All pictures from
Visiting Spirit
A conversation with singer, author, and all around Renaissance man Eric Burdon
By Dan Epstein

Eric Burdon is the kind of person I thought John Lennon would have turned into hadn’t he been brutally killed. Burdon has done everything from creating hit song after hit song for numerous different bands (the Animals, WAR, the New Animals), to acting and writing for films and television (appearing in Oliver Stone’s The Doors).

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Burdon is a modern Renaissance man who has done everything and been everywhere. He may have pulled himself out of contact with the world except through his music and books but he isn’t cynical, just practical.

Burdon’s recent book, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, certainly does disprove a lot of the falsehoods that have been written about him over the years. Here, he lays it all on the table good and bad–mostly because it’s a collection of stories other people reminded him of.

Gadfly: You wrote another autobiography [I Used to Be an Animal, but I'm All Right Now in 1990]. Why was it time for a second one?

Eric Burdon: Because it was the wrong time for the first one. Back in the 1980’s when I wanted to write my first book, I was told that this is not a great time to write a book. It won’t do you any harm but it won’t do you the most good, that I should probably wait until the 1990’s to write a book. And of course back in the '80s the '90s seemed to be… well, who knows how long anybody is going to live. [laughs] So I went ahead and wrote a book anyway, just for the experience of it. It became kind of an underground cult classic, its still selling on eBay for like $200-300 a copy. It suddenly appeared in hardcover, which I’ve never seen before. Where the hell that came from, I don’t know.

How many copies do you have?

One. It's not even in my house. I’ve got it stored because I’m probably going to reissue it soon.

Did you write the new book [Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood] because you were unhappy with the first book?

No, it's just that its purely about the early '60s in England and about the early days with the Animals in the U.S. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Plus, I’m always going to parties and stuff where people say stuff like, "Hey, do you remember when…?" And I’ll go, "Yeah, was that you?" We get talking and they come up with stories that I had forgotten about. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, which I’ve been putting together, and now it's time to lay it down. You can’t compare the two books. They’re apples and oranges. They both come from the same tree but one is different from the other.

Supposedly you read Tarot cards in writing this book. How did that help?

I don’t read Tarot cards, but if you look at a tarot card deck you see that it’s based on human experiences. I think the Egyptians came up with them and in a way you can think of it as an ancient Middle Eastern computer. An emotional computer about all emotions, it depends on what you read into it. I took the basic movements in a tarot pack and, say I was writing about 1965, you play the cards and the death card comes up, so you think, who died in 1965? You go to the research and find out who died in 1965, and you choose the person that you were closely related to. Then the fortune card comes and you find out who had the number one hit record in 1964–stuff like that. It gives you a key to unlock the door to emotions.

What was your initial impression the first time you were in the U.S.?

It was every bit as extreme as I thought it would be. Just the weather to start with, New York is as hot as it’s ever going to get in the summer and as cold as it’s ever going to get in the winter. Then you go to people’s temperaments. I remember after we made our grand record company entry in New York when we were each provided with a sexy girl dressed in animal skins and fishnet stockings in a Ford Mustang. We were paraded through New York but the first chance we got, we turned on the television and watched the news. Watching the American news alongside the BBC news–"Good evening, this is the BBC news at 6 o’clock"–so stodgy and rigid. While American news is like horns blaring: "DA DA DA, 6 o’clock this is it, here it is." The first thing they report on are football scores and we just cracked up. We thought it was hilarious. We got to travel through the South, and saw the Klu Klux Klan on parade in Memphis–saw the dark side of the American dream. When I came out West I felt like the top of my head was just peeled off. I felt like I could breath properly for the first time in my life, just to see landscapes without any people for the first time in my life. I thought this is where I want to be and that’s where I’ve stayed.

The Animals were considered part of the British music invasion of the 1960’s. Were you surprised or unhappy to be lumped in with that because you were more influenced by blues and R&B music rather than rock?

I’m still unhappy with that. Your past is bigger than yourself. The pop press invent stories that suit them and eventually that becomes the truth, which is another reason for writing the book. I was on my way to America by myself in the Merchant Navy if I hadn’t found myself in a rock band. I wanted to come here to find out what had been the root cause of the blues–the simple beautiful music that had changed the world. America at the time had trashed its own culture. Blues was out in the trash bin and verboten–the stories of the Los Angeles police department having men around record stores that sold black music to white people. This to my generation in England coming out of art school became our political stance. England was ready for a cultural change in the shadow of World War II. Us college kids were really disgusted with the lies told in school. When we were told that World War II would be the last war that would ever be fought and then the next thing Korea and then the British Army was in Cyprus fighting over the Suez Canal. We were just totally disillusioned and we needed something else to project our hopes and beliefs in, and that came in the form of Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles.

So being political was always a big part of the music?

The politic is the music. Art is the politic.

You were a painter before you got more involved with the music?

Well, I would have liked to but I still dream of being one. It's probably too late now because you can’t just jump into something new right away. There’s still a chance for me to make my own movies and videos. When I was a kid I dreamt of being what was known back then as a set designer for movies. If I had taken that path these days I would have evolved into what is known as a production designer. The amazing thing is that that’s what I had targeted myself for, and when I was 18 years of age there were just no facilities in England to school yourself in that. The only thing to do was to get into theater or at worst dressing shop windows, which really wasn’t for me. I’ve watched set designers become production designers and production designers become the most important people in a film crew because movies today are all about the design.

I’ve been involved with several movies but just as a visiting spirit, a cameo role and such.

Didn’t you score some feature films?

I did a feature film in Germany in which I played the lead part, scored the music and wrote part of the screenplay. I also did a Greek movie called My Brother and I, which was also never released in America. I did another German feature film, which was released in 2000 and never released in this country [Snow on New Year's Eve] with a substantial part. That was quite a large production. Six million marks were spent. But as we speak, I’m in the process of creating a video for a new CD–I will have a say in everything.

Is that for the New Animals?

Well, I will use everyone and everything that is available to me. The song is about the death of a friend of mine who died up here in a motorcycle accident. It takes place around where I live so we're going to recreate his funeral.

You could say you helped birth San Francisco's psychedelic rock scene.

Yeah, you could. I came in to San Francisco when it just bloomed about a year before. I was first in San Francisco in 1964 when it was still beatnik heaven. It was bongos and people dressed in black reading jazz in smoky rooms. I went back in 1967 and it had changed totally. I was infatuated with the revolutionary zeal of the whole thing. The Vietnam War was raging and people were raging against the machine. I left my original band, moved to California and put the New Animals together. I think we were one of the first bands to tour with a light show. We toured nationally and Europe with all the lights and bombs. We shot movies in the Hollywood hills and projected them on a screen behind us when we were playing. It was a fun, good time.

I don’t want to give away everything in the book, but you had a bizarre stint in a German prison. What happened?

The terrorist effect that we are feeling in this country now has been going on in Germany since the 1970’s. There was a judge in Bavaria who was given the job of rounding up everybody who had been involved with this terrorist action. The terrorists were called the Red Army Fraction. Well I was making a feature film in the 1980’s in Germany with people who had been more than friends with these left-wing reactionaries. I had no idea until I was arrested and incarcerated in a maximum-security prison without any visitors, nothing. I was in a cell that was condemned by Amnesty International as being unfit for human habitation until eventually I was released. I had to admit to doing certain things that I didn’t do. I just found out recently that they could have kept me there until 2001. So I got in the middle of something that I had no idea. It was an absolute case of guilt by association.

There’s been some argument over whose decision it was to record "House of the Rising Sun."

I think I had an insight to that song before the rest of the guys in the band did. But it was a collective decision to record it. We were on a Chuck Berry tour and everybody was trying to out-rock Chuck Berry. We needed a song that would leave a lasting impression on people and I thought, "What about 'House of the Rising Sun?' Its got a magical thing to it." We rehearsed it, played it on the Chuck Berry tour, and we left in the middle of tour and recorded it in two takes one Sunday morning in London. Then we rejoined the tour that night.

What was it like touring with Chuck Berry?

We were on the Chuck Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis tour. With everybody on the same bus, it was hell on wheels. It was wonderful.

Over the years, many people you have known have passed away. Do you ever ask yourself why you’ve survived?

I don’t know. You’d have to ask my mother that, but she’s no longer around. I firmly believe that having the parents I had was a big part of it. They made sure I knew the difference between right and wrong. I’ve been in ill health most of my life. I have asthma. In a way, that helps you appreciate health more. But also when you are healthy you know ill health is a breath away. Anybody who hasn’t experienced an asthmatic attack can’t explain it to anybody. You think you’re dying. I never thought I’d live to see 20, 25. I’m probably healthier today at 60 than I’ve ever been. I’m up every morning and I go walking.

Was it ill health that made you leave the band WAR in 1971?

Yeah. But that was a different kind of sickness. I believe I had a nervous breakdown in the wake of Jimi Hendrix’s death. He died when I was touring with WAR. That hit me pretty hard. I left the tour because I couldn’t go on.

When did you first meet Jimi Hendrix?

Research that I’ve done for the book has proven that the first time I met him I didn’t even know I was in the same room as him. But I really first met him in London–that’s where we got to be friends. I had an apartment in the center of London so whenever anybody was in central London they would drop by my place. I had a wonderful stereo system and people would come in and Jimi would play us his new tapes. Then I had a place in Los Angeles in Lower Canyon so he would show up there after gigs. We saw a lot of each other on the road. I wouldn’t say we were very close. Let's face it–he was a stranger in a strange land, and so for me to have a place in London then in Los Angeles at least he had someone to identify with.

You were one of the last people to play with Jimi.

My band was the last people to play with him.

Did you see that he was on the road to ruin?

He looked terrible. I hadn’t seen him for a year. We played in a club in London and he came on a Tuesday night. He came down to jam and he was totally out of it. I told him to go away and come back, and he came back the next night totally straight. We had a really memorable jam that night. He left and was dead two days later.

What’s your feeling on drugs now?

I wish I could get more of what I used to have [laughs]. It's all timing. That was the right time then to be doing that. It’s not the right time anymore. I even gave up smoking pot a couple of years back and I was a lifelong pothead. My basic political feeling about drugs is that unfortunately they didn’t legalize marijuana when they had the chance. If they had done that we would have had much less problems with harder drugs in recent years because kids would have had a softer alternative instead of alcohol. I’ve never heard of anyone dying from an overdose of marijuana. But there’s just too much money being made from all drugs. It's in human nature to want to get high; everybody wants to get higher. That’s basically what religion was formed for–to take people to a higher level.

What’s it like being a grandfather?

I love my grandkids. It’s a great role to be in. They know I’m different from other grandfathers. I have a grandson named after me and everyone says he’s just like me, very artistic.

Why did you dedicate the new book to Clara Taylor, your grandmother?

She was the most powerful and dominant woman I had ever known. Awesome and Scottish and when she sang, everyone had to shut up and listen otherwise you got the evil eye. If the evil eye didn’t work you got her shoe upside your head from across the room. It made me really aware of my Celtic side.

How does one avoid getting screwed by the music business?

Don’t go into the music business. Get the hell out of there.