The Cream of Cream: Their 10 Best Songs (Revisited)

Cream_Clapton_Bruce_Baker_1960s-300x198

In honor of Jack Bruce’s recent passing, and as a companion piece to my tribute to the late bassist, here’s my take on the ten best Cream songs. This list is offered with one caveat: it’s mostly going to avoid the ones everyone knows, so we’ll assume it’s more or less a given that the cream of Cream’s crop necessarily includes “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Crossroads” and especially “Sunshine of Your Love”.

These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original. As such, many of the trio’s blues covers or blues-influenced homages (whether more paint-by-numbers like “Spoonful” and “Rolling and Tumbling” or more inspired like “Born Under a Bad Sign”) don’t rise all the way to the top. When Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker were properly locked-in, they not only used the blues as a successful point of departure, but they carved out a unique—and oft-imitated but seldom matched—blend of psychedelia and proto-prog (the frenzied “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is a scorching hand grenade of a song, planting a signpost of where rock had come and where it was headed): they took the British Invasion’s obsession with blues masters as far as it could (should) go, using their power trio pyrotechnics to blend a distinct English sensibility (“Wrapping Paper”, “Mother’s Lament”) with a more American rock ‘n’ roll aggression, which itself was a triumph of traditional music combining blues and folk, along with a more experimental edge influenced by jazz and the avant-garde (“SWLABR”, “Those Were the Days”).

In short, Cream went from wearing its influences on their paisley-colored sleeves to becoming one of the more influential ‘60s outfits, all in a matter of years. If it was over too soon, it can’t be said that these three men failed to reach their considerable potential, taking their chops and ambition as far as possible, considering the egos and animosity forever lurking behind every note played.

10. “Dreaming” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

If any single song on Cream’s debut album functions as a calling card, “Dreaming” does the trick nicely. The harmonies, the execution, the confidence: a two-minute tour de force. It remains a revelation to hear the drums so forward in the mix: there is a reason legends like Neil Peart always make sure to name-check Ginger Baker as an unshakeable influence. Nevermore would the time-keeper be relegated to mere grunt work as time-keeper and occasional embellishment; after this, drums could be on equal ground. And if Baker revolutionized things to the extent that interminable drum solos became a de facto part of every rock concert in the ‘70s and beyond, so be it.

9. “Dance the Night Away” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Jack Bruce’s falsetto. Clapton’s shimmering notes, like an acid trip underwater. Baker, busy as ever without managing to overwhelm. This is a disarmingly simple gem that showcases not only the individual brilliance of each musician, but the ways they could work collectively in the service of a song. Only the Beatles, circa 1967, were combining curiosity and confidence with such precision, and the results are utterly original and enduring.

8. “Passing the Time” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

A song that seldom (if ever) gets singled out for approbation, all one need do is listen to rock music between 1969 and 1970-something to appreciate its influence. The slow/fast time shifts, the implementation of more “exotic” instruments (cello, glockenspiel), the presentation, which pulls right up to the abyss of pretension and scoffs—we are a long way from the blues covers of the debut. Wheels of Fire creates a unified sound that is post-psychedelia and pre-prog; it neatly splits the difference between bright-eyed exploration (circa ’66-’67) and weary and/or opportunistic art rock. As ambitious as anything the group ever did, it is also tight, concentrated, idiosyncratic, and typically distinctive.

7. “Stepping Out” (Live Cream Vol. 2, 1970)

Eric Clapton getting his God on. Yes, it goes on too long, and yes, it’s indulgent, and yes, there are (many) people who played the blues better, and yes, this will get you a speeding ticket if you crank it up while you’re on the highway, and yes, of course it was featured in the epic final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

6. “We’re Going Wrong” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

A lot of people (understandably?) assume this was Clapton’s group, and that he was the lead vocalist. Of course it was Jack Bruce, the thinking man’s Golden God, who is singing virtually all these indelible songs. This is without question one of his finest moments, unvarnished and without effects (or forced affect); sheer talent, total commitment, unmitigated emotion. Oh, and Baker brings the sweet pain with his subdued maelstrom and Clapton transcends the blues-based heroics in favor of raw, plaintive expression.

5. “Politician” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

One of rock music’s most cynical and, sadly, factual songs alongside the Beatles’ “Taxman”. The lyrics aren’t terribly sophisticated (“I support the Left, though I’m leaning toward the Right / But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight”), but then neither is the subject matter. Opportunistic weasels who pollute public office are taken acerbically to task, while a cascade of filth, courtesy of Clapton’s multi-tracked majesty, supplies an appropriately muddled soundtrack. Bruce, as always, delivers the goods, and he seems to be enjoying himself and disgusted at the same time when he croaks “I wanna just show you what my politics are.”

4. “World of Pain” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Disraeli Gears is definitely a gift that never stops giving. Not only the band’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece among the many miraculous albums made during its era. On Cream’s first album there were the inescapable blues influences (some refreshing; others more stale and uninspired); by the second album the band had figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and very little if anything (by others or even Cream) sound anything like the best moments on Disraeli Gears. “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” get most of the attention, and still receive most of the airplay, but it’s the deeper cuts, like “World of Pain”, that illustrate how peerless Cream was, at its best.

3. “Badge” (Goodbye, 1969)

This is the song George Harrison inadvertently named (Badge = Bridge), and the one he played on, depending on who you believe (to this writer, the Quiet One’s guitar licks are unmistakable, especially when you think of side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road). It’s tracks like “Badge”, free-flowing yet not facile, laid-back but not lazy, that makes so much of what Clapton went on to do disappointing by comparison. Once God became Slowhand he was calling his own shots, and while he had earned every right to do so, he arguably needed some tension—and competition—to bring out the best in him. In any event, this is one of Cream’s irresistible tunes, impossible to tire of, even after four decades and change. It’s a mellow pinnacle of sorts, and will always be a bittersweet tease of what Cream could/should/might have done if they’d kept their act together.

2. “I Feel Free” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

This is the one that kicks off Cream’s catalog, and it’s less an introduction than a declaration: yes, as a matter of fact, we are a super group and this is how we roll. Multi-tracked harmonies, hand-claps, and a single pounded piano note sounding like a telegraph dispatching the news, “I Feel Free” has hit single written all over it. But the pop sensibility is undercut by what might be best described as a cocky nonchalance: we are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. There is no pandering, no false familiarity with the would-be audience, and above all, no clichés. The music, of course, was the thing: cleaner and crisper than what anyone else (including the Fab Four) was doing at this point; “I Feel Free” signaled the ascendance of a major new act, and a reminder in real time that nothing was ever going to be the same.

1. “White Room” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

Perhaps the ultimate commentary on this remarkable song as that, overplayed as much as it has been over the years, it still manages to defy becoming stale. In fact, it still manages to confound expectations and is capable of the thrill of surprise. Or the simple shock of recognition: this is what it sounds like when some of the best musical minds of their time were clicking on all cylinders. Boasting career-best work by all involved, “White Room” cemented the post-Sgt. Pepper proposition that rock music could be art; rock music could matter. Clapton is on-point, using his wah-wah more ingeniously than anyone not named Hendrix, Baker offers “Bolero” drum rolls, and Bruce, in addition to his typically supple bass playing, turns in what may be his ultimate vocal performance. Making the most of principal lyricist Pete Brown’s surreal poetics, “White Room” is a decidedly darker slice of psychedelia (see: “Where the shadows run from themselves”). It squeezes the last drops of Summer of Love whimsy and pours it into a simmering cocktail of bad trips, wrecked dreams, and fear. It is intense and unremitting; it sums up happier and/or headier times and peeks, presciently, at the disillusion waiting around the corner. And, in spite of how heavy it is, the prevailing vibe is one of resilience, not despair. “White Room” compresses the sounds, colors and feelings of an era and manages to make it all into something beautiful.

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Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God (One Year Later)

jb

The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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The Cream of Cream: Their 10 Best Songs

Cream_Clapton_Bruce_Baker_1960s

In honor of Jack Bruce’s recent passing, and as a companion piece to my tribute to the late bassist, here’s my take on the ten best Cream songs. This list is offered with one caveat: it’s mostly going to avoid the ones everyone knows, so we’ll assume it’s more or less a given that the cream of Cream’s crop necessarily includes “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Crossroads” and especially “Sunshine of Your Love”.

These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original. As such, many of the trio’s blues covers or blues-influenced homages (whether more paint-by-numbers like “Spoonful” and “Rolling and Tumbling” or more inspired like “Born Under a Bad Sign”) don’t rise all the way to the top. When Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker were properly locked-in, they not only used the blues as a successful point of departure, but they carved out a unique—and oft-imitated but seldom matched—blend of psychedelia and proto-prog (the frenzied “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is a scorching hand grenade of a song, planting a signpost of where rock had come and where it was headed): they took the British Invasion’s obsession with blues masters as far as it could (should) go, using their power trio pyrotechnics to blend a distinct English sensibility (“Wrapping Paper”, “Mother’s Lament”) with a more American rock ‘n’ roll aggression, which itself was a triumph of traditional music combining blues and folk, along with a more experimental edge influenced by jazz and the avant-garde (“SWLABR”, “Those Were the Days”).

In short, Cream went from wearing its influences on their paisley-colored sleeves to becoming one of the more influential ‘60s outfits, all in a matter of years. If it was over too soon, it can’t be said that these three men failed to reach their considerable potential, taking their chops and ambition as far as possible, considering the egos and animosity forever lurking behind every note played.

10. “Dreaming” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

If any single song on Cream’s debut album functions as a calling card, “Dreaming” does the trick nicely. The harmonies, the execution, the confidence: a two-minute tour de force. It remains a revelation to hear the drums so forward in the mix: there is a reason legends like Neil Peart always make sure to name-check Ginger Baker as an unshakeable influence. Nevermore would the time-keeper be relegated to mere grunt work as time-keeper and occasional embellishment; after this, drums could be on equal ground. And if Baker revolutionized things to the extent that interminable drum solos became a de facto part of every rock concert in the ‘70s and beyond, so be it.

9. “Dance the Night Away” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Jack Bruce’s falsetto. Clapton’s shimmering notes, like an acid trip underwater. Baker, busy as ever without managing to overwhelm. This is a disarmingly simple gem that showcases not only the individual brilliance of each musician, but the ways they could work collectively in the service of a song. Only the Beatles, circa 1967, were combining curiosity and confidence with such precision, and the results are utterly original and enduring.

8. “Passing the Time” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

A song that seldom (if ever) gets singled out for approbation, all one need do is listen to rock music between 1969 and 1970-something to appreciate its influence. The slow/fast time shifts, the implementation of more “exotic” instruments (cello, glockenspiel), the presentation, which pulls right up to the abyss of pretension and scoffs—we are a long way from the blues covers of the debut. Wheels of Fire creates a unified sound that is post-psychedelia and pre-prog; it neatly splits the difference between bright-eyed exploration (circa ’66-’67) and weary and/or opportunistic art rock. As ambitious as anything the group ever did, it is also tight, concentrated, idiosyncratic, and typically distinctive.

7. “Stepping Out” (Live Cream Vol. 2, 1970)

Eric Clapton getting his God on. Yes, it goes on too long, and yes, it’s indulgent, and yes, there are (many) people who played the blues better, and yes, this will get you a speeding ticket if you crank it up while you’re on the highway, and yes, of course it was featured in the epic final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

6. “We’re Going Wrong” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

A lot of people (understandably?) assume this was Clapton’s group, and that he was the lead vocalist. Of course it was Jack Bruce, the thinking man’s Golden God, who is singing virtually all these indelible songs. This is without question one of his finest moments, unvarnished and without effects (or forced affect); sheer talent, total commitment, unmitigated emotion. Oh, and Baker brings the sweet pain with his subdued maelstrom and Clapton transcends the blues-based heroics in favor of raw, plaintive expression.

5. “Politician” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

One of rock music’s most cynical and, sadly, factual songs alongside the Beatles’ “Taxman”. The lyrics aren’t terribly sophisticated (“I support the Left, though I’m leaning toward the Right / But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight”), but then neither is the subject matter. Opportunistic weasels who pollute public office are taken acerbically to task, while a cascade of filth, courtesy of Clapton’s multi-tracked majesty, supplies an appropriately muddled soundtrack. Bruce, as always, delivers the goods, and he seems to be enjoying himself and disgusted at the same time when he croaks “I wanna just show you what my politics are.”

4. “World of Pain” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Disraeli Gears is definitely a gift that never stops giving. Not only the band’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece among the many miraculous albums made during its era. On Cream’s first album there were the inescapable blues influences (some refreshing; others more stale and uninspired); by the second album the band had figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and very little if anything (by others or even Cream) sound anything like the best moments on Disraeli Gears. “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” get most of the attention, and still receive most of the airplay, but it’s the deeper cuts, like “World of Pain”, that illustrate how peerless Cream was, at its best.

3. “Badge” (Goodbye, 1969)

This is the song George Harrison inadvertently named (Badge = Bridge), and the one he played on, depending on who you believe (to this writer, the Quiet One’s guitar licks are unmistakable, especially when you think of side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road). It’s tracks like “Badge”, free-flowing yet not facile, laid-back but not lazy, that makes so much of what Clapton went on to do disappointing by comparison. Once God became Slowhand he was calling his own shots, and while he had earned every right to do so, he arguably needed some tension—and competition—to bring out the best in him. In any event, this is one of Cream’s irresistible tunes, impossible to tire of, even after four decades and change. It’s a mellow pinnacle of sorts, and will always be a bittersweet tease of what Cream could/should/might have done if they’d kept their act together.

2. “I Feel Free” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

This is the one that kicks off Cream’s catalog, and it’s less an introduction than a declaration: yes, as a matter of fact, we are a super group and this is how we roll. Multi-tracked harmonies, hand-claps, and a single pounded piano note sounding like a telegraph dispatching the news, “I Feel Free” has hit single written all over it. But the pop sensibility is undercut by what might be best described as a cocky nonchalance: we are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. There is no pandering, no false familiarity with the would-be audience, and above all, no clichés. The music, of course, was the thing: cleaner and crisper than what anyone else (including the Fab Four) was doing at this point; “I Feel Free” signaled the ascendance of a major new act, and a reminder in real time that nothing was ever going to be the same.

1. “White Room” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

Perhaps the ultimate commentary on this remarkable song as that, overplayed as much as it has been over the years, it still manages to defy becoming stale. In fact, it still manages to confound expectations and is capable of the thrill of surprise. Or the simple shock of recognition: this is what it sounds like when some of the best musical minds of their time were clicking on all cylinders. Boasting career-best work by all involved, “White Room” cemented the post-Sgt. Pepper proposition that rock music could be art; rock music could matter. Clapton is on-point, using his wah-wah more ingeniously than anyone not named Hendrix, Baker offers “Bolero” drum rolls, and Bruce, in addition to his typically supple bass playing, turns in what may be his ultimate vocal performance. Making the most of principal lyricist Pete Brown’s surreal poetics, “White Room” is a decidedly darker slice of psychedelia (see: “Where the shadows run from themselves”). It squeezes the last drops of Summer of Love whimsy and pours it into a simmering cocktail of bad trips, wrecked dreams, and fear. It is intense and unremitting; it sums up happier and/or headier times and peeks, presciently, at the disillusion waiting around the corner. And, in spite of how heavy it is, the prevailing vibe is one of resilience, not despair. “White Room” compresses the sounds, colors and feelings of an era and manages to make it all into something beautiful.

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Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God

jb

The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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