ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 1, 2002
By Steve Newton
Seventies hard-rockers Mountain didn’t waste any time in getting famous. The bluesy power trio—best known for the lineup of guitarist and vocalist Leslie West, drummer Corky Laing, and bassist-vocalist Felix Pappalardi (who was shot dead by his wife in ’83)—played its first gig at L.A.’s Whiskey A-Go-Go, its second at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, and its lucky third at a place called Woodstock. Of course, it helps when your agent also handles Jimi Hendrix.
“That’s how we got on the show,” recalls West from his home in Inglewood, New Jersey. “We went on on Saturday night—which was the nicest night for weather—just as it was gettin’ dark, and I remember Creedence Clearwater came on after us, and Sly, the Who. The Dead went on before us. It was quite a night.”
Like most kids who were 12 at the time, I never made it to Woodstock, but I still managed to ingest a heavy dose of Mountain during my teens. Matter of fact, the band’s hit single, “Mississippi Queen”, became the most memorable air-guitar anthem of my mid-’70s high-school years. So I’m hoping to relive those halcyon days of eight-tracks and lemon gin somewhat when the band—West, Laing, and bassist Ritchie Scarlett—plays the Commodore on Wednesday (August 7). As West points out, it’s not just greying guitar-rock devotees who’ve revelled in that tune’s timeless power chords.
“There’s been a lot of younger kids, too,” he says. “I guess they must have gotten it from their parents. But ‘Mississippi Queen’ was used for Molson’s beer up in Canada, and Miller Draft uses it down here, so it’s been pretty good.”
Ah, yes—if I recall correctly, the ol’ “Mississippi” went down just fine with a lukewarm Old Style or 12 out behind the Chilliwack pool hall. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that the song’s anthemic allure had a lot to do with Laing’s attention-grabbing cowbell intro, which predates the classic cowbell work on Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” and Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band”.
“Corky knows how to milk a cowbell,” notes West. “Actually, for ‘Mississippi Queen’ he just used it to count off the song, and we just left it on [the record]. It seemed to work.”
At the same time as the “Mississippi Queen” single was making its mark on the U.S. charts, the album it was taken from, Mountain Climbing, caught the ear of a determined heavy-metal freak named Ozzy Osbourne. Shortly after the feedback-happy West and his mates loosened the hippies’ earwax at Woodstock, the Ozzy-fronted Black Sabbath undertook its first North American tour, opening for Mountain.
“We did a lotta dates with them,” recalls West, “and we hung out together. I really loved Ozzy, and I loved the guitar player, Tony Iommi. We have some great stories with them. And Ozzy said that Mountain was the band that really turned him on to American rock.”
Another hard-rock legend close to West’s heart is current cancer-battler Eddie Van Halen. Matter of fact, the last album West actually purchased was Van Halen’s commercially disastrous 1998 release, Van Halen III. “I bought the last Van Halen CD with [former Extreme vocalist] Gary Cherone,” explains the hefty fret-strangler, “not because of Gary so much, but Eddie and I are really good friends—in fact, he recently sent me some new amplifiers that he designed, and a guitar.
“So I’m always interested in hearing what he’s doing. And I just love Eddie to death; I mean, he got me playing again. In the ’70s I had stopped playing when I went to rehab, and he was the first guy I saw that really inspired me to start up again.”
To hear the audio of my 2002 interview with Leslie West, become a patron of the Newt on Patreon.