Pamela Des Barres' Guitar Gods: Mick Taylor

Pamela Des Barres recalls the first time she heard Mick Taylor play the blues.
Publish date:
Updated on

The Sunset Strip was chaotic, colorful, and full of madness, as usual, on the January night Miss Sparky and I pranced into the Whisky-a-Go-Go to see the John Mayall Blues Band. The golden year 1968 had just begun, and we were expectant, giddy, and dressed to thrill. The only live blues I had heard at that point had escaped from Captain Beefheart’s granular, majestic throat, and I was anxious to hear the British boys’ version of plugged-in sorrow.

While still in high school, Beefheart had taken me to meet Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman at the Ambassador Hotel, and I listened appreciatively to the broody tunes spinning on their portable record player, nodding my head along to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters like I had a clue. And now, here was another opportunity to DIG THE BLUES, MAN!

We sidled down front as always, and leaned against the stage, ready to groove. But as much as I tried to focus on the meaningful heaviosity of the blues being handed down by Mr. Mayall, my attention was all over the very young, tousled, pretty lad slaying his guitar like it was an electric dragon. He barely moved—only his nimble fingers caressed the strings like he’d been playing for 100 years.

But how old was he?

I was startled and calmed by the gentleness and tragedy he pulled out of his guitar. I felt sad and moved and touched and soothed. I got the blues, and it felt like nothing I’d ever felt before.

The next time I saw this absurdly talented teenager was a couple years later, during a visit to one of my flames, Mick Jagger. The Stones were using Los Angeles as a hub for their touring and recording, and Miss Mercy and I were happily listening to a demo of "Let It Bleed" with Mick and Keith when this wunderkind wandered into the proceedings.

“This is our new guitarist, Mick Taylor,” said a proud-as-punch Mr, Jagger, and I tried not to gush. He was shy and quiet and sweet-hearted. He had just turned 19.

I got to see Mr. Taylor play several times with the Stones, and I marveled at how he seamlessly blended his aching blues magic into the raunch and spectacle—adding the perfect elegant touch, notching up the agile symmetry, and adding just the right stroke of grace to the wickedness. I heard he quit the band to escape the debauchery, but instead encountered his own personal devils.

A few years back I had the great privilege of seeing Mick Taylor play all by himself in a small club in Santa Monica. He was so painfully brilliant that I drove out to Santa Barbara to hear him again the following night. I felt the sound coming from his soul take root in my marrow. After his set, we reminisced and had a melancholy laugh. He’s been through a lot—it’s etched in his face and hands—and whatever hurt him so badly, has, incredibly, made him an even better blues guitar player. But from the beginning, Mick Taylor was touched by greatness.

It’s as if long ago, the gifted teenager caught a glimpse of the 65-year-old man he’d become, and found the future pouring out of his fingertips.