Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Little Help From My Friends - Joe Cocker

The early 60s found the Tin Pan Alley tradition unstifled. Rock musicians from the most obscure to The Beatles covered the songs of other artists, but specifically the tunes of songwriters; the age of the auteur had yet to arrive. In popular music, the singer-songwriter was nearly unheard of. Bing to Frank to Elvis never wrote a song – that was someone else's job. On Please, Please Me, six of the tracks, for instance, were covers. The Beatles, though, were the catalyst for the demise of the song stylist, with one glaring and impressive exception – Joe Cocker. In early 1968, but not released until 1969, Cocker recorded his debut. In addition to that gravelly, soulful voice that so often earned him comparisons to Ray Charles, Cocker was the premier interpreter of other peoples' songs, and one of the last.

It goes without saying that Cocker was one galvanizing front man. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He didn't just stand before the microphone and sing. No, he twitched, gesticulated, swayed, waved his arms about wildly, wriggled his fingers, played air guitar, and in general looked like a guy attacked by bees.

Cocker began his career with obscure groups like the Cavaliers and Vance Arnold and the Avengers, then moved on to The Grease Band in 1966. Americans wouldn't discover him until his magnificent and unrivaled Woodstock performance. Cocker, by Woodstock, was renowned for his interpretations of songs by artists as varied as The Beatles, Dave Mason, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and The Box Tops; interpretations that, often as not, blew away the originals. Often the listener was unaware that Cocker's version wasn't the original. Unfortunately, Cocker was also an alcoholic, and the stories (not all of them true, I'm sure) of his coming onto the stage, throwing up on the audience, and passing out, are legion.

In 1968, Cocker got a lot of help from his friends, 24 of whom assembled to make the album, including Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, Albert Lee, Matthew Fisher and B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum, David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, and oodles of sessions musicians, to say nothing of the great American soul singers Merry Clayton and Madeline Bell.

LP opener and Dave Mason cover "Feelin' Alright" (sic) is one of Cocker's trademark tunes. It opens with the instantly familiar piano riff by Artie Butler and the waay cool maracas and tumba of the mysterious "Laudir" (sounds like a magician instead of a musician). Then Cocker comes in singing, "Seems I’ve got to have a change of scene/ Every night I have the strangest dream," and on he goes until the Stonesy chorus, which features the guitar of David Cohen and backup vocals by Clayton and Holloway sisters, Brenda and Patrice. "Bye Bye Blackbird" is a slow soul number, with Cocker letting it all hangout, though the song’s highlight is the amazing guitar solo by Jimmy Page, which comes out of nowhere and proceeds to singe off the listener's eyebrows.

Cocker co-wrote "Change in Louise" with pianist and long-time mainstay Chris Stainton. It's not the LP's best tune, but it boasts a hot chorus and Cocker grows increasingly frantic as the song goes on, repeatedly arcing back to the refrain, "Who else but me can see the change in Louise?" 

Call it freshman overconfidence, or just a bad choice, Cocker and Stainton’s "Majorine" is misplaced and for many a skipper (I don't have any issue with it). Both Page and Lee play on the track, but it's Stainton on piano who does all the heavy lifting. Cocker, here, is the picture of restraint. 

Next up is a luscious version of Dylan's "Just like a Woman." Cocker's most beautiful cover, it's a go to track for me and so far removed from the Dylan original that you may not recognize it. 

"Do I Still Figure in Your Life," is a slow, soulful number that proves again a bit too restrained but for Steve Winwood's stellar organ work. Listen instead to this track at Woodstock, where Cocker really lets loose.

"Sandpaper Cadillac" is another original composition in which Cocker is full of woe because his car died ("My car is dead and gone, Lord/And I just can’t carry on"). His car "wants to be free, I know/ And it's calling out to me, yeah," so maybe its death is a good thing. Then Cocker's walking along "with a gold-plated pussycat/ Somebody"s pouring blood on its back”"and the cat is all alone without a bone and Joe knows it, just as he knows his car and cat "are going bad/And I need everything I can, Lady." I'll give 5 bucks to anybody who can tell me what the hell is going on.

Is there anyone who hasn’t covered "Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood"? (Nina Simone, The Animals, Santa Esmeralda, Elvis Costello, Arthur Brown, The Moody Blues, Julie Driscoll, Lou Rawls, Cyndi Lauper, Einstein (it's on his 1944 Telefunken LP Einstein Sings The Animals), yet Cocker's moody,slowed-down version is textbook song styling. Tommy Eyre's organ is like, happening, maaaan, and includes a fab solo that segues into a guitar freak-out that coaxes the passion out of Cocker.

"With a Little Help From My Friends" is a stoner classic and several evolutionary leaps above the Beatles' version. It's a marvel, really; Cocker and Company transform what is essentially a pleasant little ditty into a full-blown rock opera that opens with organ by Tommy Eyre, lots of mighty cymbal crash by B.J. Wilson, and one very cool riff by Page. Then it quiets and Cocker sings those immortal words, "What would you do if I sang out of tune/ Would you stand up and walk out on me?" followed by the mighty chorus, featuring Bell, Hightower, and the Wheetman sisters singing back up who join in on the second verse when they ask the questions (“Does it worry you to be alone”) to which Joe responds (“No, no”). Page plays a gigantic guitar riff and the back-ups wail and Joe wails right along with them and it's just so, like, heavenly groovy. And the soft-loud dynamic continues with the loud predominating until Cocker lets out one of the greatest screams this side of Roger Daltry. It’s amazing stuff and my favorite adaptation of a Beatles' song by a Liverpudlian kilometer.

Cocker closes the album with Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." The mad man's version is not as bewitchingly sad and lovely as The Band's, (whose is?), but Cocker's incredible ear for the blues is appropriately mournful.

Joe Cocker's career would carry on past Mad Dogs, but don't bother, don't spoil it for yourself. You want Cocker, stick to this, Mad Dogs and Woodstock.

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