Caught on Tape: Paul Kossoff, Free Man at Last
January 1976, Hollywood, California – The first time I saw Paul Kossoff play was back in 1969. Free were opening for Blind Faith on their first (and only) US tour. They were appearing at the 17,000-seat Inglewood Forum, a huge arena where the Los Angeles Lakers played. This was years before I started writing and I really didn’t know much about guitar players. I didn’t remember too much from the show but I did recall Kossoff having this really aggressive rhythm style and a simple melodic approach to his soloing. You could hear the Clapton connection in his approach.
I did learn that Paul was absolutely enamored with Eric’s playing. When I finally met Koss about seven years later, he couldn’t stop his gushing.
“The first real inspiration I had to get into it was seeing Eric Clapton with John Mayall at a small club. I didn’t know who he was or what had gone down, but here’s all these people yelling, ‘God, God!’ He really caught my attention and then I wanted to play.”
Paul finally met his hero on that Blind Faith tour. During our interview in 1976, he also told me of that momentous meeting.
“Clapton came up to me and asked ‘How the hell do you do that?’ talking about my vibrato. “And I said, ‘You must be joking!’”
The second time I saw Paul Kossoff perform was in early 1972. I still wasn’t writing yet. “All Right Now” had been all over the radio a couple years earlier and everybody now knew that one. But I had become familiar with some other album tracks, like “Fire and Water” and “Mr. Big,” from playing them in a band. We did a lot of Free stuff because the music was so simple. Or at least it sounded that way. I tried to copy Kossoff’s style, his unbelievable finger vibrato, but I never could. It always came off as too frantic, too wiggly. Every guitarist buddy of mine wanted to sound like Koss, but no one ever pulled it off.
Free would be playing at the Hollywood Palladium and I bought tickets the day they went on sale. But that wasn’t going to be enough. I really wanted to see them up-close this time. I knew they had to be doing a soundcheck and I thought that would be the time to really check them out. On the day of the show, I piled my brother and his friend into the car and we made the 35-minute northeasterly drive from my parent’s home in Culver City (where I was still living at the time) up to Sunset Boulevard.
Gear was being loaded in as we pulled into the Palladium parking lot. Road cases branded with the West, Bruce & Laing logo (the headliners) were being wheeled in the rear loading dock. We didn’t have to check for unlocked doors because they were all wide open. A side door provided convenient entry and we strolled in and occupied an inconspicuous spot in the corner.
Inside, Palladium staff scurried about, filling the bars with booze, sweeping up, and generally busying themselves in preparation. No one paid attention to the band up on stage.
Free were on that stage, running through their soundcheck. We’d made it just in time. Paul Rodgers checked mike levels with bluesy vocal scats and the vocalist’s timeless mantra: “Test 1 – 2 – 3.” Simon Kirke and Andy Fraser riffed through some simple drum-and-bass grooves so their sound crew, sitting at a soundboard in the middle of the hall, could make final volume/tone adjustments.
And there was Paul Kossoff, standing in front of his massive Marshall amps. The stack dwarfed him. If he was perched on a hill, Koss logged in at maybe 5’3.” The cabinets loomed so large, it looked like someone had built a movie set to double-scale.
He swayed from side to side like a buoy in a turbulent sea. He rocked backwards and forwards and used the Marshalls like ballast to keep himself from falling over. As he watched the band around him going through their pre-show routine, he appeared to be on the verge of passing out. But the moment he struck his first chord, it was as if he’d been zapped with adrenaline.
His sunburst Les Paul Standard consumed all of the air in the hall. The sound that came roaring from his 12” Celestions had punch-you-in-the gut mids mixed with thumping lows. Koss loaded his Marshall cabs with bass speakers because (as he’d tell me three years later), “I don’t like a lot of top. With bass speakers you get a nice, round sound without rasp.”
The band ran through “Travellin’ Man,” “Sail On” and several other songs from their just-released sixth album, Free at Last. They ended the rehearsal with “The Stealer,” Kossoff’s bare-knuckled riff literally vibrating the glasses sitting atop the bar.
We burned a few hours in Hollywood, got something to eat, and watched the hookers on Sunset Boulevard. We only looked.
We returned to the Palladium now filled to capacity. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show opened with a short set that included “On the Cover of Rolling Stone.” After an hour’s delay, Free took the stage. Or three-fourths of the band of the band did, anyway. Obviously the past 60 minutes had been spentÂ trying to coax out of Paul whatever had gone into him.
Paul Rodgers announced to an impatient crowed that, “Koss wasn’t feeling well.” The audience understood the comment, but didn’t appreciate it. The singer picked up a guitar and plowed through a workmanlike version of “My Brother Jake.” Heroic attempt or not, it didn’t work. The fans hurled plastic cups and nasty epithets and trying to ignore the beer and abuse, the trio exited with heads bowed.
It was a sad scene but not the first one the band had experienced. Koss had been staring down the barrel of addiction for a lot of years. There had been other delayed shows and canceled concerts. He still had the magic in his fingers, but it disappeared a little more every time he took a drink or a pill. And every time he thought about Jimi.
Hendrix’s death crushed Koss. He revealed his curiosity – more a fixation really – when we met in 1976.
“I had a very morbid interest at one point in Hendrix and Otis (Redding). I used to listen to them and take all these drugs and I’d think, ‘What point in my even playing? They’ve done it all.’ And that was a bad way to be. I went through a big Hendrix thing where I was infatuated by him, his music, and his death.
“I was probably looking for my sound with Back Street Crawler because that’s when I switched from the Les Paul to the Stratocaster. That’s what Jimi played, just what he used. I don’t think it was conscious and it’s kind of hard to even talk about.
“I started experimenting and trying to work with Leslies. That’s what Jimi used to get a lot of his tone. I started out with just one but then I even got a second one.
“When I was fifteen or sixteen, Hendrix first came to Britain with Chas Chandler and he was going around to all the music shops and I was working in one. In that shop, if there were a colored person buying something, they’d put a C on the top of the sales sheet. Chas came in with Jimi one day and, honestly, Hendrix looked freaky and he really did smell. When he first walked in, all the salesmen were going, ‘Oh, my God!’ There weren’t any guitars strung left-handed so he took this right-handed Strat and turned it over so that the low E was on the bottom. He started playing some chord stuff like in ‘Little Wing’ and the salesmen looked at him and couldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t own up to it afterwards, but they were all hanging around him, putting up with the smell and everything. He didn’t buy anything, but just seeing him really freaked me. I loved him to death.”
This preoccupation with Jimi, compounded by Paul’s own self-destructive behavior, profoundly impacted the band. Just a few months after this Hollywood Palladium spectacle, bassist Andy Fraser left. He couldn’t handle Kossoff’s excesses. Bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and keyboardist John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrickwere brought in as replacements, but nothing could stop the bleeding.
The new lineup recorded Heartbreaker in early 1973 and that was virtually the end of it. Koss didn’t even play on some of the tracks because he was too messed up. Stray Dog guitarist Snuffy Walden had to be brought in to copy his licks.
Paul was humiliated. He was trying to hang on to the one thing in his life that meant anything to him: Playing guitar in Free. When his bandmates refused to support him during the Heartbreaker sessions, he felt lonely and abandoned. The group finally called it a day in mid-1973, and Paul made a mighty effort to keep moving forward. But he was completely demoralized and a hardcore addict by this time.
While Rodgers and Kirke went off to form Bad Company and Fraser left to assemble Sharks, Paul created Back Street Crawler. He simply wasn’t the same player he once was. Jimi’s ghost had returned to haunt him and he traded the Les Paul for a Strat. That raw and bluesy style he’d perfected by bringing together the best parts of Clapton, Peter Green, and Jeff Beck, barely peeked through. The fire was gone.
By 1976, I’d been a writer for a few years. When I heard that Paul Kossoff would be in Hollywood with Back Street Crawler, I immediately jumped on the phone to Guitar Player and pitched the interview. They went for it.
When I knocked on his hotel door, the first thing that struck me when he opened it was how tiny he really was. Paul was small. On a good day, if the wind were blowing perfectly, I stood about 5’7.” But I was like a skyscraper hovering over a one-story building.
He had a huge heart and I was completely charmed and disarmed by him. He was modest and shy about his guitar playing. Several times during our conversation, he talked about how much he loved Paul Rodgers and how much he missed Free. I think there was part of him that still couldn’t accept the fact they were no longer together.
We got around to talking about his finger vibrato. When I told him how unbelievable his technique was, he simply shrugged off the compliment.
“I think my sound, especially my vibrato, has taken a long time to sound mature, and it’s taken a long time to reach the speed of vibrato that I now have. I trill with my first, middle, and ring fingers and bend chiefly with my small finger. I’ll use my index finger when I’m using vibrato.
“I like to move people; I don’t like to show off. I like to make sounds as I remember sounds that move me. My style is very primitive but at the same time it has developed in its own sense. I do my best to express myself and move people at the same time.
“I think there’s still more room to develop in the way I’m playing. My vibrato is finally starting to grow up.”
We spoke for about an hour or so and I asked him if he had a guitar around. I wanted to see if he could finger some chords and maybe map out some simple solo runs for the article. He said he had his Les Paul.
“The Les Paul?” I inquired.
He smiled, walked into the adjoining room and returned with the guitar. It was the same sunburst Standard I’d seen him play at the Palladium a few years earlier. He held it out in a gesture that said, “Do you want to play it?”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
He nodded vigorously and passed it over. I pretended to know what I was doing, strumming miscellaneous chords and plucking out a miserable pentatonic scale. I played the opening riff to “All Right Now” and completely blew it. He looked over at me with arched eyebrows and though he didn’t say a word, the muted response expressed surprise. He probably figured that just because I wrote about guitar, it didn’t mean I knew how to play one. Even a little bit.
I handed the Les Paul back to him and he wrapped his short little fingers around the neck and bashed out the riff. Perfectly. Though it sounded so simple, it was a deceptively complex riff. That was the key to a lot of his playing – he made some pretty difficult stuff sound pretty damn easy.
Paul was pretty drunk during the entire conversation. You could hear it in his speech and see it in the way he moved. It was a terrible thing to watch.
Three months after the interview, Paul would be gone. He was only 25. The Guitar Player story ran in the July 1976 issue. Koss had passed on March 19, 1976. He never saw the story.