Mad Dogs, some Englishmen, and Joe Cocker’s road back

When Joe Cocker returned home in 1971 from the madness that was the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of America, he went off radar.

Before computers, before mobile phones, before texting and Face-timing, off radar really was off radar. Even having a phone was not the norm in the early 70s.

Alan Spenner, bassist with The Grease Band told me this story. “We had to go up to Sheffield to ask his parents what was up.” They (I don’t recall who Alan said was with him) arrived in the pouring rain. Joe’s mum answered the door.

Without even acknowledging who they were, she pointed away from the front door and said: “He’s in the back yard.” Alan and mate tramped through the house, and out to the yard.

“And he was standing there,” Alan told me, “in the rain, head up to the sky, stark bollock naked.” The concern on Alan’s face and in his voice as he recounted this was palpable. At the time he told me this story (maybe two years after the event) it was by no means clear that Joe had survived his adventures with his wits intact.

In the twelve months after I started writing this blog, 25 music notables died. Joe Cocker was one of them. In a list that includes Johnny Winter, Jimmy Ruffin, Pete Seeger and Bobby Womack, I’d still put Joe at the top of the page.

His first major artistic act was to take the psychedelic singalong of With A Little Help From My Friends and turn it into a heart-rendingly soulful crie de coeur. Then he took it onstage at Woodstock (still with Alan Spenner on bass) and tore the place up.

I had seen Joe live (for the only time that I recall) a few months earlier, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. What a weird old night that was. The Beatles and The Stones were there. But not to see Joe. We had all turned out to witness the phenomenon that was Tiny Tim, complete with symphony-size orchestra, conducted by the producer Richard Perry.

My memory tells me Joe opened the show with the fantastic Grease Band, ripped up the place and then gave way to Peter Sarstedt. Such a contrast is scarcely credible. But at least Sarstedt wasn’t as big a contrast to Tiny Tim as Joe would have been.

Tiny Tim came and went after just two albums. He carried on, but no-one was taking much notice. Peter Sarstedt was a two-hit wonder (one and a half, really. Although it made the Top 10, few people would mention One More Frozen Orange Juice).

We can speculate, of course, how much further Joe Cocker would have gone if it hadn’t been for Woodstock. But it’s a pointless hypothesis. He proved – time and time again – that when the chips were down, he could tear up a stage, and had an ear for a song on a par with Otis Redding’s. (Think of what Otis did with the old chestnut Try A Little Tenderness, and how he ripped up Ticket To Ride and Satisfaction).

The Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour seemed to us, when it happened, the most marvellous thing. You had to be a little bit hippy dippy to buy into the idea that all these fantastic singers and musicians were travelling around America, loving each other’s company, having a great time and putting on the show of their lives every night.

But, flawed as the rest of the scenario was, that last part was absolutely right. The film and the album from the tour are masterclasses in showmanship, commitment and musicianship. Bandleader Leon Russell emerged a star, only slightly tarnished by his opportunistic exploitation of Cocker’s vulnerability.

Joe emerged with a bunch of American hit records and a massively enhanced reputation. But also a nose full of heroin and a head full of problems that threatened to do for him way too early.

But, you know, his home town was a hard place, for hard people. And they were famous for their steel in Sheffield. It’s a convenient simile for Joe’s resilience: the steel in his spine and in his character.

Not only did he overcome his demons, but he would rise again and again on the back of another brilliantly chosen song: You Can Keep Your Hat On, Up Where We Belong, You Are So Beautiful.

A couple of years ago, even his most recent single, Fire It Up, caught my ear in the car. I didn’t realise it was Joe. The video that goes with it shows a bunch of young musicians and singers who seem just thrilled to be there with him.

Joe Cocker and all around him were a massive part of baby boomer culture. And now we are continuously told that our ageing generation will put increased pressure on the NHS and social care.

Well, musicians are certainly doing their share to take the pressure off.

Of the 25 who’ve gone since I started this blog, few made it past 70. The general trend seems to be to peg it sometime shortly after your mid-60s.

Joe made it to 70, which was 43 years after we’d all given up on him. He also seems to have spent his later years fruitfully and settled. Who could hope for more?

And he left us a treasure trove of great music, brilliant and original interpretations of The Beatles, Dylan, Cohen, and other songs we might never have heard had the man from Sheffield not had such a great ear for tunes and lyrics that would resonate with millions.

So, Joe, you can keep your hat on. We raise ours in salute.

 

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