Jack Bruce, RIP

In my Junior year of high school, way back in 1980, my Spanish class had a Secret Santa for Christmas. We were all supposed to write our names on a slip of paper, put them in a box, and then draw names out of the box. Fortunately, my best friend and partner in all things music, Joe, sat next to me in that class. We had the slips of paper with our names but, rather than put them in the hopper, simply handed them to each other and then pretended to draw from the box. Neither of us wanted the obligatory bottle of cologne that would be presented by a girl, or whatever token gift one high school boy would give another. So when the time came, we exchanged presents. I gave him the LP Rainbow Bridge, by Jimi Hendrix. Joe gave me Cream’s Disraeli Gears. I can still vividly remember another of my friends complaining about the gift he’d gotten (of course, a bottle of cheap cologne). I’m sure he forgot about that gift long ago, but those two LPs Joe and I exchanged served us well for decades. I listened to Disraeli Gears until the grooves on the record were gone, and the album had to be replaced. I taped it and listened to it on a boombox whenever I had to do yard work the following summer. It became part of my DNA. I knew every note, every nuance. In May of 1982, Joe threw a beer bash at his house while his parents were away. We discovered that the day of the party also happened to be Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s birthday, so we posted up signs saying “Happy birthday Jack Bruce” and made sure that both Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire made it on to the turntable that night.

The soundtrack of my life during those years was huge, and varied, but Cream was one of the major players. I had all the albums, and went so far as to buy the huge poster that came with the first edition of the Goodbye album from my local record store, where it was stapled to the ceiling. Many years later, in 2005, Joe called me at work. He was talking to me in a very distracted way, mumbling and repeating, “Hold on…” before finally bursting out with “Got it! We’re going to see Cream at the Garden!” He’d been sitting at home, with two computers going, trying to get tickets. The concert was one of the best we’d ever been to, somewhat to our surprise. The band didn’t sound like three guys playing the music of Cream. They sounded like Cream. The three of them stretched out, with songs routinely crossing the eight-, nine-, or ten-minute mark. They played with the fluidity of the best jazz musicians and the fury of the best rock musicians. They were as locked in as any band I’ve ever seen, and they were louder than bombs. Nobody in the band had done anything as good as Cream in the 30+ years since the band’s breakup, but on this night it was like no time had passed. Eric Clapton was being forced to break a sweat for the first time in decades. Ginger Baker was a revelation, as good as he’d ever been, if not better.

The night, however, belonged to Jack Bruce. Two years earlier Bruce had a liver transplant, which meant that there were moments in the show where he sat down to rest. But his voice was as elegant as ever, a resonant tenor that added pathos to “We’re Going Wrong” and a withering intensity to “White Room.” His bass playing was equally remarkable. He played lightning fast runs on the bass, going toe-to-toe with one of rock’s greatest drummers and one of rock’s greatest guitarists.

Cream was a band of equals. Equal in skill, equal in ego, equal in ambition. It was a band that was never going to last because it was far too combustible. Bruce and Baker hated each other, though they were in awe of each other’s musicianship. All three members were also far too mercurial. Much like Jeff Beck or Neil Young, they were journeymen, too restless to ever be tied down for a long time. In many ways it’s a miracle Cream lasted as long as it did.

After the band split, Jack Bruce began an erratic solo career. He played free jazz with John McLaughlin on Things We Like and joined Tony Williams’s jazz fusion-oriented Lifetime. He released solo albums, and played with everyone from Frank Zappa and Lou Reed to Robin Trower and Leslie West. His jazz-influenced rock album I’ve Always Wanted To Do This paired him with the great jazz drummer Billy Cobham. It was released around the time I first got Disraeli Gears, and I bought it almost immediately.

Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were jazz musicians. They played blues and rock, as well, but at the end of the day it was all about jazz for both of them. The intensity they brought to their extended musical improvisations when Cream performed live were revolutionary. They brought a level of musicianship to rock that demanded attention and respect.

Jack Bruce never matched what he did with Cream. He didn’t have to. He, along with the Who’s John Entwistle, changed the way bass players handled their instruments. Every jazz or rock bass player since Jack Bruce reflects his influence, consciously or unconsciously. He wrote some of the classic songs of the rock era: “Sunshine Of Your Love”, “White Room”, “Theme From An Imaginary Western”, among others. He was one of the greatest musicians in jazz, blues, or rock, a true virtuoso on his chosen instrument (and others he played equally well, like cello and piano), known for the complexity and speed he brought to his bass lines. He was an extraordinary singer, a difficult personality to deal with, too obstinate for his own good, too restless for his own career. He was a titan of the era of rock music. RIP.

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The Listening Post: March 2011

Signs of spring, lots of tunes.

  • Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Volume II: The Solstice BareSmashing Pumpkins. The second of 11 proposed EPs by the reconstituted Pumpkins (at this point really just Billy Corgan) is yet another winner. Corgan’s released nine songs from the projected 44-song opus he’s calling Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, and every one of them has been a winner. The second EP has nothing as good as the first EP’s “Song For A Son” or “A Stitch In Time” but it’s more consistently good. Corgan has embraced the swirling psychedelia that made for so many memorable Pumpkins singles and that he abandoned on the last full-length album, Zeitgeist. The result is that Billy’s got his groove back and that this project is (so far) the best stuff he’s done since Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It even compares well against the titanic Siamese Dream. It could fall off the earth at any time, and hoping that the remaining 35 tracks will be this good is probably a fool’s hope but so far, so good. “Freak” is a hard-charging riff rocker, “Spangled” a pretty ballad about love in the moonlight, “Tom Tom” is heavy pop, and despite an awful 80s-style synthesizer riff, “The Fellowship” eventually builds into a satisfying rocker.
    Grade: A
  • Peter Green’s Fleetwood MacFleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham turned Fleetwood Mac into a California-sound hit machine in the mid-70s, but in 1968 they were rising from the ashes of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and playing a ferocious British version of Chicago blues. What makes the early Fleetwood Mac rise above most of their British blues contemporaries is the genius guitar playing of Peter Green. Green had the chops of Clapton but was capable of playing with more subtlety, and he played with more of a real feel for the blues than guys like Alvin Lee and Kim Simmonds. He also played straight blues far better than either Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page. It’s this guitar playing, sharp, empathetic, and brilliant, that makes this first Fleetwood Mac album better than most others of its type. It’s not on the level of Mayall’s album with Clapton, but it’s still excellent. Elmore James is a key figure here, and Green plays a hellbound slide guitar, particularly on “Shake Your Moneymaker.” The languid, almost underwater guitar tones of “I Loved Another Woman” and the acoustic “The World Keeps On Turning” are the other standout cuts. As a rhythm section, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are solid, but this is Green’s show, so a song like “Looking For Somebody,” which puts Green in the back seat behind an unconvincing harmonica, drags, and some of the tracks are a little on the generic side. Overall, though, this is one of the better examples of British blues.
    Grade: B+
  • One Step BeyondThe Chocolate Watchband. For me, this is the most satisfying album by the garage rockers, even if it’s the least garage rock-oriented. The sound here is based strongly on Jefferson Airplane. Songs like “Uncle Morris” could have fit nicely on Crown Of Creation. “Flowers” starts like the Moody Blues before it turns into Love. The garage roots are not completely gone. “Sitting There Standing” is a rough and tumble guitar rocker that brazenly rips off the Yardbirds song, “The Nazz Is Blue” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” is a Humble Pie-ish rocker. Clearly originality was not the Watchband’s strong suit, and in 1969 that may have been important. From the perspective of 2011, this is a very good collection of late 1960s psychedelic-tinged rock. There are a couple of clunkers, especially the two bonus tracks, but this is a fine album and highly recommended to fans of late 1960s rock music.
    Grade: B+
  • Wrecker!Mono Men. Seattle’s roots-oriented garage punkers deliver a decent effort with this 1992 release. It’s a very hard rocking album, with lots of punky raveups but it’s mainly a triumph of style over substance. A lot of it’s good, especially in the first half of the album. “Watch Outside,” “Your Eyes,” and “Last Straw” offer a muscular opening, but the only truly great song (“Testify”) is tucked away near the end of the album, though “See My Soul” comes close to that level. In the meantime, there are by-the-numbers rockers like “One Shot” and “Swampland,” and some strictly mediocre filler like “Tomahawk” and “Don’t Know Yet.” It’s a good album, but far from great.
    Grade: C+
  • Whatever Turns You OnWest, Bruce & Laing. One part Cream, two parts Mountain. How could it go wrong? On paper, this should work in spades. Jack Bruce is an extraordinary bassist and singer, Leslie West stands shoulder to shoulder with Eric Clapton as a guitarist, and while Corky Laing is no Ginger Baker he’s still an excellent drummer. Somewhere in the mix, it did go wrong. There are several inspired moments on this album, but that’s all it amounts to. The album opener “Backfire” is a solid rocker squarely in the Mountain tradition (and let’s give it up for Leslie West as a singer, as well as a guitarist), “Sifting Sand” is a power ballad done right, with the power surging through the entire piece, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine” rides a Sabbath-style rhythm with about 45 seconds of Floyd-style spaciness, and “Scotch Crotch” has a great Jack Bruce vocal over a charging piano rhythm. The problem here is that the rest of the album seems uninspired at best (“Token,” “November Song,” “Dirty Shoes”) and turgid at worst (“Slow Blues,” “Like A Plate”). West, Bruce & Laing sounds like a great idea, and every once in a while they give you a hint as to what they may have been capable of doing, but overall the album is a letdown.
    Grade: C+
  • Collapse Into NowR.E.M. Since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. has been a band adrift. They piled on drum machines and electronic squiggles on the weird Up, toned down the electronic elements for the lackluster Reveal, went slow with the humorless Around The Sun, and then released a brief album of punky rockers with Accelerate. All of these albums had at least a couple of moments of greatness, but great moments on albums was a serious comedown for a band that released some of the best albums of the past 30 years. Collapse Into Now is the best album they’ve done since New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Once again, R.E.M. sounds like they’re having fun. In this case, the fun comes from going through their closets and trying on the suits they once wore so well. Collapse is almost defiantly retro, but it doesn’t imitate the past so much as it insinuates the reasons that R.E.M. was such a great band. Much of it sounds like old, unreleased R.E.M. songs from the first half of the 90s, compiled on a mix tape by a fan who knew what he was doing. The overly repetitive and somewhat dragging “Oh My Heart” is a sequel to Accelerate‘s “Houston,” “Blue” deftly combines of Out of Time‘s “Belong” and “Country Feedback” with New Adventures‘s “E-Bow The Letter.” Songs like “Discoverer” and “All The Best” rock as hard as anything from Monster without that album’s reliance on distortion, while the ballads act as a glue that holds the album together. The lush “Walk It Back” may be their best ballad since Automatic For The People. Despite a title that sounds like the punch line to a naughty joke, “Mine Smell Like Honey” explodes into the best chorus these guys have come up with in 20 years. Throughout the album, bassist Mike Mills provides prominent backing vocals, which has always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon. There are also some guest stars helping out. Electronica singer Peaches fills in for Kate Pierson on the great, but inscrutable, “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” and Eddie Vedder provides a wordless howling backing vocal on “It Happened Today,” while Patti Smith reprises her “E-Bow” role on “Blue.” Collapse Into Now is R.E.M. playing it safe, but also playing to all of their many strengths. It isn’t on the same level of the albums from their heyday (few albums are), but it proves that R.E.M. can still deliver the goods, and do it far better than most younger bands.
    Grade: A
  • Chutes Too NarrowThe Shins. I never knew that “Indie Rock” was an actual sound until I heard The Shins. For me, “indie” was always about record label or, at least, about not conforming to any sort of mainstream conventions, but the actual bands ran a pretty wide gamut in terms of their sound. But then I heard The Shins and thought, “Oh, indie rock.” It’s a backhanded slap, or a fronthanded compliment. The Shins have a really good sound. They’re tuneful and melodic, and play a good combination of solid rock and wistful ballads. Chutes Too Narrow, their second album, is a very good collection of songs that seem to float in the ether. There’s nothing here that feels really substantial, but everything on here is thoroughly enjoyable, from the effervescent power pop of the opening “Kissing The Lipless” to the lightly plucked acoustic ballad “Those To Come” which closes the album on a bit of a down note. Along the way The Shins hit greatness with “Saint Simon” and “Turn A Square” but most often settle into a very good groove that mixes power pop, guitar jangle, and ballads. They’re the thinking man’s Rooney, with none of the annoying quirks that mar that band’s output. Very good stuff indeed.
    Grade: B+