Eric Burdon is one of rocks few legendary performers left who refuses to sell out. Yes, he still performs the Animals ever-requested hit of 42 years past, House of the Rising Sun, for masses of reminiscing baby boomers at 60s retrospectives. Yes, he still brings to life the erotic, funk quality he honed while fronting for War in the 70s. But he insists on peppering his nostalgic rock shows with what he prefers: raucous and soulful blues that win him new fans among the old. He has often been referred to as the best white R&B singer of the 60s, but his voice today is deeper and gutsier than ever. His last three albums, My Secret Life (2004), Athens Traffic (2005) and this years Soul of a Man, are each a testament to the blues that inspired him at age 14, growing up in Newcastle, England. Today Burdon resides in the California desert and tours worldwide.
While waiting for his call time before for a recent summertime concert in the park in Woodland Hills, Burdon quietly pads around his hotel room in bare feet, looking innocuous in black shorts and a wrinkled white T. With closely cropped snow-white hair and stubble framing his face, sipping a Starbucks caramel frappuccino, Burdon looks a far cry from the sexy bad boy of rock he once was. But with a sly look of yore, he sets up his own recorder next to this interviewers apparently mistrustful of the media. With two tapes running, the questions begin, and it becomes clear that at age 65, this animal is still champing at the bit to tell the world a thing or two.
Your songs, Sky Pilot, Monterey and San Franciscan Nights, reflect a type of musical journalism common in the 60s. Do you still try to convey political or meaningful messages in your songs?
Quite honestly, over the last few years there hasnt been much going on that interests me. You live long enough and things start to repeat themselves, and you go Oh, Ive been there before. Look at Vietnam and where we are now. Im reading a book on the history of the Vietnam War The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 by Marilyn B. Young and Ive heard people compare Vietnam and Iraq. In either case, we shouldnt have went. Its too late now, man. Once youre in, youre in. Tragic things went on in Vietnam. There was a weird karma going around. When Vietnamese leader Diem was assassinated, President Kennedy was assassinated soon after. Very strange. People are manipulated and sold a bill of goods by our media you guys and its like, oh man, not again.
What do think about the recent terrorism plot in London?
When Britain lost India and they started pulling out, it was written in the constitution that those people were allowed to come to the mother country to find work. The British wrote it, they set it up, but now that its in the works, they dont want it. If you go to the Midlands or you go north where I come from, you might as well be in India. Theres a mosque on every corner, and what drove them there was the British Empire.
This is not only happening in England, its happening everywhere. Its the way of the world today. All of the borders are down well they were before 9/11 nothing is the same after 9/11. But leading up to that, all the borders came down in Europe, and there were no more border checks. The European Union is a huge concept where supposedly there are no more border checks. They pretend that there are no racial problems. You look at BBC television and you get sold a bill of goods. The sitcoms are white people in white situations with one or two blacks cast in roles out of gratuity to be politically correct. People have a massive problem dealing with outsiders being unable to recognize the human being through his black skin or his white skin, and seeing him as an individual.
Do you not touch upon these issues in your new music?
[Shouts] Im bored with it. I think that its the same with warfare. Its so out of date and so stupid. I cant stand stupid people and stupid things that dont make any sense. Centuries before, an American went to war against the British oppressor to free this country away from British taxes and the rule of law from London. They went into battle with weapons that were secreted in they were given German rifles so they had better guns than the British. There used to be a reason to believe in the weapon you were holding because it was manufactured by your people against an enemy. Now everybodys facing the same weapons that were all dealt out by the same people. What we have to stop if weve got any sense at all is the international arms trade. Even countries like Sweden they make machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and SAAB jets. And then they make pretty little cars and they have ads on TV saying [makes the blasting sound of a jet taking off] Go on some jets! Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex, a phrase we know so well yet dont take any notice of. Am I going to stand up to the plate and open my mouth politically these days? No, let Neil Young do it.
What is your musical inspiration now?
Im always looking for it. Its an endless search. Thats what makes it interesting. My last album is a return to my roots, and I made that return because of the constants hits on my Web site asking me to do a blues album. But I want to go beyond that.
Do you perform your new music at your concerts?
Youll hear quite a lot, more than most people will expect. But everybody says, We want to hear the old stuff. Whats the do, man? The old stuff used to be new stuff. Am I supposed to stay back there in the 60s? Look, I happened to hang out with Jimi Hendrix. We happened to be friends. But he will not lie down in my life. This is one of the things Im gonna do: Im gonna write a piece on Jimi so I can finally say to interviewers, Im not gonna talk about him anymore.
Do you regret being known primarily as the lead singer of a rock band?
No, I resent being stuck with the British invasion.
Do you have any advice for those embarking on a music career?
Read music law. I wasnt taught anything. I had no education whatsoever. Everything I know I learned from firsthand experience or reading. In school I was in the back of a class of 50 kids, and the teachers couldnt care less what they were teaching us. What they did tell us turned out to be a lie. It was terrible. I was totally disappointed in the way I was thrown through the school system. I couldnt wait to get out of my hometown.
I was born and raised with good parents, really sweet people, and I had a lot of respect for them. They were middle-working class and did quite well. But the physical surroundings were like growing up in a brick box. I couldnt wait to get out. The thing I always wanted in life was space not to hear neighbors complaining. Ive found that, Ive got that.
In your book Dont Let Me Be Misunderstood, you describe a confrontation with your father shortly after Jimi Hendrixs death. He knew that you wanted to save the world through your music. Out of fear of losing you he suggested that you do it straight. Did you ever listen to him?
No, I never listened to anybody. But the fact that I never forgot what he said shows a respect for my father. I wasnt going to let him dictate to me what I was going to do. Rightfully or wrongfully, back in those years of doing LSD and experimenting with music and life itself, I thought it was my job, my vocation, to get through those years by learning who you really are, by recognizing self and what youre capable of.
So who are you?
I dont know. I dont think we achieved what we thought we could. I also was quite close to the Beatles back then. They went as far as anyone could go, only to find out that they would be assassinated, they would be hounded, they wouldnt have any peace and quiet. The Animals had a taste of that but not at the same level as the Beatles. If youre a prisoner and youre locked into something, you have to make a game out of it. I made a game out of it for years. There wasnt a hotel I couldnt escape from. There wasnt a room that I couldnt get out of. When I came to America, I would escape from meetings and rehearsals, get in a taxi and go to 125th Street and hang out at the Apollo and meet people like B.B. King, Chuck Jackson, Little Richard. I was in the same room with Jimi Hendrix back then without even knowing it.
Blues has been a driving force in your music. Why does this music so deeply touch a white kid from England?
In blues music I found the truth part of the truth, anyway. I found aspects of it in the lyrics. My grandfather was a slave in the coal mines from 14 years of age. He died of black lung. I look at the history books of my hometown in Newcastle. We were the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. We put kids of 8 or 9 years of age down in the mines to haul coal out. When my grandfather came home from work, he was black. He could wash it off but nevertheless . Maybe thats why I was drawn to the dark side of life. The city I was raised in, which I love with all my heart, was polluted. We mined coal, we cooked by it, we all smelled of it, we ate, it, we breathed it, and I still have it in my system. Im an asthmatic. Ive had it all my life because of the pollution that I grew up in.
Its why Im now on the West Coast out in the desert. Thats a measure of being an aristocrat. Its being able to afford to live in fresh air. You may be a trillionaire, making movies in Hollywood, but youve got to live in L.A. with the smog. Theres not many places left on the planet where you can be free of pollution. On television, when they show you a photograph of the Earth called our blue planet Im sure its not that blue anymore. But they use that standby NASA photograph to make you feel like it is.
What keeps your mind busy?
The world of conspiracy and the conspiracy nuts in this country. I guess Im one of them. I wont go into what I think is the biggest conspiracy hoax in the country because I value my life too much. But my father told me stuff when I was a kid. For a guy with no education he was a simple electrician he certainly had has finger on international politics. There are things he told me that came to pass, and he passed that onto me. I love stuff like the History Channel and educational channels. Im seeing stuff now that I knew years ago.
When I was working in Germany during the 80s, there was a full-on war by a group of terrorists called the Baader-Meinhof gang. I was imprisoned there out of guilt by association. That spurred me to start studying gangs and international money until I got to the point that I was able to predict stuff. Its not like foreseeing the future. All you have to do read enough and assimilate it and youll realize, Oh this is the same set up as lets take the Big One. The greatest army in the world at the time, led by Napoleon, goes to Moscow and, its too cold. He turns around and comes back. Youre not going to tell me that Hitler didnt study Napoleon at war.
This is my theory: There are people that are born in certain generations that are of the same DNA a kind of similarity. Theres a certain stamp on their psyche. I think a lot of people are studying Hitler right now. It certainly looks that way. Look at the manipulation of religion and the use of religion as an excuse for war. Its been done before. Its never been about religion. Its always been power and money. Its a shame. Its a sin.
What is your biggest regret?
One of my regrets is that Bruce Springsteen wanted to produce me at one point and I said no. I have a lot of respect for Bruce and what he stands for politically. You know what his politics are. You know what kind of a guy he is. Its easy to see.
Whats the most worthy thing youve ever done?
I dont know. I cant deal with self-praise. I cant deal with patting myself on the back. If I walk away from every show and see smiling faces, thats rewarding.
When you perform as part of a 60s retrospective [like the recent K-EARTH-sponsored show at the Greek Theater], do you play any of your new songs?
Absolutely. Okay, this is what I resent: the fact that I have to play the Greek because it is a 60s event and I was around then. Its the same thing with Jimi Hendrix. This guy was in my life. I didnt think he was going to be in my life forever especially in death. Hes gone, but I cant get the guy out of my life. Its always, Oh, you knew Hendrix? [Looks up to the heavens and says] Gee Jimi, I have my own life to lead. Ive known a lot of great people who have passed away.
Why do you think you survived?
Because I know the difference between right and wrong. Im not saying Im a goody two-shoes. Ive stolen things. What Ive stolen would seem ridiculous to you. I cant even describe them. Theyre just things most people would take without asking. Its confusing.
My confusion is never-ending. For instance, I started to paint again for the first time in years. Then I went away on tour for a couple of months, and when I returned I looked at the unfinished stuff and I couldnt continue. Theres a thing about being in the music business, which is based on rhythm and format. Theres no rhythm in my life. Theres no steady beat. I cant explain it.
I have to travel by air. I put in more air-time per month than any professional stewardess or pilot. I wanted to make a T-shirt that said, One year in the air, but nobody understands it but me. Virtually, one year in the air.
Do you still enjoy touring?
I like the shows. I like getting onstage. I like the fans. But I get paid for traveling. Im looking forward to my next album project. But Im ahead of my own game in a way. Ive got three albums out there right now. Im not rushing into it.
Describe a day in life of Eric Burdon.
I get up and walk, lift weights. I write in my diary. When Im away from home, in a hotel, Ill spend more time writing on a project. I used to go to the movies a lot but now I cant be bothered with going down the hill since Ive got a home theater. I live amongst a lot of wildlife, and I have a real appreciation for it. Im getting into gardening now, too. Im one of these old dudes, man.
Are you an American citizen?
Oh yeah. Its a great country. As they say in England, Aw yeah, its a great country, itll be great once they get it finished. Americans think that Europeans and the rest of the world hate them. This is absolute bullshit. I think the government of this country I cant quite put my finger on the players wants to try and kill off our [good relations]. Its not a good way to think. Youve got to be a good neighbor. Have we ever been good neighbors to the Mexicans and the Canadians? Do they owe us anything? Cmon! Like I said before, its repetitive. I saw the same thing in England. When I was a kid, the first friends I had were black Africans. I had a black girlfriend and got engaged. I was going to get married to her except that I went off to become a rock n roll musician. Then people started to complain about all the blacks in England, and I thought, Man, if you want to send them back to Africa or Jamaica or wherever, the whole hospital-medical system will collapse because theyre the ones who do it. You guys dont want to do it. I mean, get real. This racial thing is crazy. This country is so interested in the well being of Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians, Mexico, South America, wherever theyve got that finger in business-wise. Those people should be allowed to vote on the American ticket, for an American president.
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Any of these sentiments in your music?
Im trying. You cant brush off my last album and say there arent any political statements in it. I went to the roots and the ancient, original writers of the blues to get at the truth about whats happening today. I did a song performed by Mississippi Fred McDowell that was written in 1913 called Red Cross Store. I just read a book called The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley about the flooding of New Orleans and the south beaches down in Mississippi, and that the Red Cross refused to have a Red Cross station in New Orleans. They were thinking, One of these days the people are going to be in it up to their necks. They knew. So, if I sing a song, I aint going back to that Red Cross store no more, its ancient history and its right on the money.
On September 17, Eric Burdon and the Animals will perform as part of Los Angeles K-Earth Legends, with Tommy James and the Shondells, and the Grass Roots at the Greek Theater.