Another One Gone

They keep falling. Musicians I listened to in my youth – and for many years after, in many cases – are departing more and more frequently from this world.

Yesterday it was Joe Cocker, who passed on at the age of 70 at his Colorado home. Though I don’t think I’ve written much about him – as least not as frequently as I have other performers – Cocker holds a firm place in my list of favorites for a couple of reasons.

First, he was the headline performer at my first Twin Cities rock concert. For Christmas 1971, my sister gave me a hand-made certificate good for two tickets to any concert I wanted to see, and when Joe Cocker scheduled an April concert at the now-gone Met Sports Center, I cashed in the certificate and took Rick down to the show with me.

I’ve noted here before that Cocker’s performance that night was erratic, as frequently was the case in those years. And I guess that’s being kind; he was drunk or high or both, and the first half of the show was ragged. But as the show wore on, Cocker became more focused, and at one point about three-quarters of the way through, the band – with Chris Stainton on piano, I think – tore into the introduction of “Hitchcock Railway,” and for the first time that evening, the Joe Cocker we heard was the Joe Cocker we’d expected to hear.

Here’s the studio version of “Hitchcock Railway” from Cocker’s 1969 album, Joe Cocker!

Then, from the same album, there’s Cocker’s cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon.” From the time I first heard the album – purchased used in the spring of 1972, when I was still in catch-up mode – Cocker’s take on John B. Sebastian’s lovely song has transfixed me.

I had come across Sebastian’s lyric a couple years earlier in a book titled The Poetry Of Rock, in which editor Richard Goldstein offers with brief – sometimes very brief – commentary lyrics that he thought were worthy of more thought than listeners might put into a three- or four-minute record or even a six- or seven-minute album track. The lyrics Goldstein offered the reader ranged widely, from Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” and Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” to the Incredible String Band’s “Koeeoaddi There” and the Doors’ “The End.” Even after reading – and liking – the lyric – I’d never sought out the Spoonful’s version of “Darling Be Home Soon,” and the first time I met the song was on the Joe Cocker! album.

The combination of Sebastian’s yearning lyrics and the gospel-tinged joy that Cocker and his mates brought to the track made “Darling Be Home Soon” an anthem for me, one that I heard sometimes with joy, sometimes with despair and now – with both of us home at last – with contentment (though I still tend to play air piano when it shows up coming out of the speakers).

I kind of lost track of Joe Cocker during my college years. I caught up with 1969’s With A Little Help From My Friends and 1970’s raucous Mad Dogs & Englishmen. And then other performers took my attention, and when I went back to Cocker in 1975, I found the over-wrought “You Are So Beautiful” at No. 5, and then nothing much interested me until 1987’s Unchain My Heart, which I still enjoy.

In the past decades, I’ve gone back and checked out the years I skipped, and I’ve kept an ear on more recent releases. I enjoy some of it and find some of it tedious, but even with the stuff I like, something seems lacking. Maybe it’s not so much that the recent music has been flawed as that the first couple years of Cocker’s career were so brilliant that even the best of his later work seems pale. I rest my case on the live performance from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of “Cry Me A River.”

Revised slightly since original posting.

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One Response to “Another One Gone”

  1. jb says:

    “Cry Me a River” was on the radio when I started listening to the radio in 1970, and even then I recognized that it was different from the other stuff. It’s been a long time since I listened to “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Should probably get right on that.

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