Interview: Leslie West on his first show since leg amputation

Leslie West soars on stage at BB Kings, 31 January 2012. © Joe Bosso

Soundcheck in New York City: Leslie West in onstage at BB Kings, unleashing paroxysms of sound from his Dean guitar. He's leading his two-piece band, drummer Bobbie Rondinelli and bassist Rev Jones, through a furnace-blast version of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready. West's voice is sandpaper-soul, gruff but impassioned, and after a last chorus his fingers take flight, dancing about the instrument with teenage-like agility and a grown man's purpose.

In other words, it's just another pre-show ritual for the guitar legend. Only it's not: West is stuck in a wheelchair. The jeans he's wearing are cut off and hanging lifeless where his right leg once was. Seven months after diabetes-related complications resulted in a life-saving leg amputation, West is playing his first public show. He heaves a sigh into his mic and says "OK, let's get me off of here."

At the same moment, Mike Goldberg, a thickly muscled recording engineer who doubles as West's caretaker/assistant, anticipates this directive and commandeers the guitarist's motorized wheelchair and guides it around the amps and cables and down a steel ramp that leads to a nearby dressing room.

"It sounded good," West says to Goldberg as the door closes behind them. It comes out not entirely as a statement but somewhat of a question. Goldberg assures West that everything sounded great.

"Jesus Christ, it's boiling in here!" West says a few minutes later. He's sipping red wine and a Madras while wiping sweat from his forehead with a paper towel. The windowless dressing room is cramped and stuffy, and West isn't thrilled.

"I'd crack the window, but there isn't one," he says. "Is it too much to ask for some air conditioning or something? And what about that ramp? That thing scares me. They say 'wheelchair-accessible' in all these places, but that doesn't mean 'wheelchair-friendly." Here I've come all this way, I've made it here, and I gotta go break my neck trying to get on stage? I don't know..."

Running down songs with drummer Bobbie Rondinelli and bassist Rev Jones. © Joe Bosso

West's vibrant, statuesque wife of three years (and 26 years his junior), Jennifer, leaps in and gives her husband a meaningful hug and kiss. All at once, the guitarist's demeanor changes and the whole room feels lighter. "There she is!" he gushes. "There's my reason for living, right there."

Jennifer, who's handling merch and guest-list matters for tonight, plops on the floor with pile of T-shirts that she starts neatly folding. "Is Leslie complaining? Don't let him fool you, he's excited about tonight. He's been looking forward to this show, no matter what he says."

"I'm excited!" West protests. "I'm just... Look, here's the thing: Everything is different now. I'm different! It's not about the big things anymore; it's about getting through the day, trying to be normal, trying to get from here to there – and those are big things now."

He sips his Madras, thinks for a second. His eyes give way to an emotion he's been keeping at bay until now. "I'm nervous," he says. "I've played a million gigs. I've played everywhere. Tonight I'm nervous."

Jennifer pats his arm and says, "It's OK to be nervous. But everything will be fine - you know that."

West nods slightly, shifting in his chair. "It doesn't really matter if I play a great show or a terrible show. All that matters is that I get up there and do it. That's it. Anything else... it is what it is."

The look of love: Jennifer West-Weinstein and Leslie, backstage at BB Kings. © Joe Bosso

Asked if he ever gave thought to retiring after enduring such a life-changing event - a perfectly reasonable question - West takes it one step further and quickly says, "Oh, I thought of packing it in, sure. I definitely thought of killing myself. Believe me, this is a bitch and a half being in this chair. If it weren't for Jenny, I probably might have killed myself."

Hearing these words, Jennifer, who goes by her husband's surname and stage name, pipes up: "And you know what? I might keep Leslie going, but he does the same thing for me. Seeing him get out of bed and into that chair each morning, it makes me get up. He's an inspiration - and not just to me, but to so many people. I know what he's doing is helping others."

West's face glows. He looks slightly embarrassed by his sudden candor. Heaving a sigh, he says, "When the guitar is in my hands and I sound good, I'm OK. Any other time right now, I'm a wreck. If I could just play the guitar all the time, everything would be fine."

Jennifer pulls a bottle of water from the tiny fridge. Opening it, she looks at West and says, "He owes me 17 years still. Seventeen good years. I told him when we got married, I wanted 20 years and we've only had three. He's not going anywhere till I get my 17!"

And with that, West puts out his arm and Jennifer rushes in for a hug. "This is what it's about," he says. "Look at her. Am I a lucky guy, or what?"

West pauses for thought before showtime. © Joe Bosso

A couple of hours later, BB Kings is packed and the atmosphere is thick with anticipation. West is sitting in the same spot in his dressing room, and he looks like a scared little boy. Friends, fans and business associates have been been streaming in to wish him well. West is cordial, shaking hands, posing for pictures, but it's clear he's distracted.

Finally, to one friend but directing it to everyone in listening distance, he barks, "It's not like I'm kicking you out, but can you get the fuck out?" Message received, the room clears and the door is closed. West takes a few minutes to get his head together.

Not long enough, though. Goldberg comes in and directs West out the door. While roadies tend to last-minute show preparations, the guitarist sits in his chair. He eyes the ramp that leads to the stage. The steel structure is perhaps 15 feet long, but it might as well be 15 miles.

West nods his head, then says, "OK, let's do this." Goldberg grabs the arms, guides the guitarist up and onto the stage, into the light, and the place erupts. West's smile is big as the open sky. He cradles his guitar and looks like he can do just about anything. It's going to be a good night after all.

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