His relationship is on the rocks, his life is empty, he’s in a hole. We take a five-hour drive with the broken-hearted blues hero.
Joe Bonamassa has a head full of heartbreak and a soul full of pain. As a blues musician, that’s part of the job description. But right now he has the air of a man who has taken an emotional battering and is hanging off the ropes as a result.
“As of now, it’s too far gone,” he says forlornly, slumped deep in a chair in the upper lounge of his tour bus as motorway lights flash by outside the tinted windows. “And it’s one hundred per cent this guy’s fault. I love her. It should have been the easiest thing in the world, but my lifestyle and my anger got in the way.”
He’s talking about his girlfriend back in Los Angeles. As he speaks, he fidgets with the phone he’s been checking sporadically ever since we climbed aboard God knows how many hours ago. A tumbler of whiskey sits next to him on a table. The lights inside the bus are dimmed low, the ambience is nocturnal.
The plan was to hang out with Bonamassa at the Holland International Blues Festival in the sleepy Dutch town of Grolloo, where he and his band are headlining the second of two nights, then again at his own show in the Ostend, a port on the Belgian coast. Except it turns out that there are an awful lot of things he wants to talk about, and the five-hour, 250-mile journey between the two is the perfect opportunity for him to offload.
And so here we are, steaming across continental Europe in a luxury tour bus in the middle of the night with the most successful blues musician of his generation, driving towards the daylight. Members of his seven-strong band drop in and out of the lounge, listening as he swings between bolshiness, sadness, self-deprecation, regret and, occasionally, annoyance. There will be recurring themes, from business advice to his lack of mainstream acceptance. The spectre of his current relationship – or potential loss of it – hangs in the background.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind to the start of the journey. This is what it’s like to spend five hours in the company of a broken-hearted blues hero.
Joe Bonamassa doesn’t mess around. It’s been less than 10 minutes since he led his band off stage at the International Blues Festival, and he’s already out of his stage suit and into civvies: combat trousers, dark puffa jacket, baseball cap. He looks less like an international rock star, more like a middle-aged bloke you’ll find sitting on a bench on the high street while he waits for his wife to finish looking round Primark.
They’ve got word that the festival was busier during his headlining set than it was last night. This is some achievement, given that yesterday’s bill featured both Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr And His
Woke up this morning, his relationship is on the rocks, his life is empty and he’s down in a hole… We take a five-hour drive with broken-hearted blues hero Joe Bonamassa.
All-Starr Band. “Really?” he says. “You got a Beatle and the real JB – the actual guy, not the imposter? Wow.” He shakes his head like a man who will never cease being surprised by other people.
The bus pulls away from the festival just as a huge thunderstorm breaks. In the upstairs lounge, Bonamassa cracks open a bottle of whiskey. He pours just a couple of fingers, nothing too excessive. He doesn’t offer it around.
Drummer Anton Fig has squeezed himself on to one of the small sofas and will stay there for a couple of hours before retiring to his bunk. Fig, who has played with everyone from Kiss to David Letterman’s in-house band, is a brusque South African with the blunt manner of a man who has zero time for music industry bullshit. He’s been part of the Bonamassa set-up since appearing on 2007’s Sloe Gin album.
“The first time I met Anton, I was so intimidated,” says Bonamassa, at which Fig grins the wolfish grin of a man who knows that was the desired effect.
Still, at least Fig knew who the guitarist was when he met him. Unlike his future Black Country Communion bandmate Jason Bonham, who played on Sloe Gin’s predecessor, You & Me. The pair had never met before Bonamassa turned up at the studio on the first day.
“So I’m really nervous, thinking: ‘What did I just get myself into?’” he says. “I walk in, start fiddling with the guitar. Jason sees this fat guy, long hair, sweatshirt, and goes: ‘So when’s Joe getting here?’ I’m like: ‘I’m
Joe Bonamassa.’ He was tossed back. He thought I was the roadie.”
A wry laugh. “That’s been the story of my life.”
Mainland Europe is passing by outside the tour bus window at 70 miles per hour. Bonamassa has been here many times before.
“We used to come to this part of the world a lot,” he says. “Holland, Germany. We’d get a Sprinter van, drive from gig to gig, get paid maybe two hundred Euros a night. We’d play the gig, drink ourselves silly at the hotel, wake up at eight a.m. hung-over and pissed off, and then drive to the next night’s gig.”
He made it on this side of the Atlantic long before he made it back in the States. In fact, in Bonamassa’s eyes, it’s debatable whether he’s actually even made it in the States.
“‘Who the hell is Joe Bonamassa?’” he says. “That’s what it’s like back home.”
Except it’s not quite “Who the hell is Joe Bonamassa?” in the US. Indisputable fact: he’s had more No.1 albums on the blues chart than any other artist.
“No, no, no,” he says, shaking his head.
“The only reason I have the most number-one albums in the history of the charts is because of sheer volume. I’ve made thirty-seven albums in twenty years.”
He sighs. “It’s unsustainable. I have to take a break. It’s impacting on my life.”
If there’s one thing Bonamassa is proud of, it’s his success – but not on a musical level. “I’m not a particularly good singer, I’m an average writer at best,” he says. “I know how to play the guitar, but that’s all.”
What he’s really proud of is the fact that he and his manager, Roy Wiseman, have carved their own path through the jungle that is the modern music industry. Like a lot of things with Joe Bonamassa, peek behind the curtain and it all comes down to the same bottom line: money.
“Listen,” he says. “You can get a manager who will get you in the Chateau Marmont so you can talk to pretty girls and impress them, but you’re not going to make any money. That never applied to me, cos nobody ever let us in the sandbox. We were always told that we weren’t allowed – ‘no Joes’. So at the end of the day, necessity is the mother of invention.”
Between them, Bonamassa and Wiseman run the tightest of ships. Nothing is allowed to slip through the net. No studio record, live set or DVD package comes out without their say-so. No ticket price isn’t scrutinised in advance. Absolutely no one gets a cut of the earnings who doesn’t thoroughly deserve it.
“There’s a lot of artists out there who look like they do very well, but when the tour is over and they pay the bus bills and venue fees and agents’ fees and the potato chips backstage and these pesky things called taxes, they come home broke,” Bonamassa says. “I don’t.”
If it’s that easy, then how come more bands don’t do it?
“Because they don’t want to bet on themselves. [Striking the table for emphasis] They. Don’t. Want. To. Bet. On. Themselves.”
Bonamassa has just spent 15 minutes expanding on why more bands should bet on themselves. This can be boiled down to one sentence: promoters are greedy, bands are naïve.
If you want the slightly longer version, here it is. Bands should have more faith in their own abilities, he reasons. Strip out the machinery of the music industry, work out a way to do it yourself. Focus on the markets you’re strong in and build it from there. Raise ticket prices, don’t give them away for popcorn. Reinvest the money you make in what you’re doing and you’ll make more money. It’s hard, sure, but you’ve got to hold your nerve. Cut out anyone you don’t need on your side. Bet on yourself.
He gets up to pour himself another whiskey.
Bonamassa is an enthusiastic talker, and when he’s not talking, he’s constantly checking his phone like a teenager. He’s been doing this since we left Grolloo an hour and a half ago. He has the air of a man preoccupied by something happening thousands of miles away.
“There’s a point in a man’s life when he has to choose between ambition and real life,” he says, looking up. “And you find yourself at the crossroads, when you’re faced with losing something that you took for granted, that you really don’t want to lose, but you’re so driven and down the rabbit hole. And the worst part is that you only have yourself to blame.”
He looks down at his phone again.
Bonamassa is talking real estate. As you do when you’re hurtling down a motorway in Holland in the small hours.
“I used to live next door to Johnny Rotten,” he says. “And it was great. He’d do band rehearsals at his house. Not the Sex Pistols, the John Lydon band, whatever it was called. They’d show up and unload their instruments and cases and cases of beer from the back seat. The next day you’d always hear the clank of shame – fifty beer bottles in a garbage bag hitting the bottom of the trash can out front.”
Did you speak to him much?
“I ran into him a few times. I’d play guitar during the day and sometimes I’d wind up my amplifier. One time I came out to get in my car and he was there. He said [inexplicably regal British accent]: ‘I hear you play the guitar. In my humble opinion, you’re not bad. What’s your name?’ I go: ‘Joe Bonamassa.’ And he goes: ‘Ah, the bluesman.’ He knew me. Which is cool.
“You know what I took away from those guys?” he continues. “They’re not skint. They know the value of the brand.”
There’s a note of admiration in his voice.
“‘Who the hell is Joe Bonamassa?’ That’s what it’s like back home.”
If there’s one thing Bonamassa himself knows, it’s the value of a suit. Like so many things in his career, the suit was the suggestion of his producer, Kevin Shirley, who entered his orbit in 2006 and has been there even since.
Before he decided to take the guitarist under his wing, Shirley saw some photos of a show Bonamassa played at the House Of Blues in Cleveland. Bonamassa had sold 600 tickets for the gig. He was proud. It was a big show for a guy like him. His keyboard player sent Shirley
a photo of their performance the next day. “Kevin calls me up and said: ‘You look like a slob.’ He was right. I was this pudgy guy in an ill-fitting shirt playing a half-full club.”
Bonamassa took Shirley’s tough-love feedback on board. The next day he went to a clearance sale at Macy’s and bought himself a cheap suit. “Two hundred dollars,” he says.
“Fifty per cent off. Didn’t fit. One heartbreak and a good old-fashioned diet later, I finally bought my first nice suit.”
He bought that suit (Versace, since you ask) for his 2009 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That was a turning point in Bonamassa’s career, the point when he went from schlubby foot soldier to superstar-in-the-making. That night, he was officially anointed blues rock’s next big thing when Eric Clapton joined him on stage.
“That was the moment,” he says. “The moment. He comes out, and it’s like a collective ‘What the fuck?’ I was playing and thinking: ‘I can’t believe a kid from Yorkville, New York can pull this off.’ It was total fear. It was all on the line. I knew it was either the beginning of something new or the end of me. What I learned from that show was that if you really want it, you’ve gotta take it.”
He’s back at the Albert Hall in 2019, 10 years on. This time he’s playing for three nights. “And I’m gonna wear that suit again,” he says. “I’m gonna fit in it if it kills me.”
We’re back on real estate. This time his current home, high in the canyons of Los Angeles. He calls it Nerdville, as in ‘guitar nerd’. He describes it as “a museum”. A minute later he calls it “a theme park”.
“You drive up and see a sign that says: ‘Welcome To Nerdville’, and you start laughing, cos there’s only one person who can live here.”
Nerdville is home to Bonamassa’s collection of vintage guitars. He estimates he has 380 instruments. “Maybe closer to four hundred.”
It says something when you don’t know how many guitars you own. What things do you do, apart from play guitar? “Nothing,” he says.
He sounds sad, or maybe it’s just the whiskey talking. “Unfortunately I do nothing else.”
There’s a few seconds’ silence, then he says: “That’s part of the problem.”
There’s a brief interlude on the rigours of the road, when Bonamassa reveals that the most gig’s he’s played in a row is 13.
“That was hard,” he says. “But the great thing about live playing is that you reset at zero. ‘I was bad tonight? Fine, I can redeem myself tomorrow.’”
He raises his glass in salute to himself.
“I reserve the right to play a shitty show.”
It turns out that part of the reason Bonamassa is fixated on the ‘business’ part of the music business is because he’s already thinking of retiring.
“I’m done at sixty-two,” he says. “Out of here. November 8, 2039.” That’s a very specific date.
“It’s the fiftieth anniversary of my first show. Fifty years. Here’s the thing: if you can do something for fifty years – God willing, of course: I may not live that long or have a career that long – you’ve earned your second act.”
His first show was on November 8, 1989. “Five dollars on the door, six hundred people. The newspaper said: ‘Local child prodigy plays the Metro.’ I made three thousand bucks.”
It’s worth pointing out that Joe Bonamassa is 41 years old. No one could accuse him of not thinking ahead.
There’s a song on Bonamassa’s new album called Self-Inflicted Wounds. It’s a slow-burning, Pink Floydgone-blues number. In it, he beats himself up over mistakes he’s made. ‘I’m praying for forgiveness,’ he sings at one point, ‘but there’s none to be found.’
“That song is pretty much on the nose right now,” he says morosely.
Okay then, Joe. How’s your love life?
“Things aren’t good,” he says after a pause. “As of right now I don’t know if I’ve got a relationship.”
The problem, he says, is him all the way. It’s down to many things. His workload. The constant buzz of online criticism that he knows he should ignore but can’t. The frustration of not being taken seriously – not even acknowledged – by anyone outside of the blues scene. All the things that chip away at a man’s soul.
“There’s a pattern of behaviour from me
– a hundred per cent from me – that I need to take responsibility for,” he says, squinting. “The workload becomes so fast, so heavy, you start doubting your core values. Like, ‘Why did I get into this thing in the first place?’ It was affecting my
“There’s a point in a man’s life when he has to choose between ambition and
persona. I was becoming angry. Bitter and jaded. I watched the Muddy Wolf DVD [recorded at his show at Red Rocks in 2014] and I didn’t recognise that guy. That guy was this joyous, giving, relaxed human being. And I looked at myself in the mirror and went: ‘I’m not that guy any more.’”
He says he’s been dealing with the problems in the most Joe Bonamassa way possible: by buying vintage guitars and amps. He’s always done that, but now it’s become, in his words, an addiction. Turns out it only made things worse.
“Six-string dopamine,” he says. “The quick fix. I was vacuuming up everything old I saw at every store I went into. Why? Cos it made me feel good. And what’s happened is that it’s ruined something very valuable. Or it’s threatening to ruin it. The first thing I did was text my dealers. And said: ‘No more.’” Your drug dealers? “No, my guitar dealers. I’ve become a guitar addict. Legit. And luckily only a guitar addict.” How much were you spending on guitars? He laughs. “This month? How much do you think?” I don’t know. “Can I use the restroom first?” he says. “I’ll be back – and please centre yourself for the answer.”
He’s back. He settles down into his chair, deeper than before.
“I’m not gonna answer your question on the record,” says. “If you want to know off the record, I’ll tell you.”
I turn the dictaphone off for a moment, and he tells me. It’s a genuinely astonishing amount.
“I don’t need to spend my life in guitar shops with my beautiful girlfriend, or on the phone making deals, when I should be enjoying life with my beautiful girlfriend. And that’s a problem. And it’s got to the point where it’s almost too big to unwind. I really have a problem.”
He checks his phone.
He’s starting to look a little hazy around the edges. It might be the whiskey, although he’s only had two or three glasses, maybe four – nobody’s counting. Or it might just be the time.
“The bottom line: I apologise for nothing but I regret a lot,” he says. “But it takes a lot to get here. It takes a real commitment. You just have to dive into it. Unfortunately I’m regretting a lot of my decisions to get to this point, because personally I have no life. I just have my guitars and amps and I have nothing. And it’s cool. It’s one of the biggest privileges and pleasures in the world. But is that really a life?
You tell me. Is it?
“It’s not. Sitting where I’m at, at the precipice of being a bachelor again, which I don’t want to be
– I don’t want that. And one of the things I have to give up is the hobby. Cos that’s a big part of the problem. And your readers are gonna think: ‘Fuck you, Bonamassa.’”
Bonamassa wishes he was born 20 or 30 years before he was. That way he could have played with the great musicians in their prime. Now? Well, those great musicians are all leaving us. “I’m sick of people dying,” he murmurs. “I never thought we’d be without BB King. I never thought we’d be without Chuck Berry. It’s the end of that era. The problem is there’s nobody to fill that void.”
Isn’t that your job?
He shakes his head. “I don’t want that job. It’s not my job to write the next Stairway To Heaven.”
He’s wandering off on a tangent now.
“Jimmy Page is seventy-four. I don’t want to be on the road when I’m seventy-four.” He pauses. “I’m done at sixty-two,” he says again.
It’s getting late. Or early. Anton Fig went to bed hours ago. His place has been taken by bassist Michael Rhodes, the wryest southern gentlemen you’ll ever meet. The lounge has taken on that otherworldly, filmic feeling you get when you know the rest of the world is asleep somewhere else. Bonamassa is lost in his thoughts. Or maybe he’s just falling asleep.
How do you rate yourself, Joe?
He stirs. “I don’t. Because at the end of the day it’s history that rates you.”
How do you think history will rate you?
“I think I’ll be rated as someone who invented a way for a long-chinned, long-named, hackneyed blues guitar player with a wheedly voice to go from nothing to arenas. I think the business model is more valuable than the music.”
“Really. Whaddya gonna do with a six-string guitar that’s not been done before? But if you show a kid the way to draw a crowd, that’s different.”
It’s dark outside the bus and quiet inside.
Do you think you’ll salvage your relationship? “I hope so. But I don’t know,” he says, and closes his eyes.
“It’s not my job to write the next Stairway To
Michael Rhodes and I have been talking at low volume for the past 20 minutes. Bonamassa is bundled in his chair, eyes shut. He’s out for the count.
Ostend. We’re here. Bonamassa doesn’t stir when the bus pulls up outside the band’s hotel. Five hours is a long time to be cooped up in a tour bus with an unhappy, mildly drunk blues guitarist.
It’s time to get off. We leave him sleeping.
“I’m emotionally exhausted,” was one of the last things he said before unconsciousness claimed him. “Just drained. There’s a wall – and it’s coming soon.”
“I’m not a particularly good singer, I’m an average writer at best. I know how to playthe guitar, but that’s all.”
CR’s Dave Everley (left), Bonamassa (centre) and Anton Fig (second right) share a rare light‑hearted moment on the tour bus.
Bonamassa headlining the Saturday night at the International Blues Festival in Grolloo, Holland in June.
”If you can do somethingfor fifty years, you’ve earned your second act.”
Two sides to his story: happy when he’s playing guitar…
…but “unfortunatelyI do nothing else”.