Johnny Winter: Still Alive & Well
GUITAR WORLD Back in 1992, things seemed to be going very well for you, career-wise. You had just released a fantastic studio album, Hey, Where’s Your Brother, and in October of that year you participated in the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, where you stole the show with your incredible version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” But in reality, things had started to go wrong, culminating in your hospitalization in 1993.
JOHNNY WINTER I had another girlfriend at the time, and I was trying to make up my mind between Susan [Winter’s wife, whom he married in February 1992] and this other girl. I started taking all of these drugs to deal with anxiety and depression, and it turned out the drugs weren’t good for me at all. They helped at first, but I took them for way too long, and, over time, I was taking much too high a dosage.
GW You’ve mentioned your struggles with anxiety in previous interviews. One example was at the John Lee Hooker Tribute Concert at Madison Square Garden in 1990, where you experienced severe panic attacks.
WINTER Oh, I was feeling horrible for that show. I didn’t think I was going to get through it. I just wanted to die, and I was thinking, Now I have to play? I really wanted to do the show, too, because of my love for John Lee Hooker, but I was feeling really horrible. And I have no idea why. I was just having terrible panic attacks. So that’s when I started taking medication to deal with the anxiety, and it did help, but I took it for way too long.
GW It wasn’t until 2003 that you started to combat the problems, with the help of Paul Nelson.
WINTER Paul helped me unbelievably. I couldn’t have done it without him. He and James Montgomery found me a doctor, who helped me get off the pills. I was taking five Klonopins a day, and it made me feel like a vegetable. And I was drinking, too. I was a mess, but I eventually stopped everything—no pills and no alcohol. Once my mind was clear, I had so much energy.
GW But you had a legitimate reason to take anxiety medications. What happened when you stopped taking them?
WINTER When I got off the pills, I wasn’t anxious anymore. I felt fine, and those feelings of anxiety have never come back.
GW Another issue at the time was the problems you were having with your manager, Teddy Slatus, who had his own problems with substance abuse.
WINTER Teddy was in horrible shape. He didn’t know what he was doing. Paul began to talk to me about what was going on, and that I should think about getting away from Teddy. Paul was trying to help me see the facts for what they were so I could make the decision for myself.
GW It had to be a very difficult decision, because you had worked with Teddy for a very long time, since you first came to New York in 1969.
WINTER Yeah, Teddy had been the floor manager at the Scene Club [infamous New York nightspot owned by Steve Paul, Johnny’s manager, which hosted jams with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others]. Teddy was pretty good in the very beginning, but I don’t think he was ever completely honest with me. So when I came off of the pills, I could see signs of a lot of mismanagement. He had all kinds of scams, like charging me double for things. If I stayed with him, I would never have come out of it.
GW Once you made the move and changed to working with Paul Nelson, could you see a difference right away?
WINTER It was like night and day. Overnight, things went from horrible to real good. Paul kept me apprised of everything that was going on, so I got straight answers and I knew what was happening with every aspect of my career. Right after I fired Teddy, I’d broken my hip and I was in the hospital, and Paul came byone night to tell me that Teddy had died [Slatus was found dead in his home on November 3, 2005]. By that time I didn’t feel sorry for Teddy at all. I knew about all the bad things he had done to me.
GW Through all of the problems you had during those years, your fans supported you unfailingly.
WINTER Yes, that’s true. I’ve been really lucky. Even when I wasn’t in good shape, they still stuck by me. I think a lot of people would not have been able to come back from being that messed up. It would have killed them. And it was hard for me and it took a little while. But I feel great now.
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