WHEN PETER GREEN grew his fingernails to the length of talons it seemed to his fans an act of cultural vandalism. To them, those nails fulfilled one simple purpose: to ensure he would never again be tempted to apply his fingertips to a fretboard. And thus he robbed audiences of the sound of perhaps the greatest British blues guitarist of his generation.
Given that generation included the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards, that mantle will always be a matter of debate. But Mr Green had something those luminaries lacked. All worshipped Chicago bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf and by the mid-1960s all were exporting the British version of the blues back to the land from which it had originally come. But perhaps only Mr Green, a poor Jewish boy from the East End of London, felt the music’s pain of the outsider in anything like the way of his black heroes, who had escaped America’s Deep South for the tough streets of Chicago.
It showed in his playing, through what Sandra Elsden, his girlfriend at the time, called “his Jewish blues”. The style could be languid, but was deeply soulful. He could convey more in a single, held note than flashier peers could ever hope to in a torrent of semi-quavers. In that regard he was much like B.B. King, who once said, after hearing Mr Green’s mournful tone, that he was the only guitarist to give him cold sweats.
His break came in 1966, when he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, replacing Eric Clapton on lead guitar. The group was like an allotment, growing Britain’s great crop of blues musicians, from Mr Clapton to Jack Bruce and Mick Taylor. Mr Green left the following year to form his own band with two other former Bluesbreakers, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. He named the outfit Fleetwood Mac, after an instrumental that he had written, on which the latter pair had formed the rhythm section (“Mac” was short for McVie). It was a prescient move. Years later Mr Fleetwood was asked why Mr Green had not included his own name in the band’s signature. He had probably wanted to ensure, mused Mr Fleetwood, that the group would be theirs after he left.
That fateful day would come. Before that there was a string of hits, including “Albatross”, “Black Magic Woman” and the sublime “Need Your Love So Bad”. But as the 1960s wore on, Mr Green’s mental health suffered. His schizophrenia, probably already present, was exacerbated by an insatiable appetite for LSD, despite the bad trips it induced. He began to pester other members of the band to give away their fortunes, as he himself would soon do. He had visions of angels. His songs took on a troubling tone. In “Oh Well”, he muses on God’s disappointment in him. In “Green Manalishi” he ponders the curse of money:
Now when the day goes to sleep and the full moon looks
And the night is so black that the darkness cooks
And you come creeping around, making me do things I don’t want to do
After leaving the band in 1970, Mr Green’s descent into mental anguish accelerated. The fortune was duly disposed of and the guitar locked away—those fingernails acting as security guards. He became a recluse, sometimes sleeping rough, at least when he wasn’t being treated in a psychiatric ward. He allegedly brandished a rifle at an accountant who tried to deliver a large royalty cheque. Meanwhile, without him, the band he formed went on to become one of the most successful, and richest, in rock history.
It took more than two decades for Mr Green to fully commit to a musical comeback. At first he seemed reluctant to embrace his guitar on stage, preferring simply to sing. (That he possessed a fine blues voice is often overlooked, given his brilliance on a Les Paul.) But as time went on the consummate bluesman, if not exactly back, at least made less-fleeting appearances. Sometimes he would even play a song from the old days, such as “Albatross”. Mr Green was a man capable of soaring, untouchable beauty, but he lived a difficult life, always seemingly on the wing.
By The Economist https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/07/27/peter-green-was-arguably-britains-greatest-blues-guitarist