Blind Owl Al Wilson: Arlington’s Forgotten Music Legend
September 3, 2010 is the fortieth anniversary of the passing of Arlington’s Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, the late lead singer and founding member of the legendary blues/rock group Canned Heat. I was sixteen years old and living on Beverly Road in Arlington, on the shores of the lower Mystic lakes when the Arlington Advocate published its obituary of Wilson. As a huge music fan I certainly loved the groups’ hit recordings, “On The Road Again”, “Goin’ Up The Country” and a cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together”. Wilson sang the first two hits while his friend and band co-founder, Bob “The Bear” Hite, sang “Let’s Work Together.”
As the history of Arlington music goes, Canned Heat is an essential – perhaps central – component, deserving of a place in the history books because of Al Wilson’s roots in that community. Along with exotic pianist Alan Hovhaness, former Arista recording artist Andy Mendelson (keyboard player for Andy Pratt for awhile as well), The Prince and The Paupers, Fox Pass, Tony Caliendo of the Pink Floyd tribute band Pink Void, The Tarbox family and others, Arlington, Massachusetts has a heritage to be proud of.
There are plenty of places to find out about Alan Wilson’s work with Canned Heat. Wikipedia and AllMusic.com have lots of entries, this writer contributing reviews to All Music of the Canned Heat album Hallelujah as well as a “best of” package entitled Canned Heat Cookbook: Their Greatest Hits. Released in 1969 it would be the first of dozens and dozens of repackages, according to the AMG site. This tribute being what it is, readers are urged to check out those sites for more information, especially a fan page for Wilson called simply BlindOwl.net
What people don’t realize is that Wilson was the first of four 27 year old rock stars to pass on, and when put in this context it is actually quite chilling. After Otis Redding died in a plane crash in 1967 at the age of 26 it was Wilson’s death on September 3, 1970 that preceded Jimi Hendrix on September 18 and Janis Joplin’s on October 4. This is the 40th Anniversary of all three of these rock & roll legends…and their story doesn’t quite stop there. Conspiracy theories abound for all three of these counterculture figures.
But why the seemingly harmless Alan Wilson? In the epilogue of Salvador Astucia’s controversial book ” Rethinking John Lennon’s Assassination – The FBI’s War on Rock Stars” as well as at the conclusion of the biography on BlindOwl.net there are hints and more. Wikipedia currently has a photo of the upside down American flag being planted on the moon in an Iwo Jima-type way (one has to look at the actual flag with his upside down on a rightside up pole). Wikipedia notes “The upside down flag was Alan Wilson’s idea and was a response to his love of nature, growing environmentalism and concern that humankind would soon be polluting the moon as well as the Earth (as reflected in his song “Poor Moon”).” While Astucia states in his essay – Targeting the right people – “Alan “Wilson made a powerful political statement by displaying an upside-down American flag on the cover of Canned Heat’s 1970 album, Future Blues”. In Chapter 12 of his book Astucia writes ” Canned Heat performed with Jimi Hendrix on September 4, 1970 at a concert in Berlin, but Alan Wilson died that very morning. (JV notes: Actually, Wilson died on the 3rd) This fact has been suppressed in virtually all accounts of Hendrix’s final days.” Astucia also claims Janis Joplin was at the Berlin concert, which would have been impossible if her final concert with Full Tilt Boogie was August 12 1970 in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wikipedia notes that her Pearl album’s recording sessions “…began in early September, ended with Joplin’s untimely death on October 4, 1970.”
The fact that Canned Heat and Jimi Hendrix played just two weeks before Hendrix’s death, and that Al Wilson died on the day before the show, is definite food for thought as more evidence is uncovered that both Hendrix and Joplin might have been murdered. Alan Wilson.net says in the biography of the musician: ” Although Alan Wilson’s death was ruled a suicide by the press at the time; the fact remains that in many instances, the statistics surrounding his passing were mis-reported. The police officer listed the cause as “accidental”. The music tabloids in Europe, where Canned Heat was on tour, reported several incorrect drug-related scenarios (we have copies of at least 4) that were debunked by documents in the public record. In addition, The LA times article from September 4, 1970 reported that Alan was found with 4 “reds” (phenobarbitol) and that it was an “overdose of barbituates.”
Three counterculture figures died within a month of each other, all at the age of 27, and J. Edgar Hoover was said to be watching these individuals who potentially had control over the youth during the Viet Nam era. Despite Salvador Astucia getting somewhat overzealous by adding Joplin to the German concert and pushing Wilson’s death up a day (the time difference between West Coast Pacific Time and German time being about 8 hours), his information is still hard-hitting and, for the most part, very accurate.
Wikipedia notes that Alan Wilson may have attempted suicide twice before his passing, so we are left to our own conclusions. But it is pretty strange that he was the first of these 27 year old rock stars who had all performed at Monterey Pop and Woodstock together (Canned Heat, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both performing at those iconic moments in music history) to leave us.
This is the Fortieth Anniversary of the passing of Arlington’s Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. At the very least we’d like to respectfully note his accomplishments and hope that people in his home town and around the world recognize his importance.
Essays on Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to follow as we pay homage to these greats on the 40th anniversaries of their respective deaths.
By Joe Viglione
TMRZoo Chief Film Critic