I was a crappy guitar player and I had flunked out of college as an English major, so I figured I had what it took to make it as a music journalist. When the guitar magazines were coming of age, I was there. I was at the right place at the right time. I’ve been there ever since.
Chapter 5: Paul Kossoff
January 1976, Hollywood, California – Paul Kossoff was barely 22 years old when I first saw him play at the Hollywood Palladium. It was 1972; he was on his second tour of America and had already recorded six albums with Free. He had scored a life-altering hit with “All Right Now” and was being regaled as one of the young turks of English blues and rock guitar.
This must have been heady stuff for the young Englishman who, just seven years earlier, was still working in a music shop. It would prove to be an unbearably heavy load. In less than four years, he’d be gone.
When I watched him run through the Palladium sound check, the pressure was visible. 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. He pounded out these huge chunks of rhythm with a sledgehammer right hand. The solos were simple and stripped down; there was nothing there that didn’t belong. Bare-boned blues. Each note grabbed onto the one before it and was gently coaxed aside to make way for some sweet and arcing phrase. Or, he’d ambush a note from behind, kick it to the side of the fretboard, and replace it with a cluster of brutal blues licks.
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.
I had snuck in a side door to watch this afternoon run through. There was nobody there yet. West, Bruce & Laing’s (the headliners) gear was still being loaded in and the Palladium staff busied themselves with last minute preparation. I wanted to watch Paul up close; I didn’t realize how lucky I’d be.
After their last song, I walked up Sunset Boulevard to get something to eat. I burned a few hours in Hollywood and watched the hookers. I only looked.
By the time I returned to the Palladium, it was 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-quarters of the band did anyway. Obviously, the past 60 minutes had been spent in trying to coax out of Paul whatever had gone into him.
Paul Rodgers announced to an impatient crowd 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 cancelled concerts. He still had the magic in his fingers, but it disappeared a little more every time he took a drink or a pill.
Paul’s 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’ Bundrick were 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 stoned. 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 did make a mighty effort to keep moving forward. But he was completely demoralized and a hardcore addict by this time.
He did have some positive memories about the Heartbreaker album, and its predecessor, Free At Last.
When Rodgers and Kirke went off to form Bad Company and Fraser left to assemble Sharks, Paul created Back Street Crawler. But he simply wasn’t the same player. 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.
I finally met Koss in 1976, four years after watching that fateful performance. He had been in a downward spiral for a long time but I still jumped at the chance to interview him. When I heard that he would be in town playing at the Whisky, I called Guitar Player immediately. I pitched the interview and they were a little unsure at first. I couldn’t believe their reluctance and after a bit of gentle prodding, they agreed.
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. I’m about 5’7”, but I towered over him. It made him seem even more fragile.
He had a huge heart though, 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 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. He held it out in a gesture that said, “Do you want to play it?”
“Are you sure?” I asked, the words quivering like a vocal vibrato.
He nodded vigorously and passed it over. I pretended to know what I was doing, strumming miscellaneous chords and plucking out miserably executed pentatonic scales. I mean, I knew virtually every song he ever played and I couldn’t think of one of them. I resorted to default setting and played the opening riff to “All Right Now.” I blew it, of course. 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 fingers around the neck and bashed out the riff. Perfectly. Though it sounded so simple, it was a deceptively complex phrase. That was the key to a lot of his playing – he made difficult stuff sound easy.
During the entire interview, Paul was under the influence. His speech was thick and slurred and when he moved, he was forced to lean against the couch and the door for balance. It was terrible to watch.
Three months after the interview, Paul Kossoff was dead. He was only 26. The Guitar Player story ran in the July 1976 issue. Koss died March 19, 1976. He never saw the story.
For more on Paul Kossoff and Free, check out Steven Rosen’s great book Free At Last: The Story of Free and Bad Company