Deserted Cities of the Heart
Jack Bruce: Composing Himself
While I can’t claim to be the biggest fan of Jack Bruce’s work since, oh, 1974 or so, I consider the man virtually beyond reproach. A musical prodigy who was performing Dvorák and listening to Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet when he was a teenager, Bruce is indisputably one of the most original and influential bassists of all time. Bruce is equally adept—not a dabbler à la Sting or McCartney, but genuinely adept—at composing string quartets, singing opera, and performing with free jazz and Latin outfits.
As one third of the original Bronto Rock band, Cream, and often the loudest, Bruce has earned his share of enmity for the band’s egomaniacs-on-steroids approach to overplaying. In the case of the band’s live performances (preserved on records like Live Cream, not an easy listen today), this is fully deserved. But as with other ’60s bass revolutionaries like John Entwistle and Jack Casady—also prone to ridiculous excess when set loose on stage—Bruce’s talents shone on his studio work, particularly Cream’s Wheels of Fire. Today “White Room” is almost as impossible to hear objectively as “Stairway to Heaven,” but with its 5/4 intro, portentous timpani, stereo cellos, and Bruce’s jaw-dropping (but exceedingly tasteful) virtuosity on bass, the song is clearly the handicraft of someone who in 1968 was already unwilling to work within the generally conservative strictures of rock music. A hundred times odder is “As You Said,” the “Revolution 9” of Wheels of Fire; performed on just cellos, acoustic guitars, and Ginger Baker’s hi-hat, the song is filled with unsettling Stravinsky-esque harmonies (not lightened up a bit by lyricist Pete Brown’s bleak, post-industrial imagery) and more time-signature changes than you can count. In short, a blues-rock fan’s nightmare.
At virtually the same time Wheels of Fire was being recorded (and Cream was touring the A-level rock arenas of the day), Bruce was working on the startling Things We Like, an Ornette Coleman–ish collection featuring a handful of England’s top modern-jazz musicians, including a young and extremely “out” John McLaughlin. The tunes were reportedly composed by Bruce when he was a teenager; throughout the record he played upright bass—unheard of for a ’60s rock star, but actually his first instrument. Shortly after the Cream breakup, Bruce threw in his lot with equally uncommercial jazz-rock pioneers the Tony Williams Lifetime, and in one of the earliest signs that the rock-star life held no great attraction for him, he could be seen performing with Lifetime in a tiny NYC jazz club on the very same night that Blind Faith (the post-Cream supergroup featuring former bandmates Baker and Eric Clapton) was playing down the street at Madison Square Garden.
Bruce’s first post-Cream solo LP, Songs for a Tailor, is generally considered a masterpiece. While nominally a rock record, Songs is virtually unclassifiable, with its oddball song structures, Bruce’s un-rockin’ cello parts, and the addition of left-field jazzbos like Dick Heckstall-Smith and John Marshall to back him. Under normal circumstances, these same features probably would have ruled out any significant market success, but the record did well almost certainly due to a halo effect from Cream. With memory of the supergroup fading, however, Bruce’s subsequent releases, Out of the Storm and Harmony Row, fell squarely in the “critic’s choice” slot—acknowledged for their brilliance and originality among the cognoscenti, but more or less invisible to everyone else.
There have been any number of notable Bruce collaborations in the ensuing decades—Lou Reed (Berlin), Frank Zappa, the Golden Palominos, Carla Bley, Michael Mantler, Kip Hanrahan—but, significantly, none of these have featured Bruce as the leader. That his own post-Cream successes have been very few, in stark and uncomfortable contrast with Clapton’s, is thanks to a combination of incompetent management and Bruce’s own personal demons (mainly depresssion and drugs), which seem to have thwarted him at every turn. For someone of Bruce’s stature in the rock pantheon, a man who once owned an island in Scotland paid for by songwriting royalties, his struggles to merely get a record released or assemble a band that can remain on speaking terms for the duration of a tour are nothing short of tragic.
Harry Shapiro’s long-overdue book is the first Jack Bruce bio that I’m aware of and, because the author had Bruce’s cooperation, it’s staggeringly complete, at times verging on microbiography. The book’s appendix seems to list every live gig that Bruce has played since late 1965, and the discography is similarly comprehensive. Covered at length are Bruce’s childhood in 1940s Glasgow (where, incidentally, his parents were avowed Communists and activists), his early work as an in-demand sideman (he was making more money than his father when he was still a teenager), his sadly predictable episodes of fleecing by various music-biz swindlers, his equally sad struggles with dope, and his obligatory marital soap operas. In between are accounts of every significant project Bruce has been involved in, and interviews with (it seems) everyone who has known or played with him since the beginning of his career.
Shapiro’s incredibly thorough bio contains bits of inside dirt for those who want it (Ginger Baker is a penny-pincher and relentless grump; fellow West, Bruce & Laing member Leslie West is an offensive, fart-obsessed slob), and occasionally crosses over into TMI territory (like the details of Bruce’s liver transplant, the following complications, and his near-death experience in the hospital). But for the most part, the book is a straight-ahead chronicle of Bruce’s life and all-too-numerous tribulations. His riveting, if sometimes wince-inducing, story gives a look inside a business that hasn’t changed much since the ’70s, from the vantage point of a vastly talented, if ultimately ill-starred, musical figure.
DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.