Canned Heat: Sex, Drugs & The Blues
Even a Famed Dalliance with Blues Great John Lee Hooker Couldn’t Prevent the Tragic Deaths of Their Star Performers
It was late sixties, Los Angeles. The unlikeliest of performers, Alan Wilson, nicknamed “The Blind Owl” because of his coke-bottle glasses and severe shyness…a student of blues music at Boston University, so ecologically minded that he preferred to sleep outdoors, blessed with a sweet choir boy voice, began playing music with fellow record collector Al “The Bear” Hite, whose ponytail reached down below his massive belly.
“The Blind Owl” single-handedly dragged the drug-soaked, dirty-hippie-ish bar band named Canned Heat into the spotlight. People began to take notice with this song, penned by “The Blind Owl,” courtesy of YouTube:
Hooker ‘n’ Heat
At the height of their success, Canned Heat members reportedly met famed Detroit bluesman John Lee Hooker at the airport in Portland, Oregon. They hit it off immediately, partly due to the fact that Hooker admired “The Blind Owl,” calling him “the greatest harmonica player ever.”
The collaboration lead to a double album appropriately titled Hooker ‘n’ Heat. The band even recorded its own version of Hooker’s signature Boogie Chill’un riff with a song titled “Fried Hockey Boogie.” Canned Heat catapulted passed The Doors to the top of the LA music scene.
National acclaim beckoned when Wilson unveiled “Going Up the Country” at Woodstock. The song seemed a perfect metaphor for the greatest rock gathering of our time.
The view from the top didn’t last very long. “Canned Heat” was a nickname for Sterno, the cooking fuel that poor people drank as a cheap liquor substitute, with often lethal results. The name would prove to be bitterly ironic.
On September 3, 1970, Alan Wilson was found dead on a hillside behind Al Hite’s home in Topanga Canyon. The cause of death was said to be “acute barbiturate intoxication.” Alan Wilson’s death came just weeks before the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. All were 27 years old.
Ultimately, the story of Canned heat is the story of its five original members…six if you included Harvey Mandel, who replaced Henry “Sunflower” Vestine. They are: Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra on drums; Larry “The Mole” Taylor on bass; Henry “Sunflower” Vestine on guitar; Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson on guitar, harmonica and vocals; and Al “The Bear” Hite on harmonica and vocals.
“Fito” de la Parra
Fito is the remaining original member who tours to this day under the Canned Heat banner. Originally from Mexico, Fito is the band’s unofficial historian, having written a book, and remembers some of the alluring perks of being a rock star.
“They were hardly lookers, but that didn’t stop them from being greeted by an endless parade of groupies, including such notable figures as The Butter Queen (immortalized in the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”)…and then there were the Plaster Casters, the Chicago duo famous for making plaster replicas or rock stars’ [penises]. The pair, Cynthia and Diane Plaster Caster, pursued guitarist Harvey Mandel, who joined Canned Heat in 1969. ‘Harvey wasn’t called ‘The Snake’ for nothing,'” remembers Fito.
“The Mole” is the younger brother of Mel Taylor, long-time drummer for The Ventures. Larry Taylor played bass for the Monkees and Jerry Lee Lewis before joining Canned Heat. “The Mole” allegedly got his nickname for his sharp teeth and “the fact that he seemed to dig notes out of the ground.” Whatever that means.
The son of a NASA scientist, Vestine reportedly got kicked out of the Mothers of Invention for heavy drug use…an amazing fact given Frank Zappa’s tolerance for his band members’ indulgences (Zappa never touched the stuff himself). Vestine was tall and blonde and always stoned on something, anything; he was given the name “Sunflower” because he swayed as he played. He made Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Larry Taylor remembers: “He was pulling the band down to his level. Drugs and success fucked him up. Henry was taking everything–lots of downers plus alcohol. He’d often be half asleep on stage or play in the wrong key.”
Brokered by the famed guitarist Mike Bloomfield, Vestine was let go and replace by Harvey Mandel (who The Rolling Stones considered as Brian Jones’ replacement). “Sunflower” went on a downward spiral, started hanging out with the Hells Angels and stayed stoned. He died in Paris in 1997…at age 52.
The Blind Owl
Courtesy of You Tube:
In the ’70s, Canned Heat persevered without Alan Wilson, and was still playing gigs in Los Angeles and beyond. It is April 4, 1981 and Canned Heat has a gig at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. The band’s leader is one of its founding members: Al “The Bear” Hite, “300 lbs. of California gregariousness and pharmaceutical fearlessness.”
It was said that “The Bear” would snort any drug put in front of him.
Right before the gig, a man rumored to be a former Israeli tank commander pulls out a vial of “smack”–heroin–and offers “The Bear” a little taste. Fito de la Parra peers from behind his drum kit and warns Hite: “Careful, bro’. His trash is strong.” Predictably, Hite snorts the entire vial.
“The Bear” collapsed to the floor, seemingly unconscious. But nobody seemed concerned. He had done that so many times before. They somehow dragged a 300 lb. man to his bed and left him there…thinking he would wake up the next morning and ask, “What the fuck happened?”
Al “The Bear” Hite was declared dead in his bed on April 5, 1981.
Canned Heat lives on.