Unless you’ve been reading the obituaries lately, the chances are you’ve never heard of Jack Bruce. Jack died last week in England at the age of 71.
Jack was a musician, played bass and sang with a band called Cream in the late 1960’s. His bandmates in that trio were Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton. Clapton, of course, became very famous; he played guitar, the glamour instrument of that era.
Cream was a phenomenon. They lasted just a couple of years and four albums, but their influence was profound, affecting even the Beatles. Cream was known for the inspired, improvisatory quality of its playing, but its songs were tremendous as well.
Jack wrote most of those with a poet named Pete Brown. There were hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” that still make it into some radio rotations, but there were an amazing number of minor masterworks that were even better: “As You Said,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” “We’re Going Wrong,” to name just a few.
These songs were supremely literate, urgent and gorgeously sung by Jack, whose voice was knowing, sly and never less than completely committed. You can make a strong case that he was the most gifted musician in a generation that became known for the pioneering quality of its players.
That would be the generation that came to prominence during the 1960’s. Like so many of his British peers, Jack was inspired by American blues artists. He once noted that those original blues tracks were perfect; they were impossible to improve upon, but allowed artists like himself room to appropriate and reinvent them in ways that made sense in a different context.
It’s that insistence on reinvention that made ‘60s music so dynamic — from Dylan’s making folksongs electric to Hendrix’s psychedelicized blues. Jack Bruce did as much as anyone to make it new.
That’s why, for me, Jack was such a quintessential artist. When Cream broke up, he became not a star, but a musician’s musician, playing with everyone from Lou Reed to Carla Bley and Larry Coryell. He teamed up with the avant-garde auteur Kip Hanrahan to make a couple of moody Latin-inspired records, “Desire Develops and Edge” and “Vertical’s Currency.” He even sang words by Samuel Beckett.
People have tried to sum the meaning of the ‘60s in many ways, most of them not very satisfactory. Did that time make the world a more peaceful place? Have our politics gotten better? How’s that social justice thing going?
By refusing to be pinned down or corporately categorized, Jack Bruce reminded us of that the ‘60s was ultimately more personal than political, a cultural moment in which an extraordinary opening was made for creative acts of reinvention. Jack didn’t just theorize about this. He lived it.
I saw him play at the Vogue once, in 1988 or ’89. It was a rainy night, there were maybe 50 people there. He played as if his life depended on it, practically burned the place down.
I hear him loud and clear.