Back when I was 25 – young, rich and stupid – I never expected to make it to 40. Because I thought 40 was old.”
On the cusp of turning 70, Ken Hensley chortled heartily into the phone during a conversation from his home in Spain last week. It’s a laugh of achievement at having survived the wealth, drugs and fame of his youth as co-founder of 1970s British hard rock veterans Uriah Heep. And it’s a laugh of gratitude, thinking about what could have been.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’ve never stopped being thankful for it. I’m very conscious of the fact that so many of my contemporaries didn’t make it,” said the lanky, long-haired keyboardist/guitarist in a voice that recalled a more lucid Ozzy Osbourne. “When I look back how I lived in the early 1970s, it’s a wonder I survived.”
Hensley was alluding to a nasty cocaine habit he had developed during his decade-long tenure with Heep beginning in 1970. Over the course of 13 albums like the flagship Demons and Wizards (much of it written by Hensley), the band’s fusion of progressive, art rock and metal – heavy on fantasy, swirling keyboard and reverent bombast – propelled them into the rock royalty pantheon inhabited by the likes of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
While history has not treated the band as kindly as some of its contemporaries, ongoing versions of Uriah Heep led by guitarist Mick Box have continued as a recording and touring unit, selling out arenas and theaters regularly around the world. However, Hensley took a different path on his road to recovery.
“By the time I left Heep in 1980, I was so disillusioned with the band and the music – and even more disillusioned with my cocaine addiction,” he said. “I was determined to get rid of it, but I knew it was not going to happen in England where my co-conspirators were. I needed a complete break.”
After a half-hearted attempt at a solo career, Hensley moved to the US where he joined a Florida hard rock band Blackfoot for two albums.
“I was just trying to fill that huge gap that was left by leaving Heep. I dedicated 10 years to that project and that’s a big chunk of time,” he said. “I moved to the US to basically get rid of my drug habit and get my feet back on the ground. I thought it might take two or three years but it ended up taking closer to 15.”
By 1985, Hensley had all but left the music business, settling in St. Louis where he worked for a company that manufactured musical instruments and successfully kicked his drug habit. But around the turn of the century, he and his Spanish-born wife resettled in a tiny village near Alicante in Spain where Hensley resumed his music career, releasing his first album in 21 years, Running Blind , and launching a world tour.
He hasn’t been far from the stage or studio since. But this time, tempered by age and experience, it’s no longer about manically enjoying spoils but more about enjoying the music. However, one place Hensley hasn’t gone is back to the mothership, Uriah Heep.
“To tell the truth, there have been conversations over certain periods of time, and playing with Mick is not something I would reject out of hand. But it would have to be carefully thought through,” said Hensley, sounding like he had been doing a lot of thinking about it. His main objection, he added, was that the Uriah Heep of 2015 was not the same band from 1975.
“The Uriah Heep that I was part of broke all the rules, broke down barriers and laid the groundwork for Mick to front the band called Uriah Heep today. I think that he’s done a great job of reestablishing the brand and from what I can tell, it’s a pretty respectable and powerful rock band. But it’s not the Uriah Heep that I was in – that was magic!” Maybe it’s best to let the past remain a memory instead of trying to recapture it. According to Hensley, the early 1970s were a time that can’t be repeated, and he’s gratified that Heep contributed to the era’s legacy.
“I’m satisfied at how the band is remembered and happy at what we achieved,” he said. “I’m pleased in particular when I talk to young musicians who desperately want to touch the ‘70s, because that era of music has never been approached again. Kids appear to be continually influenced by the music and fashion we created in those days along with Zeppelin, Deep Purple, the Moody Blues, Sabbath. Our place in rock history is set and I’m happy that I was able to be a part of such a sensational period of time.”
Hensley integrates his musical past with his musical present in his current shows with band Live Fire, performing the best of Uriah Heep’s songbook along with songs from his recent solo albums. For his Israel debut next month on September 2 at the Havana Club in Tel Aviv, he promised – both in a promo video filmed in his pool at his Spanish hacienda and on the phone – to rock the house.
“I’m happy any time I can play with my amazing band. It’s very entertaining and extremely powerful – and nobody will be disappointed by the music, the show or the selection of songs,” said Hensley, adding that he’s been waiting a long time to come to Israel.
“As a Bible-believing Christian, I’m so excited about coming to the country. It seems so untouchable from far way and I look forward to physically being there in the middle of the Bible.”
His life in order, his legacy firm and a future that still looks bright, Hensley is in an enviable position, one that he couldn’t have fathomed a few decades ago “When I was writing those classic Heep songs, I didn’t expect I’d still be singing them 40 years later. It wasn’t in my long- term plan – I didn’t even have a long-term plan,” he laughed.
“This is my life’s work – I would hate to be one of those people who has to retire for whatever reason; health, boredom. Just waiting around to die would be a horrible fate. I’m thankful that I was able to write songs and retain my legitimacy as a per - former of those songs. Otherwise, I might have had to go out and get a real job.”