Monday, November 23, 2009

Jack Bruce Follows His Own Path

Reprinted from the Dallas Observer, July 24, 1997:

By the end of Ringo’s “All-Starr” concert at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, two adorable 13-year-old girls in braces, accompanied by one’s mom, staked out front stage for souvenirs. When the meat rack of security guards turned awry, the best she could grab was Gary Brooker’s sweat rag. Sensually inhaling of its fragrance, she neatly folded the white-haired musician’s rag.

“What do you plan to do with it?” I inquired.

“Keep it by my bed,” she purred. Once there were millions of such girls—who’d get up and dance before her mother was born—that would faint over the sweaty droppings of anything Ringo. How nice to see at least two were still interested, by association of Gary Brooker.

Ringo Starr also deserves to be knighted, for the good will generated by bringing together such British icons as Jack Bruce, Gary Brooker and Peter Frampton under his “All-Starr” banner—an event that can only transpire under the grace of Ringo’s name.

This year’s tightly rehearsed lineup smoked Billy Bob’s on May 23rd, the consensus opinion being it was Ringo’s best of four All-Starr tours over the years. Jack Bruce and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker performed with tremendous grace and prowess. Merely because they are middle-aged, scant opportunity remains for them to play rock concerts, an arena they once pioneered. But the music represented by these four revolving frontmen is as much a part of America as mom and apple pie, more sacred here than in Britain.

Jack Bruce says people wrongly assume that British rockers of the ’60s all knew each other (they now seem like an elite club of ex-prime ministers). He met Frampton and Brooker “maybe once in all those years.” (The oft-repeated in-joke onstage was introducing “Gary Brooker from Essex.”)

Unlike Clapton, Jack Bruce didn’t attend any Beatles sessions. “I was never one for hanging out. I first ran into Ringo at Abbey Road when I was doing a session for Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear, who had a band called Scaffold, around ’66.”

Bruce has bonded closest to Gary Brooker on the tour. “We’ve all been through very similar things, everybody has become mates, we're all Brits, apart from Mark Rivera [sax] who’s the token Yank.”

Jack Bruce’s last professional trip to America was in ’93, for Cream’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—another pit stop in the industrial wasteland of marketing. “Like Eric, I wasn’t keen to do it, because it’s just another award, an institution. A lot of people get left out, it’s unfair. I guess you can’t include everybody. Where does rock ’n’ roll begin and end? I was happy to see George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic inducted.”

Does it give a little boost commercially?

“No, not really, doesn't matter. I’ve been following my particular path out of choice for many years. I never really wanted to be a huge commercial success, that wasn't even the plan with Cream. I always wanted to play a lot of different kinds of music, and make a living, which I have.”

Bruce’s storied career shows vast diversity, as any great musician’s should: he’s recently moved between opera, film scoring, concerts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Germany with Chaka Khan, a solo piano album Monkjack containing duets with former Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, a children's musical entitled Little Stars, and performances of commissioned works in Vienna with the Niederosterreichischen Tonkunstler Symphony Orchestra (if indeed, that is its name). He lists nearly 100 albums in his discography.

Like Ginger Baker, he transcends categories, following a more dignified path, rather than wallowing in the stagnant cesspool of pop music. Back when Cream sold 35 million albums, popular music was the glory of the times.

Bruce has no reservations about the greatest-hits, vaudeville nature of Ringo’s All-Starr tour: “What’s wrong with vaudeville? I would love to have seen a vaudeville show. Even I’m a bit young for that. Obviously we’re doing classic songs, it wouldn’t be fair to the audience to do obscure ones. If I’ve got three songs to play, they have to be ones that people know, I can’t do one of the classical piano pieces from my last record.”

As such, we got to hear Ringo, in unison with Simon Kirke, drum on “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” and Bruce’s emotional show-stopper, “I Feel Free.”

“He’s quite a drummer,” Bruce says of Ringo. “I don't think he does a lot of playing in-between these little tours, he’s not one for a lot of woodshedding these days. But he’s certainly in shape now, having a great time.”

Ringo took the high road, announcing he would spare the audience “Octopus’s Garden,” sticking to Lennon-McCartney songs written for him. The band played a killer “Yellow Submarine.” The evening’s lead guitarist, Peter Frampton, was unable to perform material from Humble Pie (no Top Ten hits in USA), his musical (though not commercial) peak. The balding, white-haired Frampton wore his age more than the others, even donning a bathrobe before leaving the stage during the finale. His Les Paul tone was badly equalized at times—while Bruce’s ever-bold bass had crystal clarity. Associated with the Gibson EB-3 when he was first to make bass a lead instrument in rock during the late ’60s, Jack Bruce now endorses his Warwick fretless, rotating a 1955 Gibson EB-O for earlier tunes.

Sporting a full head of hair, Bruce is still the most forceful and unique blues-rock shouter to ever come out of Britain, Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart included. A five-minute bass solo kept even Billy Bob’s middle-of-the-road audience riveted: “One of the things I play is ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp,’ which would get a big cheer of recognition at my own concerts.”

The voice and chops are certainly stronger than they were in West, Bruce & Laing, together for several years in the mid-’70s. Bruce had then recently left the Tony Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin, which he described as the “musical time of my life.” Mountain, widely considered the heir apparent to Cream, split in 1972. Jack Bruce joined up with Leslie West and Corky Laing in the year’s most anticipated supergroup. The three seemed mired in delusions of psychedelic grandeur and excess at their Carnegie Hall debut, arriving in separate limousines. “West, Bruce & Laing didn’t get the credit it should have. It was very much a trend-setting band,” claims Bruce, yet even he can’t recall a single favorite number from the band’s three albums.

On the demise of Baroque conductor, Felix Pappalardi, who brilliantly produced Cream and lead Mountain on bass, Jack Bruce will not speak. In 1983, the great Pappalardi was shot by his own wife Gail Collins (lyricist of many a Cream and Mountain song, as well illustrator of the latter’s albums). From his unique vantage point Jack Bruce will offer no insight, abruptly dismissing the bizarre and murky tragedy—other than to say “I miss him very much.”

Of Mountain’s legendary 1970 recording of the Bruce/Brown composition, “Theme For An Imaginary Western,” Bruce says “I never liked that version. It wasn’t good, it was very heavy, inaccurate to the music. They made it plodding, less musical. In fact, they were a plodding band. I still think Leslie has the finest sound in rock ’n’ roll, and I was obviously a fan of Felix,” says Bruce, who once pronounced West the greatest guitarist he ever played with, at Carnegie Hall. “But I never thought the band swung, and for me, a band’s gotta swing to get me, gotta have that movement that excites me.”

Jack’s 1960s songwriting collaborator, poet Pete Brown, is “doing quite well, just produced a British blues tribute record to Cyril Davies—one of the first people to bring Chicago blues to Britain.”

Americans tend to assume John Mayall was Father of the British Blues, which Bruce quickly refutes: “By no means, not for 10 or 15 years. He was playing a little club in Manchester when I was with Alexis Korner, and we found him. He’s the next generation. There’s a whole generation of people before him who started the British blues movement in the ’50s, bringing Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy to Britain, even in the ’40s. I was into jazz in the ’50s, my dad took me to see Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. I wasn't into the blues until later.”

Ella Fitzgerald had a hit single with “Sunshine of Your Love,” Jack Bruce’s most covered song. “When it first came out, it got diverse covers from Ella to the Fifth Dimension. I once had a computer printout of who did my songs. Joel Gray did ‘White Room.’ It's quite amusing.”

“I Feel Free” is likely his second most recorded song, Belinda Carlisle having the most recent hit in Britain. “There again, I didn’t like it, but it went triple platinum. David Bowie did it recently, which I liked.”

“Sunshine of Your Love” is likely the world’s most performed guitar riff, and was used to great effect in Goodfellas’ climactic cocaine paranoia scene. Only in recent years does he enjoy approval for the vast usage of such songs: “I did get a fax from Martin Scorcese’s people roughly describing the scene. But I trust him very much, he’s a great director. I finally managed to get the right to say Yes or No. For many years I had litigation, as many of us did from the ’60s, to get my rights.”

Incredibly, Bruce has little input toward what will appear on an upcoming Cream box set, and can only submit preferences for his own impending Jack Bruce box set on Polygram. Due to song copyrights he does not have final say.

The Cream box will hopefully include an extraordinary Falstaff Beer commercial Bruce wrote, which was never released: “I don't think they ever used it. Fortunately, you can’t even buy Falstaff Beer in Britain, which is about the worst beer. It was when the band was breaking up. Eric and I didn't want to do it, but Ginger needed the money, so we did it for him. We wrote and recorded it in 20 minutes.”

Understandably not wanting to dwell on Cream, he does answer the obligatory question on Clapton, whose music seems uniquely designed for elevators: “That’s true, you do hear it in elevators. It’s his chosen path, that's all you can ever hope for, isn’t it—to be successful at what you want to do? I don’t listen to it. To be completely honest, he does waste his talent. Because he is amazing. The last time he moved me was in the film about Chuck Berry [Hail, Hail, Rock ’n’ Roll]. He did a slow blues that was outrageous.”

Ginger Baker, who now lives in Denver and sat in with Ringo’s All-Starrs there, once declared the deceptively brilliant Ringo as his favorite drummer. Around 1970, the time of Blind Faith, rumors of Baker’s demise as a 98-pound speed freak were rampant—much more so than for robust drummers like John Bonham, Keith Moon or Dennis Wilson. Today, as leader of the jazz-chart topping Ginger Baker Trio, Bruce proudly says Baker plays a mean game of polo and is a member of the Denver Volunteer Fire Department, pronouncing him “very fit.”

Each with his own valet, the Glade Air Freshener-sponsored tour covers 25 cities, using a private plane, booking top hotels. None of these fellows trash hotel rooms, but asked if he ever did in the ’60s, Bruce replies, “I dare say I made the odd mess here and there, but I never saw the point of trashing a hotel room.

“When my 14-year-old was 10, she discovered the Beatles,” says Jack Bruce. “I played a video of Yellow Submarine for the kids, then she bought every Beatles record. Now she’s into gangster rap. I like gangster rap myself, and MTV. My favorite band in Britain at the moment is a band called the Prodigy. One of my sons is in an Afro-Celt rap band. Music moves on.”


© 1997, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

2 comments:

  1. I love that he was (is) a Prodigy fan! The children's musical thing would be interesting to see.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Josh,

    I've been a Jack Bruce fan for many, many years. It is interesting to me at least that he was playing with McLaughlin and the Tony Williams Lifetime and Carla Bley's Jazz Composers Orchestra Association (Escalator Over the Hill), while with Cream.

    ReplyDelete