By Brian Arsenault
They were so different. Unalike. Distinctive. Is that what unique is? Seems like that was typical of the era. Hendrix, not Clapton. Beatles, not Stones. Airplane, not Beach Boys. Each showed us something different. A different pulse and pace. Perhaps why we miss them in today’s largely homogenized pop rock world and why they can never be replaced. That’s the worst of it. They’re not coming back.
I’m always amused by the various attempts to explain him. He was really a good guy, better than he seemed, say some. No he wasn’t. He was a prick and he reveled in it, say others just as fervently. The anti-hippy; maybe the anti-Christ, even if he did know how to feel like Jesus’ son. Was he a good guy or wasn’t he? That’s an argument about our insecurities, not his.
No, he probably wouldn’t have been your friend. But what did that have to do with it? He was the dark voice that had to arise amidst all the feelgood, counter-culture bullshit, even the bs that was good and true.
Lou sneered and said if you dare look at this, take a walk on the wild side, know that “there are more things in heaven and earth (read hell), Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Does it scare you, make you nervous, do you want to look away? Don’t avert your eyes. You might learn something. You say you love humanity, then you have to love all of it.
A guy who couldn’t sing a note could create anthems, laments; mournful and defiant, lustful and repellant. It’s the art that matters, damn it, and his art was New York underside made universal. He was rock’s Dostoyevsky and the notes were from very deep underground.
If the Stones didn’t upset your parents, Joe Cocker onstage was sure to. The sweat, the dangling greasy locks, the impossible body positions, the erratic, spastic hands. And yet a gentle soul, just trying to give you everything in it, right down to the ground.
So many of his obits kept repeating that he was a blues singer. Please review his recordings, his performances and list the number of blues songs. That’s right, there are hardly any. An r&b singer, I’ll buy. Like the Royal Southern Brotherhood sings, rock is the son of rhythm and blues.
And rock was Joe Cocker. He took Beatles and Stones hits and made them his own. Made them better. Hell he made a song by the Box Tops, the freakin’ Box Tops, soar.
But I know the secret and so do you. We know where the blues nom came from. It’s not so wrong after all. He could bring a depth of meaning, of pain, of regret, of living, of how you feel right now that is seldom matched except by true blues singers.
“Once while traveling across the sky . . .”
I said an incorrect thing about Jack Bruce in my appreciation written after he passed. Not incorrect but inadequate. I wrote that Jack, along with The Who’s John Entwhistle, invented the bass lead in rock. That’s not necessarily wrong but the more important point is that he was central to the creation of the bass-lead guitar duet.
All of us forever mesmerized by the live version of “Crossroads” know what I mean. Bruce wasn’t just keeping up with the outrageous combination of Clapton’s speed and virtuosity, he was matching it, note for note, bar for bar, stanza for stanza. It’s incredible. I think bands and bassists could write out the notes, listen to it a thousand times, hone their skills to a high level and still not get it right nor understand the creative source from which it sprang.
Caught in performance or in studio, the body of work approaches perfection. Of course, for me, that is Cream, close to perfection in its parts and in its whole. Bruce was central to the writing of most of their songs, combined with Ginger Baker to produce an ongoing war of a genius rhythm section. And his work with Clapton is unsurpassed.
Maybe that’s why neither of them ever really produced anything to match what they did in Cream.
It’s no knock on two great musicians down the decades. It just wasn’t possible.
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