Mary Lou Sullivan artfully interweaves excerpts from a series of interviews for her biography of Johnny Winter. In doing so she depicts the albino Texan bluesman’s career in such matter of fact terms, she almost but not quite undercuts the implicit sensationalism of the book’s subtitle.
Ultimately, though, avoiding the melodrama that usually informs such stories is to her benefit and that of her subject, especially insofar as Winter himself comes across in such a down-to-earth manner (apart from the prima donna attitude that surfaces at various points in the story). The anecdotal nature of the book does become slightly enervating at roughly the midpoint of Raisin’ Cain: the book would flow more smoothly if Sullivan devoted more time to introducing, summarizing and connecting the various segments of her account of the life and times of the famous guitarist.
Nevertheless, the scheme of the book may in fact be as accurate a reflection of how quickly his life unfolded. From his childhood days in Texas, where he was ostracized for his unusual appearance, to his early days as a struggling musician to the seemingly accidental stardom accorded him in the late 60’s from which he still benefits, Johnny Winter’s life sounds like a veritable blur. The story has its share of conflicts, some of which are of Winter’s own doing. For instance, despite his devotion to the blues he professes to love so much, he’s never been averse to the compromise of his musical values for the sake of commerce.
Such intervals, including his later days at Columbia Records, pale in comparison to his most memorable work, such as his earliest work for the label (often with his brother Edgar in tow) and his days collaborating with his idol Muddy Waters. Dabbling in rock and pop music seems like nothing so much as a careerist attempt to retain attention for himself in line with the flashy stage attire and jewelry that Winter has favored for so long. And while Sullivan doesn’t come right out and state it as such; she seems reticent to editorialize–the concessions to superficial concerns are rooted in the man’s otherwise pure-hearted desire to expose the blues he loves as widely as possible.
Raisin’ Cain: The Raucous Life and Tiames of Johnny Winter may be most valuable for the insight it offers into the later years of the man’s life. With managerial leadership not always in his best interests, Winter’s post-rehab career remained afflicted with substance abuse that only exacerbated the health concerns that come with his unusual physiology, leading to the mis-perception his once gloriously colorful performing prowess is permanently a thing of the past.
Beginning with the interval in which Boston bluesman James Montgomery plays a prominent role in wresting Winter’s affairs from selfish governance dating back to his earliest years of stardom, Sullivan paints a picture of a man slowly but surely becoming free of demons mental, physical and financial, By the time the final chapter of this book comes to a close, near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the man appears to be in a position to accede to a higher level of of prestige and respect from his peers and his audience than ever before in his 50 year career.