By Brian Arsenault
The memories are so intact. The Grease Band singing crappy falsetto behind him at Woodstock. The kickass chorus on the best damn live album ever, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Belushi coming out to do Joe Cocker with Joe Cocker on SNL.
I know it’s that time of life when that generation, my generation, the greatest generation in rock ‘n roll, is gonna lose guys. Frequently. The ones who made it past 27 are getting to be old guys now and time is implacable in its demands. Still, it hurts. There was a time when he was rock life incarnate.
Some Cocker fans will tell you that early stuff when he was pictured like a fat, greasy bar brawler was when it was best, pure, raw. They’re right.
Others, a smaller more mature crowd, will tell you that the later albums of soft and soulful stuff extended his range as an artist. They’re right.
But for some of us, the crowd that was just about mad ourselves in those days, there is, was, will never be anything comparable to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Oh those Leon Russell arrangements. Oh that incomparable backing band and chorus Russell put together.
I know Cocker and Russell despised each other by the end of the tour. That’s the legend anyway confirmed in more than one story and interview. Who cares? The music, damn, the music.
Who ever had two drummers going so frenetically? (Jim Keltner anyone?) The horn section just blasting. Leon pounding the keys. And the soaring chorus. (Rita Coolidge for one.) Sizzling.
Did you think that old torch song “Cry Me a River” could be done that way? Did anyone?
Could anyone else top the originals with covers like “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Honky Tonk Women.” With apologies to the Beatles and Stones of course. But they know. They know.
And I think crusty ol’ Leonard Cohen might have shed a tear when he heard Joe’s “Bird On a Wire.” If he didn’t he should have.
The energy that’s sustained on the album is just incredible. But that was Joe. Sweat dripping, arms flailing, back arching to seemingly impossible angles. A voice edged with whisky and cigarettes.
You half expected him to be Axl Rose surly. But no. He was the friendly guy standing drinks at the bar. A humble thank you after most songs.
That was Joe. Until maybe he got tired. And the gentle side came to the fore. Those sweet songs. “You Are So Beautiful” and so on. But that was always there. Mad Dogs and Englishmen also includes a lovely cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, though he should have done the whole song and not just in medley.
There’s Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and Dave Mason’s “Feelin Alright.” Song after song.
But at the core, the madman core, is that crazy version of “Cry Me A River.” That’ll do.
(Joe Cocker died Monday, December 20 at his home in Colorado after a battle with lung cancer. He was 70.)
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