Best Seat in the House
Best Seat in the House
A Q&A with Corky Laing
By Geoff Gehman
Corky Laing was in the office of a friend’s physician, getting migraine relief from the most serious-as-a-heart-attack doctor he had ever met, a real bummer for a drummer who practices humor as medicine. The medical man’s icy manner began to melt when he heard that his new patient was the main man behind a rocking blues song fabled for its strutting riffs, winking words and seductive cowbell clang.
“You wrote ‘Mississippi Queen”? said the doctor, his eyes threatening to become as big as bass-drum pedals. “The first time I ever got laid was in the back of a Jeep to ‘Mississippi Queen’–and I didn’t even make it to the guitar solo.”
“And, you know, it’s the shortest song in the world,” says Laing over the phone, laughing heartily at the notion of his composition christening, and hastening, a youngster’s sexual ball.
Conceived to keep a sexy Southerner dancing during a blackout, “Mississippi Queen” belongs to the musical make-out hall of fame, a club that includes “Bolero” and “Sexual Healing.” It’s a feel-good, come-together anthem of the Woodstock/Fillmore/Aquarian age of freedom to experience and experiment. And it’s a calling card for Mountain, the short-lived, long-cherished psychedelic heavy-metal quartet anchored by Laing’s drumming, which was springy and splashy, explosive and implosive, spacious and curious.
“Mississippi Queen” is one of many tools in Laing’s kingly career kit. After Mountain disbanded in 1971 after three famous, tumultuous years, the Montreal native formed a powerful power trio with Mountain guitarist Leslie West and Jack Bruce, former bassist for Cream, often cast as Mountain’s English predecessor. In the late ‘70s he recruited Felix Pappalardi, Mountain’s bassist and Cream’s producer; Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter and other all-stars to cut an unreleased, cult-favorite album, “The Secret Sessions.” Since then he’s led a Mountain incarnation with Noel Redding, bassist in the Jimi Hendrix Experience; reunited with West to make a Mountain album of Bob Dylan songs; co-authored a book of Mountain road stories with West; taught a university course on the music industry, and helped launch a rock opera about the ethics of genetics produced by two Finnish philosophy professors. His martial tattoos during a live recording of Mountain’s “Long Red” have been sampled over 600 times by everyone from Public Enemy to Kanye West. Among his many acolytes is founding Kiss drummer Peter Criss, who added a cowbell to his arsenal because Laing banged it like he was nailing a casket.
Laing, 70, will spin Mountain tunes and yarns on Feb. 8 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, sitting on a stool, or throne, at the front of the stage, a best-seat-in-the-house setup he picked up from drummer Levon Helm, whose shuffles on the Band’s “Cripple Creek” inspired “Mississippi Queen.” His teammates, guitarist Chris Shutters and bassist Mark Mikel, are young enough to be his sons but old soul enough, he insists, to play “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” and “For Yasgur’s Farm” with the sort of ferocious clarity often missing during Mountain’s drugged-out, ego-tripped heyday.
Laing rollicked and rambled during a recent conversation from Tucson, Ariz., where he was preparing a recording he hopes will feature Les Dudek and Frank Marino, both electric-guitar heroes. He discussed his debts to drummers Gene Krupa and Keith Moon, who made him want to be them; Pappalardi and West, who empowered him to rip the rhythmic, sonic envelope, and his late mother, who proved her love by letting him practice in her game room, her social shrine.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that rocked your world and floated your boat?
A: Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” I loved those minor chords and Del’s falsetto; I just love falsetto. I was 11 or 12 and I had my bongos and they were a chick magnet. School dances back then were held in the gymnasium and music was played on this rough, antiquated PA system. The girls would be on one side of the room and the boys on the other side; you know those awkward times. I sat in the middle on one of those mats and played bongos when they played “Runaway.” And the boys and girls came over to me because they loved the bongos. It was kind of a glue.
Q: Who was your first drum hero?
A: Gene Krupa. When you first see Gene Krupa in action, he not only makes you want to play drums, he makes you want to be him. I remember when I was 10 or 11 “The Gene Krupa Story” was playing at the Monkland Theatre in Montreal and I wanted so much to see it. My mom wouldn’t let me go because the story had grass, because Krupa was busted for weed. She said: “Laurie [her nickname for Laurence, Laing’s first birth name], you’re too young.” It wasn’t the weed; it was the fact that he lost his career because of the weed.
I felt the same way about Keith Moon. When I watched Keith play, I was thinking: Not only do I want to play drums, I want to be Keith Moon. There were a lot of amazing drummers at the time–John Bonham, Ginger Baker—but no one could touch the joy Keith emulated. He’s sitting on a stool–“the drum throne”–and he’s ambidextrously doing everything. It’s like watching choreography; it’s like watching an amusement park.
Q: What made playing in Mountain so special? Watching vintage videos of you jamming with Felix and Leslie, it seems you three could go anywhere at any time.
A: Well, first off, Felix trusted me. He was an experienced musician on so many levels and he had faith in this 21-, 22-year-old kid who was scared shitless at his first time in the big time, who was playing huge halls and festivals after playing in gyms with acoustics that sucked, who had to revamp his whole drum style to cut through these huge Sunn amps. Felix was a conductor, a detail meister, a brilliant tyrant. He and Leslie gave me freedom, the freedom to enhance and magnify what they were doing, to work inside and outside the envelope. Freedom: it will either kill you or make your life fuckin’ fantastic. I was very lucky to have Leslie, who was playing some of the most beautiful guitar, who was on top of the world, who was being compared to [Eric] Clapton, that guy Ritchie [Blackmore] in Deep Purple, Jeff Beck. I remember Beck saying in a music newspaper that “Leslie West is the best rock guitarist alive today.”
Mountain didn’t have millions and millions of followers. We had very loyal fans, mainly in England and other parts of Europe. But we made a difference; we mattered. Today, people may not remember the names of our songs, they may not even remember the name of the band, but when they hear “Mississippi Queen” or “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” or “Long Red,” they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I remember that song.” And that means a lot to me. I’m not Billy Joel, I’m not Taylor Swift, but I think that what I’ve done is special. And that’s the only time you’ll hear me boast.
Q: Why did the first Mountain last only three years? Too much pressure from playing three festivals a day? Too much pressure from record-company executives? Too much pressure from Gail Collins, Felix Pappalardi’s wife and the band’s photographer, art director, co-lyricist and Yoko-in-the-Beatles distractor/detractor?
A: Those are the salient reasons right there. It was a crazy time. You have to remember that a lot of bands were breaking up back then: Traffic, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was almost a trend: if you set up a career in a band in the late ’60s to early ’70s, you were bolstered up to be the greatest and you soon believed it and you left the band thinking: I don’t need these guys anymore.
There was the pressure of: You’re on the road constantly, and if you’re not on the road, you’re in the studio, and if you’re not in the studio, you’re in rehab. Our first gig as Mountain was at the Boston Tea Party [the renowned rock club]. It was a big gig at the time, even though it was one of the worst-sounding rooms ever. Felix jumped up with his violin bass, which was very heavy, and threw his back out, which meant he had to take painkillers From there he went right to the opioid—heroin–and he got hooked. He was still able to play; he was a functional junkie. But the vibe got dark. Gail started doing it [heroin] and then Leslie started doing it and then I was doing it. Let’s face it, it’s addictive. Look at Keith Richards: he was in a heroin daze for three years. He once told me: “If I hadn’t done all that smack in those days, I don’t think I would have lived through it. I look at it as a medical procedure.” [laughs]
I have to tell you that, being a Canadian, and having a Canadian level-headed personality, I was able to step back and look at what was going on. It was very frustrating not to be able to do anything about it. I was keeping Leslie and Felix together: I was like Henry Kissinger. At one time I was living with Felix and Gail in their penthouse and they were family—a dysfunctional family, but they were family. I am no big fan of Gail, after all, she’s a murderer [in 1983 Collins shot Pappalardi to death]. Although I will say she was creative.
You know, the fact that I’m 70 years old blows me the fuck away. I never thought I’d reach 40. Every 10 years is icing on the cake. Without sounding too corny, I have to say I’m having the best time of my life. I’m playing with Chris Shutters, this great guitarist out of Toledo, and [bassist] Mark Mikel, an exceptional engineer, producer and musician. We’ve been playing for a short time together but there’s a lot of musicality. One of the reasons I left Mountain is that we were not playing the repertoire I wanted to play the way I wanted to play it; that kicked my ass. I said to myself, if I do put together a band to play Mountain songs, we will do them as good as the original arrangements. These guys, Chris and Mark, play the songs the way I heard them, the way I felt them, way back when.
Q: Four years ago you received a “Legend” award during the annual Bonzo Bash, named for Led Zeppelin drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham. You received the award from Peter Criss, the original drummer in Kiss, who told the audience that you were a “bad-ass” mentor and his cowbell guru, thanks to the holy-hell cowbell you play on “Mississippi Queen.” You followed his remarks by joking: “I’m sure a lot of you got laid to [‘Mississippi Queen’] and, if you didn’t, you need to get laid to it tonight.” Which leads me to ask you the essential burning question: How many people have told you they got laid to “Mississippi Queen”?
A: I don’t know, but I do know it’s made quite a few people lucky [laughs]. I have one quick story for you. This friend of mine named Josh Horton was in a band I was working with and one time I had a terrible migraine, so he brings me to his doctor, who is older and serious as a heart attack. Josh says: “This is Corky from Mountain. He wrote ‘Mississippi Queen.’” And out of nowhere the doctor opens his eyes real big and says: “You wrote ‘Mississippi Queen”? The first time I ever got laid was in the back of a Jeep to ‘Mississippi Queen’–and I didn’t even make it to the guitar solo.” And, you know, it’s the shortest song in the world [laughs].
I wrote “Mississippi Queen” while I was playing a gig on Nantucket, before I joined Mountain. It was really hot that night and the air-conditioning system was new and all the electricity blew out. Everyone was out of commission, except for me and my drums. An emergency light was shining on this beautiful girl in a see-through dress who was dancing on the floor with a friend of mine. My friend had told me her name was Molly and I knew she was from Mississippi. I’m playing [the Band’s] “Cripple Creek” at the time and I want to keep her dancing–point being, she was turning me on and I didn’t want her to stop; it was one of those fantasies. So I start hitting the cowbell and I start screaming–because I had no mike–“Mississippi—Mississippi Queen!” And she looked at me and she gave me a wink and she danced to my feel.
My friend took her home and he got lucky. I sat down and wrote the lyric out, so I got lucky, too.
I used to go to [Band drummer] Levon [Helm]’s house [in Woodstock, N.Y.] on my way to Westport [Conn.]. One time I told him: “You know, Levon, I’d like to give you a piece of the publishing because ‘Cripple Creek’ inspired ‘Mississippi Queen.’” And he said [imitates Helm’s tobacco-whiskey-&-dirt Arkansas accent]: “Corky, I gotta tell you, I listened to both songs and I can’t see how ‘Mississippi Queen’ came out of ‘Cripple Creek.’ I can’t take your money. But I’m a big fan of ‘Mississippi Queen.’” [laughs]
Q: You’re preparing a book about your career and life with excerpts from the 250-odd letters you wrote your mother from the early ’60s, when you became a touring musician, until her death in the late ‘90s. Why are these letters important enough to hang a book on?
A: Those letters allowed me to stay in touch with my mom, to keep tethered to my family, when I was out of the nest for the first time. I began writing her when I was first going out on the road, when I was still in high school and I would go off to play these shows on the weekends in the summer within 100 miles. In the earliest letters I would say things like: Mom, I can’t believe I’m out here on the road. It became more important for me to write her after my dad died in 1966. When I started going out with Mountain [in 1969], it was not hard to knock off a letter or a postcard after a show. She really loved hearing from me and I loved staying in touch with her; I guess I’m a momma’s boy.
I kept sending letters and postcards to her until she died in 1996. I didn’t realize she saved everything I wrote to her. When she passed away, a big box of letters was handed to my sister. When she passed away this nebulous brown box went to my brother. When he passed away it came to me. After I moved to Greenport, L.I., Tuija [Takala], my manager, saw this box and asked me: “Do you know about these letters?” And I went: “What are you talking about?”
At the time Tuija and I were talking about me writing a memoir. Back then a lot of rockers were writing their memoirs—Neil Young, Eric Clapton—and there were some good ones and some bad ones. I wasn’t thinking about writing my story. It wasn’t that I was humble: I just was not convinced I had enough to talk about. Tuija said: Why not use the letters as a catalyst for a book, for a documentation of the 30 years I was on the road while my mother was alive. On the road you’re pretty reflective; you get a little bit Zen-y. Tuija is a Finn and an editor, so she’s hard working and concerned about details. She did the research; she’d get the salient points about where I was going, what I was thinking. You know, I’m depressed: I wish I was home, that sort of stuff.
The book took shape over three or four years. It’s called “Letters to Sarah.” It’s not your typical rock stuff; it’s not the diary of a heroin addict, snorting with Ozzy Osbourne. There’s a lot of decadence out there and I know people like to read that shit. So much of my story is family oriented, growing up with triplet brothers and a grandmother and a grandfather, all living in this modest house in Montreal. I was the youngest child and I guess I didn’t get much attention. After the triplets were born, I don’t think my father wanted another kid. I guess that being a love child I had to prove myself; it’s hard trying to be relevant in your family, let alone in your career.
My father worked very hard selling textiles; he was a salesman of shmata [Yiddish slang for rags, towels and other domestic pieces of cloth]. But what he really loved doing was drawing cartoons; after he died we found a large collection of his caricatures in the lower drawer of his dresser. Because he had a big family to support he could not continue his career as a cartoonist. I guess his disappointment that he couldn’t make a living doing something he loved was one of the reasons my mother told me: “Laurie, you do what makes you happy.” Her buzz line was: Don’t do shit you don’t want to do because you’ll just do it badly.
My mother was super supportive of my drumming. She actually let me set up my brand-new Rogers kit—which I bought with the bursary the government gave me to go to university–in a room where she played Mahjongg and other games. It was a very special place, a place where she wouldn’t let any of the kids go–parental real estate. She even let me set up on a brand-new green rug; that’s when I knew my mother loved me [laughs].
The more I dug into this project, the more it felt like therapy. That’s all we have in life, memories. There’s nothing else; you can throw the rest in the grave. I’ve had a lot of joy along the way, and I think the best thing you can do is share the gift.
Q: So, Corky, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from traveling the world to world peace.
A: My big frustration is I never played with Elvis. I loved his songs and the way he moved onstage. He loved drums and he loved martial arts; I would have loved to enhance his moves. He was fuckin’ great in his prime and pretty damned good even when he was fat. I miss him. And I’m not even an Elvis fan.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It list? Musicians have told me everything from an end to spirit-crushing religions to death to all snakes. After Suzy Bogguss told me she wants all snakes dead, I told her: “Hey, you should move to Ireland, where there are no snakes.”
A: You know, thinking of Ireland, I’d like to dedicate this conversation to Dolores O’Riordan [lead singer/songwriter of the Cranberries, who died at age 46 on Jan. 15, two days before this conversation]. I liked her very much: she was very smart, very sexy, and very wild.
To answer your question, I can’t stand the idea of being in jail, incarcerated, tied up. I am one of those people who really celebrate freedom. I’ve lived my life pretty freely, tethered only to my mother. I’ve lived life off the click track.
You’ll get a kick out of this story. Levon [Helm] and I would talk about drum programming—you know, click tracks and such. Now, Levon is an old-school musician—classic, natural Americana. “Corky,” he said, “music is a special thing. You can do anything to music; music don’t care.” I thought that was so profound and so true. Music is in the air, or on tape, and it don’t give a shit [laughs].
I’ll give you another tidbit. Les Paul [pioneer player and builder of electric guitars] was once asked in an interview “What would be your motto on your tombstone?” And he said: “Allow for shrinkage.” [laughs]
Q: So what would be the motto on the tombstone of Laurence Gordon “Corky” Laing?
A: “This grave is not deep enough to bury all my bullshit.” [laughs] It’s sort of a riff off a lyric I was writing to a woman: “There’s no grave deep enough to bury your lies.” It’s not exactly profound but, hey, you got to go out humorous, right?
Corky Laing: The Scoop (Long Play Version):
Born Laurence Gordon, his triplet brothers mispronounced his middle name as “Gorky,” which evolved into his nickname, which is easier to say and remember.
His brothers were bar mitzvahed in a Montreal synagogue built by his grandfather and the grandfather of songwriter/singer Leonard Cohen, one of Laing’s “all-time icons.”
He received two gold records for Woodstock performances without actually playing the festival. One gold record honored him for co-writing the song “Who Am I But You and the Sun?” (the first line of a tune retitled “For Yasgur’s Farm”), which Mountain performed with another drummer. The other gold record saluted him for overdubbing Ric Lee’s poorly miked drums during Ten Years After’s Woodstock gig.
He and Leslie West, Mountain’s original guitarist, co-authored the 2003 book “Nantucket Sleighride & Other Mountain On-the-Road Stories” (SAF Publishing Ltd.).
In 2009 he joined a bridge of guitar holders under which West and his bride, Jenni Maurer, walked to their wedding after Mountain played the 40th anniversary Woodstock show.
He sings background during “Do You Want to Dance?” and “Stand by Me” on John Lennon’s album “Rock and Roll.”
He says that Elektra executives refused to release his 1978 album “The Secret Sessions” because they couldn’t understand it enough to promote it, ignoring the mass appeal of a super group with Felix Pappalardi, former Mountain bassist and Cream producer; Mick Ronson, guitarist for David Bowie and Mott the Hoople, and Mott frontman Ian Hunter, a major Mountain fan.
The 1999 version of “The Secret Sessions” (Pet Rock Records) includes Laing’s song “On the Way to Georgia,” which he recorded in Georgia with Dicky Betts, an original guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band, and Eric Clapton for Laing’s solo album “Makin’ It on the Street” (Capricorn, 1977).
He hopes to produce and distribute a vinyl edition of “The Secret Sessions” with Rouge Records, a full-service musical organization in the Detroit area co-founded by Jason Hartless, a touring drummer for Ted Nugent who studied with Laing for a dozen years.
“Mississippi Queen,” his Mountain anthem, has been covered by Molly Hatchet, Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne, who sang “Masters of War” on Mountain’s same-named album of Bob Dylan songs (Big Rack Records, 2007).
What does Dylan think of Laing’s solo-drumming, solo-rapping, bohemian/beatnik/performance-art rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a highlight of Laing’s concerts? Dylan’s publicist passed on his client’s succinct non-answer: “I’m just scratching my head.” Adds Laing: “Hey, I’ll take ‘scratching’ as a compliment any day.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. While he never got laid to “Mississippi Queen,” he did get lucky to “Sexual Healing.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.