Can’t Cage This Animal: An Interview with Eric Burdon
Eric Burdon performs on a 2013 episode of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
His white hair spiked and his glasses framed with rainbow-coloured rims, Animals front man Eric Burdon still looks every bit the rocker he was when he helped lead the “British Invasion” alongside bands like the Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. Though the original version of The Animals broke up by 1968, Burdon’s distinctly aggressive, raw vocals on hits such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” helped land the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Still writing and touring, Burdon, now 71 and living in southern California, pulls no punches when talking music, aging or his candid reactions to the untimely passing of friends like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. With a new album, ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, in stores, a show to play tonight at Casino Rama and a third autobiography in the works, Burdon recently sat down with Zoomer’s Mike Crisolago.
PART ONE: The Invasion, Drugs and the Death of Jimi Hendrix
MIKE CRISOLAGO: The British invasion proved one of the most monumental cultural shifts in modern music history. Was there competition between you and other bands like the Beatles or was everyone just happy to grab a piece of the pie?
ERIC BURDON: Well, when it started out, we were like brothers in arms. We were all friends and we’d get together and have a drink after a show. It was a real tight knit club of people. But then the big money started coming in, and the big agents and managers got their hands on the dough, and then there was a need for competition and so the camaraderie was lost by about ’67. I hated the expression British invasion. But we were young, we were from Britain and we were in America playing their music to them. That was a big thing to be able to pull off.
MC: On your new album, the song “27 Forever” evokes images of friends of yours like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, who all passed away at that age. Is it true that you played with Jimi Hendrix the night before he died?
EB: Well, 48 hours to be exact. It was really tough for Jimi to acknowledge people as friends because he was young, he’d just got out of the military, he was a stranger in a strange land [London]. He was dogged everywhere he went. Even if he tried to escape the world of drugs, he couldn’t. I tried to warn him and I think that’s what got me through my crush at 27. I was looking out for other people. Lord knows I was doing a lot of drugs at the same time, but you’ve got to believe in angels on your shoulder in that case. There’s somebody always looking out for you – well, for me, that’s been true.
MC: Jimi was also famously stopped at the Canadian border with drugs, including heroin.
EB: I believe, coming into Canada, he was set up – that somebody dropped a baggy in the back of his guitar case or whatever because Jimi had more sense that that. He was born and raised in Seattle – right next to the Canadian border. He knows how tight it is at the Canadian border. It all smells to me. And at that point in time, he was getting really out of control as far as management went.
PART TWO: A Life-Altering Accident, a New Album and What the Future Holds
MC: The recording process for ‘Til Your River Runs Dry took longer than any album you’ve done. Why?
EB: I said, when I started doing Q&As, I’m going to say ‘Yeah, I fell off my Harley at high speed on highway 10 with traffic buzzing around.’ [Laughs] No, one of the reasons was I had [a fall] and screwed up my back and had to have an operation. I was in real bad shape. I’m still a bit cagey about being onstage and especially in airports, where there’s lots of stairs. And no more motorcycles – my bike’s in the garage for good now. It signalled a lot of changes in my life. Maybe I had to make those changes anyway, with the aging process, and maybe it turned out to be a good signal for me to slow down. It was like a sucker punch from God.
MC: With the new album, you explore a wide array of themes, such as environmentalism and politics. As an artist, do you feel a duty to address such issues?
EB: You took the words right out of my mouth. I feel it’s my duty. I think that it’s the duty of every artist. When you look at the artwork of the great masters, like Dalli and Picasso, if you look for it, they’re making political statements. In fact, Pablo Picasso made the biggest political statement of any artist when he did the painting Guernica, which brought the light to the rest of the world that the German Air Force was bombing civilians in the town of Guernica. And those are the guys who I look to as heroes.
MC: You also sing about meeting with the President of the United States. If you did get an invite to the White House, what would you talk to him about?
EB: I wouldn’t talk to him. I’d just pass him a joint under the table. [Laughs] That song was written during the first Obama [administration)]. What I’m hoping is going to come out of [Obama’s presidency] is that [Michelle Obama)] is going into the books in the White House library, and she’s going to write a phenomenal book about the slaves who built the house. That’s one of the things that I’m hoping for. But there are a lot of crazy things about America. I mean, I love the craziness about the States, but then again there’s also some craziness that doesn’t quite work.
MC: When it comes to performing, how do you balance your new material and evolve as an artist when there are people who just want to hear “House of the Rising Sun” over and over?