|CROSSROADS..........Leslie West and Corky Laing of Mountain|
Pivotal moments in musicians' careers propelling them from obscurity to infamy by Mark E. Waterbury
Mountain is a lot more than just one of the most famous cow bell parts in rock and roll's history. Sure the power rocking trio may be best known for the enduring anthem "Mississippi Queen," but they are far from being a one hit wonder like so many of their peers from that era. Songs like "Nantucket Sleighride" and "For Yasgur's Farm" are held in equal and even higher esteem by Mountain's fans than the aforementioned classic rock radio staple. You also have the tremendous respect for the talents of Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi and Corky Laing and the stunning symbiosis created when their forces were joined. Then came the drugs, tragedy, reunions and retoolings of various forms...maybe the Allman Brothers said it best when they intoned "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Sardonic lyric reference aside, it is perhaps a fitting description to Mountain's often rocky (sigh, another bad play-on-words pun) tenure, although for a number of years now "then there is" has been happily accurate.
In the late sixties, Forest Hills-born guitarist Leslie West had already been creating a bit of a name for himself in the East Coast based band The Vagrants. He had become friends with producer Felix Pappalardi, who had worked with Cream as well as other bands. Leslie had decided it was time to do a solo album when Vagrant disbanded, so the album entitled "Mountain" was recorded with Felix Pappalardi producing. "I had a drummer and a bass player that Felix wasn't too happy with," Leslie recalls. "Felix played bass as well but I don't think he wanted to join the band until it was a success." With the nucleus of Leslie and Felix, a new band formed that took their name from Leslie's album title, adding keyboardist Steve Knight and drummer N.D. Smith. Soon after their inception, Mountain launched their climb with a show at the infamous Filmore Auditorium. Smith did not last long, however, and was replaced fairly quickly by Canadian born stickman Corky Laing, who was in another Felix Pappalardi-produced band Energy. "I knew Leslie for a bit and always admired his work," Corky notes. "When I got into Mountain, I really felt that I stepped up to the first division."
Now that the pieces were all together, it did not hurt the band. Because of their connections from previous projects, Jimi Hendrix's booking agent decided to work with them, which gained them instant exposure at what would become the most famous music festival of all time. "This agent was a friend of ours, and Jimi was sort of the headliner of Woodstock," Leslie recalls. "He told the organizers if they wanted Jimi, they had to take this band called Mountain. He left them no choice in the matter." About the same time as their appearance at Woodstock, Mountain's aptly titled debut "Mountain Climbing" was released, which produced the band's first single "Mississippi Queen." "Internationally and nationally, that was the right song for the right time," Corky recalls. "Sometimes when everything happens right you just know it, and that is what happened with the way that song turned out. We all just looked at each other when it came out and couldn't believe how it felt. It had such an up feeling and sounded really big. It was one of those wonderful moments in life when everything came together, and I felt that launched the band." Both "Mississippi Queen" and "Mountain Climbing" went gold and subsequent albums "Nantucket Sleighride," "Flowers of Evil" and "Mountain Live" were also well-received. By 1973, tensions were germinating in Mountain's base camp. Felix returned to the production side of the business and Steve Knight left the band as well.Leslie and Corky joined with Cream bassist Jack Bruce to record a couple fairly successful albums as West, Bruce and Laing. There were some brief resurrections of Mountain brought on by Felix and, later, with the addition of Corky, produced a couple of lightly received albums.By the mid-seventies, the former Mountain men parted ways heading off in decidedly different directions. "Drugs screwed (Mountain) up," Leslie notes. "Back then, we were experimenting with everything; if someone came up to me with a balloon filled with sand and told me to smoke it, I would have done so. It hurt the productivity of the group." Corky feels like the intensity of Mountain's career also contributed to the break up. "We were in and out of the studio all the time and then out on the road. It was very very very intense and also compressed, and basically, you just burn out. Drugs will help you burn, too, but I think it was more the intensity."
Leslie went on to do numerous recording projects with several top musicians including the Who and Billy Joel. He occasionally did casual reincarnations of Mountain with Felix and also formed the Leslie West Band. Corky actually took a hiatus from the music business for awhile before returning in 1982 with the band The Mix. Then in 1983, Felix Pappalardi was shot dead by his wife. In the wake of the tragedy, Leslie and Corky reunited in 1985 to record "Go For Your Life" with bassist Mark Clarke as a sort of dedication to Felix. "I didn't think we would ever be back together again, but then again, I didn't think I would live more than thirty years," Corky muses. "You can't imagine at the accelerated pace we had been at how long you can extend your juvenile behavior." "Go For Your Life" did seem like a one time reunion, as Leslie and Corky again went their separate ways. Leslie finally left drugs in his wake around this time as well, and slimmed down considerably. He continued performing and recording with various artists, including a stint producing new alt metal band Clutch. Corky returned for awhile to a blues project he formed with Mick Taylor and Lester Chambers, and then went into the business side of music as the VP of A&R for Polygram Records in Canada. Something about the mid-eighties reunion must have stuck with them, and a decade later, they once again reunited for the silver anniversary album "Over the Top." The album featured two new original songs along with their classics, and at first, they did not realize that this reunion would have staying power, but it became evident that time had healed whatever rifts there were between Leslie and Corky. "We did a tour and it was going good," Leslie says. "Years ago, if I would have shot Corky when I wanted to I would be in jail now. Corky knows what I expect of him now and he knows what to expect from me, and it's been going great." "I highly respect Leslie," Corky adds. "I think we have matured, and the problem in the beginning was we moved so fast no one really had a chance to mature. Playing with Leslie is great, he's unpredictable in many ways. That can be good and bad but in music it is wonderful."
The reunion held as Mountain continued recording and performing to fans from their early days as well as newer generations that were turning on to them. It was also apparent that Mountain left its mark on musicians from several generations of rock and roll. "Mountain has influenced a lot of people, "Leslie notes. "Michael Schenker and George Lynch just recorded Mountain songs, and it makes me feel good that some of these guys are doing songs that I wrote. It's more than just jamming because, if you improvise, you still have to have a song around it." Corky agrees that, "I think with Leslie in the band you have a lot of musical credibility and we get a lot of musicians from all ages and levels at our shows. It looks like they want to learn something. I'm very happy about that." Recently,Mountain released a double live album called "Eruption" and are making plans for the next studio album. They just returned from another tour and it is apparent that the longevity of this incarnation of the Mountain, that has already outstayed the tenure of the original group, does not show any signs of waning, "I'm having more fun than ever right now," Leslie comments. "I don't have to prove anything now. I'm just going out and playing and enjoying myself." Corky's feelings mirror Leslie's, intoning that, "I'm having the best f**kin' time of my life. I just love it. I'm healthy enough to execute what I want to do, and if there is anything I want to go for than I go for it. It's still really inspiring and I'm more focused now than I ever was before. "
Leslie's advice to musicians: "You have to really commit to your songs. You can't just go in and jam and then cut it up and try to make songs out of it. You have to have good material that you are excited about, I even still have to do that."
Corky's advice to musicians: "You have to get to the point when you actually feel that things are happening. Not necessarily to a financial point, but from a musical point if you are building excitement around it. If you can get that feeling going then it can spread out like a wave from there and multiply."