Peter Green wasn’t in the room but it felt like he owned the night. As the house lights came up and stagehands broke down the stage on Fleetwood Mac’s last tour, the sounds of the instrumental “Albatross” suddenly filled the arena, sounding like the soundtrack of a sunburst and rainbow forming after a thunderous rain storm. It was like the band’s co-founder and original frontman was there with us as a new generation of roadies performed a ritual born of the last fifty plus years. It felt downright spiritual.
The song which was a chart topping single in 1968 and said to have inspired George Harrison to write “Here Comes The Sun,” was one of the signature moments to come from Peter Green who hadn’t been with the band for more than four decades but whose presence still looked large.
Green, who passed away peacefully in his sleep at 73, was the archetypal blues guitarist. Inspired by Elmore James, Robert Johnson and the session men of Chess Records, Green cemented Fleetwood Mac’s legacy long before we ever heard of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
In the hours after his passing, Nicks wrote that she regretted never having shared the stage with Green. But she understood the interconnected past of Fleetwood Mac. Green was once part of the rumors that circled Fleetwood Mac after the success of the “white album.” It was rumored that Fleetwood Mac was going to drop Buckingham and Nicks and bring back Green. When I met Stevie Nicks after a show on the Rumours tour, she said something that was a nod to the band‘s mystical lineage: “Nobody ever really leaves Fleetwood Mac. They’re all here in spirit.”
When Nicks came to the mic on the band’s most recent tour with Mike Campbell and Neil Finn in the places where Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan once stood, she made a confession. She admitted that when she joined Fleetwood Mac she always thought Green’s “Black Magic Woman” was a song done by another band.
“I got a spell on you baby,” she kept repeating in the song’s key line while Campbell hovered around Christine McVie and riffed off her in an extended jam. The experience infused the band and Nicks for the night who later delivered an electrifying “Rhiannon” and a transcendent “Gold Dust Woman.”
Nicks was just in her mid-teens when Green strapped on a guitar on August 13, 1967 and stepped onstage at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival with a quartet that included guitarist Jeremy Spencer, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist Bob Brunning. Bunning would soon be replaced by John McVie, then serving time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Mayall’s academy produced Green who succeeded Eric Clapton. Producer Mike Vernon told Mayall not to worry. Green, he said, was even better.
“I always look at it – and look at that date, and that it’s been worth a damn,” drummer Fleetwood told CBS This Morning as the band’s fiftieth anniversary approached. It was Mick Fleetwood who put together a tribute to Green earlier this year in London. Fleetwood said he did it to remind people about the enormous contribution of Green who was absent for the show and won’t be around when a lavish box set comes out in October.
When Warren Haynes was a guest DJ on the Sirius XM Fleetwood Mac channel, he recounted how he had read an interview with Jimmy Page who said he had based “Black Dog” around the concept of a thunderous opening riff inspired by “Oh Well.”
Peter Green was once a kid who loved the blues. He fanboyed the likes of Elmore James and Robert Johnson and sang covers of “Dust My Broom” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.” In Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail,” Green opines about keeping moving slowly, picking out the song’s piano chords. “I don’t know the words to that though,” the gifted student of the blues is heard saying at the end in the first take, preserved on the master version of the self-titled Fleetwood Mac.
Green’s youthful exuberance made him adept at snarling through blues covers but his brilliance was realized on the panoramic solitude of Then Play On, which stands among Fleetwood Mac’s greatest records. Green’s pleas on guitar and voice are fully on “Closing My Eyes” and “Before The Beginning.” The second part of “Oh Well” is symphonic. But perhaps the sadness and tortured tribulations Green evidenced throughout his career is embodied in an early song “Trying So Hard To Forget.”
Green was the heart and soul of the band and the man to whom Fleetwood dedicated his autobiography. Green walked away from both the band and perceived evils of the music business leaving his tortured inner demons in full view in “The Green Manalishi.” Green suffered from schizophrenia and depression but was an able frontman of his own bands on and off for years to come.
“My most vivid memory of Peter (apart from countless amazing songs),” wrote keyboardist Morgan Fisher on his Facebook page, “is seeing him sitting in a guitar store in the West End of London, evidently buying a new guitar for his new Fleetwood Mac member, 18-year old blonde-haired Danny Kirwan, just a boy, sitting opposite Peter, also holding a guitar. It was a classic master/disciple situation, and the various long-haired friends and roadies standing respectfully around them gave the scene an almost biblical look which is engraved on my heart to this day, 52 years later. Godspeed you, angel.”
By the time Buckingham and Nicks joined, famed illustrator Pete Frame had already created one of his signature rock family trees of Fleetwood Mac, a long algorithmic chart detailing the many incarnations of the Mac’s ascendancy, tracing it all back to John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Buckingham and Nicks’ entrance seemed in keeping with the history of the band that changed members seemingly every few years.
Warren Haynes talked of the inspiration Green was to him and wrote on his passing: “In many ways the psychedelic, funky, jazzy, rock music that he did post-Fleetwood Mac could be viewed as an early precursor to the jam band movement of today.”
Haynes met the guitarist during the filming of Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife Of Robert Johnson at the Odeon Theater in Cleveland where Gov’t Mule was performing, Green was on the bill with Nigel Watson.
“When we met he was very gentle and humble, and very complimentary of Gov’t Mule’s “trio sound”. I told him that we would be honored to have him sit in and he replied “Sure, can I play harmonica?” “Of course” I said and he joined us onstage for a great blues jam and although I would have preferred to have him on guitar it was still a dream come true.”
Green came from history that sometimes seems so long ago it feels like it was, to quote a phrase, “before the beginning.” Green, Fleetwood, Spencer, Kirwan and McVie were kids who loved the blues and created a lineage of sounds that have us still fascinated today and inspired generations to come.
During a visit to Fleetwood’s restaurant in Hawaii for an episode of Sammy Hagar’s television show, Sammy Hagar was playing word games with Mick Fleetwood. When he said “Peter or Lindsey?” Hagar might have thought he’d catch Fleetwood off guard.
“Both,” Fleetwood deftly responded.
What he left unsaid is that it was once called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Fleetwood Mac will always be Peter Green’s band.