By Mike Finkelstein
Jack Bruce passed away on Saturday at the age of 71. It’s yet another hard-to-accept cold shot for any rock fan who fondly remembers what the rock medium had to offer in its late ’60’s/early ’70’s heyday. The luminaries of the field are disappearing slowly but surely. But around that time, rock was the most interesting, cutting edge genre around. Short-lived as it was, to call it inspiring in its time would be to understate the point.
And Jack Bruce was at the forefront of all of this. He was a founding member of perhaps the first supergroup out of England, the mind-blowing power trio Cream…(as in the Cream that rises to the top). Their sound was bigger than the sum of the parts. Along with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream put psychedelic blues-rock on the map with a sonic boom. The group featured guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker, and one Jack Bruce on bass. The band blew the doors open in the blues-rock field. Their jams were marathon sequences of long solos, top-flight musicianship, and decibels-a-plenty. Twenty minutes for a song like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” became de rigeur and a true showcase for players as strong as they were. Ginger Baker still complains that he lost most of his hearing having to be near Bruce’s unbearably loud bass rig, night after night.
As a writer, lyricist, and playing harmonica and bass, Jack Bruce was actually the wild card in Cream. His fingerprints were all over their many iconic songs from what we now remember to be an incredibly brief period between 1967 and 1969. But what a run it was. The lyrics Bruce wrote to songs like “SWLABR,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “White Room,” “Dance the Night Away,” and “I Feel Free,” were beautifully evocative meshes of blues, mythology, and juxtaposition – yet they were also full-on psychedelic anthems. Great imagery from him! And Cream arranged for the album art to match the music. Just to see their albums in the local record store was to look at things differently. But upon listening to the record, it was so hard to believe there were only three guys putting all of those ideas and huge sound across so deftly. They did set a standard. Many folks might argue convincingly that Cream was a career zenith for Clapton, as well.
As a bass player Jack Bruce certainly took the busy angle of things a long, long way. His solos would often be as long as Clapton’s. But he was unusually melodic, and downright intriguing to listen to. Live, he was one of the busiest bassists to come along. He played leads on his bass. Guys like John Entwhistle of The Who were also playing sizzling lead bass lines at the time, but Bruce was going for broke on the same stage as Eric Clapton, in his prime. Gotta step it up to do that! In this way he was hugely influential to a generation of developing bass players. It became obvious that it was going to be OK to stretch out as a rock bassist…if you had the chops and the ideas. Many people I know literally wore the grooves out of albums like Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire, learning to play either guitar or bass. Cream offered that much talent to draw from.
After Cream was through, Bruce continued to hook up throughout the ‘70’s with guitar heavyweights like, Leslie West (no pun intended), Mick Taylor, and Robin Trower. While the psychedelia was over, the music continued to flow. Some of the stuff Bruce did with Carla Bley and Mick Taylor in the mid ‘70’s was brilliant, part of an impressive musical arc for Bruce, post-Cream.
Ultimately, Jack Bruce will be remembered most for his work with Cream and when people think of that band, it’s impossible not to be taken with the many levels they succeeded on. Whether lyrically, compositionally, or instrumentally, Jack Bruce’s legacy will continue to inspire people who can grasp what he was doing then. It was quite brilliant, indeed.
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Photo of Jack Bruce at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival by photo-journalist Bonnie Perkinson.