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Behind the Curtain: David Coverdale (a Delightfully Pleasant Rock Star)
I first met David Coverdale on December 9, 1974, when the Mark III version of Deep Purple—Coverdale, bassist-vocalist Glenn Hughes, drummer Ian Paice, keyboardist Jon Lord and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore—were starting their inaugural U.S. tour in support of the Burn album.
This third lineup of the band was performing at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. [Note: It is worth pointing out that Elf, the band formed by Ronnie James Dio, opened every show of Purple’s American tour and certainly the singer had caught Blackmore’s attention. Further, bassist Roger Glover had already produced the band’s debut self-titled album two years earlier and when Ritchie left the band in June 1975, the first phone call he made in searching out a singer for the new Rainbow band he was forming was Ronnie Dio]. Though I had flown out ostensibly to interview Ritchie Blackmore, it was here that I’d first encounter the English singer.
Prior to the band’s performance, Purple held a small cocktail reception for local press, radio people and invited guests. As an invited guest—I was staying at the same hotel as the band and had been flown out by Creem Magazine to grab an interview with the guitarist—I wandered down into one of the private rooms where the gathering was being hosted. I immediately saw Coverdale walking around and also spotted Jon Lord in a corner. Glenn Hughes may have been there and possibly Ian Paice but Blackmore was definitely not in attendance.
Writer Cameron Crowe was also out on that tour covering the band for some major publication and though I didn’t know him that well, we had met several times in Hollywood and had exchanged pleasantries. I never really drank—alcohol gave me migraine headaches, maybe the worst pain in the world—so I was more than content to wander around the room, sample the foodstuffs that had been prepared and just generally dig the moment. At that time I was a 21-year old rock writer who was still trying to find his way in the journalistic world. I’d already experienced some early success with Guitar Player Magazine, having had several covers including Jeff Beck, Wishbone Ash and Greg Lake. I’d also been working fairly regularly for the Los Angeles Free Press, a newsprint publication sold in select bookstores and mainly available through vending machine sales. In fact, my first real breakthrough story was covering a festival concert in San Diego hosted by local radio station KGB and having the review published in the Free Press about a year earlier.
So I wasn’t exactly a novice as I strolled around the upscale banquet room but being assigned by Creem Magazine to write a feature on Deep Purple and being flown on the magazine’s dime to where they were performing was a big deal for a young gun such as myself. At a point in time, Cameron saw me standing in the corner—he didn’t know I was also doing a story on the band—and walked over and said hello. By then, Crowe was already ascending the heights of the rock writer’s food chain and would soon be hammering out major cover stories for Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times before graduating to the movie making business and creating films such as Jerry Maguire and Singles and ultimately marrying Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson.
But at that point, we were just two rock scribes assembled together in a room, though Crowe cast a much longer shadow than I did. He suggested I hit up the bar and order a drink. I told him I didn’t drink but he urged me to get something and said it would be totally cool. I walked over to the bartender and ordered a diet drink of some kind—probably Diet Pepsi—and was sipping on it when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and saw Jon Lord standing there, his huge walrus mustache covering his upper lip and his bushy brown hair cascading around his shoulders. I was a huge Purple fan and loved Lord’s way of attacking the Hammond B-3 in such a way as to make it sound more like a rhythm guitar than a keyboard, but at this moment I felt like the man and his mustache were about to launch an attack on me.
I thought he had come over to say hello but when I saw that mask of anger on his face, I knew it wasn’t a social call. “Where did you get that drink?” he demanded. “At the bar,” I stammered. He stood there for another second and as he pinned me with a stare full of daggers and venom, I crawled inside my brain and thought, “This is not happening. I am not standing in front of Jon Lord, keyboardist for Deep Purple, and about to be reprimanded, insulted and possibly sent scurrying back to California with my tail between my legs and no story to be found.”
I stood motionless and waited for the second attack. “Who told you it was OK to have a drink?” I said, “Umm, Cameron, did. He said it was alright.” At that moment, Jon’s face relaxed, the poison went out of his eyes and he extended a hand in apology. He told me that Purple were always being ripped off by people coming into parties such as these and using the band’s name to order drinks and more. I completely understood.
Standing there shaking, I took a gulp of my soft drink—at that point, I wish it had been whisky—and felt another hand on my shoulder. I was afraid to turn around. When I did, I saw David Coverdale standing there with a big smile on his face. He had obviously seen the whole incident unfold and told me not to worry about it. It was all cool. Hearing those words come from his mouth meant everything to me. I was still so upset by the episode and felt really bad about Jon Lord thinking I was trying to rip off the band. David’s words calmed me down.
That was the first time I met David Coverdale and I will forever owe him for that moment. But this wasn’t the only time the singer would come to my rescue. Later that night following the reception, Purple were scheduled to play at the Met Center, which was about a 20-minute limo ride from the St. Paul hotel where they were currently staying. Prior to the gig, I was allowed backstage to spend some time with Blackmore for my scheduled interview. Ritchie turned out to be everything David wasn’t. He was rude, condescending, sarcastic, mean-spirited and didn’t care three cents about my feelings. I tried to conduct a civilized and professional interview but it soon devolved into chaos. Blackmore wasn’t taking any of my questions seriously and was responding to them in some kind of strange English doubletalk. It was utter nonsense and it made me feel foolish and exposed.
We talked for a while and I was glad when it finally ended. I packed up my cassette player and began the long walk back down the backstage corridor that led to the entrance into the auditorium so I could find my seat. As I was leaving, David once again mended my wounds. I walked by him and this time he didn’t say a single word but merely flashed me a look that said, “I know. I understand. Ritchie Blackmore is not an easy person to talk to.”
Once again, he had saved me. Those were my first two encounters with him and those qualities he exhibited on that day in ’74 were traits I would recognize during our second meeting five years later when I finally did interview him. After Purple split up in July 1976, Coverdale went on to pursue a solo career and eventually organized Whitesnake in 1978. I caught up with the singer in late 1979 for the release of Lovehunter, the band’s second album. The moment I walked into the United Artists offices and saw the singer sitting in the conference room, I felt comfortable all over again.
What David did on that day so many years earlier embodied the pieces of many different kinds of people. By coming to my rescue, he took on the mantle of the fellow soldier, the comrade-in-arms coming to the aid of one of the fallen. When he walked over after the terrible moment had passed, he revealed aspects of the politician interested in keeping the waters calm. In uttering those few words to me, he became a psychiatrist. He seemed to understand how the world worked and in taking those few moments to console me, he revealed all the qualities of what would eventually make him such a successful and enduring bandleader including sympathy, understanding, management skills, and knowledge of leadership.
My interview with Coverdale was nothing less than relaxed, zero pressure and delightful. David was colorful, animated and openly honest about his time with Purple. Though it never came up, I’m sure he remembered what he’d done for me five years earlier as a fledgling rock writer. I also spent some time with Bernie Marsden, Whitesnake guitarist at the time, who, like David, was a sweet and endearing person. He told me the band was rehearsing that night at S.I.R. [Studio Instrument Rentals was where bands with a lot of gear and a lot of money worked out their live sets] and invited me down to watch. I was blown away. Usually those types of dress rehearsals were kept pretty hush hush but he insisted I come by. I said, “Are you sure it’s OK, David?” and he just smiled.
I took my brother that night to S.I.R. to watch the band play and it was unbelievably cool. They were set up on a huge sound stage and were running through the live set they’d be performing [it’s hard to recall whether the band were actually doing any shows in town at that time]. They had their full backline of gear and Bernie was running a Marshall stack and Lord had his full complement of keyboards. It was like a private concert where the only people in attendance were my brother and I.
The moment we walked through the doors, Bernie saw me come in and started playing the opening riff from “Let Me Love You” from the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth album. Bernie and I had been talking about Beck and how much we loved him and this was his way of saying hello. It was a fantastic moment. David saw me enter and came over and said hello. It was ultra-cool.
Thirty-two years later in 2011, I’d once again interview the vocalist. This time around it was a phone interview. The phone rang precisely at the appointed time—would you have expected anything less?—and as soon as I said hello, the English voice on the other end quipped, “Is this the Steve Rosen from the Purple days?” I said yes and asked, “You remember me?” and he answered, “Yes. That’s why I asked. I’m glad you’re still around.”
That in a nutshell was the man. Though we hadn’t communicated for over three decades and besides the fact that our first meeting was over four decades ago, David Coverdale remembered me and where we met. It was who he was and it wasn’t surprising that he would go on to enjoy a remarkable career with Whitesnake that continues to this day as well as working with Jimmy Page in the Coverdale-Page band and recently being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Deep Purple.
When I was still an up-and-comer in the world of rock journalism, David Coverdale lent me a hand. When I was down and feeling beaten, whipped and embarrassed, he extended the olive branch and buoyed my spirits and made me feel whole again. If he had never come over to heal my wounds from the confrontation with Jon Lord or my encounter with Ritchie Blackmore, who knows what repercussions those incidents may have held.
But he did extend himself and gave me courage and strength and for that I would always be grateful.
November 23, 2021