Death & Mortality: Leslie West

Your voice seems much more expressive these days.

Well, I gave up drugs and smoking. In fact I stopped taking drugs quite a while ago now. I had bladder cancer, but thank God it’s totally in remission. And I lost my leg a couple of years ago [West’s lower right leg was amputated in 2011], and it was definitely to do with smoking. My doctor said to me: “If you smoke, you might as well take rocks and throw them at your feet. It’s going to kill your arteries.” So I think I’m somewhat clearer when I sing now. I used to hate what I sounded like, and a lot of it had to do with smoking.

How are you adapting to the prosthetic for your leg?

I don’t use it, because my balance is so off. When I went to rehab they told me: “Bring the guitar in and we’ll see how you can stand and play.” They put me in between parallel bars, put the guitar on and told me to take my hands off and see how my balance was. I didn’t last thirty seconds before I felt myself starting to go. And because I like to move around when I’m on stage, I’d have been more worried about falling than actually playing. So I use an electric chair instead. I don’t know, maybe I have a block in my head with the prosthetic, but it certainly limits things as to what I can do. When I play live there has to be a ramp going up at a certain angle to the chair and so forth. But such is life, man. Thank God it wasn’t one of my hands. I’d be totally fucked if that was the case.

Do you have any kind of health regimen?

No! [laughing] I’m not supposed to eat sugar, because I’m diabetic. There are so many things that you don’t realise contain sugar. I did learn one thing: white bread – white anything – will kill you. So I eat whole wheat. And I have to look out for all this stuff in the riders at shows. It’s all part of having to think a little differently now. Back in the old days I was young and reckless. If I knew then what I know now, I’d probably be walking on two legs. But I know what I did and, hey, you’re always paying dues, man.

How have your health issues affected your music?

I certainly enjoy playing more. And having my own line of guitars, the Leslie West Signature series, keeps me busy. I always wanted to have my own model guitar before I was dead. Unfortunately Jimi Hendrix is not around to appreciate that kind of thing.

Does the writing process get any easier?

My old partner, Felix, used to write with his wife. And she ended up shooting him [Pappalardi was murdered by his wife, Gail, in April 1983]. So I always had this thing in my head: ‘I don’t wanna write songs with my wife. She’s too good-looking and I don’t want to get into that stupid fucking business.’ One day these lyrics came up on my iPad. Jenni [West’s wife] said that she’d sent them. I started reading them and they were pretty damn good. She’s ended up writing the lyrics to quite a few songs of mine. So in that way it’s been thrilling.”

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.