So much for the glamorous life of a touring musician, even one as highly acclaimed as Allan Holdsworth.
The 64-year-old British guitarist and composer is holed up in a hotel in Bratislava, Slovakia after a seven-hour drive and a multi-hour delay at the border crossing ahead of his show there that night.
“I can’t do this anymore man, I’m too old,” the soft-spoken Holdsworth said.
“The tour arranger we’re working with now is generally pretty good about travel.
We used to work with a promoter in Italy who used to book for shows with nine hour drives in between, so we got a new promoter. But now, this one’s slipping right into the same pattern. I hope I get some rest in Israel.”
Holdsworth was referring to his band’s upcoming show in Tel Aviv on Sunday night at Reading 3, his first visit back to the country since appearing over a decade ago at the Red Sea Jazz Festival. One of the unsung guitar heroes in the world of rock and jazz, Holdsworth has enjoyed an illustrious career, performing with ‘70s progressive rock pioneers Soft Machine and Gong, fusion great Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and arena jazz/prog/rockers UK, as well as recording with Jean-Luc Ponty, Jack Bruce and Bill Bruford before launching an eclectic solo career in the late 1970s.
The albums came fast and furious in the 1980 and ‘90s, with Holdsworth perennially being named on the ‘top guitarist’ lists. But since 2000’s The Sixteen Men of Tain, new albums have given away to incessant touring and regular session work, both necessities brought on by a nasty divorce that he says left him nearly destitute.
“I lost my house and my studio – it was a typical disaster,” he said of the divorce ten years ago.
“It took me 10 years to get back on my feet.
I bounced around for a long time sleeping on friends’ couches. Since I didn’t have a studio, the only way I could earn any money was by playing on other people’s records or by being on the road, so I could never finish any of the records I’ve started.”
Claiming he has enough material for two new records, Holdsworth said that he plans to take six months after the Tel Aviv show to finally get into the studio with his band, including long time drummer Chad Wackerman, who began playing with Holdsworth on his 1983 solo EP Road Games. That album was made after Eddie Van Halen heard Holdsworth and raved about him to his label Warner Brothers, who then signed him to a contract.
However, the Grammy-nominated EP proved to be a bone of contention between the freewheeling Holdsworth and the hit-hungry record company and Van Halen producer Ted Templeman. And today, he looks back at the record as the nadir of his career.
“I see it as one of the worst records I ever made, I don’t like anything about it,” he said, while defending Van Halen to the hilt. “He’s a fantastic guy, lovely, very generous Anything that went wrong was nothing to do with him, he was just trying to help.”
“On the one hand, it was Warner Brothers trying to mold me into
something I’m not, but on the other hand, it was sonically awful. I had a
run in with Ted Templeman, who was never around but still dictating to
everyone what was going to be on it, where it was going to be recorded,
how it was going to sound. And he made it an EP – there were only six
songs on it and they sounded like shit. It was just screwed.”
BUT IT did provide the setting for Holdsworth first connection with
Wackerman, who has remained the one constant in his life ever since.
“I was trying to find a drummer and I crossed paths with Frank Zappa who
told me, ‘oh, you should check out this guy.’ So when I held some
auditions, I invited Chad. We just improvised, just me and the drummer,
we didn’t play any songs at all.
I know that people can learn to play certain music, you can learn
anything, but I wanted a guy I could feel comfortable playing with. And
with Chad, it was like, ok, you can stay. Even today, there’s always
surprises when we play together, which is great.”
That need for surprise and improvisation led to Holdsworth’s short stint
with UK, the late-1970s progressive supergroup featuring Yes’s Bruford,
ex-King Crimson John Wetton and ex-Roxy Music Eddie Jobson. Holdsworth
was brought in by his mate Bruford, after the guitarist appeared on the
drummer’s solo album in 1977.
“I really enjoyed making the record with them, and I really liked all
the guys,” he said. “But John and Eddie wanted our live shows to be
regimented, the same song list and same solos every night. I just said
‘no! I don’t even know what I played on the record, how can I recreate
it?’ It became a little tense, but it was alright, they were all good
guys and we decided it would be better if I split.”
Holdsworth’s love of freestyle playing derived in part from his days
working with jazz legend Williams, whom he says taught the then-young
guitarist a valuable lesson.
“He never told me what to do. He would kind of leave me on my own to
figure it out. He’d say, ‘this is the tune, this is the piece of music’
and that’s it. He wouldn’t say play it this way or that way,” said
“You can dangle in your own rope that way, but I learned that from him and survived.
And when I started working with other musicians as a band leader, I
would choose someone whose playing I liked and I would never tell them
what to do. They interpret that in different ways, and sometimes it
comes out like you want it and sometimes it doesn’t.”
That uncertainty and the edginess it brings with it is good enough
reason for Holdsworth to brave the seven-hour drives and the flights to
Israel. And it’s also a good reason to check out one of the guitar
greats of the last 40 years.