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The Working Man’s Musical Mount Rushmore

I love caveman in a top hat Leon Russell wandering around and playing the guitar. He’s not really a guitar player, except he can play it. He’s a piano player. He’s the bandleader here, and you can see him sort of motioning to this player and that to indicate some change of dynamics he’s looking for. It’s one of the most high-powered R&B bands I can imagine. Jim Keltner, Carl Radle, Jim Price, Bobby Keys, etc.

Everyone figured Joe Cocker was just channeling Ray Charles, but there’s more to it than that. I remember some offhand interview with Joe and he scratched his head over that idea, and said he wanted to sing like Long John Baldry, of all people, and it just came out the way it did. Well, Joe got Baldry’s alcoholism and drug abuse angle covered, anyway.

Joe was a gasfitter who decided to sing. He’s a working man. Put him on the working man’s Rushmore, where he belongs. He won’t hold still to pose for it, though.

High Time Indeed

The perfect song to end a night with. When it’s over, you turn up the lights, and the club owner grabs the mike, and says, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay  here.”

To Be, Or Not To Be: That Is The Question

Exhibit A: It’s an act. The Box Tops mime their version of “The Letter.”

It would be easy to explain the unease the Box Tops exhibit in that video by the bizarre circumstances. They’re supposed to mime their popular recording on TV so fans of the tune can get a look at them. But that’s not what adds falsity to the proceedings. They don’t know how to act, because their act is not based on their actual personalities. They’re just trying to be famous, or rich, or get more something-something from cuter girls than they could pull if they were vinyl siding salesmen instead of vinyl record salesmen. They’re willing to do whatever is required of them to shinny up the greasy pole of musical notoriety, even if it’s only halfway up. They don’t know how to act, because it’s entirely an act.

Exhibit B: It’s not an act. Sloppy Joe Cocker sings “The Letter.”

Many people see video of Joe Cocker, and figure he’s putting us on. That no one could possibly act like that naturally, could they? They figure he’s projecting a false front, trying anything he can think of to present a compelling image. I’m telling you it wasn’t an act. To me, it’s the difference between music, and art, and architecture, and any number of other disciplines that incorporate personality into technique, that makes it really matter, as opposed to the mundane stuff. I want the real deal, and don’t care what corner of the compass it hails from.

Joe Cocker is possessed with the idea of singing that song. He is working himself into the frenzy he feels (intuitively) that the song requires. It’s weird, but Leon Russell, the piano player and bandleader of Joe’s band of mad dogs and Englishmen, is exhibiting the same sort of inner compass that his art requires from him. His deadpan isn’t an act. To him, a song is a trance, while to Joe, it’s whirling dervish time. But dervishes spin to go into a trance, too, or go into a trance to spin like that, I’m not certain which is which. I’m not sure they are. Joe and Leon are both drinking out of the same cup, artistically, and after the show, literally, I imagine. And the punch is spiked like you wouldn’t believe.

The Box Tops didn’t write the song, and neither did Joe. A country songwriter named Wayne Carson put it on a demo tape he pressed into Chips Moman’s hand in Nashville. Carson got famous, if that’s the right word for people who only appear in small print on 45 record labels, for songs like “You Were Always on My Mind.” Moman and Dan Penn had escaped from the Muscle Shoals orbit, and settled in Nashville to make about ten thousand hit records. They handed it to a local group called the Devilles. Penn, the producer, told the keyboard player to play some form of “I’m a Believer” riff, and told the singer to sound gruff, which is usually hard for a sixteen-year-old. Then they went to the local library, and checked out a sound effects record, and overlaid the sound of a jet plane on the record, a kind of audio spackle, and the first example of sampling I’ve ever heard of. The band changed their name to the Box Tops because there was already a band called the DeVilles in New York City.

And what does it matter what you call your band, or what you play, if it’s all an act? If the Devilles turned up ten years later, they would try to look like Marc Bolan and dress 50 percent in women’s clothing if that’s what was required. It’s not exactly a knock on them. But it does make them disposable.

No one was going to tell Leon Russell to play like the Monkees, or heaven help us, tell Joe Cocker to sound more gruff. Hell, Leon Russell had a short stint in the Wrecking Crew, the loose agglomeration of musicians who recorded about 75% of all pop song hits for decades, so for all I know, he did play the organ intro to “I’m a Believer.” It was the Monkees who would be told to play like Leon Russell, not the other way around.

When it comes to true art, it’s all baked in the cake. And the cake is not a lie.

Death By Oklahoma

A Christmas Carol, Also Known As: You’re My Delta House Lady

Cocker was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the barman, the A&R weasel, Google analytics, and the chief mourner. Rolling Stone signed it: and Rolling Stone’s name was as good as a contract with Alan B. Klein, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Cocker was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade, and Joe had smoked four packs a day of coffin-nails for decades. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Cocker was as dead as a door-nail.

Rolling Stone Magazine knew he was dead? Of course they did. How could it be otherwise? Rolling Stone and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Rolling Stone was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Rolling Stone was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that they were excellent men of business on the very day of the funeral, and will solemnise it with an undoubted bargain reprint of a Mad Dogs and Englishman review from 1970 that said that “the album lacks stylistic variety.”

The mention of Cocker’s YouTube funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Cocker was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say the Washington Square Arch for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind with his twitching.

Rolling Stone Magazine never painted out Old Cocker’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, no matter how many times Nicki Minaj appeared on the cover, above the warehouse door: Rolling Stone and Cocker. The firm was known as  Rolling Stone and Cocker. Sometimes people new to the business called Rolling Stone Rolling Stone, and sometimes Cocker, but they answered to both names. It was all the same to them.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Rolling Stone! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster, with a bit of tabasco and horseradish and some Grey Goose from the icebox, natch. The cold within the Rolling Stone office froze their old features, nipped their pointed noses, shrivelled their cheeks, stiffened their gait; made their eyes red, their thin blood even bluer; and spoke out shrewdly in their grating text. A frosty rime was on their masthead, and on their website, and their reviews of Maroon 5. They carried their own low temperature always about with them; they drank Starbucks iced coffee in their office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Festivus or Kwanzaa.

External heat and cold had little influence on Rolling Stone Magazine. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill them. No wind that blew was bitterer than Matt Taibbi, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have them. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over them in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Rolling Stone never did.

Nobody ever stopped them in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Rolling Stone, how are you? When will you come to see my indie band?” No beggars implored them to bestow a trifle, no children asked them what the Arctic Monkeys were up to, no man or woman ever once in all their  life inquired of them the way to anywhere outside of Manhattan, of Rolling Stone. Even the blind men’s service dogs appeared to know them; and when they saw them coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and into the lobby of a Chemical Bank; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Rolling Stone care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, at least kept the phone from ringing and interrupting his brown studies. It was the reason why everyone ended up with forty subscriptions to Vibe.

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Rolling Stone sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: global warming cold: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to protest something or other. The city clocks had only just gone three, so the sanitation workers were already home in bed, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and wan CFLs were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and revolving door, and was so dense without, that although the Avenue of the Americas was of the narrowest, the counting houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that New Jersey was hard by, and their tawdry middle-class weather was thinking of moving to a rent-controlled loft their cousin had in the Bronx.

The door of Rolling Stone’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerks, who in dismal little cells beyond, a sort of tank, were inventing rapes. Rolling Stone himself had a very small screen with little information, but the clerks’ screens were so very much smaller that they looked like one pixel. But they couldn’t replenish them, for Rolling Stone kept the fact box in his own room; and so surely if any clerk came in with a thumb drive, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on her Rag & Bone $350 Trucker Shirt, her $495 Cannon Jacket, and her $1,195 Coldweather Parka, and tried to warm herself at the fluorescent light; in which effort, even being a woman of a very, very, very powerful imagination, or none at all, depending on how you look at it, she failed.

“Joe Cocker is dead, Rolling Stone! Gaia save you!” cried a voice that turned every sentence into a question by going up an octave on the last syllable. It was the voice of Rolling Stone’s amanuensis, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of her approach.

“Bah!” said Rolling Stone, “I always liked John Sebastian’s version of Darling Be Home Soon better anyway!” 


Tag: joe cocker

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