Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jack Bruce and the Musings of a Former Garage Band Rocker

by John Atwood



I remember 1967 all too well.  At the beginning of school in Fall of 1967, my sophomore year, I had been involved with my garage band for over a year, though we had never played anywhere yet.  During Freshman year we three guitarists were still working minimum wage jobs to buy our own guitar amps and a PA system.  The biggest problem we had though was with our drummer.  He kept not showing for practice.  By the end of the year, my younger brothers’ best friend, a true small town prodigy, joined us.  But he was only in 8th grade, which presented other problems, but we soldiered on.

But in the Fall of 1967, an awkward ruffle was taking place in the world of rock music.  The previous Summer, the Beatles, reconstituted it seems after their rumored breakup in August of 1966, had released St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, and the word “psychedelic” was running around everywhere.  We had been a bit guarded with our classmates about letting on that we were trying to start a band, but Word leaked out.  Soon, people were asking us “do you play the Sgt. Peppers?  Can you play any Jimi Hendrix?  Have your heard Cream?”  I remember giving very sheepish answers.

 I was having a problem with all this.  In my mind, the nadir of rock music up to that point in time had been 1965.  It had been a stunning year for the Beatles, opening with Eight Days a Week and then Ticket to Ride culminating with masterpieces like Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Nowhere Man and Michelle.  And then there had been the Stones: the Last Time, Satisfaction, Get off my Cloud, Paul Revere and the Raiders (Just Like Me), the Birds (Mr. Tambourine Man), Bob Dylan (Positively 4th Street, Like a Rolling Stone), and on and on.  The energy of that year kept coming well into 1966. 

But when the Beatles announced they were no longer going to be touring, it almost seemed like the bottom fell out of everything.  Then commenced what to me was a dismal period of groups releasing a slough of unsatisfying songs.  Later on,  I realized that what was happening was that all the “producers”, sensing great income opportunities off of young kids, were grabbing up what they thought might be the next big thing, cramming them into studios, making many of the instrumentalists sit on the sidelines while studio musicians played their parts, and turning out prefabricated rock and roll.  Where the Beatles and Stones had played live on their TV appearances, now one had to suffer through bands pretending to play their hit while the record played on the house PA behind them, even to the point of having the band mime though a fade out. 

 The late 60’s change in Rock music was termed ‘psychedelic’ because some of the songs were about drugs, and everyone seemed to be into far-out record covers.  But it was really a rebellion against the studios turning rock into pablum.  But where the Beatles had had a brilliant manager like George Martin to not only help them realize their musical ambitions but to also guide them with good sense and taste, the rebel rock that was coming out was beset by lots of excesses.  It is humorous to me that where “psychedelic” music had seemed so intimidating at the time, looking back on it now it all just seems incredibly silly, and groups like the Strawberry Alarmclock, the Electric Prunes, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and Blue Cheer (who released and absolutely nauseous but hyper-pretentious version of “Summertime Blues”) have now become so much ho-hum.  

But in the middle of all this were the albums Disraeli Gears by Cream, and Are You Experienced?, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.   This is where it was at, and everyone needed to get in step with it.  Change is always hard, so with pressure all around and my own band mates saying they wanted to get more with the times, I had to eat crow and began to learn “Foxy Lady” and “Sunshine of Your Love”.  Disraeli Gears was where most in America seemed to start with Cream--and I did listen to it intently—but I got wind there was a prior album.  My mom worked for a Peace Corps camp that was in our home town, and one of the participants had left a warped copy of that album behind.  It was called Fresh Cream.

 If you never had the fun of trying to listen to a warped record, you really missed something.  It is reminiscent of trying to move around on a waterbed, or some of the topsy-turvy spin rides at an Amusement park.  The tonearm goes up and down, and there is a certain kind of background phasing sound.  But be that as it may, I put it on and sat down to listen to the ultimate psychedelic group’s first record.  But it wasn’t, well, . . .how do you put this?  The album was in basic black, the guys were shown wearing what looked like World War II aviator gear, and the sound was…not what I expected.  There were several cuts that were so Delta Bluesy they were almost hard to take, like Cat’s Squirrel and Rollin and Tumblin.  (They were really wild on a warped record!) 

 It was an album I listened to again and again, and it—and they—began to grow on me.  There was nothing pretentious about this.  No psychedelic hype or posturing.  It was just solid, down to earth, good music.  But it wasn’t like other things in rock and roll.  Looking back, I would have to say it was what rock music was when it was played by accomplished, adult musicians.  Not adult, as in my parents, but adult as in more serious.  Most of rock music was being played by teenagers, in a sense.  The Beatles were in some ways the most adult of all of them, but even they had had their teenager sense about them.  And groups like the Monkeys….

 Fresh Cream became a school of serious music for me.  And of course, being a guitarist, my first focus was on Eric Clapton.  There was something masterful about his solos on this album, the best of which was on “I’m So Glad”.   I listened to that again and again.  Many guitarists at that time—and to this day—get into a kind of showoff mode, as if their existence depends on being able to impress.  And much of what they end up doing in that vein is augmented with cheap tricks and effects.  On “I’m so Glad”, Clapton coaxes the most out of every note.  By best guitar friend would later comment after we listened to Led Zeppelin’s first album, “Jimmy Page has fast hands.  Eric Clapton knows where to put them.” 

But the soul and voice of Cream was Jack Bruce.  Clapton and Ginger Baker, the drummer, reconvened in Blind Faith after the breakup of Cream, but there was never even a hint that there was any similarity.  No, without Jack Bruce, that which was Cream did not exist.   His playing was suberb. Listen to the bass on “I’m So Glad”, especially during Clapton’s solo.  It takes a song with all of 4 chords, which could have been a blockish boor, and turns it into something fluid, variegated, almost lyrical.  You hear an accomplished, creative, adult bass player.  I learned later he was classically trained, but preferred this kind of music.  On the songs he wrote, listen to his words, and you sense a mind reaching to express ideas in crisp language.  Listen to his singing, and you get a sense of a passion. 

Jack Bruce was not my favorite member of the group at that time.  But in listening to them year after year, I now see that a subtle influence had worked on me.  When I heard that he died this week, my reaction was that some part of me had lost something.  I had to think back through it all until I realized what it was: he had been a mentor of what it means to be a serious musician and artist.  His influence helped me move beyond just being a kid with a guitar.  So my thought was not only, “thanks for the music” or “thanks for the memories” but “thanks for being a good tutor.”  I had gotten to know him reluctantly, never thought of him with any degree of excitement, and didn’t really follow his career after Cream.  But he left a mark on me.  Probably happens with lots of teachers we have in life.