Goin' through them changes

The slow healing of Buddy Miles

Ordinarily the idea of being privy to a rock legend's private home recordings is intriguing, but when that legend is Buddy Miles--singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, and notably indulgent wild man--a bit of ambivalence can be forgiven.

Not that Miles lacks rock credentials--far from it. The man was the vocalist, drummer, and writer for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and an original member of the legendary Electric Flag (which also included such luminaries as Michael Bloomfield, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, and Harvey Brooks), as well as a lead vocalist and songwriter for Carlos Santana. He leads his own won't-stay-dead Buddy Miles Express (the band in which he wrote the immortal "Them Changes") and has been the sideman for everyone from Wilson Pickett to Muddy Waters to John McLaughlin. Even if you don't know or care for rock, you probably have heard Miles--as the voice on those endearing California Raisins commercials.

But Miles' eccentricities are almost as legendary as his musical accomplishments. A big, beefy man with a wild, unruly Afro that made him look like a demented troll, Miles was perhaps the first Scary Negro in pop music, an impression that his powerhouse drumming only reinforced. "He looked like Baby Huey," Nick Gravenites of the Electric Flag recalls of their meeting in the liner notes to the Columbia/Legacy retrospective The Best of the Electric Flag: An American Music Band. "We ate a big meal, smoked some reefer, and on the way back Buddy puked all over my truck." A taste for drugs didn't help, and in the late '70s and early '80s his indulgences finally landed him in California's notorious Chino and San Quentin prisons, first on grand theft (stemming from an incident in which he walked out of famed western tailor Nudie's store without paying his bill) and auto theft charges, and then on various parole violations that included drugs.

Now Miles is back, getting himself together with the help of Fort Worth musician John Nitzinger (best known for his '70s-era hits with Fort Worth band Bloodrock and three respected solo albums: Nitzinger, One Foot in History, and Live Better Electrically). While Nitzinger is nowhere near a star of Miles' luminosity, he was a genuine Texas hero during the '70s, working with the likes of Alice Cooper and Carl Palmer for years before vanishing in a miasma of booze and dope.

After a stint in the Betty Ford Center over a year ago, though, he's returned to his Fort Worth home-base, recorded a very nice indie CD called Didja Miss Me and--healthy and sober--hooked up with Miles, with whom he used to jam in the early days when the drummer would pass through town on any of a number of major tours.

As it turns out, it was during one such recent jam at Fort Worth's J&J Blues Bar that Miles, in the area on a publicity junket for Mercury's recently released The Best of Buddy Miles, climbed onstage with Nitzinger for the first time in almost two decades. Both claim that the moment was incendiary, and it wasn't long before Miles decided to relocate to North Texas to join forces on what is being tentatively billed as Nitzinger/Miles.

Still, the ambivalence persists. Our first, accidental, meeting one afternoon a few months ago at the Greenville Bar & Grill (during a lunch of which the most hazardous visible component was the caffeine in the iced tea) found Miles--now 51, his Bobby Seale Afro trimmed a bit--not looking remarkably different than the circus-garbed young man staring out from the cover of the Electric Flag's groundbreaking 1968 debut A Long Time Comin'. His style hadn't changed much, either: He was certainly proffering plenty of outrageous and, well, truly provocative comments.

In the midst of a lengthy discourse on the ghoulish manipulation of the Hendrix estate and Miles' forced ouster from the Band of Gypsies at the hands of Jimi's former business manager Mike Jeffrey, Miles said, "I just happen to know too much about this situation that a lot of people don't know. A lot of people say Jimi took himself out. Well, I beg to differ. There's a lot of people that think he was murdered." Miles' further assertion that Hendrix was killed for financial reasons is not totally unique, though his saying that "Jeffrey was a political assassin hired by the English government" might strike some as paranoiac.

Miles will never strike a listener as shy. That afternoon, upon being asked to elaborate on a comment about players who don't deserve fame, he said, "Buddy Guy, for one. And I hope he hears it loud and clear, because I don't care. I played at his club one time; I went up to talk to him and he looked like he had horns sticking out of his head when I asked him for a drink. Plus, another thing. He made a statement one time when I brought Slash from Guns N' Roses [into Guy's club] to do a benefit, and Buddy says on the stage, 'I'm gonna play for you what I taught Jimi Hendrix.' And I thought to myself, What crawled up you and died?"

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