Once There Was a Time–R.I.P. Alvin Lee

A_Space_in_TimeIt was a shame to hear about the death of guitar hero Alvin Lee, especially since it seems it was a case of the dreaded complications during “routine surgery.” If I’m not mistaken, it’s similiar to the circumstances that ended Andy Warhol’s life. A horrible way to go and very tough on the surviving loved ones–you’re dropped off at the hospital for a minor operation and the next thing they know you’ve “rung down the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible” (with apologies to John Cleese).

Of course, Lee’s band Ten Years After never really made it into the upper echelon of iconic British rock bands. True, they were a sensation at Woodstock and Lee’s famous speed-demon guitar runs were on full diplay when their signature jam “I’m Going Home” made it into the film. He and boyhood friend (and eventual Ten Years bassist)Leo Lyons made it to London from their native Nottingham in the early 1960s, playing and sharing bills with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Hendrix and Larry Coryell. “I’m Going Home” made their name but became a bit of an albatross–on their later double live LP knucklehead fans can’t even wait for this obvious set-closer, instead loudly requesting it after the second number. But the albums sold pretty well and they slugged it out on the arena circuit during the first half of the Seventies for audiences that appreciated instrumental virtousity or just loved to freak to Lee’s mind-bending solos on his trusty hollow-body Gibson.

(Check out Alvin Lee doing his thing in the TYA segment of Murray Lerner’s brilliant documentary “Message to Love” about 1970’s contentious Isle of Wight festval: http://youtu.be/2vZVVq7WJFY)

To his credit, Lee did move to broaden the band’s sound from the more basic blues-riffing and lengthy jams they were known for (by the time they finished their version of “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” it was usually mid-afternoon). No one would confuse his songwriting with Bob Dylan’s, but on 1971’s “A Space in Time” he steered Ten Years After towards a dreamy, folk-rock sound that on tunes like “Here They Come” and “Over the Hill” recalled classic Traffic. That LP also yielded their one big AM hit, “I’d Love to Change the World.” But as that kitchen-sink protest song would suggest, finger-picking and not social commentary was Lee’s true calling. His real mission statement may lie in that LP’s rural-blues shuffle “Once There Was A Time.”

“And if I don’t get to heaven
And I go down there below
Better be a guitar when I get there
Or I will refuse to go”

Bye the bye, ever notice how rock stars of today just don’t sit around in meadows like they used to?

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