Sunday, 26 October 2014

More Jack than God

I never usually write personal tributes to musicians who have passed.

However, this weekend, I lost the first of my real heroes – the man who is responsible for me playing the bass in the way that I do; one of the three men who created the first real 'super group', and bonded me to one of my best friends more than any other band.

Of course, I am talking about Jack Bruce, the greatest bass player in popular music history.

Jack Bruce, live at the Holmfirth Picturedrome, March 30th 2012
Anybody who knows me will know that under this cynical exterior lies the heart of a sentimental old fool. Therefore, it will come as no surprise to many that I was not ashamed to shed a few tears when news of Jacks' passing was reported on BBC News, last night, and they showed a clip of Cream's farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall from 1968.

Predominantly being a fan of music that was recorded usually at least 10 years before I was born, I have always known that I would be there to 'see' the great heroes of mine pass. But I was so 
unprepared for this one, and for the first passing to be one of the most influential people in music to me, is why I am writing this. I think Mr Bruce deserves a small tribute for all his inspiration.

The three piece that was my last band, was
modelled on Cream. The guitarist in this band, and lifelong friend I made as a result of the 60's power trio, modelled his playing on Eric Clapton, and my playing was modelled on Jack Bruce. If I do say so myself, we weren't bad imitations.

But nothing could ever really emulate the real thing.

When I heard of his passing, I immediately text my friend the news. I knew he would not have heard, because if he had, there would have been a text in my inbox quicker than you could say Spoonful. Sending that text was what I imagine it must be like for parents when they have to tell their children they are getting divorced. Inevitably, we ended up having a little reminisce about his greatness and the impact he had on both of us. Do I need to elaborate further on my compulsion to write a tribute?

Bruce is unique in the world of bass playing, because he was one of the very first revolutionaries. With his Gibson EB-3 model, it became more than just a bass. For the first time, it was a bass guitar. Whether on Cream albums, or on his much overlooked, sterling solo albums, Jack's playing was always so exciting to listen to. Until he came along, the entire function of a bass was just to pin down the basics.

Jack was more than able to do that. What made him unique for his time, was that he also had an amazing improvisational talent, which enabled him to create serious grooves, hooks and solos, but still be able to pin it down, every beat. Any time I pick up one of my basses, which is regularly, I always find myself drifting into one of his blues/jazz riffs, which you can hear wriggling around, underpinning all of his songs.

The best example of this is the Cream song, Crossroads, from the Live version of Wheels of Fire. Eric Clapton's screaming guitar is always at the forefront of Cream's material – rightly so, Clapton is a guitar god. But the whole foundation of Crossroads relies on Bruce's bassline, which groans underneath Clapton's vocals and Ginger Baker's rock solid drums. It was this song that inspired me to become a bassist in the first place. During all the verses and solos, Bruce is playing a mile a minute bass line, which just gets faster and faster, especially during Clapton's blistering guitar solo.

I always have to chuckle to myself when I hear Bruce singling Clapton out at the end of the song, because he sang it. Well, Eric, you may have done a bang-up job of singing it, but I think you'd agree with me when I say Jack made it.

Recorded live from the band's gig at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1968, this song showed that bassists are allowed to be just as improvisational and creative with their playing as the lead guitarist – providing they can still lay it down.

In 2012, my friend and I were lucky enough to see Jack play live, and at my favourite venue, to boot, the Holmfirth Picturedrome; a fantastic venue, and ideal for hard rockers such as Mr Bruce and his incredible blues band.

I remember his bass solo during Sunshine Of Your Love literally giving me goosebumps. It wasn't so much a solo – more like a conversation between Bruce and his Warwick Fretless Thumb bass – a secret that they weren't letting anyone else in on. A look of deep concentration remained on his face throughout, as he negotiated the highest notes on the neck, and strummed the lowest chords possible. And the bass responded, loyally, every time.

During an extended number, guitarist Tony Remy performed an ear-splitting guitar solo. Stood in the front row, we could see the sweat pouring out from his forehead, and dripping onto the floor like a tap onto a tiled bathroom floor. The whole room was going wild with admiration. And the whole time, my eyes were fixed firmly on the other side of the stage, where Bruce was stood by the amplifiers, pumping out a simple groove to support his bandmates. I remember my friend turning to me and saying “Only you would still be watching the bass player, right now!”

But JB wasn't just an inspiration for his bass playing and singing ability. He was also a rare example of someone who had made it as big as you can get, but maintained his modesty and humanity.

His last album, Silver Rails, was released earlier this year, and he was booked to go on a UK tour, which was later cancelled due to illness... looking back, a harrowing sign of things to come. In my capacity as a freelance journalist, I had arranged an interview with him.

About thirty seconds into beginning, he recommended rescheduling for when I had heard the album, which was, at that point, yet to be released. Apparently, a cock-up on the PR front meant that, despite his wishes, a lot of reporters had not received the album, as intended. However, I did manage to tell him how much of an inspiration he was: how I took up the bass thanks to him, and how he influenced my playing. “Well, I'm very sorry or very glad, depending on which way you want to look at it!”, he laughed. “I'm glad. That's nice, thanks very much.” was the modest response to such a huge compliment.

Unfortunately, the tour didn't get rescheduled, and as a result, neither did the interview. Although I did receive a nice, signed copy of the record in the mail for the intended rescheduled interview. When I saw that Jack had died, the first thing that came into my mind wasn't how much of a great player he was; it wasn't how fantastic his live show was; it wasn't even how much of an inspiration he had been to me. I just thought 'thank god I told him how influential he had been to me when I had the chance.' Amen.

Personal tributes are not going to be something I make a habit of writing, but in the case of Mr Bruce, it seemed like the very least I could do. Musicians young and old would do well to listen to his music and hear his pure talent: as a classically trained composer, singer, songwriter, and, of course bass player. Another thing they could take note of is his humble nature, and accessibility to his fans.

Although the days of hard living in the 1960's and 70's did manage to catch up with him in the end, JB will always be remembered as one of the first true visionaries of rock and roll. Cream were revolutionaries in their day, and their mix of blues, rock, jazz and psychedelic continues to inspire artists, even today. My friend and I were already third generation fans when we decided separately which instruments we wanted to pick up and who we wanted to emulate. Music is more than just something an individual listens to. It's a magnetic charge that brings like-minded people together.

Many thanks to Jack for his music, inspiration and legacy. A cliché it may be, but he will live on through his legacy of fantastic music. His influence is inescapable.

By James Nuttall

Photographs Copyright James Nuttall 2012

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