Joe Cocker: A Modest, Self-immolating Steel Mill of a Man

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Joe Cocker, June 1970.Credit: AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

When you first caught sight of him, it was all but impossible to watch what he was doing. Almost immediately, though, it became impossible not to.

He was Joe Cocker. And there was no way he was going to make it to age 70.

Here was a living, seething steel mill of a man. Every time he approached a microphone, a new alloy was being produced deep inside there. A song you thought you knew, was in the process of being melted down to liquid and mixed in an exacting cascade of sparks and glowing red heat. And then it was refined and cooled, and it possessed and convulsed this man until his limbs left his joints and let the song leave his mouth, a song now brand new and mirror-sharp and also ancient and real and solid.

He was modest. And he was spectacular.

When he sang, he conjured the part of every one of us which is unhinged, the part which is broken, the parts which are barely controllable, the terrifying, the monstrous, the loving, the kind. The gravel in us, the vigilantly guarded untapped wells of sweetness in us, the need for another and for the many, the need for something better to believe in.

Here was this man, a pipefitter from Sheffield, England, whose tools became a bottom-out roar and a heart-heavy purr and, just when you would least expect it, a pause. Here was this man who taught everyone who heard him sing, something shattering about art itself, about hope, and about the crucible and the genius and the common denominators and the extraordinary imperfections at the very core of being human.

In a few mumbled words of introduction, he would turn an unwitting rock crowd into a congregation, an instant tribe, a hamoula, a sudden, do-it-yourself extended family reunion, open for more members, setting new places at the table with every note.

The songs often crosscut innocence and grit, as if taking truths by surprise. In the shambling, musically punch-drunk "Space Captain,"  he sings,

"Once while traveling across the sky, this lovely planet caught my eye.

And, being curious, I flew close by.

And now I'm caught here 'til I die.

Until we die, until we die

We're just learning to live together.

Learning to live together. Learning to live together

'Til we die"

It was impossible not to be moved by him. Just as it was impossible, when he sang, not to move with him.

The humility in him was something so unusual in that world, that it riveted crowds not only on him, but also on every single member of the rock philharmonic which backed him on tours like the breathtaking, early 70s travelling talent carnival called Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

With keyboardist Leon Russell cruising and boozing as conductor and ringmaster, there was no such thing as back-up singers or musical accompanists. There were performers, each working as part of an astonishing whole, each distinct in performance.

The horn section could play miracles around each other, then get together without warning as if one horn, one sweeping, magnificent, precise pipe organ of brass bells. The rhythm section, the singers, all of it drove so perfectly that in songs like "A Little Help From My Friends," there are parts in which the singers, the guitar, the bass, take the fore, an indispensible answer to the questions of the man out front.

And what a man. A man who wringed himself out when he sang, who turned his very tissues inside out, for all of us to see better what we ourselves were made of. Violence turned to strength, growling and thundering harnessed for a glimpse and a breath of peace.

He seemed to self-immolate on the stage. There was no way a person like that, in a world like that, would live to be 70. But there was steel in him always, steel that got him past addiction and alcoholism, and allowed him, in the end, even to be a grandfather.

Along the way, he taught everyone who heard him, what art is made of. And hope. And, if only for a while, the possibility of learning to live together.