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Having recently read memoirs from Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, it made sense to complete the triangle by finding out more in detail about the other main man who will forever be associated with both. Jack Bruce has not exactly written his life story, but he has cooperated fully with Harry Shapiro on this biography, and it is probably the closest we will ever get to that.
Although he will always be remembered mostly for Cream, the band which lasted a mere two years, Jack Bruce has had a long career in the music business, stretching back from the modern jazz, R'n'B and blues boom of the early 1960s to today. Written partly with help from extensive interviews by him, this biography has done him and the rest of us a service by following it in considerable detail.
The story begins in wartime Glasgow, where he was born in 1943 to parents who had long been active on the local political scene. His father, a Communist activist, passed his anti-establishment beliefs on to his son, or rather most of them. Young Jack was an avid reader of comics like the 'Dandy' and the 'Beano', but Mr Bruce would not allow them in the house as they were printed in Dundee by DC Thomson, a non-union organisation.
After the war the family went to Canada but soon returned to Glasgow, and as a small boy Jack caught the musical bug, listening to the classics as well as initially Frank Sinatra, later on Little Richard - and the Goons. His parents were quick to notice that he had a strong singing voice, and soon he was improvising on the piano, then going on to 'cello and double bass. At the age of 18 he left London, where he became part of the jazz scene, then getting into blues, working with such legendary names as Alexis Korner, Graham Bond and Cyril Davies.
A brief stint with Manfred Mann during their days as bluesy jazzers first and reluctant purveyors of pop singles second, staying just long enough to play on the No. 1 'Pretty Flamingo', soon gave way to his formation of Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. For many of us, this is inevitably going to be the most interesting section of the book, and I particularly enjoyed the insights into his songwriting partnership with lyricist Pete Brown. Moreover it reinforces the perception we always had that despite Clapton's fame as a guitarist, it was Bruce who really dominated the band, being responsible for writing or co-writing most of the material and thus handling most of the lead vocals. Also emphasised is the fact that Clapton had been keen to make the group a quartet by bringing in Steve Winwood, then with the Spencer Davis Group, to share vocals and play keyboards, although it seems never to have been seriously discussed.
Shapiro does not make too much of the tensions between all three members, and he gives the impression that it may have been exaggerated by other biographers. Nevertheless he testifies to 'smouldering hostility or shouting, with nothing in between' where Bruce and Baker were concerned. Yet though there were times when producer Tom Dowd feared they were going to kill each other, says the author, 'to be fair, this was just another day at the office for Cream, and in their terms probably not that serious.' Has there ever been a rock group which does not have serious rows?
By the end of 1968 it was all over (well, until 2005 anyway). Bruce was invited to join Led Zeppelin, to work with Hank Marvin of the recently disbanded Shadows (it sounds remarkable, but I kid you not), and also to play bass for Crosby, Stills & Nash, but he turned them all down. He preferred to work freelance with and form shortlived bands using various jazz-rock musicians whom he admired, and the resulting solo albums sold well if not spectacularly. Taking the easy way out and forming another outfit of superstar rock names - of whom he could have had his pick at any time - in order to have more chart-topping albums and hit singles was never going to be his way. But in view of his jazz leanings and reluctance to compromise, it is interesting to note that he did end up many years later as a member of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, alongside the likes of Dave Edmunds, Peter Frampton and Gary Brooker for a while. One doesn't normally think of him playing along on songs like 'Yellow Submarine' and 'With A Little Help From My Friends' - which I presume he did as part of the deal.
The majority of this book deals - and rightly - with Bruce's musical career. There are but brief glimpses of his family life, marriages, and the untimely death of one of his sons. His battles with alcohol and heroin are also referred to, though not in excessive detail, though the references to his liver transplant in 2003 - which was necessitated by years of hard drinking and drug abuse, and took place only just in time - make painful reading. I had not realised until reading this book that he was one of the hellraising party with John Lennon and Harry Nilsson on Lennon's famous 'lost weekend' of bingeing and getting thrown out of clubs around 1974.
Like the other two members of Cream, he is clearly lucky to be still alive, and one is left with the feeling that their brief reformation at the end of 2004 was done partly to prove to the world that they were still alive, still around and still working. It is with an account of those gigs in the Albert Hall and Madison Square Gardens in 2005 that the story more or less ends, although there is a brief look at his subsequent work and a few concluding thoughts that 'he retains the ethos of the working musician: if an opportunity arises - if it sounds interesting and the pay is OK - he'll go for it.' You may have seen him on TV not so long ago, as part of the line-up at a Gerry Rafferty tribute show, although that took place after the publication of this book and is therefore not mentioned.
The appendices include full discography, plus a list of live performances in which he has taken part on stage, on TV and radio, from October 1965 as a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to 2009. There is a selection of illustrations in colour and black and white at the front.
I certainly learned a good deal from this book, and about a character of whom I had rather lost track over the years. Shapiro has done his research faultlessly and selected well from interviews, and in less than 300 pages has written a first-rate musical biography with which it is hard to find fault.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]