Jack Bruce (1943-2014): An Appreciation

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With the death of bassist Jack Bruce over the weekend, we are again reminded that our Rocks Gods are mortal. Bruce belonged to a band that will be remembered as the power trio in rock: Cream, the standard against which against all subsequent trios must be measured.

Cream played a sports arena in my hometown of Des Moines shortly before disbanding in 1968. I couldn’t attend, but those who went said it was nothing but bad sound and echo. Years later, a friend told me he had seen them in a Long Island basketball arena. “They played only three songs, and one was a drum solo.” I didn’t care about either bad report; the live material on Wheels of Fire and Goodbye, Cream redefined rock for me. There was Clapton’s lead guitar virtuosity, of course, but bassist Jack Bruce also seemed to be constantly soloing. In fact, when I would think back to the stretch sections of “Spoonful,” it was usually the melodic bass lines I found myself singing.

After Cream disbanded and the super group Blind Faith misfired, drummer Ginger Baker formed his Air Force big band and soon dropped out of sight. Eric Clapton, of course, became Eric Clapton. Jack Bruce soldiered-on, trying some inventive line-ups. I bought his first two post-Cream solo LPs — Songs for a Tailor (1969) and Things We Like (1971). They are not bad, but I was expecting more. Even with the presence of guitarist John McLaughlin on the latter, there was nothing hugely notable about these records.

Still, I remained loyal when Jack Bruce joined new groups, one jazz and one rock — Tony Williams’ Lifetime and then West Bruce and Laing. After both of these short lived bands imploded, I again bought the bassist’s subsequent solo LP, this one titled Out of the Storm (1974). I tried one last solo effort in 1980 before giving up — an odd LP with an ugly cover called I’ve Always Wanted to Do This. Afterwards, I lost track of Jack Bruce but still would return to my Cream albums with some regularity.

In 2005, Clapton, Baker, and Bruce announced that they would play four shows at the Royal Albert Hall. I watched with interest as this unexpected Cream reunion took shape, and I closely read the reviews from opening night. My generous Texas friend Tony and I agreed that, if we had unlimited wealth, we would have flown to London for one of these shows. Another friend later gave me a complete audience recording of one of the Albert Hall concerts, which I listened to repeatedly. I thought they were playing well, if not quite as intensely as decades before.

Then came word that Cream would be playing three October dates at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Tony got tickets and I was, in a word, envious. But then his wife could not get away from work, so he asked if I were interested in going. Gee — let me think.

In a live trio setting, there is no place for the principal soloist to hide. And Eric Clapton consistently rose to the occasion, needing no other electronics than a single wah-wah pedal to augment his lead guitar work. (Think of the concluding solo on “White Room.”) Jack Bruce also required no assistance in creating fluid bass lines that acted as counterpoint solos to Clapton’s guitar. However, even at this 2005 date, Bruce frequently needed the physical support of a high-backed stool.

The two-hour set at Madison Square was nearly identical to the Albert Hall shows, opening with “I’m So Glad” and “Spoonful” and closing, just as they had in the old days, with “Sunshine of Your Love.” Tony was pleased that they performed “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” which they had not played in London.

I loved every note. Yes, even “Toad.” Tune after tune after tune saw Clapton really digging deep. The soloing was all on him, and he consistently nailed it. I couldn’t help but think of how generous the guitarist was to be doing this three-night stand; he didn’t need it, but cohorts Bruce and Baker surely did. That is to say, Clapton could have sold out Madison Square Garden with his own touring band. There is no way that Baker or Bruce would have come close to that, or could have charged the then-obscene face value of the tickets ($375 each!). But business aside, these three guys were again producing powerful music. After about the third tune, Tony turned to me feigning surprise and said, “Hey! These guys are pretty good.” Cracked me up. Then and now.

When Clapton left the stage during the drum solo, I could still see him in the wings. He stuck around, watching as Ginger Baker did amazing bass drum rolls; Jack Bruce also left the stage but immediately disappeared. After a few minutes Bruce re-emerged; Clapton looked at him and exaggeratedly pantomimed smoking a cigarette. Bruce nodded guiltily and they both laughed hard. This was not a staged act of friendship for the benefit of the audience. Witnessing the impromptu backstage camaraderie between the two made me believe that they clearly did not dislike each other.

After the concert, Tony and I shared a cab back the hotel with two enthusiastic young men. They wanted to impress us by saying that they had travelled all the way from the Bronx to attend the show. Tony looked at them and said, “I’m from Texas; he’s from Wisconsin.” The two went silent. It was clear by their faces that they had heard of Texas, but were not certain if that was farther away from Manhattan than the Bronx.

In the aftermath of these New York City shows, people bitched. Billy Joel complained that he had wanted the place to explode with excitement. (It didn’t.) Ginger Baker said it was an off night. (It wasn’t.) Many who later watched the PBS video from London expressed ennui; others said the whole thing was a money grab. None of that matters. I was there; it was great!

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth
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