One of rock’s most distinctive voices gets personal with a new album 

 Ask Eric Burdon what’s on his mind and he says, “Being successful at my next gig.” After a half-century of lending his voice to hits, including “The House of the Rising Sun,” “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for British Invasion band the Animals, and offering funk icons War their first taste of stardom in 1970 with “Spill the Wine,” Burdon has little to worry about.

In fact, the 71-year-old singer is enjoying a career renaissance—and credits Bruce Springsteen for spotlighting him during last year’s SXSW music festival keynote speech. The Boss declared that the Animals’ 1965 hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was “every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding.”

While grateful for the high praise, Burdon’s focused on his new album ’Til Your River Runs Dry. Tackling topics from politics and religion to old friends and old habits, it may be his most personal recording yet. In one song, “Invitation to the White House,” the Newcastle, England, native dreams that the president has summoned him for advice—and he offers the commander in chief a mouthful. But the real-life Burdon, who has lived in the U.S. for years, is more cynical. “In the space of four years are you expected to change the world?” he asks. “And then someone else is going to take your place?”

We posed a few questions of our own to Burdon about his new album, colorful career and warning to young artists like Justin Bieber.

Why are the songs so reflective?

When you get to my age, we’re all looking at mortality. You’re missing so many people who aren’t there anymore, you have to think about yourself. And strange things start happening to your body, like, “Why won’t my leg work this morning? It worked yesterday.”

What’s the story behind “27 Forever”?

It started when I realized quite some time ago that people who were close to me had passed on—sometimes under questionable circumstances—at the age of 27. If you look into it, the list is as long as your arm.

You were with Jimi Hendrix shortly before he died at 27. 

It was a dark time. I couldn’t reach him. When he was in London he was a stranger in a strange land, and the people who wanted to “help” him were just helping him find more coke or the latest hot acid. Having said that, in all the time I knew Jimi, he never was into heroin, but I could be wrong. He was a very psychedelic person.

How did you escape that fate?

Having both parents in my life helped. I went home stoned once to see my father, a working guy from Newcastle who had no idea what drugs were. I told him I was going to be picked up by flying saucers that were going to fly me all over the world, and we were going to save the planet. And he said, “If you really believe that, why should I doubt what you’re saying, even though I don’t know where it’s coming from? Now, how about going to the bar and having a pint?”

The record has a Bo Diddley cover, and you wrote another song about him. What did he mean to you?

He was underrated, very pleasing and accommodating. He was funny and rough-and-ready, and I loved the guy. But I actually never met him. First time I saw him face to face was at his funeral, when he was in his coffin. That was pretty weird in itself, so it warranted a song.

What was it like to meet your heroes?

It was surprising to be in the same world they were. When I was part of the Animals, we went on after Chuck Berry in a New York show. What do you mean, I have to follow Chuck Berry?! But that’s the way it was at the time, and it taught me a lot about the energy I have to put out in order to captivate people.

Was “River Is Rising” inspired by Fats Domino during Katrina?

I saw this incredible photo of him being pulled out of the slime and sludge. They had put a cross on his door, which meant that everybody inside is dead. But Fats Domino was just taking his afternoon nap. I wanted to write about Katrina, but I needed a catalyst, and I’ve always thought of him as one of the kings of New Orleans—he’s the real thing, and I’ve always loved his music.

Is the younger generation part of your audience today?

Most certainly—especially in Europe, but in the U.S. too, now that I’m getting more exposure, thanks to Mr. Bruce Springsteen. I’m doing a lot of onstage Q&As, and some of those asking questions are young kids wondering what they should do to move forward in the music world. And I tell them, “Get a better job.”

Why the discouragement?

When I wrote “27 Forever” I was thinking of it as a warning to young kids like Justin Bieber. One minute they’re normal kids and the next minute they’re thrust into this madness. How are they going to deal with it? You’re idolized, and then it goes away and you’re back tending bar.

What attracted you to the blues?

It became my religion. It elevated an awareness of the strength of the human spirit. We were fascinated by the exotic, erotic feel that could be gotten out of three chords and a backbeat and learning to sing in that style.

How did “House of the Rising Sun” become the Animals’ first hit?

I had been listening to “Rising Sun” in folk clubs in Newcastle for quite some time. Then I found it on Dylan’s first album and realized there were more lyrics than I ever knew existed. When we did a Chuck Berry tour, everybody was trying to out-rock Chuck Berry, and I thought, “Let’s take this song, ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and stick it in the middle of the show.” It worked great because the audience remembered us.

Why did you reform the Animals in 1966 to embrace psychedelia?

I got high! My first visit to San Francisco was with Chuck Berry back in 1964, and when we arrived I went straight downtown to the hungry i nightclub to see Lenny Bruce. Everybody was in black—the beatnik look. Then I came back and it was like somebody had taken paint and splashed it all over the walls. The change had arrived.

How did you connect with War in 1969?

I took some time to drive to Mexico, and when I got back I signed up for the Actors Studio in Hollywood for about a year. I met these guys who said to me, “What are you doing in the Actors Studio? You’ll never make it here. You have to do what you’re best at, and that’s sing. We’ll find a band for you.” They scouted around and found War. I chopped them down to size, and then we went on the road.

What do you think of today’s music?

There’s some really great stuff out there. There wasn’t much a few years ago, but it’s picked up. I like the Black Keys and Bruno Mars.

–Jeff Tamarkin

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