Tommy Bolin, who died of a drug overdose in December 1976, talks about joining Deep Purple in this interview, which originally appeared in Creem in November 1975.
Tommy Bolin has barely closed his eyes since he arrived in New York several days ago. Having recently replaced Ritchie Blackmore as Deep Purple’s lead axeman, he’s due shortly in Munich to record with that group, but in the meantime has been spending increasingly long hours in a studio here in the Big Apple, determined to finish work on a solo album. Last night’s session, which began promptly after dinner, stretched well past eight a.m.
Riding the elevator up to Bolin’s hotel suite early this afternoon, therefore, I half expect to be greeted only by a note announcing that the guitarist is still asleep. But he answers his doorbell almost immediately, ushering me inside with a smile that betrays no sign of his hard day’s night. He eases himself into a seat on the couch and, sipping a “morning” glass of grapefruit juice, explains that he’s quite used to sacrificing his shuteye.
“When the Purple first called me for an audition,” he says, “I hadn’t slept in a couple of days, not a wink, ’cause I’d been up writing stuff. The rehearsal was for four o’clock and I was lying there thinking I gotta figure a way to tell ’em, you know, tomorrow or something. And I thought, ‘Well, fuck it, I’ll just go down.’
“So I walked in and I was like a zombie. But in the first tune, right away, it was smiles all around.” Bolin grins, remembering the moment. “You know, I was shocked to see how good they were, ’cause I had never heard that much Deep Purple.”
Even now, admits the guitarist, his knowledge of the group’s discography barely extends beyond “Smoke On the Water.” By jamming with his new cohorts, however, he has become quite conversant with their musical abilities.
“I’ve done all-night sessions with Jon, Ian, Glenn, you know, with each of them individually, and they’re amazing players. Why they haven’t stuck out, why Ritchie has stuck out more than the rest of ’em, I don’t know.”
Whatever the reason, declares Bolin, he favors equal rights for his fellow Purples. “I don’t want to hide behind my amps or nothing, but I want to see an end to the image of guitar player out front and the band in back. We’re doing a lot of my tunes and, with the stuff I’m writing, I’m trying to bring in the talent of the whole group. And in the live show—we’re planning to tour early next year—everybody’ll be featured.”
One reason why Bolin is so willing to share the spotlight when playing with the Purple may be that he anticipates being frequently center stage in their absence. “I consider myself a full member of the group,” he says. “But Deep Purple isn’t gonna take up that much of my time each year. The other months, I’ll probably go out with my own band, which’ll probably include different players each time.”
When I ask how Deep Purple’s members feel about this moonlighting, Bolin flashes a satisfied look. “They’re happy that I’m gonna play solo and that I’m doing my own album because what’s good for me is good for them and vice versa.
“And I’m glad that it’s started off this way. It seems when you’re in a band for a while and you say, ‘O.K., I wanna do my own album,’ it’s like the other people are thinking, ‘Well, maybe he doesn’t dig what’s happening here.’ But since I started my own album before I met them, it’s a different attitude.
“Also, they know I would’ve loved to have them on my record. I tried like hell to get ’em to come play on it, but they can’t record in the States. Taxes or something, something weird. So that’s why they’re recording in Munich . . . and why I’ll probably do my next one there because I want them on it. They’re just phenomenal players.”
That Bolin sometimes sounds like a teenager extolling the virtues of a first lover may be at least partly attributable to the unsatisfying nature of many of his past experiences, musical and otherwise.
Summing up his Sioux City, Iowa high school days, for instance, Bolin says: “It was a waste. I was getting into guitar and wanted to take a music theory course. Well, I found out that they only offered it in alternate years. Where’s that at? Do they teach English every other year?”
Bolin decided to drop out; but school officials beat him to the punch, expelling the then 16-year-old in 1968 after he refused to shear his long locks. With a friend who’d been shown the door at the same institution (for wearing a pierced earring), the fledgling guitarist resolved to abandon Sioux City for greener pastures.
“We were gonna go to Denver,” he recalls, “and just as we got on the plane, about five cop cars pulled up. Somehow I knew they were for us, and sure enough. Seems my friend’s mother had found a half-pound of pot under his bed and called the police.
“As it turned out, she’d also burned it, not realizing they’d need it for evidence. So they couldn’t get him, though they really tried. They even tried to hold me. And I said, ‘What did I do? Have I broken any laws?’ They said, ‘Well, you haven’t technically violated the law of the land, but you’ve broken the law of society.’”
When Bolin finally got to Denver, his luck improved, but not a lot. He hooked up with a band called Zephyr, which brought the guitarist his first album-making experience and regularly attracted large audiences to its gigs, but due to a variety of intangibles “went straight down the tubes.”
Zephyr’s vinyl remains helped to advertise Bolin’s guitar proficiency, however. He began to find studio work with prominent musicians (notably Billy Cobham, who used him on his Spectrum LP). And, when Joe Walsh quit the James Gang in late 1973, he recommended Bolin to be his replacement.
Like Zephyr, the Gang undoubtedly helped Bolin to garner attention to his playing. But he has less than fond memories of his year with the group. “Except for the bass player, I never sat down and talked with any of them all night like I do Purple. And there was no musical communication, so I had to carry a lot of what was going on.
“They were tight among themselves, but it was like I was on one side of the river and they were on the other. For instance, if I would be doing a guitar solo, be getting into it and all that, they would almost at points look—[Bolin hesitates, then laughs]—bored, you know. They were straight-ahead rock players, whereas I wanted to go out and explore other places.”
But, I ask, hasn’t Deep Purple evolved into a rather quintessential straight-ahead rock band? “Oh, they’re pretty straight-ahead.” Bolin smiles. “But see, in the James Gang, the bass player and drummer had been together for a long time and had a certain idea of keeping an image; they worried about that all the time. Deep Purple, I think, is more willing to experiment.
“Visually, for example, there’s a lot we want to do. I don’t mean like chopping up chickens’ heads, but, you know, lasers and lights. Musically, we’re gonna stretch out, too. One of the tunes I wrote that we’re gonna put on the album, I think even jazz freaks are gonna go cuckoo over it.
“Between the Purple and the solo stuff,” Bolin concludes, exuding an enthusiasm that convincingly underlines his words. “I couldn’t be happier. I feel I can finally try all the things I’ve always wanted to do. It’s like a new lease on life.”