By Dan Nooger (submitted by Gord Jantzen)

“If someone yells ‘Where’s Blackmore?’ at one of our concerts,” vowed Deep Purple’s raven-dressed guitarist, Tommy Bolin, as he sprawled across the only couch in his suite overlooking Central Park South, “I’ll just do what I did when people yelled ‘Where’s Joe Walsh?’ at me while I was with the James Gang. I’ll have cards printed up with his address and throw them out to the audience.”

Deep Purple are no strangers to change. In the nine years since Jon Lord, Ian Paice, and Ritchie Blackmore first assembled the prototype Purple, change has been their constant boon companion on the stardom road to the top. After a promising beginning as pop-rock interpreters (with international hit versions of Joe South’s “Hush” and Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman”), Purple Mark II, featuring vocalist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover made their first appearance in London’s 400-seat show-biz hangout Speakeasy to a half-house (and the 50 or so people who were there to listen and dance instead of drink were literally blown away by their wall of sound). The bartenders union’s loss was the rock world’s gain: three years later Purple had become the most phenomenal success story in the business, selling an incredible 12 million albums per year, lionized from Lancaster to Nippon.

Gillan and Glover split, but with David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes more than filling the holes they’d left, Purple rolled on through two more thunderously successful years. Then last summer came the bombshell announcement that Ritchie Blackmore, the black-clad shaman of the Stratocaster, who to many epitomized the band’s music, was leaving to form his own group, Rainbow. But Purple’s 12th album, Come Taste The Band (on Warners), their first with ex-James Gang master blaster Tommy Bolin, will quickly banish any suspicions that Purple without Blackmore is like a guitar without strings. In actual fact, it just might be their best ever.

NO MORE BLACKMORE: “It was not such a sudden shock as you might think,” explained Rob Cooksey, the bearded, genial manager of both Blackmore and Purple. “We’d known, myself and the members of the band, that Ritchie would one day leave Purple. He’d had the idea for an album of his own on the cards for about four years. He wanted to record ‘Black Sheep Of The Family’ as a single, and having done the single he liked the people he was working with and they went and did a few more tracks and in the end it was an album. After he’d finished recording the album at Musicland (site of the Stones’ It’s Only Rock ’n Roll sessions) we were starting a tour with Purple in Munich and he said that after that tour that was it, he was going to call it a day. It was very sad for us but it was a great tour because everyone knew it was the last tour with Ritchie and just played their asses off. It was very amicable, not a big bust-up.”

When the tour ended in July, the remaining Purples took off for L.A. to recuperate and reconsider their future. Blackmore’s guitaristic wizardry and dynamic Strat-smashing antics through 25-plus tours had made him an international figure. To replace him, the band needed not just a technical whiz or a pretty face, but a rock magician who could put it all together. Unknown to them, their first choice was a mere three miles away down a Malibu beach road, but it might as well have been a thousand for all they knew.

COLORADO KID: Despite his chronological youth (at 24, he’s the youngest member of Deep Purple except for Glenn Hughes), Tommy Bolin had played everything from rock ’n roll to boogie, blues and jazz with some of the heaviest musicians in America by the time he attained his majority. He played the blues with 350-pound blues guitar giant Albert King and improvised beautiful thematic statements on Spectrum, Billy Cobham’s historic first album after his departure from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. When Tommy describes Ian Paice as one of the greatest drummers he has ever played with, he’s working from a solid base of comparison: he’s also played with such premier percussionists as Alphonse Mouzon, Lenny White, and Jeff Porcaro.

“The sessions with Cobham were a gas,” Bolin recalls. “I’d be blasted out of my mind, and Cobham would down a couple of malts before each take. He tried writing out parts and themes for me to play and I’d say, ‘Man, you might as well put a Picasso in front of me, because I don’t read music.’ Everything I played on that album was improvised.”

While continuing to do the occasional session, Tommy, who had moved from Sioux City, Iowa to Colorado to play with a local group called Zephyr who were struggling through a couple of albums and painfully expiring at about the same time the original Purple were trying to establish themselves in England, tried to put his various musical experiences together with a few friends in a legendary Boulder band called Energy. Despite an innovative musical concept, the record companies just did not give a damn about their demos.

RENEGADE: When the James Gang called after Joe Walsh had left them, Bolin figured, “What the hell, I’ll eat this month instead of starving.” He remained with them through nearly a year and two successful albums, Bang and Miami (writing most of their material and sharing production credits), but he does not recall his tenure with the Cleveland cowboys as a high point in his musical career. “I left the James Gang just as they were starting to make good money,” he says with a grin, “but I didn’t give a fuck. I’d be giving the audience everything I had, doing spins and stuff, and I’d turn around and the drummer would be...” (he makes an obscene gesture towards his crotch and breaks into laughter). “They were resentful of my attraction to the audience. My musical communication with them was just lost, and it was affecting my music. And my music is all I have.”

Bolin split both the Gang and the Colorado scene to try and build a solo career in L.A. As Ritchie Blackmore was playing “Smoke on the Water” for the last time, Tommy signed with Nat Weiss’ Nemperor Records as a solo artist. His first solo album for the label, Teaser, features jazz greats such as Airto (“He plays rock ’n roll on my album, which he’s never done before”), Jan Hammer, and Mick Brecker, as well as stalwart rockers such as Prairie Prince, drummer for San Francisco’s shock-rock troupe, The Tubes, with lyrics by Jeff Cook, his former partner in Energy.

BOLIN STRIKE: “David Coverdale came up with the idea of getting Tommy into Deep Purple,” according to Cooksey. “He’d heard him on the Cobham album and with the James Gang. His name was the first that was brought up, but we didn’t even know how to get in touch with him. We brought Clem Clempson from Humble Pie out to L.A. and tried him out for three or four nights, just jamming.”

“He was working out really well but he just didn’t have the magic. So we decided to call it a day and Clem went home and we were really despondent. We got Tommy’s number off some guy in the Rainbow in L.A. and it turned out he was living three miles down the road from us in Malibu. He came down and it was instant magic. From the first couple of bars we could tell immediately he was the guy. He liked us, we liked him, and we just took it from there.”

For the next three weeks Tommy played with the group every day, getting to know the guys and their music. He’d hardly ever heard anything by Purple before save a few singles, but the more they played, the more the members of Purple knew they had made the right choice. Bolin and Coverdale churned out five songs during those three weeks, and when the refreshed and revitalized group returned to Musicland to record Come Taste The Band, they were ready to rock ’n roll.

PSYCHIC DISLOCATION: Come Taste The Band is one of those albums that improves in direct proportion to the volume it’s played at. All the subtleties of Purple power rock pour from the speakers — Glenn Hughes digging way down low for the bumpy bass notes while Bolin goes crazy with a solo; Coverdale shouting his soul out; Paice, one of the great two-fisted drummers in rock, playing the best he ever has; Lord, drawing majestic colors from his battery of keyboards. The album can be viewed, for those into conceptual rather than physical appreciation, as a loose song cycle about the psychic dislocations of the rock lifestyle, something all the members of Purple eat, breathe and sleep. The archetypal traveler returns at last to his home, shaking in anticipation of the pleasures of slippers and pipe by the fireside, only to realize in the end that his destiny is to keep on moving ’til the day he dies.

“Coming Home” launches Come Taste The Band on a fiery crescendo of swirling guitar and organ, moving into a fast-paced rocker featuring some very funky piano from Lord. Bolin begins his first solo spot with some Hendrixoid phase-shifting warblings before he grits down into it with the force of a piledriver (and ten times the style).

David Coverdale composed the R&B-flavored “Lady Luck” for every groupie or lady friend who’s “always got an answer for what she’s done and where she’s been.” Ian Paice lays down a disco-soul feel with strategically placed high-hat smashes, all the while maintaining a heavy rock beat. As Bolin says, “Ian can do all that complicated stuff when he wants to, and he can play very simple and heavy too.”

Bolin and Hughes’ “Gettin’ Tighter” is a total showcase of Tommy’s versatility — he plays slide, lead, and twin rhythm guitars on this smashing rocker. A “Smoke on the Water” feel predominates and “Gettin’ Tighter” may soon be burning up radio towers as a single. Is that the band getting tighter or just those thousand and one nights exploding in your head?

“Dealer,” written by Tommy and David, slows the explosive pace a bit to sketch a grisly picture of the predatory happiness boys, the dealers who take the dollars, doxies, and finally the souls of the fools who fool with them. “It’s about junk,” says Bolin. “It’s the best thing in the world when you have it and the worst thing in the world when you don’t.”

“Drifter” and “Love Child” are slow and HEAVY!; brontosaur rock. The search for love on the endless highway to nowhere continues, but eventually the highway becomes its own beginning, middle and end. Drifters come to need its all-encompassing world like junkies need junk. Tommy’s amazing guitar solo on the latter cut was not played through a synthesizer; just a wah-wah and echoplex, turned all the way up.

“This Time Around” is about deja vu, loss, and the inevitability of the departure. Beautifully sung by Glenn Hughes, accompanied mostly by just Jon Lord’s lovely rippling piano, “This Time Around” could be the Purple song Stevie Wonder will wish he’d written a year from now. One of Jon Lord’s favorite composers, it seems, is George Gershwin, and “Owed to G” is a little instrumental tribute to the author of such rock classics as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “I Got Rhythm.” The chord changes and structure are distinctly Gershwinesque and complex, but with Bolin’s guitar howling like a lonesome banshee in the Midwestern night, the track bites deep as a Great White (shark, that is).

Glenn Hughes’ thick, hollow-sounding bass opens “You Keep On Moving,” joined by eerie organ and subdued, echoic guitars panning from speaker to speaker. Coverdale and Hughes moan this one from their hearts, and Lord finally takes a typically epic organ solo before Bolin rides the song out into infinity.

Come Taste The Band shows the new Deep Purple moving in new directions, but ever so seductively. It’s always hard for a world-class act to grow — artistic maturation doesn’t move albums out of the warehouse like a good strait-jacket formula hit or two — but Purple have continued to do just that, never abandoning either their quest of the ultimate Big Note or good old rock ’n roll.

“At the moment Tommy’s pursuing two entirely different careers,” explains Rob Cooksey, “but one compliments the other. His coming into Deep Purple has certainly given him an 18-month to 2-year start on his solo career. He’s ambitious and together and he’s got youth on his side.”

Or as Bolin says, “Nothing’s going to stop me now.”