Read the previous instalment #1 covering Wilco’s Summerteeth here
Read the previous instalment #2 covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind here
Roy Buchanan’s 1972 instrumental rendition of Don Gibson’s country ballad, “Sweet Dreams” arrives at the close of Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed. Digham has dispatched Sullivan in his hotel room with a single gunshot to the head; a spatter of brains and he collapses to the ground. Buchanan’s guitar materialises with a couple of solitary tones, expertly faded in with swells of the guitar’s volume pot. Sulivan’s prostrate body lies on the floor bleeding as the camera slowly pans up to reveal a view of the city from the hotel room balcony. The guitar is then joined by the smash of drums, bass and swirling organ as the screen fades to black and the credit roll. From thereon, the familiar tropes of Buchanan’s remarkable guitar technique are laid out: delicate warm tone contrasted by a biting attack; economic phrasing met with a rapid flurry of notes; the aforementioned volume swells – sounding akin to a violin or crying voice. “Sweet Dreams” is oft regarded as Buchanan’s signature track, and I imagine for a mainstream audience, this was the first time that Buchanan’s “Sweet Dreams” was heard on a wide scale. Prior to its inclusion on the films soundtrack, it was more likely regarded within the tight circles of guitar fanatics, niche radio playlists and various compilations. Roy Buchanan wasn’t (and still isn’t) a name that immediately or even remotely springs to mind when one weighs up seminal guitarists of the 20th Century, whose approach and dexterity with the instrument went on to inspire a thousand imitators. Where names like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and David Gilmour frequently clog up Best Guitarist Ever lists, names like Buchanan’s barely register a blip or mention. Buchanan remains an otherwise cult figure, an obscure presence – enormously talented and influential, yet not a name that immediately comes up when one thinks of guitar legends, especially those whose primary axe of choice was the Fender Telecaster.
The Departed had not yet been released when I first came across Buchanan. My first encounter with his music occurred in early 1998 on the eve of my last year of high school. I had a cassette given to me by an older friend of mine – on one side was his live album, Livestock (1975); on the other was A Street Called Straight (1976).
A Street Called Straight represented a new beginning and a lifeline of sorts for Buchanan, whose career by 1975 was beginning to stall. The album was a calculated leap of faith (on the part of Buchanan’s new record label, Atlantic) and – as evidenced by the album’s title – a literal reading of the artist’s (and probably his incumbent labels) desire to get his shit together. Although Buchanan was a reliable draw on the live circuit, after a few studio albums he had failed to capitalise on the slightly ridiculous tag of ‘the greatest unknown guitarist in the world’ that had followed him around for half a decade. This tag had come as the result of his belated ‘discovery’ aged 30-ish at the beginning of the 1970’s, which resulted in a one-hour television special, highlighting the talents of this pathologically shy, balding and slightly overweight guy who could play virtually anything. If it weren’t for the turtleneck sweater and groovy pin-striped flares, one could be mistaken that he’d recently walked off a shrimp trawler that had been at sea for years.
Buchanan had been an active musician since the late 1950s, cutting his teeth and making bread from endless touring and session work. Although the documentary can now be watched on YouTube, one can only speculate what audiences made of this guy back in 1971. It did however make enough of an impression to garner Buchanan a record deal with Polydor and a decent advance and publicity to accompany each release – Roy Buchanan (1971), Second Album (1972), That’s What I’m Here For (1973), In The Beginning (1974) and Livestock (1975). Whilst his reticent appearance would have no doubt hampered his commercial success during this period, it was further undermined by his limited ability as a vocalist and over-reliance on guest singers (often ill-fitting choices for the material on hand. *) Speaking of the material, whilst Buchanan’s instrumentals and guitar work were the main attraction, his studio albums were frequently padded out with generic blues standards.
* Which I imagine was largely at the behest of the producer and not so much a decision Buchanan would have made himself.
A Street Called Straight represented a clear break from the previous template. It’s an intentionally polished product. Buchanan sings (quite well) on a majority of the tracks, whilst the bulk of the record is made up from original material. Accompanied by a surfeit of incredible guitar work and strong production values, one would expect it to have garnered above-average sales upon its release. It didn’t however, and aside from the obligatory sales accompanying anything with Buchanan’s name on it, it made next to no impression and gradually slipped out of print.
* * *
By the start of 1998, my musical tastes and interests had become fairly erratic. On a given week I’d be obsessively listening to The Byrds or The Flying Burrito Brothers; the next week Elvis Costello and Ry Cooder; the following week Pavement and Sonic Youth. A bit later on, I discovered Jethro Tull, and I feel I’m still apologizing to some of my family and high school friends for what I subjected them to.
At the time, I’d been playing guitar for about a year-and-a-half and – in spite of my eclectic tastes – I was largely stuck in the pentatonic paradigm of blues and generic idiom of the Three Chords That Make Folk Music. Nobody in high school was remotely interested in blues guitar or folk music, so my only peer and enabler in this area was a family friend and the same person who gave me the cassette containing the Roy Buchanan albums. Alex Abbott is still one of the tallest people I’ve ever met (6’6”) and it was my impromptu jam sessions with him after school that pushed my guitar technique from generic to slightly-less-generic. We’d struck off a friendship about a year prior when I effused to him about John Mayall and we started playing blues songs together: me on guitar and Alex on vocal, guitar and banjo. Since a banjo was involved, throughout 1998 I was gradually exposed to elements of bluegrass and country and started to free up my playing a bit to accommodate these styles (to the best of my limited ability.)
When I wasn’t jamming at Alex’s, I’d hone things by my lonesome at my dad’s house when he wasn’t there*. Among the many acoustic instruments hanging on the living room wall, there was an amplifier and a Fender Telecaster stowed away. On this Telecaster I attempted to recreate the technique and palette of tones that made Roy Buchanan’s playing of his Telecaster so arresting. One of the most distinctive things about a Telecaster is the sharp and biting sound of its neck-pickup position. If the technique is accurate and the amplifier is loud enough, this biting tone is enough to make a heart hurt, eyes water or teeth come loose. This effect is further enhanced if one can pull of the trick of playing ‘pinch harmonics’ – a technique involving harmonics that makes a note sound higher and sharper. It’s got a distinctively piercing effect, and this is one particular thing that Roy Buchanan does remarkably well. Whilst I could get a grip on the fading of notes with the volume pots and bend a few bitey tones, I could not manage much else of his technique.
* The role of this house is mentioned in detail in the previous essay covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.
The opening track of A Street Called Straight, “Running Out” is full of Buchanan Technique. Over a funky blues groove, his guitar wails, squawks and (at one point) sounds like a machine gun*. The second track – a shamelessly early-disco cash-in – “Keep What You Got” gets even funkier, with Buchanan’s playing starting to levitate off the ground. On first hearing these openers I was mightily impressed, but not entirely sure why. I asked myself: how was this any different to the playing of someone like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck? This is, after all fairly standard bluesy-rock guitar playing, especially within the mid-1970s zeitgeist of endless guitar solos. Buchanan’s approach was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Things began to crystalise by the next track. “Man On The Floor” is an odd one. Written by Buchanan and breaking away from the funky stomp of the first two tracks, its lyrics evoke Christian devotion and sacrifice are delivered over a swampy blues groove. The opening of this track is full of wails, stuttering chops and a storm of notes. It sounds like the guitar is having a panic attack or seizure. Things escalate further in the solo, where it sounds like the guitar is starting to come apart under the strain of the frenzied playing. Beneath this maelstrom, the playing from the rest of the band remains expert, tight and holds everything together. The playing on “Man On The Floor” is incredible and at the time it spooked me a little (and it still does.) Whilst “Running Out” and “Keep What You Got” could be dismissed as guitar-histrionics-for-the-sake-of-it, there was something about Buchanan’s guitar playing on this track that transcended the clichés and belied Buchanan’s otherwise quiet and unassuming exterior. Further research was necessary. With primitive Internet restricted to school, I fortunately had a paperback on hand entitled, Guide To Blues On CD and – to my surprise – it contained a generous entry devoted to Buchanan.
* Running the tips of the fingernails of the left hand over the strings whilst chopping a rapid rhythm with the right hand creates this effect. Buchanan further enhances this effect by moving the left hand position up and down the neck of the guitar, thus articulating the harmonics of the strings.
* * *
On stage, Buchanan would be positioned slightly stage left, next to his keyboardist. His guitar positioned high to his chest, feet planted, head down with scarcely any expression on his face. This stage manner prompted a bandmate to ask him how he could play such visceral and emotive guitar whilst appearing so calm on the outside, he replied:
“Well, I’m screaming on the inside.”
For most of his career, Buchanan was an alcoholic and would infrequently dabble with illicit substances. For the most part though, the bottle was his main vice. Such is the lonely life on the road: one venue blurs into the next, travelling by night, staying in anonymous hotels, another backstage rider, another dismal bar, a pervading sense of loneliness, estrangement and longing for home. Whilst performing, Buchanan would often have a couple of glasses of beer placed within reach. In spite of his otherwise reserved appearance, sometimes he would offer a brief moment of deadpan entertainment for the audience, demonstrating the feat of playing his guitar with one hand whilst downing a beer in one go with the other.
Though he would reform on a couple of occasions in the 1980s, the bottle would ultimately lead to his tragic death in a jail cell in 1988. Although the coroner determined his death was the result of suicide by hanging, visible bruises on his face suggested the possibility of foul play. Over the years, bandmates would recall Buchanan’s tendency for volatile mood swings – appearing upbeat and cheerful one moment, then utterly despondent and abusive the next.
* * *
Along with his tendency for liquid excess and deep troughs of depression, Buchanan was also a lapsed fundamentalist Christian, so in this respect – and given the track’s obvious religious underpinnings – his guitar work on “Man On The Floor” conveys the mood of an existential crisis, ala Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”. Speaking of Hendrix, one of the few covers on A Street Called Straight is Buchanan’s version of Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine”.
Buchanan’s interpretation of Hendrix’s groovy ode to non-conformity is hardly sunshine: a slow blues groove pulsating grimly with bass and clavinet, droll vocals and soulful guitar playing. During the outro, the rapid-fire guitar solo becomes detached from the rest of the track and segues into the free-form instrumental, “Guitar Cadenza”. This track is basically an excuse for Buchanan to go all weird with tape delay, reverb and feedback.
* * *
Inspired by the ridiculousness of this track I was creating my own scrappy “Guitar Cadenza” with the electric guitar, amp and a Boss DD2 digital delay pedal. Messing around with the digital delay was the first time I’d employed a piece of music technology to repeat, modulate, warp and feedback a signal and this would spur an interest in experimental music, which would properly take hold a couple of years later. With the effects pedal I could make the guitar repeat itself infinitely, smear everything into sonic ambiguity and make it howl with feedback. It was terribly exciting.
* * *
Although Buchanan was an electric guitarist by trade, he could also play an acoustic guitar extremely well and it’s a genuine shame that this ability isn’t featured more exclusively across his discography. A Street Called Straight is the only record that he made which features his acoustic guitar work (rolling folk-style fingerpicking, bluesy twangs) on several tracks – “Good God Have Mercy”, “Okay”, “Caruso” and “I Still Think About Ida Mae”.
With my acoustic guitar in tow, I can recall jamming with Alex and enthusiastically trying to get a grip on the choppy ascending and descending chords on “Okay” or keep a consistent strumming pattern going, like the one I heard on “Good God Have Mercy”.
* * *
On most of Buchanan’s albums released in the 1970’s there’s at least one track which encapsulates probably his greatest strength as a guitarist – measured soulful playing contrasted with raw eruptions. A spectrum of emotion, expressed with the wood and wires of the guitar. That’s What I’m Here For has “Roy’s Bluz”, In The Beginning has “Wayfaring Stranger” and A Street Called Straight has “The Messiah Will Come Again”.
Buchanan had previously recorded “The Messiah Will Come Again” for his first album, and whilst the original version was compelling enough, I can only assume that the mission statement of reaching a broader audience required a reprise of this fan favourite. The track opens with fluid runs of bluesy licks before it is overtaken by a sustained, warbling peal of organ. Buchanan doesn’t sing on this track, but rather intones as if he’s delivering a sermon telling of Christ’s eventual return. The monologue ends and Buchanan’s guitar tears loose – piercing the air, screaming, wailing and sounding like a helicopter spiraling to the ground.
It’s a profoundly moving song and – along with “Sweet Dreams” – is one of the finest encapsulations of Buchanan’s uniqueness as an artist.
* * *
Considering the underlying struggles and drama of Buchanan’s life and career, the cover artwork of A Street Called Straight reveals a moment of apparent calm. The sepia-toned photo shows Buchanan sitting on a floor playing his guitar, while one of his sons sits rather morosely in his lap. Buchanan stares out at us from behind his son’s head with a mixture of tenderness and unease. In spite of the obvious messaging of getting straight and conveying a wholesomeness, it’s a slightly awkward and disconcerting staging. A Street Called Straight represented a new beginning, and although its music is – by Buchanan’s standards – bold and adventurous, on the cover the artist appears to look slightly compromised and a little uncertain of where he’s found himself and where he’s going.
If the cover of a Roy Buchanan album is an indication of where the artist’s prospects are at a given point, then the artwork of his subsequent album, 1977’s Loading Zone makes this painfully apparent: sitting in a half-empty bar with a clogged ashtray, a mug of piss-weak beer and Buchanan leaning across the table with a weary expression on his face as if to ask:
“Where did it all go wrong?”
* * *
Roy Buchanan’s albums from the 1970s are quite difficult to find these days. Most of the Polydor and Atlantic albums were never reissued on vinyl once they had slipped out of print. My friend Alex had vinyl copies of A Street Called Straight, Livestock and In The Beginning and throughout 1998 I would borrow these repeatedly when I’d worn out my cassette copies in order to make more copies. Over the years found some of Buchanan’s album when I’ve spied them in the second-hand racks of record stores. Although his work has been infrequently issued on CD, most of these releases are abysmally mastered or are out of print altogether. Elsewhere (and if you can get past the sub-par sound quality of the digital mastering) streaming platforms only offer what’s available, which isn’t much.
I can recall finally finding a copy of A Street Called Straight last year. It was buried in a rack of ‘Blues’ and upon seeing it (for a reasonable price) I audibly whooped and promptly handed over the cash. Having not heard this album for nearly twenty years, dropping the needle was like opening up a nostalgic portal to what was a great year – full of eclectic music discoveries, marvelling at Roy Buchanan, wrangling a Telecaster, twiddling the knobs of an effects pedal and – perhaps, most importantly – those long afternoon jams with my old mate Alex.