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Biographer Harry Shapiro On Music Legend Jack Bruce

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Five years ago this week, Cream reunited in a four-night stand at London’s Royal Albert Hall, heralding the first time that Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker had performed full concerts together—and apart from their three-song set at their 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the only time to date—in nearly forty years. The unlikelihood of this monumental happening, widely considered among the most anticipated reunions in rock history, was staggering on many levels. For Jack Bruce in particular, though, such a feat was nothing short of extraordinary.

Authorized by and in collaboration with the music legend, Jack Bruce: Composing Himself offers a riveting portrait of a life lived in near-constant, creative pursuit. And while his fleeting, two-year tenure in Cream no doubt overshadows what has otherwise been an extensive and incomparable career, its lineage—from his earliest days as a member of the Graham Bond Organization and Manfred Mann as well as his later stints with Robin Trower and West, Bruce, and Laing—is chronicled with encyclopedic depth and striking, often-poignant retrospection. As author Harry Shapiro eloquently suggests, the music of Jack Bruce—and for that matter, the circumstances both triumphant and tragic that have informed it—is one well worth appreciating.

As you mention in the book, this is the first biography you’ve written in collaboration with the subject. Was it difficult to get Jack Bruce to be a part of it?

No, no. Quite the reverse. It took me by surprise, really. I sent him an email back in the summer of ’07 and said, “You know, I really think it’s about time there was a decent book about your life and career.” And back came an email, almost straight away, saying… What he actually said was, “I thought you’d never ask,” which was quite flattering. And away we went. It was no struggle at all to get his involvement.

Was he ever reluctant about addressing any significant aspect or event in his career or life?

No. He was pretty candid about most things. The one area which he was understandably a bit reticent about was talking about his son, Jo, who died of an asthma attack in 1997. That was really too painful and I really didn’t want to press him too much on that. On one level, of course, what can you say? It’s a terrible tragedy, it came out of the blue, and that was that. But I really didn’t want to delve too deeply into that. That aside, he was pretty candid about most aspects of his life, I have to say.

In the acknowledgment section of the book, you thank a list of people—some familiar names, others not so familiar to music fans, but pertinent to the biography—and Eric Clapton is mentioned, [lyricist] Pete Brown is mentioned. Ginger Baker is not.

[Laughs] I did ask him. Right at the start I asked him if he would be prepared to be interviewed. And he very politely emailed me back and said that he would rather not get involved. And I can quite understand that, in a way. And to be honest, pretty much what Ginger would say to questions like that was already on the public record. His longstanding sense of injustice about Cream and things like that has all been documented.

Royalties?

Yeah, all that kind of thing. And there were lots of stories about various incidents that happened in which Ginger may well have disagreed with anyway, but ultimately it was Jack’s story. So I can’t say I was that surprised when he declined. Like I say, much of what I imagine he would have said was already on the public record. And also, I got some interesting insights from Ginger’s family, his wife and his daughter, Nettie.

Jack and Ginger, from early ages through recent years, have had a love/hate relationship yet they still come together to play.

Indeed, yes, that’s very interesting. It’s funny, Eric said to me for the book that—he was talking about Cream, but I think it runs all the way through—they play so well together, they’ve got such an instinctive feel for each other as musicians, once they kind of lock together it’s very hard for anybody else to come between them in a kind of musical way. Jack is always very complimentary about Ginger’s drumming. Ginger doesn’t reciprocate, I have to say. But Jack’s always said, “What a great drummer. He’s one of the best ever.”

In the book, he says Ginger’s the best rock drummer ever.

Yeah, and it’s always Jack who’s kind of brought Ginger in on the bands that [he’s] been involved in, the [Jack Bruce] Band in ’89 and BBM in ’94. So Jack’s always been wanting to get Ginger involved. And people have often looked a bit askance when he’s said, “Let’s get Ginger in,” and people go, “Well, isn’t that going to be a problem?” Jack genuinely feels that it won’t be, but quite often it actually turns out that it is. But it doesn’t stop Jack [from] wanting to play with Ginger. And Ginger doesn’t say no.

Going back to Jack’s early musical career—up through to Manfred Mann—he seemed as motivated by money as he was music. He almost looked at each endeavor like a tradesman, like a plumber or a window cleaner looking for a job. There didn’t seem to be much glamor.

The first thing was he was a professional, working musician. That was his job. One can’t be too romantic about it. This is what all these guys were trying to do—John Mayall, Peter Green, Eric, Ginger, all of them were working musicians. They did hundreds of gigs a year up and down the UK in these rickety old vans, terrible conditions, trying to earn a few dollars a night. So there really was nothing glamorous about the whole thing.

The other thing is that Jack did get involved in a number of more avant-garde jazz things with Group Sounds Five and Mike Taylor Trio, for which he probably got no money at all. But on the fringes of the London jazz scene—when he was able to not play with, for example, Manfred Mann, going up there for a half hour every night and playing Manfred’s hits; he soon got bored doing that but he still got paid—being able to sort of stretch out and improvise with other jazz musicians in small jazz clubs, he was equally keen to do that as well. So it was all about playing, it was all about trying to earn some money just to live, because there was no other income coming in. There was no record royalties or anything like that. Most of the money these guys made was from playing as many gigs as they could fit into the course of a year.

It seems like such a blue-collar approach.

But he wasn’t alone in that. That’s the point I’m trying to make, that all these guys were out there trying to learn a craft, doing what they loved doing. I mean, they could’ve gone off and become builders or plumbers or electricians, but they were musicians. And they knew that it was going to be a struggle. They had to play an awful lot in order to get any kind of decent living.

In talking to him, did you sense any regret or sadness that he’s had such longevity in his career, but most people only equate him with a band he was with for two years?

I think he’s kind of resigned to that and accepting of all of that. But of course, given his prodigious output over the years, he’d love it if people recognized more of the things that he does. But as I try to put across in the book, a lot of that has been the fault of record companies, marketing people who really couldn’t understand his music. The problem of a business is it’s very much kind of driven by fashion and it’s hard for a purer type of musician to get that kind of exposure and promotion. It has been hard for him from that point of view. But in the course of doing the book, I’ve played people things and they’ve been amazed—the power of his vocals, the complexities of some of his songs, [and] on the other hand some very simple, beautiful ballads. You could do a stunning Jack Bruce album just on the ballads he’s written. So there’s an awful lot there for people to mine.

What drives Jack Bruce?

If you asked Jack what he was, what he is, first and foremost he would say he’s a composer. He wouldn’t say he’s a singer or a bass player or a bandleader. He’d say he’s a composer, and from that point of view, you can be composing new songs, new albums, forever until you can’t do it anymore. And a good chunk of why I wrote this book, what I was trying to get across to people—in amongst all the stories about rock ‘n’ roll mayhem, which people like to read and that’s fair enough—is the fact that this guy had a forty-year music career. Cream was less than two years. And he has this hugely impressive catalogue of music that I really want people to just go out and listen to. Get a feel for some of the things that are mentioned, some of the musicians he worked with, some of the routes he took. Even reasonably well-versed Jack Bruce fans might not have picked on the albums that he did with Kip Hanrahan and all the Latin guys, which is completely different from the West, Bruce, and Laing and the BBM and the heavy rock kind of thing. He’s done opera, he’s done avant-garde jazz, he’s done big-band stuff. He’s just got this huge breadth, which means in some ways it’s been difficult for people who enjoy his music to keep up, really, because he just dives away into all these different highways and tangents. If something sounds interesting and different, he goes for it. As with all very intelligent, creative people, Jack gets bored very quickly with things and wants to move on to other things.

___________________________________________________________________________

Jack Bruce: Composing Himself – The Authorised Biography by Harry Shapiro is published by Jawbone Press, 2010.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Joan Armatrading, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    sounds like an interesting read. I am sure it would be a logistical hassle, but it would be cool to include a greatest hits CD of his other work with the book

  • Brian Parker

    It has always been facinating about the legends, the article depicts the intresting story of Jack Bruce’s biography.A Must read.

  • maxx

    I was one of the very few fortunate to be at the Royal Albert Hall for the second night of the 4 night stand. I was too young to appreciate Cream when they first appeared on the scene but as I matured I came to appreciate their music, their artistry for what it truly was – that of legends. The show I saw served to re-confirm what I already knew – they were the first and best super group ever.

  • chris

    Very sad to lose a son, especially to something like an asthma attack…

  • Parsons

    Jack Bruce:Composing himself was a very good book and Jack Bruce is candid in a lot of respects regarding his private life. Jack really excelled in Cream, and I thought that his bass playing on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” was classic. No treatment of Jack Bruce’s life is complete without mentioning his fourth wife, Margrit Seyffir. The two have been married since 1980, and also had their first child, Natascha, that same year. They also had two other children, Kyra and Corin. Margrit has really stood by Jack Bruce through thick and thin. He is clearly a complicated man and Margrit has done a great job in influenincng him in a positive way. In the first year of their marriage, Margrit took over Bruce’s finances, straightening out a number of issues for him. Her assistance was invaluable. And in September of 2003, when Jack Bruce fired his then manager, Mick Carter, Margrit took over, becoming his manager. Carter, who had become disgraced in the industry, by misrepresenting his clients information, abusing his authority, and even coming under fire for embezzlement regarding two clients, attempted to sue Bruce for loans that he had never made him. By then, Carter was desparate, one former friend referring to him as a “loose cannon” and was hoping his scheme would work in that Jack Bruce would pay him the unowed loans in order to just make him go away. That did not work. Margrit retained legal counsel on her husbands behalf and the matter was dispensed with. On a final sorry note, Mick Carter showed up at Jack Bruce’s Rancho Bernardo estate when he knew that Jack was in residence and attempted to threaten him, telling Jack Bruce that he was “connected” and that he had better pay him if he knew what was good for him. Naturally, Jack had him thrown off the premises. Margrit then applied for a temporary TRO prohibiting Carter from coming within 1000 feet of her husband that was granted. Jack Bruce has been doing really great these days, touring with his band named Jack Bruce’s Big Blues Band. I have heard them and they are great. Jack Bruce is a truly gifted musician and he just gets better over the years. As long is he is on the scene, I will be a fan of his.

  • Leroy

    I am writing a thesis on the untimely deaths of pop stars and I am just amazed how Mick Carter (or is it Cater) managed to escape the long arm of the law in respect of his actions.

    • Daniels

      Leroy, the reason Mick Carter didn’t suffer legal repercussions for his actions were due to the fact that the clients who were embezzled from failed to file charges against him, opting to settle the matters privately. Carter made restitution to the Estate of Robert Palmer who was one of the two clients whose accounts he embezzled from, as well as to the second client, who prefers to remain unnamed. Both felt it was in their best interests to not bring the matter into a courtroom. Another reason charges weren’t brought against Carter were that both Robert Palmer and Carter’s other client were friends with him at one point, welcoming him into their homes. In deference to their former friendships with him they were willing to offer him an alternative solution to avoid embarrassment on both their parts. Sorry to say, but this type of activity is not unheard of in the entertainment business. As far as Carter’s delusional idea that Jack Bruce owed him financially for unpaid loans he made to him, and the subsequent threats that followed, the answer is simple. Jack Bruce quite rightly categorized Carter’s behavior for what it was: that Carter was a man with serious problems acting out. Insomuch as Jack Bruce also knew Mick Carter as a friend in addition to his manager, he gave him an opportunity cease his unacceptable actions towards him, which Carter did ultimately respect, ergo no charges were filed against him by Bruce. It was known that Mick Carter suffered from substance abuse issues as well as financial difficulties, which in part lead to his actions. I hope your Thesis turned out well. As the mortality rate appears to be higher than average for pop stars, musicians, and entertainer’s in general, you were in an enviable position of having more than enough research material to support your hypothesis.