UNSTABLE GUITARISTS: HENRY VESTINE
Welcome to our “Unstable Guitarists” series, in which we examine exceptionally talented guitarists who were completely out of their minds – and the vinyl footprint they have left us. (Note: There will not be an “Unstable Drummers” series due to the sheer volume of candidates and our limited staffing.)
Our first “unstable guitarist” is the late and legendary Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine. Vestine, a.k.a. “The Sunflower,” was born on Christmas Day, 1944, in Takoma Park, Maryland -- duly noted in a moment of recording studio euphoria by Canned Heat vocalist Bob “The Bear” Hite in the middle of the classic Canned Heat jam “Fried Hockey Boogie.”
Henry’s father was a noted NASA physicist who wrote a groundbreaking paper entitled “Some Aspects of The Survey Of The Magnetic Field Of The Moon And The Planets.” Shortly after the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik in the late 50’s, he was offered a job in California and moved the Vestines to Pacific Palisades. Henry took the West Coast transplantation hard, and shortly after his arrival, began what was to be a lifelong association with drugs.
Young Henry’s talent as a guitarist blossomed in California, as he first gained prominence as an early member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, only to be fired by Frank for his drug problems. Vestine’s problems might have put off some bands, but in 1967, he joined new blues-rock band Canned Heat, which viewed his issues more like a badge of honor. As Heat drummer Fito de la Parra said in a recent interview, "Going to excess was not a firing offense in Canned Heat. It was a given."
Vestine stretched the blues via long solos with a fuzzy-edged guitar style that moved electric blues beyond conventional formulas, enabling Canned Heat to successfully fuse hard rock with the genre's traditional roots. In the late 60's, the group built a huge following with young white audiences, gained extensive radio airplay and quickly became the biggest white blues band in America, culminating in an appearance at Woodstock. Even Jimi Hendrix was an avowed Henry Vestine fan.
But Vestine actually missed playing at Woodstock, allegedly fired by the band a week before the historic concert for swallowing a handful of pills before a gig and zoning out on stage -- playing an aimless, never-ending solo that left bassist Larry Taylor exhausted and furious. Vestine would later say he “quit” the band, calling Woodstock “just another gig.”
The rest of Henry’s story is even bumpier. Henry either quit or was fired from the band ten times over a thirty year association. (Surely, Dickie Betts wishes the Allman Brothers were as forgiving as the Heat clan.)
For the liner notes of the band's 1973 album “One More River to Cross,” Vestine insisted on being credited only as Henry Loquisimo (Spanish for “very crazy, loco"), explaining: "I used to be mad. Now I'm totally insane." Shortly afterwards, the guitarist departed for South Carolina. "He joined the Ku Klux Klan," confirmed bandmate de la Parra, "which, even by Henry's standards, was truly bizarre."
Henry Vestine died in a Paris hotel on October 20, 1997 after completing a European tour with Canned Heat. Just prior to his death, Vestine told close friends he wanted his ashes scattered in the Vestine Crater on the moon, which had been named posthumously after his father – a wish that is unfulfilled.
Henry’s finest hour as a guitarist can be found on 1968’s “Boogie With Canned Heat,” a rip-roaring blend of highly amplified late-'60s electric rhythm and blues, where Vestine soars on “Fried Hockey Boogie,” “Amphetimine Annie,” “World in a Jug,” and many other potent blues tracks. “Boogie With Canned Heat” was reissued on vinyl in 2011 by Pure Pleasure Records, and original pressings on the Liberty label are easily found online or at flea markets.
(Next in our series: Peter Green)
Vestine also sizzles on this hard to find "Live at Topanga Corral" LP