REQUIEM FOR CREAM
(On October 11 in New Haven, Cream gave one of the last performances of their U.S. farewell tour. Before the concert they talked with the CRIMSON about themselves, their life on stage and their future plans.)
The New Haven Arena was filled with blue light and rows of teenyboppers turning every now and then from their ill-concealed joints to stare at the stage door. They finally appeared, mesmerized their listeners and, without ever once letting up, proceeded with ninety minutes of the music that has all but become the language of our time. "White Room," "Crossroads," "I'm So Glad," "Traintime," "Toad,"...there couldn't have been many in the audience who did not already know these songs inside out. But their charisma doubled. Everyone knew this was the end. Cream had announced their splitting up, and the concert had that primeval aura of the last rites. We had talked to them for over an hour at a pre-concert reception. It didn't matter. On the stage, in that blue light, they were superhuman.
None of us really could remember what our thoughts were when we were introduced to them by Bob Rolontz of Atlantic Records. My own reaction was to dart out the back door before my nerves got the best of me. It seemed strange that the characters who had grown to the enormous proportions of their reputation could be so tiny in real life. Baker, the tallest, couldn't be more than 5'8". He and Clapton hid in a corner of the room trying, impossibly, to remain inconspicuous. Baker--chalk skin set off beneath dull orange hair, black motorcycle jacket, high heeled boots and fingers almost hidden in silver and gold rings. Clapton in blue velvet pants, white silk socks and patent leather buckle shoes. Brocaded vest and fingernails longer than a Japanese dowager's. At the other end of the room was Bruce, sullen and bored. He sat with his stubby fingers nervously drumming the edge of the chair. Alligator boots, knee-length leather riding jacket. Compressed nervous energy. Despite the awkwardness of the scene, they were generous with their conversation. We were lucky.
Eric Clapton, the most approachable of the three, had shaved off his moustache and trimmed his hair since last spring's U.S. tour. The change in appearance took on more significance when he began talking about his future. "I really want to get back into straight blues. Working with Jack and Ginger has been great, but I feel like I've gone off into a strange bag that's taken me further and further away from blues. The blues is where I belong." After seven years on the road he feels he deserves a vacation. Why so much touring? "We tour to make enough money not to tour." And Clapton can't conceal his amazement over Cream's success. "When we first found out we were going to tour the States I just couldn't believe it. The audiences here are just fantastic. We've done some of our best playing here."
He reacted with disbelief to the fact that he is the most widely imitated guitarist in rock today. I asked him whether he realized that almost every aspiring rock guitarist in the country was aspiring rock guitarist in the country was aping his style. "Well, of course I'm flattered, but if that's true it's too bad because it'll take them just that much longer to get into their own thing...my own influences were from the Chicago school, especially B. B. King. But I was always searching for my own style." It seems he found it.
Clapton was most articulate when talking about performing. "I really need a certain amount of things going for me to make a good show. Like if I'm alone in my hotel room I just can't get myself into anything worthwhile. The mood of the audience, the location, the time of day, how Jack and Ginger are responding...all these have to be just right. The Fillmore concert (recorded on "Wheels of Fire") was like this. That was our peak. It happens less often now."
Rock eats its young. Ginger Baker is like a beast from another world, a world of pressed rats, warthogs and toads. The controlled madness of his rhythm is responsible for the group's incessant drive. Ginger Baker must have the world's fastest right hand, left hand, right foot and left foot. The mind-bending accuracy with which he clouts the dozen or so drums and cymbals around him seems impossible when one looks at his scarecrow body. His physique provides the reason for Cream's demise. If Baker lives another year it will be a miracle. His whole nervous system is so wracked by amphetamines that he literally has to be carried off the stage after a performance. His speech is an alternating pattern of comments followed by ghastly croaks that begin somewhere down within his sinewy frame and emerge through a crooked row of half rotten teeth. When I asked him why they called themselves "Cream," he emitted the type of lecherous laugh that would turn anyone with an unmarried daughter into a life-long advocate of the police state: "It was a joke...a dirty joke."
Baker's explanation for the miracle of Cream was "just a matter of luck. We happened to get together at the right time. I was with Graham Bond, Jack was with Manfred (Mann) and Eric was with the Yardbirds. At that time we were all up for something new. It was luck."
Both he and Clapton spoke highly of The Band ("Music from Big Pink"). Baker said "The reason they are so loose is 'cause they've been just sitting around digging themselves for so long, not performing all the time like us. You know...the music you play is like the life you live."
Jack Bruce is an incredibly serious musician. His face is young and calm but up close it hardens around intense eyes. During performances, he sings with that intensity of his eyes and then retreats to a corner while Clapton takes his solos. His conversation was the most egocentric of the three. But, after all, the man can hear four-part harmony in his head. His is unquestionably the unifying force of the group, writing most of the songs, doing 90 per cent of the singing and responsible for harnassing the explosive energies of Clapton and Baker.
While Clapton and Baker are entirely into their own virtuosity, Bruce's musciality is inexhaustible. At present he is working on the Bach Cello Suites ("the most perfect music ever written.") His art on the cello is well documented in "As You Said" on the last album. He may have the most extraordinary taste of any rock musician. "My favorite of the contemporary composers is Olivier Messiaen. I have this tape of the Turangalila Symphony that I made off a radio broadcast and I keep returning to it. It's great music. I went to some of his (Messiaen's) lectures in Brighton. He's very much underrated."
Bruce also spoke of a new record he had just finished cutting called "Thing We Like." All the selections on it are compositions of his written over the last five years. Bruce plays string bass. The other players are relatively unknown. "The whole album is serialized improvisation. I've written all the tops and bottoms and provided serialized rhythms and pitches for the others to improvise upon." Influences of Schoenberg? "No, probably more Webern than anyone else, especially since many of the cuts are so short. One is fifty seconds long. Webern, man, he was too much! Years ahead of his time. People still haven't caught on to him."
Bruce doesn't feel that rock will change greatly. "Rock depends very much on certain cliches. They're the essential vocabulary of rock. When-ever you add something new like, for instance, electronic sounds, you always risk destroying it." He is also anxious about whether he will be recognized apart from his Cream identity. "I had a terrible hassle just trying to find a company willing to produce my new disc." Meanwhile, Bruce continues his struggle to increase his musical powers by writing inventions in the style of Bach. "Two part inventions are hard, but it's the three-part ones that are a real gas." He does all this without the help of a piano. His songs are always conceived as total entities. Most of the cuts on "Fresh Cream" were written out in full score, again without the aid of a piano. I asked him the meaning of the title to one of these songs, "N.S.U." "That stands for nonspecific urethritis which is a disease of the urethra you catch from women ...from fucking. We dedicated it to a mutual friend."
Cream reached its zenith at a time when most rock records were being overloaded with extramusical paraphernalia. Some of the finest groups like Country Joe, the Stones and the Airplane had sold their souls to the electronic engineers and the gimmick was the thing. Cream never once departed from their musical idealism, never resorted to Sargeant Pepper effects. They leave, as they came, musicians of the highest integrity