Joe Cocker died on December 22, 2014 at the age of 70. This is an homage and memorial to a great artist and the power of his music.
Joe Cocker, there’s a performer you watch and think, he’s probably one of the ones who died young, who went down, or up, in flames, like Hendrix, like Janis, like so many of them did. You think that because his performance is so full on, so passionate, so crazed, it doesn’t look like anyone could survive that kind of total exertion for long. He looks like a candle burning at both ends andin the middle. But then you discover that until pretty recently, he was not only alive but quite well, married since 1987, living in a palatial abode in Colorado (when he was home), putting out album after album all these years (continuing to chart and, in many cases, go platinum, in every decade since the 1960s), and even more astonishing, performing 10-20 nights a month year-roundin venues all over the world! Yes, he hardly stopped for breath.
And if you’re anything like me, you listen to those early albums, the albums that were beloved by critics and the public alike in the late 60s, early 70s, the albums that soared to the top of the charts and are listed on many of the greatest-rock-albums-of-all-time lists, and you shake your head at the gorgeousness of that voice, that soulful voice, you almost cry for the heartbreaking emotion he puts into his songs.
I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Musicagain. I love the movie and have seen it three or four times in the past. It’s a fabulous work of art in its own right and a mesmerizing document not only of some truly outstanding performances but of the whole wild, history-making event, complete with rainstorm, traffic blocked for miles, and thousands and thousands of hippies.
But ten years have passed since the last time I saw it, and I was surprised—and a little dismayed—at how much I’d forgotten. The really memorable performances have stayed with me however, so when Joe Cocker came onstage, and a friend said, “Oh, Joe Cocker, he’s so weird,” and I said, “Yes, but watch this. This is my favorite performance in the whole movie,” it made me stop and consider just why that is—because it was this performance and his appearance in the same year on the Ed Sullivan show that made Cocker a household name in America.
What I find so incredible about this performance is that in the rock world most stars seem consumed with posturing or performance, but in Joe Cocker, in this performance anyway, you have someone who is simply and immediately and wholly music—devotion to the song, to the performance, to what he can give. And he does his best to give all of it, every ounce of strength and feeling he has. There’s no holding back and no concern for self, for ego, for appearance. It’s all music, transforming music. You are privy to something unique and remarkable happening on stage—not only great talent, but great commitment, and a moment of pure grace.
So there’s Cocker—staggering, weaving like the end of the world is upon us, playing his crazed version of air guitar as he sings, fingers flailing, jittering, like wild frantic birds. He deals with the fact that he plays no instrument by playing every instrument through his body—fingers mimic the piano part, the bass part, the guitar, in a wild, spastic reverie. And he’s positively stealingthe song “A Little Help from My Friends” from the Beatles for all time. There he is, opening his mouth and letting something phenomenal come out of him, dipping his body down and up, bending all the way forward and swaying back, as every beat of the music energizes his whole body. Yet his voice can come out as soft as a love song one minute or as fierce as a raging howl the next—and he plays the song both ways, surprising us with sudden switches of tempo and feeling, keeping us on the edge of our seats, if we’re even still sitting, keeping us glued to his every inflection.
We’ve never heard this song sung like this. His sense of timing and rhythm are impeccable—the sudden stops in the song, followed by bursts of fierce noise—drums, guitar, bass, all kicking into explosive high gear—and one wild scream comes out of Cocker as he rips the song out of the depths of his soul. So it is and always will be his song, because he believes the song, he meansevery word of it. Here is a man relying on his friends, needing his friends, and knowing it and cherishing them for it, whereas for the Beatles it sounds more like a sarcastic joke, witty, urbane and controlled. Cocker gives a performance that you’d think would destroy not only his vocal cords but his body, but instead it is feeding him.
And he begins the performance by saying, “we’re going to leave you with the usual thing,” as if it’s nothing, a little ditty, that’s coming, as if the breathtaking performance that follows, as if pouring his whole heart, body and soul into a blazing rendition of this song were just “the usual thing.” Maybe for him it is. For anyone watching and listening, it is completely electrifying. When he comes off the stage after singing that song, he looks like someone who has just finished a marathon, panting, weaving, gasping for breath.
This is the same man who continued to sing, record, tour since the early 60s? Yes, it is. Cocker was born in 1944 in Sheffield, England and worked as an apprentice gas fitter, while singing as Vance Arnold and The Avengers. They got their big break in 1963 when they opened for The Rolling Stones at Sheffield City Hall. Cocker went out under his own name then with some success off and on. In 1969 he took America by storm at Woodstock. Life Magazine called him, “The voice of all those blind criers and crazy beggars and maimed men who summon up a strength we’ll never know to bawl out their souls in the streets.” His major inspiration was Ray Charles, and you hear that in his raw, soulful sound and in his phrasing. In 1970, Playboyvoted him number one vocalist in their annual jazz and rock poll. But there were lots of battles, both inner and outer. Yet he managed to outlast many of his contemporaries with a vitality that was truly astonishing.
Maybe you followed him all along, or maybe you just discovered him when he died, or maybe you remember him from way back when but never paid much attention. I invite you to listen again. Watch him. Watch Woodstock, get out his records. You won’t be disappointed.
Maxima Kahn lives in the Sierra Nevada in California. Her poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines and blogs. She has twice been nominated for Best of the Net and was a finalist for the Atlanta Review poetry contest. She has taught creative writing at the University of California, Davis extension and privately. Now she blogs about creativity and soulful living and teaches artists and dreamers how to unlock their creativity and live passionately at BrilliantPlayground.com. She is also an award-winning composer and avant-garde violinist. You can follow her creations and creative process at Patreon.com/maximakahn.