A strange introvert with coke bottle glasses. In a lot of ways he was your classic nerd. When he started school, it was obvious he wasn’t like other kids. He was attuned to the world of nature. He was more interested in forests than people. Trees and plants became his best friends, his true source of peace and comfort.
He could forecast the weather by just a glance in the sky. A neighbor was reportedly unwilling to leave on a shopping trip until he advised her whether an umbrella would be necessary.
One time cold weather had descended upon the trees in his neighborhood, ice causing the branches to break. He ran down the street with his hands over his ears, tears streaming down his face, saying he could hear the trees crying.
He would collect twigs, leaves and other naturalistic objects. His clothes were often dirty as a result. He was like a modern day Henry David Thoreau, as if his hair had been combed with a pine cone.
He liked girls but had no sense of appearance or presentation. He was extremely clumsy and had no social skills. Bathing and using deodorant weren’t his thing. Friends and family would buy him clothes and underwear to at least keep him presentable.
His vision was terrible. His inability to see properly, heightened his natural introversion. When being around groups of people, he didn’t know how to act and would sit in a corner in a lotus position and read. He slept on his back with his knees in the air every single night. He lived in a messy apartment and took in a bunch of heroin addicts because he felt sorry for them, though he didn’t do heroin himself.
Then he joined a Rock Band.
He could play the guitar and harmonica to perfection. John Lee Hooker claimed he was the best harmonica player he ever played with. He was able to perceive tiny graduations of pitch and tone which were inaudible to the average person.
He was so shy that onstage he would rarely gaze into the audience, and instead would close his eyes while playing, and if he did gaze into the audience, it was a blur since he rarely wore his glasses on stage.
He hated touring because he wanted to spend more time outdoors. He would bring his sleeping bag with him on tour and sleep outside in the nearest park or parking lot if there were trees near by. He would come back with pollen, mud and grass all over him, ready to hit the stage.
He would pack his own food in his suitcase while on tour, which included large quantities of brown rice and a camp stove. On one occasion at the airport, his suitcase fell open and rice fell everywhere, much to the embarrassment of his band mates.
Another time his band was busted for drugs in a Denver motel room, while they were being arrested, he was off collecting leaves in a nearby park and avoided getting caught as a result. He wasn’t into material things. He didn’t own a home and eventually would live in his van. His uncashed paychecks occasionally doubled as bookmarks. What was important to him instead was preserving the natural world.
The bands manager said “I took walks with him sometimes in different botanical gardens while on tour. Seeing a plant he had never seen before or a tree that there were only 20 of in the world, was like an orgasm for him.”
While the rest of the Band would be partying with groupies and drugs, he would be in the backyard staring at a tree. Sometimes while on tour, the band would pass a forest, and he would see a certain tree and yell “Stop the car!” Then run over to check out the tree.
He was a passionate conservationist who loved reading books on botany and ecology. He wrote an essay called ‘Grim Harvest’, about the coastal redwood forests of California. He was interested in preserving the natural world, particularly the redwood trees and started “Music Mountain Organization” dedicated to this purpose.
On a live recording he cut, he sings a song called “Pulling Hair Blues.” He gets personal and says in the song that he has been compulsively overeating, and pulling his hair out (as he did when he was nervous) he can’t sleep at night because he can’t be outside, he doesn’t like long train rides on the tour and it rains all the time, there is no relief for his troubled mind, and at one point, he mentions he can’t even get laid. As the song is played, you can hear the curious sound of titters from the audience, the nervous kind of giggle that some people produce when faced with something embarrassing. His raw, naked pain was just too much for an audience that had come to hear a rock show. Just as his strange personal habits tended to make women uncomfortable, his open vulnerability had made his audience uneasy.
When there’s so much going on in your mind, the world tends to recede a bit. He came into life with his music and his love for nature, but in other areas of being human he was just a babe in the woods. It would be painful to be human and just kind of not get the hang of it. He battled anxiety and depression in a time when the coping ammunition was rudimentary at best. Unfortunately, he lost the battle in 1970 at the age of 27.
Alan Wilson’s body was found in his band mates backyard in his sleeping bag, a mostly empty baggie of barbiturates laying beside him – pills he used to help him sleep and escape the war going on in his head. Although his death is sometimes reported as a suicide, this is not really clearly established. Wilson’s death came just two weeks before the death of Jimi Hendrix and four weeks before the death of Janis Joplin, two artists who also died at the same age. His band “Canned Heat” would go on without him, but they were never the same after Alan died. Lead singer Bob “The Bear” Hite, would overdose just a few years later.
If you ever watch the D.A. Pennebaker movie, “The Monterrey Pop Festival,” look for a nerdy guy with glasses playing guitar on stage, or in the movie “Woodstock” you’ll hear a high tenor, almost girly voice, singing about going up the country.
In order to support Alan’s dream, his family has purchased a “grove naming” in his memory through the “Save the Redwoods League of California.” The money donated to create this memorial will be used by the League to support redwood reforestation, research, education, and land acquisition of both new and old growth redwoods. Alan was a pioneer in his day. One of the first celebrity style environmentalists. He wasn’t into it for the fame and glory, his love for nature was unconditional. I can’t imagine what he would have accomplished had he lived a longer life. NP