Peter Green: guitar pioneer who made the blues his own

<span>Photograph: George Wilkes Archive/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: George Wilkes Archive/Getty Images

The occasion was as unlikely as it was unforgettable: Peter Green playing in Frome, Somerset, 10 years ago, but feels like yesterday. Peter Green, who seemed to play the blues guitar from the far side of some borderline between wherever he was out there, and what passes for reality; Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac when they really were Fleetwood Mac, at the outset. Peter Green who died on Saturday.

Green spoke little that night in May 2010, and sometimes made little sense. It was not his last concert, but not many others followed. At one point, he said something about fish then, prompted by rhythm guitarist Mike Dodd, ventured effortlessly into a sparkling account of John Mayall’s Sitting in the Rain, played with delicate, crystalline sonority. Not long after came Black Magic Woman: electrifying, but more introverted than the Carlos Santana cover we know so well. Green was portly, sitting on a stool, wearing a khaki shirt and headscarf, smiling to himself and his guitar.

He had never fully “recovered” from the existential and later clinical journey – begun in 1969 – from stardom to schizophrenia to whatever this was. But later that evening, when he gave his signature instrumental Albatross, Green’s musicianship had progressed from the technical and emotional cogency of his earlier work to something bordering, frankly, on sublime. As though the agony and ecstasy he had long abandoned formulating into words or conventional communication could be spoken more articulately than ever through music.

Green was born Peter Allen Greenbaum, spotted by the playmaker of British blues, John Mayall, for his band, the Bluesbreakers, which Green infused with a resonant power that flourished with Fleetwood Mac. I saw them in spring 1970, at the Roundhouse in London, enthralled not just by Green’s technique, but some inner understanding of what “blue” meant in music, specifically black music, despite the colour of Green’s skin.

He seemed to wrestle with, and gouge, his own compositions, such as the bedazzling demands of Oh Well, with the same intensity as one of his idols, Buddy Guy, as if seeking something within a piece he had yet to fathom. This command of the blues – technical and empathetic – was tried and tested triumphantly when Fleetwood Mac went head-to-head for a double album with Guy, Otis Spann and Willie Dixon in Chicago in 1969.

There was something intangibly but palpably generous about Green, the way he shared sound-space with musicians, played to an audience. In contrast to many of his kind, he seemed to possess an almost mystic modesty. He protested to other members of Fleetwood Mac that the money the band was earning was not really theirs to keep.

Green’s departure from what we call “normal” consciousness was announced by one of the most poignant songs of the age: Man of the World, of 1969: a searing, lonely but lyrical musical-poetic departure, which Green himself then followed in person.

Peter Green in 1996.
Peter Green in 1996. Photograph: Robert Judges/Rex

Throughout the 1970s, he wandered between diagnoses of schizophrenia, misadventures with drugs – markedly LSD – and what showbusiness calls “obscurity”, even sleeping rough on park benches. A BBC Four film of 2009 afforded glimpses into what happened, but was inconsequential, and its illustrious cast over-edited.

The mystery – and the story – was in the music when Green returned, occasionally during the 1980s, then convincingly, with his Splinter Group during the late 1990s, polished but always spontaneous. The revival was almost therapeutic, thanks largely to guitarist Nigel Watson and former Jeff Beck Group and Black Sabbath drummer Cozy Powell. Green retained his technique, smiled as he played and chatted in between, seemed “himself” again, whatever strange place that was.

During the early 1980s, I went to hear then 70-something Charley Booker – one of the last Mississippi Delta blues greats of his generation still playing – at the Halstead Blues bar on Chicago’s Near North Side. Booker was living in Indiana nearby, and his band was young and white, which raised the question, during the break: can they do it? Can white men play the blues?

“There’s three white kids can play the blues good as any black man,” replied Booker. Which? “Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and, oh, that Englishman of yours, er… now what’s his name…?”

“Eric Clapton?” I volunteered.

“No, NO! Not him, the other one – Peter Green.”