Tuesday, April 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic's Chris Wood


When the legendary band Traffic is discussed, the first names that always come to mind are Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. This isn't surprising as the duo founded the band, Winwood has been one of the most respected and talented musicians of the last fifty years, and he and Capaldi wrote almost all of Traffic's material. Dave Mason, another co-founder, is well known to serious music fans for his work in Traffic, his session work, and as a solo artist in the 1970s. It's the fourth co-founder of Traffic, Chris Wood, who is sadly the forgotten man when it comes to discussing both Traffic and 1960s/early 1970s music. The most enigmatic member of one of the most enigmatic bands to emerge from the 1960s England, Tragic Magic is not only the first ever biography of Chris Wood, but it also serves as the definitive story of Traffic.


Author Dan Ropek spent ten years researching and writing Tragic Magic, getting cooperation and firsthand accounts from those closest to Chris Wood. These include his Traffic bandmates Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, as well as numerous friends, family members, former classmates, and other musicians he interacted with during his life. Starting with his comfortably middle-class childhood and upbringing in Birmingham, England, Ropek traces the evolution of Chris' personality, his interests in mysticism and the occult, and his budding talents for art and music. Eschewing pop music and rock and roll in favor of blues, R&B, and especially jazz, Chris trod the path less taken by his contemporaries. While nearly every musically inclined young man his age was picking up a guitar, bass, pair of drumsticks, or sitting down at a piano, Chris instead taught himself to play flute and saxophone. Inspired by the birds he loved to watch and the sounds of nature he loved listening to, his style was predicated less on technical proficiency and more on feel and mood. This was a unique inflection to his sound that would be both his blessing and his curse.  Combined with his lifelong crippling stage fright and insecurities, Chris was a very complex and introverted person. Nonetheless, nearly everyone who befriended him looked back on him in the book with fondness and warm thoughts. While serious about his music, Chris was first and foremost a very talented artist, so much so that he followed the tradition of numerous great 1960s British bands by attending art college. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, and Cream all had members who went to art college and with Chris, so too did Traffic. While very promising and remembered by all as very talented and expressive, the small gigs and jams he played on the side became too tempting and, not without serious trepidation, he decided to leave school to pursue a career as a musician. This was no doubt helped along by his budding friendship with fellow Birmingham musician (and then current teen aged musical prodigy) Steve Winwood. From here, Ropek does a fantastic job detailing how Wood and Winwood developed their friendship and musical sympathy and came into the orbit of two more local musicians, Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason. Finally feeling the time was right to leave the Spencer Davis Group, Winwood made a leap of faith to start a new band with three unknowns and Traffic were born.


At this point, the book becomes as much a full-fledged Traffic biography as it does a biography of Chris Wood. Tracing the history of the band from their first jam sessions The Elbow Room to a remote Berkshire cottage and their first single releases, it became clear almost from the beginning that Mason was an awkward fit, both personality-wise and musically. What was also clear from the beginning was that, while Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood had a synergy and musical connection between them that was undeniable, Chris would soon be unintentionally frozen out of the songwriting partnership by the end of their first year together. While he would continue to contribute to songs throughout his career to varying degrees, the lack of songwriting credits, especially where he thought they were warranted, would cause alternate bouts of silent resentment and depression. One thing that was clear from everyone who knew Chris was how unsuited they thought he was for the rock and roll lifestyle. While there was great success both commercially and artistically during his time in Traffic, his perpetual emotional and personal insecurities combined with his generally fun-loving nature led him down the path of drug and alcohol addiction that would eventually kill him. Along the way, he had the misfortune to fall head over heels in love with perhaps the worst woman for him (in terms of temperament) in Jeanette Jacobs. While they were a couple from the late 1960s until their split in the late 1970s, they remained legally married until her death in 1982. Their marriage and relationship was anything but healthy or normal. Joining Chris in his addictions and serially unfaithful to him, he was none the less head over heels in love with her and would remain so for the rest of her life regardless of the torment it caused him. Combined with his already fragile psyche, this anguish would have devastating effects on not only his career, but his health and ultimately his life.


While the details of the entirety of Chris' life and music are fascinating to read, they're especially so when reading of his time in Traffic between its founding in 1967 and their dissolution in late 1974. Throughout the whole book, though, one thing becomes clear: for reasons not even necessarily known to him, Chris Wood was a very troubled, unhappy person for most of his adult life. Musically, his hard line to eschew commerciality for the purity of his art was a fine line he was only able to just straddle during Traffic's success. However, this rigidity combined with his insecurity hamstrung his career after the band split up, and to crippling effect. Detailing all of this, Ropek manages to do a fine job being honest about Chris' virtues and flaws while sounding neither hagiographic nor salacious. Bolstered by his unprecedented access to numerous people in the inner Traffic circle and Chris' family and friends, he weaves the varying strands of Wood's life into a story that is, unfortunately, an almost uniformally sad and depressing one punctuated only with short periods of happiness and success.


Much of the book seems to be geared toward rehabilitating Chris' image and legacy in the eyes of music fans and writers. While it does a good job doing this, there were certain points where the author seemed to be trying perhaps a little too hard and overreaching, at least in my view. While I personally gained a better understanding of where Chris was coming from in his approach to music, I still tend to think he was musically and technically limited and the weakest musician within Traffic. That being said, his contributions to many of their songs are wonderful and they certainly wouldn't have had their sound had he not been a part of the group. The book takes on a heavy air of foreboding once Traffic breaks up and it was equally sad and chilling to read of Chris being not only resigned to his fate, but his almost full scale acquiescence to it. The harrowing depictions of his final years from friends and family members lent the final quarter of the book an air of impending doom; even though we already know how the story ends, it's a grim tale to read. What was most shocking to me was how he died; I had always read that it was from pneumonia, but how he got to that point and what actually killed him was not a pleasant journey to read about. Given that Wood was only a year older when he died than I am at present made it even more poignant to me.


Tragic Magic is an essential book as it really is the only definitive (and quasi-authorized) biography of Traffic. While it is in many aspects a somewhat somber read, I do want to emphasize that overall it's more a celebration of Chris' life and music, especially as the publication of the book led to the release of the excellent archival releases of music Chris made (but never released) after Traffic. This included his lost album Moonchild Vulcan as well as the Evening Blue box set. If you're a fan of Traffic, this book is a must-read. There was so much new information I learned that I'm already planning to re-read it in the near future as there's almost certainly a lot I'll forget. Irrespective of the subject, this is one of the best-written and researched music biographies I've read. The fact that it finally pulls back the curtain on one of the most enigmatic bands of its day only enhances its standing.

MY RATING: 9/10


7 comments:

  1. Some of Dan's book also appeared in Evening Blue - a deluxe limited edition LP/4CD/212-page vinyl-sized book with additional new interviews, pictures and info from Chris' colleagues, fellow musicians, producers, engineers, family, etc. Neil Storey discovered the mastertapes of Chris' solo album in a barn in 2013 besides trawling ancient archives and vaults for Evening Blue. Applauded in the music press with 5-star reviews, we now have a handful of ex warehouse copies at HiddenMasters, and we are selling them at the original price of £90. This rare edition is being sold on many other websites at twice and three-times the price, which is not what we intended. We wanted to give fans Chris' music that was unheard, and undiscovered and at the highest possible quality to enjoy. We have a page all about Chris and his new albums https://hiddenmasters.net/chris-wood-evening-blue-vulcan-traffic/. PLeas etake a look he was a very special musician

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    1. Hi Jayne,

      Thanks for your comment. I put a link to Evening Blue in my post...I read a lot about it on the Steve Hoffman message boards and it does indeed sound like a fantastic box set. Do you know if there are plans to make it available beyond the limited edition? Especially on CD...I'd be *very* interested!

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  2. Chris did not die of pneumonia. We have worked with the Chris Wood Estate to try and correct the entry on Wikipedia, 18 times, without resolve. Sorry to pull you up on things but working with his Estate makes you strive for accuracy. Chris and Jeanette were not a couple until 1982. They were married due to her Visa requirements for living in the UK, but she lived with Larry Bartlett for many years, a recording engineer, and they had a son, Damian.

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    1. Correct on both counts. I was aiming to show how information that had been out for years was revealed to be incorrect and was researched and documented accurately in this book. I wasn't clear so I've gone and updated the post to better reflect that. It's crazy because I've been reading the "pneumonia" explanation for the last 25+ years in everything about Traffic.

      How did you come to work with the Wood estate and what have you worked on with them? Interesting stuff!

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    2. Neil Storey, founder of HiddenMasters, is ex Island Records and he - together with Jess Roden - launched a back catalogue deluxe book/album with 96 tracks. Jess and Neil had been invited to Gordon Jackson's birthday party, and Steph Wood, Chris's sister got talking about doing a similar book on Chris. Neil had worked with Traffic briefly, knew quite a bit about them, so he said yes. I don't think any of us - including Steph - realised what we'd discover and what experiences we'd have. What started to be a 32 page book, exploded in to over 200 pages - we found all sorts of pictures, negative, video even, Neil found tapes in barns, vaults, and attics. You couldn't have made this stuff up.

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    3. A lot of his fellow musicians had great tales to tell and remarkable pictures they allowed us to publish. Picture agencies from the 60s and 70s allowed us into their warehouses with hard copy prints - treasures from 50 years ago. Sadly though some staff of these pictures agencies are very young and don't know the people in the pictures. We pulled out a load of Jimi Hendrix pictures, at a festival in Zurch in 1964, and there in the background was Chris and Traffic sharing the stage in the rehearsals. it's moments like this that make your heart soar

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    4. Very interesting! Is there any chance the Evening Blue book could be released as a standalone? It sounds like there's a ton of stuff in there that would augment/supercede the Tragic Magic book.

      (also I think you mean ~1968/69 on the Hendrix thing? He had never been out of the US in '64 and of course Traffic didn't exist then, either :-) )

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