1: First time I saw Jack Bruce play was at the performing arts center at William Paterson College, in 1980, most likely the fall, leading an outfit called Jack Bruce and Friends. I hadn't heard a whole lot of his post-Cream output at the time, and a good deal of what I knew of seemed kind of intimidating to me. But I was also wary of holding him in the reflexive contempt that I still sometimes thought my post-punk aesthetic demanded. Having developed a taste for the astringent progressivism of Henry Cow and Art Bears and such a couple of years earlier, I was definitely an art-rocker in training, and Bruce's presentation hit a relaxed sweet spot with me. He and his band were relaxed, coming off like journeymen virtuosos—Robert Christgau described Bruce's music as "dense and dissonant and throbbing," and it was/is, but the players—Clem Clemson on guitar, David Sancious on keyboards, Bruce of course on bass, and man-mountain Billy Cobham (whose constant grin was the only indication that he wasn't just on the verge of casually destroying his kit) on drums—ere sufficiently relaxed and assured that this might have been the regular Thursday night gig for a bar band that was very attached to its bar. I was impressed, and then when they came back for the encore to repave the campus parking lot with a very heavy rolling rendition of "Politician," kind of awestruck.
2: In the largely first rate biography of Bruce by Harry Shapiro, Jack Bruce: Composing Himself, the musician recollects his brief tenure with the then-carnivalesque Golden Palominos, beginning in 1986. "That was a completely mad band," Bruce says. "[Founder and drummer] Anton Fier was completely drunk all the time. I remember Anton sitting in the first class lounge in Paris Airport with a bottle of brandy and drinking it in the twenty minutes between flights."
I do not doubt this. The profile I wrote of Fier and the Palominos, which ran in the February 1987 issue of Spin, is for the most part an account of the writer getting nearly blind drunk on a variety of Chinese wines with Fier and Peter Blegvad. At the time, which seems in my mind to have been by an eternity from the feckless collegiate fall of 1980, feckless freelance rock critic and consumer electronics magazine Associate Editor me had become a potential Boswell to the GoPals, as they were referred to on the scene. I did not really ride to any unprecedented career heights in this endeavor but I heard a lot of great music and got royally fucked up with a bunch of wonderful artists. Singer Syd Straw used to marvel at touring with a bunch of guys who actually played chess in the van, and yeah, eavesdrop on a conversation between Blegvad and Jody Harris and you were likely to hear them comparing notes on Thom Gunn, but good God those guys liked their drink, and when he was touring with them between '86 and '87, so too did Bruce. I remember a show at Webster Hall at which Harris, with both his standard deadpan detachment and a dollop of genuine irritation, told me of a Bostn show the night before at which Jack had gotten so blitzed that he futzed the words to most of the songs he had to sing. "I'm really sorry, I'll never do it again," Jody reported as Jack's apology, and we both smirked. "I'm sure no one who's ever worked with him has ever heard that before, ever," I observed.
Whatever his damage had been the night prior, he bounced back strongly that evening, and the set was a remarkable pageant of raucous, unself-conscious eclecticism. Slapp Happy and Funkadelic are not two bands one generally thinks of in the space of a single 24-hour or even two-week period, and yet here's a stage featuring founding members of both (Bernie Worrell and, later, Mike Hampton played that night) as well as Jack Bruce, and it all meshes, and rocks, and pushes. I got to go to what is commonly referred to these days as "the after party" (I think back then it was called "a party") and everyone was so wired that it was once more off to the races, and that's when I had my most significant personal interaction with Jack Bruce. I was waiting in a short line to use the facilities, and Bruce scurried over to me, hunched over a bit, and manically requested permission to cut in. "I have to go really bad," he said. Well, who was I to deny Jack Bruce. I said go ahead, and when the bathroom door opened, Bruce scurried in, and held the door open to let in another guy. Feeling slightly burnt, I said, "What he gonna do, hold your dick for you?" Jack Bruce thought this was hilarious. He was still laughing as he closed the door.
The thing was, whatever Bruce was doing at any given time, there was never a trace of genuine-rock-superstar-condescension in the way he carried himself,and there was never a minute of doubt relative to the music to which he chose to commit himself. Coming out of Cream and into Tony Williams' Lifetime, Bruce came off as if it was Williams who was doing him a favor. Listen to him with Carla Bley, with Mike Mantler, with Kip Hanrahan; his discipline, his passion (anyone with doubts of that ought to listen to Cream's "Spoonful" quick fast and in a hurry), his almost offhand sense of adventure all come through like a-ringing a bell. And in the Golden Palominos, Bruce gave the most convincing reading, pace the wongwriter himself, of Peter Blegvad's dread-laden "Something Else (Is Working Harder)." "People work hard to keep a lid on their anger./To see that justice will prevail,/to no avail, their efforts fail—/something else is working harder."
3) In June of 2012, I went to B.B. King's Blues Club And Grill to see Spectrum Road, a band—what they used to call a supergroup, maybe—dedicated to the music of the aforementioned Tony Williams. I couldn't swing the Cream reunion, but this I could, and I had been pretty impressed by the attendant album by the group, which seemed a genuine band effort. The other members were guitarist Vernon Reid, who'd flirted with rock superstardom in Living Colour and of late has been, among other things, conducting a productive collaboration with James "Blood" Ulmer; keyboardist John Medeski, whose combo Medeski, Martin, and Wood has made significant inroads with jam-band fans while remaining steadfast to its John-Zorn-affiliated roots; and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, whose dynamism as a percussionist had not, I think, been so fully represented on any record prior to this one. In any event, throughout the selections, the music flows and pummels beautifully with no sense of it being led in any traditional sense; not to sound trite or anything, but it's one of those tribute records on which is seems that the spirit of the honored musician really is in charge of the whole thing.
Live, it was like that, and a little more. Almost, or perhaps more than, a century of assured musicianship had come to play, and as Bruce had the main microphone, he was the de facto frontman (although Blackman did vocalize on one tune, and quite well). He had turned 69 in May. In 2003 he had undergone a liver transplant. On stage, he had a not-terribly large bottle of Poland Spring water nearby, and at the stage read there was a standing-stool sort of contraption on which he could rest while playing if need be.
He didn't use it that often, if at all. First among equals with his bandmates, he commanded the stage for the entirety of a nearly two-hour set, stepping out only during Blackman's drum solo feature. His bass playing was, as ever, astonishing. Jaco Pastorious and Jamaladeen Tacuma get a lot of credit for reinventing electric bass playing from within a certain generic framework, and they were/are great players, to be sure. But there is/was something sui generis about the simultaneous muscularity and delicacy of Bruce's touch. Something working hard, and succeeding.
At the encore, I thought, "I wonder if they're going to trot out 'Politician.'" They did, either before or after "Sunshine Of Your Love." Why not. They crushed both.