Dan Ropek, author of Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic’s Chris Wood: Something Else! Interview

Steve Elliott caught up with Dan Ropek, author of Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic’s Chris Wood, to discuss this often-overlooked figure in rock. Elliott has hailed this first-ever biography on Wood, saying Tragic Magic is “a captivating, fascinating read. Not only is there a lot of information that’s never surfaced before for fans and the general public, but it’s superbly written.” This exclusive Something Else! Sitdown delves into Chris Wood’s multi-faceted role in Traffic, his deep artistic talents and his difficulties as a solo artist …

STEVE ELLIOTT: Dan, I want to congratulate you on Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic’s Chris Wood. You really get a sense of the man and his music whom we all knew to be very talented.
DAN ROPEK: Thank you, Steve. Having never written a book before, I took it slow – some would say extremely slow – and tried to get the details and information I always enjoyed reading in a biography. My model of sorts was Charles R. Cross’ [Jimi] Hendrix bio, Room Full of Mirrors. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the help of many people, and especially Stephanie Wood – Chris’ sister, who helped me in many ways.

STEVE ELLIOTT: In writing and researching the book, was there anybody – besides, obviously, Chris Wood himself – who you wanted to interview for the book but couldn’t?
DAN ROPEK: Sure, Steve Winwood, of course. I certainly tried and he was made aware of the project, but he chose not to be involved, and I certainly respect that. I had a strong hankering to talk to Eric Clapton too – since he was around quite a bit during the Traffic days – and Blind Faith, of course. I like his reflective approach to the way he discusses his past but, as someone working without an agent or publisher, I couldn’t find a path to make contact.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Another thing I took away from the reading Tragic Magic was just how artistic Chris Wood was to his core, from not only his obvious musical talents on flute, saxophone, and organ but also how he carried himself – and his ability, early on in his life, as an illustrator with his charcoal drawings and paintings. Two of those are shown in the photo section of this book.
DAN ROPEK: Yes, he was an artist in every way. His eye took in many aspects the world – visible and invisible – and he seemed to need to express that. I didn’t get to see much of his art. In fact, all of it is in the book, but the little that exists is good. The Witley Court drawing is especially evocative.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Chris Wood always seemed to be the vital ingredient in getting things going in Traffic on a creative level. I think of him as an integral and irreplaceable member, who was really the spirit of Traffic.
DAN ROPEK: In the end, all the members turned out to be integral to making a special sound that was Traffic – but yes, I would say that Chris had something the others did not. It had to do with an overall eclecticism enfolding bits of nature, jazz – and lots of musical forms – as well as the supernatural. I think the others sort of took that in, and things kind of grew from there. But it is important to note that Steve was the musical fulcrum that brought it all together, and it is hard to imagine how Chris would have thrived in the musical field without him.

STEVE ELLIOTT: If Chris Wood hadn’t walked into the studio in 1970 for the John Barleycorn Must Die album sessions and sparked things off with his presence and talent, I think that album as it was might not have happened. Let’s not forget that it was Chris who brought in the old traditional folk song, “John Barleycorn.”
STEVE ELLIOTT: I think that all concerned believed “John Barleycorn” was critical. I am pretty sure that Steve and Jim [Capaldi] could have put together a strong album without Chris. But he added a sense of dimensionality to the music that put the things he touched on a different level. He seemed to be able to intuit more about the overall context of things – especially in that song – and understood some of the not-so-obvious, underlying themes.

STEVE ELLIOTT: One of the important topics that you cover in this book is Mason Capaldi Wood and Frog, the short-lived post-Traffic offshoot band. Was this group doomed from the start? It seemed to me like there was great potential there, with Dave Mason’s songs – which he later took with him for his first solo album, 1970’s Alone Together – and the group’s obvious individual talents. It appeared to me that there was a total lack of commitment, drugs being used, and equally the shock of Steve Winwood’s having left Traffic still hanging in the air. Adding to the unsurmountable problems they all faced was trying to find a new way to work as a band vs. how Traffic had previously worked.
DAN ROPEK: Hard to say, but Dave basically said to me that in retrospect, it was never going to work. Musically, it did seem OK at first. There is some evidence with BBC sessions and a few studio jams that was solid and tight stuff. The new keyboard player [Mick Weaver] was fine really but, as I said in the book, he just wasn’t Steve – and I think trying to keep the band together by simply adding a substitute for the center figure was probably not the way to go. Also it was a weird, transitional time – not just for those guys, but in rock. As I discussed in the book, there was a lot of the supergroup vibe, and hype, that seemed to distort some of the better intentions.

STEVE ELLIOTT: On 1973’s Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, we finally see Chris Wood contribute a song of his own, “Tragic Magic.” That clearly shows he could write. Was it a lack of confidence and/or insecurity that inhibited Chris from submitting more songs to Traffic – or was he just a late bloomer?
DAN ROPEK: Chris did leave behind little bits of information that he was struggling with writing solo early on. I believe he was unprepared for the shift that happened with the band’s songwriting – Dave splitting off, and then Jim and Steve pretty soon after. It all began as a collective effort, and I think that was what he wanted to keep doing. For all of his critical contributions to the band, I don’t think solo songwriting was anything he desired, or was any kind of strength. But eventually, he adjusted. The sessions he did with Junior Hanson in 1972 appeared to have given him the confidence to start making his own music.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Your book says that Chris Wood’ solo, along with the others, was cut down three-quarters of the way through “Dream Gerrard” from Traffic’s last album, 1974’s When the Eagle Flies. Chris’ solos in “Walking in the Wind” and “Love” were also edited down to next to nothing. What are the chances that we’ll ever see a deluxe version of this album, with those solos restored and the songs that were taken off put back on?
DAN ROPEK: I have no idea. I know a lot of Traffic fans would love that. I have heard the uncut “Dream Gerard” and the early take of “Walking In the Wind” that I wrote about, and they are both worthwhile. Outtakes aside, there are also great recordings from the tour that could make an incredible live album, if the interest was there on the part of the powers that be.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Chris Wood’s song “Moonchild Vulcan” was also removed from this ’74 album, in favor of the Capaldi/Winwood tune “Memories of a Rock n’ Rolla.” That song wouldn’t see a release until 2008, for his posthumous solo album Vulcan. Do you think it would’ve been a better album with Chris’ song hadn’t been replaced?
DAN ROPEK: The point I made in the book is that it would have been jazzier. Today, with a longer format, they could have simply had both, but back then there were real constraints with time. “Better” is probably subjective to the listener. I guess anyone could compile a version with “Moonchild Vulcan” to see what they think.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Do you think the reason Traffic quietly broke up in ’74 was because they had simply run out of steam and had nothing else to say? Or was it a case of Chris Wood’s instability, with unchecked alcoholism affecting his stage performances? Was that the final straw?
DAN ROPEK: This is a place where a candid response from Steve Winwood would have been very useful. All I could do was to put the pieces together as best I could. Based on interviews he did later, Steve seemed genuinely tired of the circuit of record/tour/record/tour. And that makes sense: He’d been doing it since he was about 16! So, as a stand-alone reason, road fatigue seems plausible. But I would say that Chris helped make the conclusion happen when it did. He was unstable. The bad concerts in New York [at the Academy of Music] must have been horrifying to live through, and not knowing when another show like that might happen again would likely be an ongoing source of anxiety. Jim Capaldi told me that it was worth it to him to keep the band going in spite of that but, for Steve, it might have been a tipping point. Friends of his told me as much.

STEVE ELLIOTT: It’s very sad that Chris Wood did not seek help early on for his alcoholism, and that it might’ve caused Traffic’s breakup. Without Traffic in his life, Chris appeared to have no stability or purpose, structure to live by. He seemed lost, to say the least.
DAN ROPEK: Yes. It seemed that Chris was slow to recognize the depth of his problems. Of course, in that era, he was far from alone, so maybe there was some sense of deniability, since so many others were in the same boat. But, of course, it progressed and, to use the same metaphor, Jim commented that he really “sank” after Traffic dissolved. I’d say it was like losing a big part of your identity, one already partly eroded. So, how do you recover from that? Obviously, some people do. Chris might have finally [been] at the point of finding a new path near the very end of his life, but it just came too late. The evidence for that was a recording he made with an ad hoc band for his song “Sullen Moon.” The band wasn’t great but the song still came out good – very Traffic-y. His flute playing was sublime, but his body gave out very soon after. So, that is sad.

STEVE ELLIOTT: His longtime relationship with Jeanette Jacobs also appeared to be part of his undoing. They seemed co-dependent, with neither benefitting the other. She ended up leaving Wood for someone else, which I thought was cruel in one sense considering why it was done.
DAN ROPEK: I don’t know if it was cruel. Their life together was difficult; who is to blame? From people in the know, they really loved each other, but sometimes that isn’t enough. And add the fairly constant crush of people hanging out at their flat, and it all must have been hard to deal with. On the other hand, some of Jeanette’s motives were certainly questionable, and even fairly casual friends saw Chris hurt by her infidelity. A lot of money was spent too, which became a problem later. But Chris obviously had his own issues, and knew about all of that from the beginning, so the threads are left hanging.

STEVE ELLIOTT: A revelation contained Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic’s Chris Wood that I wasn’t aware of was that Blind Faith considered reforming in 1977 by meeting and jamming. However, it didn’t go any further than that. What’s the story on this?
DAN ROPEK:
It was Winwood, Clapton, and [Ginger] Baker. No mention of Ric Grech. That story is based on the Venezuelan Spiteri brothers – Charles [Carlos] and George [Jorge]. They were in the studio with Chris, and saw what I reported. I was fascinated with that too, and wanted to know more too. Perhaps there is more in Ginger Baker’s autobiography, but I have not read that. I did see confirming comments about the encounter elsewhere, but I can’t tell you where off the top of my head. It might have been a very tentative thing – and when you think about it in retrospect, Blind Faith in ’77 seems all wrong for the times, with punk still exploding.

STEVE ELLIOTT: I think Chris Wood could’ve done anything he wanted to do after Traffic: joined a jazz-fusion band, been a studio musician, started a serious solo career, etc. He just had to believe in himself and get completely clean.
DAN ROPEK: I agree. For me, even though I knew how it turned out, I was always sort of cheering for the guy – you know, ‘Come on Chris, you can make it!’ Above all of it, he was such a decent guy, and as we said earlier, a real artist. We need people like him in this world to help the rest of us find our own way. So, it is an unfortunate, sad situation that he couldn’t right himself in time.

STEVE ELLIOTT:
What’s your take on the upcoming Chris Wood box set Evening Blue, and the prior solo release Vulcan from 2008? What can fans look forward to and, if they have Vulcan, is there any duplication?
DAN ROPEK: I just got a preview of the Evening Blue box from Neil Storey [of HiddenMasters]. I haven’t heard all of it yet, but it is a compilation of stuff Chris did with Traffic, sessions for others, and tracks of his own music. Pretty amazing stuff, with a lot of unreleased material from people like Tyrone Downie [of the Wailers], Remi Kabaka, Mason Capaldi Wood and Frog, etc. It is a very deluxe and respectful collection that I think helps rectify and cement Chris Wood’s legacy as a musician with and without Traffic. The Vulcan release from 2008 was aimed only at releasing the tracks available at the time, and was hindered by the lack of some material. There will be some duplication of the basic tracks, but Neil worked to find the best tapes and has cleaned everything up incredibly well. Even the previously released Traffic tracks sound the best I have ever heard them.

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Steve Elliott