Interview

Whitesnake’s David Coverdale: ‘I wrote ‘Here I Go Again’ rat-arsed on white port and 7 Up’

As he prepares for his band’s farewell tour, the flamboyant frontman talks to Kevin E G Perry about the Scout photo that got him the job of vocalist for Deep Purple, the misery behind his biggest hit, and the tragic recent death of ex-wife and music video star Tawny Kitaen

Thursday 11 November 2021 21:31
Comments
<p> “I have bluebirds flying out of every orifice,” trills Coverdale. “That’s not too shabby for a man of my dotage.”</p>

“I have bluebirds flying out of every orifice,” trills Coverdale. “That’s not too shabby for a man of my dotage.”

David Coverdale wanted to retire from touring last year, when he was 69. The flamboyant Whitesnake frontman, blessed with the voice of a golden god and the innuendo-laden sense of humour of a naughty schoolboy, has instead been forced by the pandemic to reschedule his band’s last stand until next spring. “It’s unbelievable to me that I’m still working and active at 70,” he tells me, his rich, sonorous tones singing down the line from Hook City, his home studio on the outskirts of Reno, about 20 minutes from Lake Tahoe. “Reno-by-Sea!” he announces theatrically, then, “He wishes!” He’s in good spirits, despite having had his retirement plans pushed back. “I have bluebirds flying out of every orifice,” he trills happily in a way that suggests the sensation is less painful than it sounds. “That’s not too shabby for a man of my dotage.”

Coverdale didn’t expect to still be squeezing himself into leather trousers at 70 because he thought it was all over four decades ago. Back in 1981 he was living in a rented villa on the Algarve and sleeping in a separate room from his first wife Julia as their relationship crumbled. Whitesnake’s prospects didn’t look much rosier, with tensions rising to the point that within a year Coverdale would sack all his bandmates. Worst of all, he was fast approaching 30, surely over the hill for a rock’n’roll star. He couldn’t have known he was only then coming up with what would become their signature hit. “As I was writing ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘Crying in the Rain’ about the breakdown of my first marriage, inconsolable, rat-arsed on white port and lemonade – actually, it was white port and 7 Up, let me give credit where it’s due – I thought: ‘The party’s over,’” he recalls. “In those days, nobody thought Jagger would still be touring at 78! Are you kidding? These guys keep raising the bar, the bastards!”

Typically, Coverdale sounds like a rakish aristocrat, Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart if he were played by Bill Nighy, but when he swears you can hear he’s a Yorkshireman. Coverdale was born in Saltburn-by-the-Sea in 1951, and likens his working class upbringing to the film Billy Elliot. His earliest musical memories are of his mother and aunt singing Irish rebel songs, but it was Elvis Presley doing “Jailhouse Rock” that first fired a spark of inspiration in his mind. “There was a profound sense of: ‘What the hell is this?’” he remembers. “I was six years old, and I knew I wanted to do this, even though I was in no environment whatsoever to actually do it.”

He began writing “secret little poems”, which eventually became lyrics once he’d taught himself the chords to The Yardbirds’ 1965 single “For Your Love”, and as a teenager he sang in a handful of local bands. Then, in 1973, destiny came calling while he was at work as a shop assistant, a job he’d taken on the basis that it would allow him to keep his hair long. “I was working in a boutique called Gentry and reading the Melody Maker,” Coverdale recalls. “There was a totally Monty Python picture of Jon Lord sitting down at his organ. Underneath it said: ‘Deep Purple still haven’t found a singer and are considering unknowns.’ That was Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.”

At the time, Deep Purple, who had released “Smoke on the Water” as a single earlier that year, were one of the biggest bands in the world. To apply for the job of replacing frontman Ian Gillan, Coverdale had to send in a tape of himself singing as well as a photograph. This presented a problem, as the only picture he had of himself was as a Boy Scout. “I had to borrow it off my mother,” he says. “I was wearing terribly stained short pants and doing the ‘Be Prepared’ sign. I said: ‘Dear Deep Purple, as you can see I’m always prepared’. The drummer Ian Paice called [guitarist] Ritchie Blackmore and said: ‘This guy’s got a great tone. He’s obviously rat-arsed, but he must have a good sense of humour because he’s sent a picture of himself as a Boy Scout!’ That was just because I had nothing else! I’d sent it off with my mother’s insistence that if you don’t get this back there’ll be trouble, because she’d had that on her mantlepiece forever.”

Coverdale got the job, and within the space of a year found himself heading out on an American tour that included stops at Madison Square Garden and a headlining slot at the California Jam festival in front of 250,000 people. He took it all in his stride. “People go: ‘Oh my God, how was it going to Madison Square Garden?’” he chuckles. “When you’ve played Wingate Constitutional Club on a Tuesday night, or Stillington Working Men’s Club following a stripper at lunchtime, Madison Square Garden is a walk in the park!”

David Coverdale with Whitesnake: “When you’ve played Wingate Constitutional Club on a Tuesday night, or Stillington Working Men’s Club following a stripper at lunchtime, Madison Square Garden is a walk in the park!”

After three albums with Coverdale, Deep Purple split in 1976. The following year the singer released his debut solo record, White Snake, and put together a band to tour it. They became Whitesnake, and under Coverdale’s leadership the group put out a string of hit blues-rock records in Britain but could never quite seem to crack America. That all changed in 1987, after the band had signed with Geffen Records and embraced hair metal. It was label bosses David Geffen and Al Coury who insisted the band re-record their 1982 single “Here I Go Again” for the self-titled record which would reintroduce the band to an American audience. Coverdale was dead against the idea. “I wasn’t impressed, but it worked out,” he says. “It was Geffen who convinced me, and thank God they did because that does help with the mortgage!”

While the original 1982 version had barely troubled the charts (number 34 in the UK, non-charting in the US), the 1987 version gave Whitesnake a number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a singalong anthem which remains their best known song to this day. The song’s runaway success was helped immeasurably by a music video starring Coverdale’s then-girlfriend, Tawny Kitaen, wearing a white negligee and dancing across the bonnets of a pair of Jaguar XJs. “There was delicious eye candy in there, but we put Tawny in stylish environments and never utilised her as other rock bands were doing with ripped stockings and what have you,” points out Coverdale. MTV couldn’t get enough of it. “Music television 24/7? It spread over the world to the point that whichever hotel suite I walked into and turned the TV on, nine times out of 10 it was on MTV and seven times out of 10 Tawny was doing cartwheels across two Jags. It just went absolutely nuts, and it continues to be.”

Kitaen, an actor who starred opposite Tom Hanks in 1984’s Bachelor Party, died in May this year at the age of 59. She is still so fervently associated with “Here I Go Again” that news of her death sent the song back to number one on the US Hard Rock charts. Coverdale and Kitaen were married between 1989 and 1991, but had lost contact since. “People tend to forget but it’s been 30 years since we spoke,” he says. “I’ve been involved with my wife, and raised a son. I was very sad, and I sent my condolences to her family. I was under no illusions. It wasn’t like: ‘Oh my God, we’ve got another hit.’ It was: ‘Thank you, Tawn. That was a nice parting gift.’”

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

Coverdale met his third wife, Cindy, in 1990 when they were both getting their hair cut at a salon in Reno called Lookin’ Good. Their son, Jasper, is now an actor. They still own the white Jaguar that appeared in the “Here I Go Again” video, having turned down an offer to sell it to the Hard Rock Cafe. “That was before Hard Rock became Hard Luck!” he booms. It’s now in storage, just another relic of half a century of heavy rocking. Coverdale insists he will continue to make music (“It’s like oxygen to me!”), but he’s reached an age where he’s ready to call time on touring. What he will miss most of all, he says, is the full-throated audience he refers to as the “Whitesnake choir”. “It’s an incredibly validating and touching experience when a crowd is singing your songs,” he says. “I think these evenings are going to be more emotional than anything I’ve ever experienced, because they will be a goodbye to that.” He’s not one to become maudlin about such things. “I feel I’ll be achieving completion of a journey I began over 50 years ago,” he says, as I strain to make out the flutter of bluebird wings in the background. “It’s a magical opportunity, so I’m going to grab it with both hands, darling.”

Whitesnake’s farewell tour begins in Dublin on 10 May 2022. For further dates and ticket details, head to whitesnake.com/tour

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in