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.


Remembering the lows of getting high

Amy Winehouse was a rare talent – a soulful, intuitive singer with music radiating from every pore. Watching her towards the end of her life, screwing it up while the whole world watched was truly horrible.

If Lindsay Lohan wants to pose for Playboy (oh yes, she did!); if Charlie Sheen wants to pose as an intellectual giant whilst being moronically self-destructive; if Britney Spears wants to pose as a bald person; well – honestly? – I don’t really care. These are not major talents, plus they still manage to function in their day jobs.

But Amy squandered her massive and unique talent, on stage, in front of the world, not just once, not just twice, but to the point where people were buying tickets to her gigs so they could say they were there when she fell off the stage or, even better, died.

There was a time when this sort of thing was de rigeur.

I once went to see Tim Hardin at The Rainbow in glamorous Finsbury Park. He was so off his head he leaned on the microphone for support (never a good idea) and just mumbled. He didn’t seem to know where his hands were, so the guitar hanging from his shoulders was a complete mystery.

We watched this for about five minutes before a stage hand came on and gently led him off. Here’s the man who wrote If I Were A Carpenter and Reason To Believe and now he can’t even stand up to play a few songs. I found this so depressing, I had no stomach for the main attraction, The Steve Miller Band.

Hardin’s Bird On A Wire album was a favourite road album – not driving rock for driving fast to, but summer day reflective and melancholy as I drove from town to town in a search for talent in my first weeks as an a&r man. If you like your heart broken from time to time, have a listen to Love Hymn.

Another time I went to the Marquee in Wardour Street where Granada Television were filming the Stones playing a small gig. Well, that was the idea. As it turned out, two of the boys were ‘indisposed’, so we all milled around tut-tutting (I was all of 19, so my tut-tutting was quite precocious). Eventually we were ushered out without a note being played.

My abiding memory of that night was of how small the available Stones were (Mick and Bill in particular), and how their heads seemed too big for their bodies. These people who look like giants on stage or on screen, are dwarfed by a normal six-footer. Keith and Brian were the two I didn’t see, so I guessed it was they who were indisposed. It’d be a fair guess, wouldn’t it?

A happier memory is of going to see Leon Russell (again at the Rainbow; if my tickets hadn’t been free, I’d have saved money by paying rent I was there so often).

Leon Russell had seemingly gone from nowhere to superhero by saving Joe Cocker’s American career. The US Musicians’ Union refused to let Cocker tour with his English band. Russell called Cocker and told him he could put a band of American musicians together and that’s how we were bequeathed the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, album and film.

Then Russell played a major part in George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh.

So there was high excitement for his first London gig. We got there, we waited. And waited. And waited.

Concerts were supposed to start around 8pm and be over by 10.30 so we could all get home before the tubes and trains stopped running.

Musicians began filing onstage just before 10 o’clock, and finally Leon Russell appeared. He had, he admitted, been drunk, but he was now sober-ish, and he was truly sorry, and for our patience he would reward us by working super-hard.

And, oh my gosh, did he. We all stopped worrying about how we were getting home, and just rocked right out. I think it was almost one o’clock in the morning before we left, and I doubt anyone there has ever forgotten that night.

But these stories don’t always end so well.

My job at Music Week required me to go out several times a week to review live performance. This was often a joy, but sometimes a chore, and on the nights it was a chore, I got more irritated by the fact that I could be back home with my wife and children.

So it was on a night in September 1968 that I left my pregnant wife at home and set off to see The Doors and Jefferson Airplane at The Roundhouse. I wasn’t keen on The Doors (I know; shocking, eh?) and as for Jefferson Airplane, I could scarcely have cared less.

Still, sometimes you see people you don’t rate, and it turns out that live is where you need to see them. This may have been the case with The Doors and the Airplane. I never got to find out. By 10.30, the stage was unsullied by musical persons and I finally decided enough was enough. I went home.

Google tells me that the Saturday performance would be filmed by Granada TV “due to problems with filming last night”. So maybe it was the Friday I was there, and maybe, like me, the camera crew got fed up waiting. It would certainly qualify as “a problem” for a film crew if there was no-one to actually film.

In the 21st century we expect our stars to have more discipline, maybe even to have learnt from the mistakes of others.

But we don’t, do we? Getting drunk, getting high. We’ve all done it. But few of us have let it ruin – or even end – our lives. This week’s song – Just The Night – is about the things we do when we’ve over-imbibed, it’s dark, and we think maybe no-one will notice. It’s just the night, after all.

I know you know what I’m talking about….