Unbeknownst to the youth of today, there was once a time in the not so distant past when hard rock gods roamed the earth. These were larger than life figures that hammered down epic riffs and sonically slaughtered teens in arena after arena, offering escapism to the awkward and unhip savage masses.
Most of the truly iconic 1970s and ’80s hard rock frontmen have, by now, fallen into the dustbin. Plagued by health woes, Ozzy Osbourne has mercifully canceled his latest tour, Steven Tyler has settled gracefully into his role as a reality show sidebar, Jon Bon Jovi now plays tepid inoffensive dad rock and Axl Rose wants to know if you’re going to finish those French fries.
But a few still keep on trucking with the music that made them famous. Whitesnake boss and former Deep Purple vocalist David Coverdale is doing just that, with no apologies and no conformity.
Those who think Whitesnake is some sort of 80s nostalgia act would be sadly mistaken. The band’s latest album, “Flesh & Blood,” has been well received, making the Top 10 in Coverdale’s native United Kingdom. The band has had to add additional shows for its Japan tour, and a performance in Jakarta was set to be attended by Indonesian president (and renowned metalhead) Joko Widodo.
Asked about his first time touring Japan with Deep Purple in 1976, Coverdale recounts an incident in which troubled guitarist Tommy Bolin fell asleep on his hand for 12 hours and was unable to play properly.
“After a tragic incident (in which a member of the road crew died in an accident) in Jakarta, Indonesia, the welcome we received in Japan was just extraordinary. And they certainly weren’t the best shows,” says Coverdale. “The guitarist we were working with was Tommy Bolin. He had a terrible injury, which was compromising his ability to actually play. And I’m going back to Jakarta before I come back into Japan this time. So we’re taking every potential precaution that nothing even remotely similar happens. My musicians have been instructed to stay in their f—-ing room!”
“Flesh & Blood” is a fun, boisterous, anthem-heavy rock record with Coverdale’s voice settling into a deeper, bluesy growl. Amid the rockers there’s the Middle-Eastern-tinged “Sands of Time” and borderline power-pop numbers in “Always & Forever” and “Shut Up & Kiss Me.”
“Whitesnake has always had a tongue-in-cheek approach to some of the sexier songs. (Lyrics) like, ‘Lie down I think I love you,’ ‘Would I lie to you just to get in your pants?'” Coverdale says. “I think it was my wife who said to me, ‘David, shut up and kiss me,’ when I was going off on a rant, venting about something.”
While the band found its biggest success in the late ’80s with hits like “Here I Go Again” and “Is This Love?,” Whitesnake had already been popular for over a decade throughout Europe and Asia. Its MTV friendly video stylings found the band lumped into the hair metal stratosphere. Coverdale, though, wasn’t crazy about that.
“With respect, it’s so f—-ing lame, the lack of research that a lot of people did,” he says. “When the videos came out, the big hair was there, but the big hair was in the 1970s too, the overly glam stuff. So it was kind of a joke, tongue-in-cheek. Then it started to infer that the music was disposable, and that is not agreeable. And to be put into the same category as three chord geniuses was kind of insulting to me.”
Digging deeper into his back catalog, there is a more palatable reverence for the blues than what lies on the surface. Coverdale recalls a chance school day that had a profound impact on his young ears.
“It’s so interesting to me how the universe works,” he says. “We had a music lesson at school. I was 11 maybe, and our music teacher was ill, and the only teacher who was free at that time was the science teacher, who walked in with a record player and said ‘I’m just gonna play you some music I like.’ He played Leadbelly field recordings by Alan Lomax and Sidney Bechet and Mississippi Fred McDowell. It was making the hair on my arms stand up, it really had a deep rooted connection with me. The blues is always close to me.”
Now 68, Coverdale’s gritty vocal approach has, over time, come to emulate the blues greats he so admires. Adapting his music to his voice is a labor of love.
“It’s so physically demanding, what I do,” he says. “I’ve always written challenging songs for me as a vocalist. A lot of those songs I can’t really do any more at three score and eight years old. So there are songs that have to fall by the wayside. A lot of my songs I honestly physically can’t do. But I can do some of the biggies, thank God. And, with “Flesh And Blood,” I specifically wrote songs that I would be able to perform with dignity and intensity and integrity.”
One of Coverdale’s most well-known projects was his 1993 collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. The resulting album, “Coverdale-Page,” was a smash, giving both artists a well-timed boost. Regrettably the partnership would be a one-off affair.
“Jimmy’s been a hero of mine since before The Yardbirds, when I would read about him in the music papers,” Coverdale says. “We’d met over the years, (we are) very similar, very private people away from the spotlight. He was going to New York to do the remastering of that beautiful first (Led Zeppelin) boxed set. So we met in New York, got on f—-ing amazingly, went for a walk and stopped traffic in Manhattan and looked at each other and went, ‘this could be interesting.'”
Coverdale says the two reached a simple agreement.
“We agreed to split everything 50/50. And both of us said if we’re not happy we’ll go our separate ways,” he says. “We got on fantastically for three years. The disappointment was private circumstances that interfered.”
With a massive world tour about to kick off, Coverdale still relishes performing. However, he remains both realistic and humble in regards to what lies ahead.
“I thought I was kind of calling it a day doing my tribute to the Deep Purple experience back in 2015,” he says. “But I’ve retired more times than Frank Sinatra.”
While toying with the idea of retiring from the road, Coverdale has a valid reason to stick around for at least one more year.
“I was thinking, 69 is kind of an appropriate age for the lead singer of Whitesnake! I can’t wait to design the t-shirts,” he says with a laugh. “So I’ll still be making music. It’s impossible not to, it’s like oxygen to me.
“I take what I do extremely seriously, as fun as I appear. And every day in my meditations I’m loading appreciation and gratitude into the energy basket. I have an incredible, sexy, muscular band whose members all like each other, which is unusual. Everything is so green in my garden. The journey is still an adventure.”
Whitesnake will begin its tour of Japan in Fukuoka on March 9 before moving on to Okayama, Tokyo and Sapporo and ending in Osaka on March 19. For more information, visit whitesnake.com.