Interview: Mountain drummer Corky Laing talks Keith Moon
Courtesy of Mountain

One of the most iconic songs that’s heard regularly on classic rock radio is “Mississippi Queen,” the 1970 hit by Mountain. Many fans recognize “Mississippi Queen” instantly upon hearing the intro where Mountain drummer Corky Laing taps out a rhythm on cowbell, counting the band in to a song that has had listeners turning it up and singing along for nearly 50-years now.

Mountain disbanded long ago and has regrouped and broken up many times over the decades, but today the band’s legacy is being kept alive by Laing, who is currently touring with a show dubbed “Corky Laing Plays Mountain.” Beyond playing hits and favorites from Mountain, Laing’s set list also includes cuts from his days with West, Bruce and Laing (with Mountain’s Leslie West and Cream’s Jack Bruce) and a few surprises. The tour continues through at least early July and includes stops in Seattle, Chicago, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

We were able to chat by email with Laing who spoke of his friendship with the late Bruce and also the late drummer for the Who, Keith Moon. Of course we also had to ask him about his fondness for cowbell. Laing’s commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.

AXS: You’re an acknowledged fan of the late Keith Moon, and your early band Bartholomew + III opened for the Who in the late ‘60s. That must have been a mind blowing experience; tell us about that show, and did you have a chance to meet Keith at the time?

Corky Laing: Seeing Keith play was something else. He was like an amusement park to himself. If I didn’t know before that time that I wanted to be a drummer, after experiencing Keith play just a few feet away from me made it definite. Not only did I want to be a drummer, I wanted to be Keith Moon. And yes, I did get to meet Keith then, and many a time afterwards. We became quite good friends. That particular show that we opened for the Who was during their first North American tour and this was a time when they smashed up all their instruments at the end of their set. Somehow in the melee of it Keith Moon lost his famous Union Jack jacket and I happened to come upon it. I was going to steal it. It was gorgeous and it looked like it would fit me. Also, I figured that since he’d tossed it away, he wouldn’t care. How wrong was I? Hearing his screams from the Who’s dressing rooms and along the corridors, “I’ve gotta get me jacket! Me grandma made me the jacket! Me jacket!” I emerged from our small dressing room and held the jacket up in the air. Keith looked at me with those big bulky eyes and for a few seconds I thought he was going to kill me. Instead, he grabbed me by the collar and laid a big kiss right on my lips. “You got me jacket! I will never forget you mate!” And he never did.

A few years later when Mountain was touring the UK, we hung out quite a few times. Among my favorite memories was being invited to his house for cocktails and Beach Boys. And on the US side, I loved being invited to sit right behind him when the Who played at the Madison Square Garden. That’s when I started to realize that I had no idea what he was doing and that his drumming followed no rules. And one more memory, if I may? I really appreciated when, during my solo tour in 1977 when I was playing the Whiskey in Los Angeles, Keith discharged himself from the hospital and appeared at the Whiskey in his hospital gown to support me.

AXS: Back in the day when every rock show had an obligatory drum solo, some of them could go on for quite a while. Do you play extended solos today or is it a matter of a bunch of more concise solos?

CL: I’ve always loved drum solos, but sometimes they become a bit redundant. I try to overcome that by vocalizing Dylan during my solo. I found that the phrasing of the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” were conducive to drum pulsing and accents. As it turns out, it seems that the audiences get it too.

AXS: You recently penned a piece for Modern Drummer Magazine where in the first line you note, “I have been a professional drummer for half a century.” What are the main things that have given you the drive all these years?

CL: The thing that drives me is my love of playing drums and love of music. For me, drums are the best instrument for expressing emotions. I even write songs on drums. They move me and they move the audiences. Drums are great for entertainment, therapy and exercise, and from what I’ve heard, they are one of the sexiest instruments. My lover girl is especially keen on the tom-toms.

AXS: It must have been bittersweet when you performed with a host of other great musicians at last year’s Jack Bruce tribute concert. Can you share a favorite remembrance of Jack?

CL: Taking part in the tribute to Jack Bruce last October in London was an honor. His son Malcolm did an excellent job in bringing together dozens of world-class musicians who’d all worked with Jack at one point or another. It was bittersweet, celebrating the memory and repertoire of one of the greatest geniuses of the rock world. Jack was truly an extraordinary talent. There are quite a few stories from the few years that West, Bruce & Laing were together, but I would have to say that the fondest memories I have of that era have to do with spending time in the studio with Jack. Along with his soul mate, Felix Pappalardi, he taught me more than anyone else. Recording and jamming with Jack was something else and when I managed to lock into his intriguing time changes, I felt like I was being transported to a higher level of existence as a musician. Those are the moments you live for and I’m very lucky to have had many of those with Jack.

AXS: You’ve seen a ton of technical advances over the years but it doesn’t seem like much of that applies to drums in a live setting. When it comes to setting up your kit and rocking out, is there much of a difference now from back in the day?

CL: Technological advances have really had very little effect on my drumming. Okay, to be fair when I started out, I had to use timbales to be heard between the stacks of Marshalls and Sunns and I do also have an electronic kit at my rehearsal studio, but I very seldom go near it. To me, drums are a very organic instrument and I like to play them that way. No click track or other electronic gizmos; just me and the kit. That allows for authentic expression and feel.

AXS: Do you ever get a little weary of hearing, “More cowbell”?

CL: “More Cowbell!” I can’t get enough cowbell and I’m glad if the audience shares my view. I don’t leave home without it.

Follow Corky Laing and find concert dates here.