in Roy.  Ironically, it was to support his clan that Roy traveled the world entertaining his cult-like following.  If you saw Roy once, you made it a point to never miss him again.  It’s clear why Roy hit the road so hard though, he din’t sell a lot of records, he needed the dough.

The book does a great job tracing Roy’s Arkansas & Pixley roots, and evenly covers the un-known years that are so shrouded in the Buchanan mystique.  Nobody liked a good story more than Roy, and it’s said he never let the truth get in the way.  The author dispels a good deal of the myth (no evidence of the Stones ever asking Roy in)…..vilifies some (Roy did indeed blow off John Lennon)……and leaves some open.

One incident that’s not left open, concerns the night Roy saw Jimi Hendrix at The Hilton Ballroom in Washington DC, in 1968.  Roy saw the early show that night, then promptly left for his own gig at the Silver Dollar.  He did not meet Hendrix that night or any other. Jimi was told about Roy but did not attend Roy’s gig.  They never crossed paths again, yet one of the most viewed videos of Roy on youtube, is of “Roy” jamming with Hendrix.  It’s very grainy, the only two things you can tell for sure, is that one of the men is Hendrix and one is not Roy.

Roy’s story obviously isn’t an entirely happy one, to say the least.  While he loved family life and entertaining people with his music, Roy was unable to maintain sobriety for any length of time.  Some of Roy’s former side-men describe typical 1980’s  debauchery, on a nightly basis.

There are some chilling moments, none more so than when Roy shares the bill with old friends, The Band.  Since they’d last met, The Band had gone on to back Dylan and reach greatness and stardom of their own.  Roy had reached his own  milder level of success.  Now they were both back on the  bar circuit where’d they had already spent so many years.  Richard Manual had hung himself in a Florida hotel room months earlier, and Roy pressed the surviving members for exact details of Manual’s passing.  Roy’s questions were answered.

Roy and The Band had a shared history from their early years with the “Hawks”.  Part of the Roy legend, this backed up by Ronnie Hawkins, is that Roy gave a young Robbie Robertson a crash course in lead guitar and the art of backing up a singer.  As I read American Axe, and got near the end of Roy’s life, I kept thinking about the scene in “The Last Waltz“, where Robbie looks into the camera and says “the road is god-damned impossible way of life”.

For musicians like Roy Buchanan and Richard Manuel, the road was where they made their livings, and impossible or not, it was where they still got the thrill of playing for their fans.  For Roy, his later years were  a mixture of success and  sadness.  While there was redemption in his Alligator contract, the crib-death of an adopted child deeply affected Roy.  Roy’s  mysterious death, either by his own hand or police brutality, occurred in a jail cell and was supposedly very similar to Richard Manual’s hanging.

This is a very well-done account of Roy’s life, and a must read for Roy fans, or anyone interested in the early years of rock-‘n-roll in America.  The book shows Roy as he really was, sturdy yet vulnerable, a family man and a guitar-god, and as always, a bit mysterious. It’s in-print and readily available from Amazon at a reasonable price, which hasn’t always been the case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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