Friday, October 31, 2014

Jack Bruce: In memoriam

Jack Bruce founder bassist, blues harp player, vocalist and song writer for Cream, perhaps the most seminal of the mid- to late Sixties blues rock power trios, but who also had a diverse career in a number of genres, died on 25 October 2014 at the age of 71.

Cream no longer existed when I bought Cream’s Cream, a double album combo of the previously released Live Cream and Live Cream Vol II, in 1974 by which time the three members of the band (Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker) had been following their own musical careers for about 5 years but only Eric Clapton had a pop presence on South African radio. Ginger Baker had been in Africa and had then played with various hard rock combos in what one might call an eclectic, erratic and somewhat less than successful career.

Jack Bruce had been following as diverse a path within the jazz and rock worlds He was a very respected musician without earning the kind of monetary rewards that accrued to Clapton in his solo career. Presumably one can say of Jack Bruce that he followed the path he wanted to and that this path was not necessarily the one with the pressure of commercial stardom. Having said that, he did team up with a couple of other star guitarist like Leslie West, Robin Trower, Gary Moore, Mick Taylor and Clem Clempson over the years often in order to replicate an approximation of the power and glory of Cream.

Cream played blurs after a fashion, both reinterpreting blues standards and giving us their own take on the genre, and more commercial psychedelic pop and rock. Jack Bruce could write and perform a gutbucket Sonny Boy Williamson harp tribute like “Traintime” or a jokey piece of hokum like “Take It Back” and then write the ethereal “We’re Going Wrong” or co-write the big rock tickets like “N.S.U.”, “Sunshine of Your Love” or “SWLABR.”

Although all three of the musicians in Cream wrote or co-wrote songs it seemed to me that Jack Bruce was the dominant songwriter (aided by lyricist Peter Brown) and conceptualist behind the various directions the band took over the course of its very short and meteorically successful career. Ginger Baker has some severely acerbic and disgruntled comments about the dominance of the Bruce/Brown writing partnership on Cream’s albums, not so much that the songs were useless but that the other two were squeezed out or that their practical musicianly contributions were not acknowledged in writer credits

Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears (1967), is just such a truly excellent and diverse psychedelic rock album and the stamp of Jack Bruce is all over it. The album mixes up its various influences and comes up with an amalgam that combines good songs and virtuoso musicianship, at once of its time and futuristic and of today. It is one of those albums I never tire of listening to.

I have a DVD documentary of Cream, made around the time of the 2005 Royal Albert Hall concerts, with interviews with the band members and various others and Ginger Baker is very outspoken about the wrongful assignment of writing credits on certain Cream songs where he alleges that he and Clapton suggested various bits of musical business that improved the specific songs and helped them to be hits they are, without receiving any writing credits and royalties. Baker claims, Bruce made more money from Cream than he or Clapton ever did, for this reason. Pete Brown, Bruce’s lyricist partner in many songs, punts out that Baker never raised these concerns at the time and is doing so retrospectively in a fit of score settling. Baker obviously also does not like Bruce all that much, going back almost 50 years.

Bruce is more diplomatic about these matters and comes across as more benign and reasonable but, then, perhaps he can afford to if he is earning the lion’s share of the royalties.  Eric Clapton does not discuss songwriting credits and is also quite affable, generous and amenable about it all. He should have little complaint. He has some good writing credits from Cream and his solo career afterwards was quite successful and the most high profile of the three of them.
I have never had enough curiosity in the career of Jack Bruce after Cream to make an effort at least to listen to what he did after, whether in jazz or hard rock.  That is possibly my loss. However, just for his contribution to Cream he will be (or should be) in the Rock Hall of Fame’s inner chambers or upper tiers forever. Over and above his song writing of singing, he was important to me because he was the first rock bassist I listened to as a vital contributor the instrumental pats of a tune, rather than just concentrating on and being I impressed by the lead guitar.

Cream ceased to exist as going concern in late 1968 after the famous farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which was filmed for television and which is available on DVD.

Roughly 39 years later Cream reunited for a number of shows in the UK and the USA in 2005. A double disc DVD of the 3 Royal Albert Hall concerts was released to commemorate the event. It was perhaps to the credit of the guys that they had not done this before to cash in on the major “classic rock” circuit where the band would have been as successful as it had been in the ‘60’s. It is perhaps also to their credit and part of the tragedy that they could not sustain the reunion for more than a handful of concerts before the old animosity that tore them apart in the first place, reared its ugly head again.

The first of the two Royal Albert Hall videos, the farewell concert shows from November 1968, illustrates the band at the height of its power as young men who were stepping away from their project while the going was still extremely good and while much more money could have been made if they had decided to stick it out despite the friction. The second series of Royal Albert Hall concerts illustrate the band as a group of older musicians, as proficient yet older and wiser and with far less of the energy and brio of the early days, to the extent where the performances of the classic songs sounded like a pub cover band to me. The event was that thing for the faithful who’d waited 36 years to see the band again. The music was not compelling at all. The three guys seemed to be in good humour and they may have felt a bit of that magic they’d felt in 1966 when they jammed for the first time. For my money Bruce was the star of the 2005 shows because his bass playing style was pretty much intact where Clapton no longer sounded anything like he did in the Cream days and Baker, although still capable, was audibly less volatile a drummer than he used to be. Obviously Clapton plays with authority and solos as fluently as ever but the style is less youthfully urgent and lacks the brio of the young man with the supercharged  Les Paul or psychedelically painted Gibson SG, and the dominant impression is that the solos do tend to go on a bit and  beyond the point where they are still interesting.

On the other hand, Jack Bruce’s bass playing, and his singing and harp playing, are pretty much intact from the   old days and one can hear why he was thought of as one of the best bassists ever. It is fluent, abrasive, charging, melodic, rhythmic, all of the above as the songs require and for the most part he is the glue that hold together the performances and make the band sound as much as possible like the Cream of legend, rather than Clapton or Baker.  This is how I will remember him: the guy who had been through the wars throughout his life and looked pretty used by 2005 but who still killed it on stage when playing with his cohorts from a band that as quite literally comprised of the cream of English musicians at the time of formation.

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