Thursday, June 5, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Jack Bruce: Composing Himself


As one-third of the 1960s band Cream, Jack Bruce is a legend. He was the lead vocalist, bass player, and main songwriter for the band and if he had never done anything before or after those glorious years of 1966-1969 when Cream were active, he'd still be revered as one of the greatest bassists and singers in the history of rock music. But there was, is, and continues to be so much more to Jack Bruce than the classic music he made with bandmates Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Jack's life and career are the story of a supremely talented and visionary musician, always restless and pushing forward, never quite achieving the commercial success he's deserved outside of Cream. Yet he continues to be critically acclaimed and recognized for his mammoth contributions to musical genres as diverse as rock, jazz, blues, classical, and Latin. This review, following my reviews of Eric's and Ginger's books, completes the trilogy of autobiographies of the members of Cream; in many ways, Jack's is the most interesting of all of their stories.


Author Harry Shapiro is a big Jack Bruce fan and was able to enlist the cooperation of Jack himself in order to write this authorized biography. Using his own research, as well as numerous interviews and recollections directly from Jack, Shapiro traces Bruce's story from his humble origins in Scotland all the way to the present day, recounting all of the highs and lows along the way.  Born during the middle of WWII Britain and raised in a working-class family in Glasgow by his staunchly communist parents, Jack and his brother were not expected to transcend their class much as they grew up. However, from an early age it became apparent that young Jack was quite gifted musically, first as a singer and then as a musician. Able to play piano and compose classical pieces by the age of twelve, he was able to get into prestigious music academies in Glasgow and took up the cello and double bass. Soon, his ear was bent by the nascent sounds of the jazz, blues, and rock and roll that were seeping into 1950s Britain and Jack had found his life's calling. Moving on to London by the early 1960s, Bruce began earning a living as a musician, earning more in a week than his father did in a month. Through a variety of groups, he eventually came to join forces with his eventual lifelong nemesis Ginger Baker, as well as Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond as members of Alexis Korner's Blues Inc. Splitting off to form the Graham Bond Organization, it was in this band (with guitarist John McLaughlin as an early member) that Jack first rose to national prominence in the UK. It's also here where he endless feud with Baker began. After being sacked from the group by Ginger, Jack crossed paths briefly with Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers before he moved on to a stint in Manfred Mann. In mid-1966, he was recruited by Eric Clapton into a new band he was forming with Baker that of course became Cream. I won't get into the demise of the band as it's been discussed to death by me (elsewhere on this site) and others, but it is after the end of Cream in early 1969 that Jack's story gets really interesting. When Cream broke up, it was Bruce, not Clapton, who was expected to have the most successful career since he was the voice and writer for the bulk of Cream's music. However, nothing ever goes as planned and the ensuing years have taken Jack on an interesting musical and personal journey that continues to the present day.

As Shapiro states in his introduction, when he told a friend he was setting out to write a book on Jack Bruce, his friend replied that it would be "a short book," assuming there was nothing of value to write post-Cream. However, he does an excellent job using the remainder of the book to chronicle Jack's long and varied solo career, beginning with his excellent 1969 solo debut album, Songs For a Tailor. Shapiro is clearly a fan and does an admirable job weaving all of Jack's various albums, bands, and side projects into the story. The discussions of each album and the key songs are fleshed out by the words of Bruce, as well as his longtime songwriting partner Pete Brown and the various musicians he worked with over the years.  Nearly all of them have nothing but praise for Jack as a person and a musician (apart, obviously, for Ginger Baker). In return, Jack was also complimentary...the only blemish in this regard was his involvement in the ill-conceived and ill-fated supergroup West, Bruce, and Laing in the mid-1970s. Taking the place of his friend (and former Cream producer) Felix Pappalardi in Mountain, the newly christened band was more of a way for the three to make mountains of cash in order to feed their raging heroin (and in the case of West, food) addictions. Jack himself is honest about his reasons for doing it, stating matter of factly that he agreed to it because he needed the money and wanted a quick way to get back in the public eye. This section of the book absolutely trashes the project (not undeservedly), with all of those involved contributing.

Emerging from his heroin habit in the mid-1980s with a new wife, more children, all the while still producing several quality albums and tours, life eventually caught up with Jack in the late 1990s when he developed liver cancer from his years of heavy drinking. The description of his liver transplant in 2003 and the fact that he barely survived it was quite harrowing...I knew his health had been poor and remember hearing about his ordeal at the time, but I had no idea how close he truly was to death. He was quite literally 24 hours from life-support being removed before he made a miraculous recovery. Using Cream's upcoming 2005 reunion as his inspiration, Jack got better and was again in the worldwide spotlight with the success of the shows in London and New York alongside his old bandmates. The book wraps up Jack's story around 2010, showing a man who is still driven to evolve and move his music forward, but finally content in family life and his sobriety.

 Some of Jack's best singing and playing (as well as Cream on top of their game)

Harry Shapiro writes with good flow and has an engaging style that makes for an enjoyable read. His obvious affection for Jack's music comes through loud and clear, which is a good thing although it does seem, after a while, that he hardly ever criticizes anything that Jack has done (at least musically).  While I agree that Bruce has an impressive body of work, it began to grate slightly on me how the author praised literally, every single thing (apart from West, Bruce, and Laing) Jack ever worked on; at times, he seemed to be trying almost too hard to defend some of the weaker albums. Other than this, however, I can't really fault the book too much. Shapiro and Bruce were quite frank and candid when it came to discussing Jack's drug problems in the 1970s and early 1980s, his near-death experience due to his liver transplant, and his divorce from first wife Janet and subsequent marriage to his current wife Margrit.  Lastly, it shed some more light on his feud with Baker, which has persisted from the early 1960s to the present day. While Ginger, in his book, portrays himself as an easy-going guy who was the victim of Jack's temper, and Eric describes them both as part of the problem in his book, Jack is more sanguine; he readily admits he has a temper (which was worse in his younger days) and that he's a strong-willed individual. He knows he and Ginger rubbed each other the wrong way. At the same time, it seems Jack has tried to mend fences and soften his approach in later years, while Ginger seems to have gone the other way and hardened his stance. The paradox in all of this is that both admit that the other is the perfect compliment to them in terms of musical rhythm section partner...the fact that they've played together in several bands (in addition to the Cream reunion) over the past forty years attests to this. Finally, the admission by Jack (and others) that he's always looked up to Ginger, from their first meeting as young men, was quite touching and a brave thing to admit to.

Jack Bruce is a titan of modern music who has flown under the commercial radar for most of his post-Cream career while continuing to write, record, and perform challenging, excellent, and critically acclaimed music. The sheer breadth of his talent and personality are staggering, and Composing Himself tells his story in a manner befitting the man and his talents.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

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