Saturday, April 24, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Jack Bruce: Composing Himself – The Authorised Biography by Harry Shapiro

[Book from Jawbone - Review by Jeff Penczak]

Article on Terrascope:

Shapiro's definitive, authorised biography traces the life of this fiery, egotistical Glaswegian from his birth to card-carrying Communists (who instilled a left-wing political stance that's stuck with him throughout his life) to the much-heralded Cream reunion in 2005, leaving no stone unturned in the process.

From the beginning, he inherited his controlling behaviour from his mum that led to his perfectionism that drives his work to this day. By the time he was 18, he had mastered the bass and was earning more than his dad and was playing in a band on a US Air Force base in Italy. A drunken accident sent him back home after he nearly burned his arm off! There, a chance meeting/sit-in with Dick Heckstall-Smith and Ginger Baker in Manchester, 1962 led to his gig in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and a lifelong a love-hate relationship with Baker.

Shapiro masterfully paints the scene at the Ealing Club where we hang around with the likes of Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Erics Burden and Clapton, not to mention Long John Baldry and Graham Bond, whose Organisation led to his first extended gig and earliest recordings.

The formative years with Korner, Bond, and Baker are detailed with amusing anecdotes, like the time Alexis, "the world's scariest driver," fell asleep at the wheel, nearly killing Jack and Ginger, or the time John McLaughlin, during his brief stint in the GBO in April, 1963 got so stoned at a gig at the Leofric Hotel in Coventry that he fell off the stage in a catatonic fit!

We also learn that Ginger actually fired Jack from GBO, after which he jumped into John Mayall's Bluesbreakers for a dozen gigs or so following John McVie's sacking for drinking. It was here he enjoyed his first time on stage with Clapton, although he would soon quit for a more lucrative gig as Manfred Mann's bassist before eventually forming Cream. We also learn the importance that the Bee Gees had in Jack's career, both in Cream's signing to Atlantic and his future dealings with Robert Stigwood.

The book's a virtual encyclopaedia of information, gruesomely detailing the heroin addictions that threatened the careers and lives of Jack and so many of the musicians, producers, and engineers he played with, including both of the superstar trios and a world famous producer. In fact, Jack once saved Baker's life after he OD'd following a Top of The Pops taping in 1967.

While the book thankfully does not focus on the Cream years, which are nevertheless adequately covered, there are a few tidbits that fans may enjoy, such as the reason they didn't play at Monterey, their fateful meeting with Hendrix where he sat in at a Cream concert, and the stories behind all the classics, from 'I Feel Free' and 'White Room,' to 'Strange Brew' and 'Sunshine of Your Love.'

We'll even discover the source of the album title Disraeli Gears and learn that the lads were stoned on LSD when the cover was shot over in Scotland! Shapiro's detailed account of the band's horrendous touring schedule in the US gives great insight into life on the road, including the gig in Boston on the night after Martin Luther King died (while James Brown was playing his infamous gig across town), the time they played in Detroit on the night of the race riots, and their run-ins in Chicago with Mayor Daley's police mob. You'll even learn "the weirdest gig Jack ever played"!

Shapiro clearly unravels the internecine trail of Jack's musical collaborations through all his post-Cream projects, including the offers to join Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, and Nash that he turned down. Then there's the synergistic writing relationship with Pete Brown, the importance of jazz to his playing and composing skills, as well as the reason he delayed his solo debut (and the mysterious surprise guest who sat in, along with the famous session guitarist who got his start on 1969's Songs for A Tailor; we also learn the inspiration behind the title). In fact, Shapiro also unearths the meanings or inspirations behind almost all the songs and album titles throughout Jack's career.

We also cringe at the details behind the drug-induced disaster that was West, Bruce & Laing, that led to Jacks' downward spiral into a 15-year drug haze. This chapter on Jack's drug problems also helpfully puts the contemporary British and US drug scene into perspective, while also explaining how heroin hijacked the Out of the Storm recording sessions. His description of how they were rescued will have you scurrying back for a relisten.

And the sordid tale behind 'Madhouse' (from 1976's How's Tricks) is one of the most bizarre and frightening in Jack's life and almost worth the price of admission. Even the story of Jack's legal hassles with RSO (Robert Stigwood Organisation) that nearly led to his suicide are handled with sensitivity, honesty, and explanatory information that makes one wonder why anyone would want to make a career out of music!

Finally, we share Jack's devastation over the death of his eldest son, Jo, which "drove him to the brink of insanity," resulting in his abandonment of music for two years, and the frightening news about his cirrhosis of the liver which led to a life-saving liver transplant (during which he was conscious throughout in a state of "anaesthesia awareness"!)

The much-heralded reunion is also explained in detail, including the reasons why they did it, the differences between the UK and US gigs, and why it will never happen again. There's even an Appendix for gearheads that details all of Jack's basses and equipment and his reasons for using each.

So, yes, the book is certainly excruciatingly detailed, but it's not all muckraking, gossip-mongering drivel. Shapiro took the time to track down the important players in Jack's life, including the most important person of all, Jack Bruce himself. And with Bob Elliott's extremely detailed and authoritative 30 page disc/gig-ography, one need look no further to discover the true account of one of the world's best (and best-loved) bassists. A classic job well done and one of the best rock bios you'll ever read. (Jeff Penczak).

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