Still rockin’ after all these years

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Most of us closing in on 65 years of age are thinking about our retirements, Social Security payments and life ever after at Peconic Landing or another life care community. Leslie West, on the other hand, is thinking about rocking the house July 31 at the NoFo Rock and Folk Fest at Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue.

Les — and I can rightfully call him that because we were high school classmates many moons ago in Hackensack, N.J. — is a leader of both Mountain and West, Bruce and Laing, two headliners of the two-day event organized by former Southold Town supervisor and budding rock impresario Josh Horton.

Other performers scheduled to appear include such notables as Richie Havens; Jorma Kaukonen, formerly of Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna; Pat Dinizio of the Smithereens; Greg Allman’s son, Devon Allman, and his band, Honeytribe; and The Subdudes, a band I’ve seen live more than once and can highly recommend.

If you’re older than 65, these names may not mean a great deal to you, but take my word for it: They are the real deal, and the NoFo Fest is shaping up to be the biggest East End contemporary music event since Rusty Leaver traded in his big league concerts down at the ranch in Montauk for collegiate summer baseball.

Besides, some of us Sixty Somethings — like Mr. West, Mr. Havens and, yes, even Mr. and Mrs. Gustavson — were there at the beginning, at the concert to end all concerts, the 1969 Woodstock (N.Y.) Music and Art Fair.

Richie Havens was the opening act at Woodstock and Leslie West and Mountain were up on stage shortly thereafter in only their third gig ever. And as Les informed me this week when he spoke on the phone from his home in Englewood, N.J., he and Mountain played Woodstock only because their manager also represented a guitar player named Jimi Hendrix.

“He [the agent] told them [the concert promoters] that if they wanted Jimi, they had to take us,” Les recalled Monday with his signature gravel-throated chuckle forged by decades of shouting out classic rock anthems like “Mississippi Queen.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Leslie West and Mountain are still on the road 41 years later, playing as many as 40 or more cities at a single clip, and he hasn’t lost his edge or his guitar chops, judging by a live performance we caught in Florida last year. The man is one of the great rock guitarists of his generation, and it all began in his bedroom at 339 Summit Ave. in Hackensack, he said.

Precisely, it began a few years before that, when he was about 8 or 9 and his grandmother took him to a live telecast of Jackie Gleason’s variety show, for which his uncle was a staff writer. Les remembers crying hysterically when informed that Gleason would be replaced that night by a guest performer, only to have the arc of his life changed forever when the guest turned out to be a singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley.

“From that night forward, all I ever wanted to do was play the guitar,” he said.

By the time I met him seven or eight years later, Les was an awesome player, winning all the talent shows at Hackensack High School with bandmates Charlie Dinizio and Ralph Albano. “We didn’t even have a name, and all we played were [songs by] the Ventures,” he said.

“Mississippi Queen,” which remains a staple of rock radio to this day, came a few years later, and those years were followed by the unfortunate rock star slide into substance abuse, which in turn led to one of the true epiphanies of Les’ life.

As he recounted this week, he was addicted to heroin and incapable of managing his own life and his own finances. So his grandfather stealthily set aside all the royalty checks from his songwriting until years later, when Les had conquered his addiction. Then he handed the money over to Les.

Incredibly, those royalties are still coming in, thanks most recently to another Leslie West standard, “Long Red,” passages of which have been sampled by rap artists Jay-Z, Kanye West (no relation) and Common, all of whom turned their versions into hits.

And then, of course, as all grandparents of a 9-year-old are well aware, “Mississippi Queen” ended up part of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, although Leslie West himself admits that he “sucks” at the video game simulation of real guitar playing.

More recently, Les has had to address an issue faced by other of his chronological contemporaries, including yours truly: his weight. Many of us thought that Mountain, the band, took its name from Leslie West, the man mountain, whose weight eventually reached the wrong side of 300. But a diabetes scare, which almost cost him his foot but didn’t, and his 2009 marriage to a younger woman (at the actual 40th anniversary celebration at Woodstock!) have Les looking as svelte as the 15-year-old I first met way back when.

Go see for yourself July 31. I know I will.


In a recent development, the festival’s promoters have taken Southold Town to court seeking to prevent the imposition of certain restrictions on the event, including ending the music at 6 p.m. instead of 7. Check for news updates or schedule changes.