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2005-03-16

By Buddy Blue

If you're in your forties, or - god help you - even more geezerly, you'll recall a brief blip in the distant past when Joe Cocker ranked among the world's A-list rock stars. The eccentric British singer was, perhaps most notably, among the highlights of the original Woodstock fest, where he transformed the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" from a cute little sing-song into a desperate, disconcerting, primal plea for human empathy on the big screen, stunning all who took in the performance.

Cocker's presentation came replete with twisted body and facial contortions that appeared to result from some horrible neurological condition (although these onstage spazz-attacks were purely impulsive), torrential emissions of sweat to bathe several rows of concert-goers in his personal ooze, plus copious amounts of onstage beer-swillage that any self-respecting pub-hound could admire. The man was a spectacle of near freak-show proportions, but Cocker never could have pulled it off were it not for That Voice.

In his prime, Cocker sounded like a chain-smoking, schizophrenia-tormented Ray Charles - and he was damned near as fine a song interpreter as Brother Ray, too. He imbued Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" and "I Shall Be Released" with a poignant tenderness the emotionally-distant author surely never imagined; Cocker's take on Leon Russell's "Delta Lady" stormed over the radio-waves like a gospel choir 'faced on Old Grandpa; he brought a moving, R&B/soul sensibility to George Harrison's "Something" that transported the song into a whole different solar system.

It certainly didn't hurt matters that Cocker's backing group, the Grease Band, rocked with fever and sinew to match the might of their frontman, or that such heavy company as Russell, Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood and Albert Lee sat in on his early recordings.

The peak of Cocker's career may have come in 1970 with the notorious, star-studded "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour, which yielded an acclaimed live double LP and documentary film. Unfortunately, the grueling tour left Cocker physically and emotionally drained - and here is where his troubles began.

Cocker had always been a notorious booze-hound, but post-"Mad Dogs," his public intoxication levels soared to new and embarrassing dimensions. He sometimes appeared staggeringly smashed in concert, and his once-magnificent pipes were reduced to an impotent croak. Offstage, there were incidents of drunken brawling and resultant arrests. Cocker was becoming an inebriated caricature of himself.

This was driven home to immeasurable horror when Cocker appeared on "Saturday Night Live" in 1976. SNL's John Belushi was already renowned for his hysterically dead-on Cocker imitation, featuring stumbling pratfalls, drooling grimaces and trembling, unsuccessful attempts to pour streams of beer into his mouth. But when Belushi appeared onstage without notice to mimic Cocker right at his side, it was a scene of Grand Guignol proportions.

Cocker was a good sport about it all, failing to bash Belushi into a little mass of red pulp, but the damage was done - Cocker was rendered a pathetic figure, a subject of ridicule, fallen from grace. For his part, a repentant Belushi - who actually admired Cocker -- recognized the injury and refused to do his Cocker shtick ever again, but it was, as the Zombies once sang, "too late to say you're sorry."

Cocker regrouped, sobered up and improbably re-invented himself as a successful M.O.R. balladeer - a process really begun in '75 with the sappy hit "You Are So Beautiful." This arc peaked in '82 with the Number One "Up Where We Belong," an excruciatingly mawkish duet with Jennifer Warnes. Cocker continued charting with similarly unmanly material into the early '90s before dropping off the map of pop stardom.

Last October, Cocker released "Heart And Soul," a star-studded album of generally well-chosen material (Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You," Aretha Franklin's "Chain Of Fools" and Sir Paul's "Maybe I'm Amazed" among the highlights) that's been widely hailed as a return to early form. Cocker is in better voice than anyone might have imagined, he performs with passion not evinced in decades, and there are gorgeous guitar solos from Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Skunk Baxter on hand, but this isn't going to make anyone forget Cocker's earliest work.

The problem is that producer/arranger C.J. Vanston hedges his bets, miring the album in slick sonic washes to appease Cocker's chardonnay-sipping fan base rather than letting the real rock & roll fury take hold. Mission accomplished, Vanny: "Heart & Soul" hit Number 61 on the Billboard 200, Cocker's highest- charting release in 16 years.

But for those of us who recall the glory days of Cocker's first three albums, hopes for a reunion with the Grease Band remain alive (assuming the bands members themselves still are), or, perhaps better yet, that someone will position Cocker in the studio with a group of hungry young players to coax out and compliment the best of his still-virile vocals. In short, although "Heart & Soul" ain't all it's cracked up to be, I take heart that Joe Cocker might someday still get high with a little help from his friends.

Joe Cocker, March 17 at Pala Casino, 11154 Highway 76 in Pala, 7:30 p.m., $40-$60, (877) 946-7252. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue

Q: How many rockabilly guys does it take to change a light bulb? A: One to change the bulb and all the rest to stand around talking about how much cooler the old one was.

It's a big week in San Diego for rockabilly/psychobilly-inclined fans, as Social Distortion - known as punk band, Social D frontman Mike Ness nonetheless claims roots in rockabilly and hillbilly -- plays Soma on Friday; Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys play the Casbah on Saturday, and the Reverend Horton Heat appears at Canes, also on Saturday. To mark the occasion, I'm here today to both praise rockabilly music to the skies and to damn it to Hell.

I love the music because, at its best, rockabilly may well be the most inventive, primal, alchemical, adrenaline-driven and chops-requisite offshoot to spring from the emerging rock & roll movement of the '50s - anyone who fails to recognize this after exposure to vintage tracks by Elvis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Joe Clay, Charlie Feathers, Wanda Jackson, Ronnie Self, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty and Billy Lee Riley, among dozens of others, simply has no ears. In more modern times, such rockabilly-steeped players as Big Sandy, Deke Dickerson, Junior Brown, the Blasters, Ray Condo, the Cramps, Southern Culture On The Skids, the Stray Cays (plus Cats bassist Lee Rocker solo) and local heroes the Paladins and Forbidden Pigs have all ranked among my favorite performers, regardless of genre.

Sadly though, I must condemn certain factions in modern rockabilly, because for the past several years, some of its fans and bands have assumed a stance of dim-witted, elitist trendiness that used to be the exclusive domain of wealthy country club snobs; and worse, because a far darker element has crept into the scene: a tacit embrace if not outright endorsement of a 1950s racist attitude to accompany the retro music and fashion sensibility that some believe is essential to a true "lifestyle" adoption of rockabilly "culture" (oh, puh-LEEZ!).

Orange County's Hootenanny fest - sort of an annual Woodstock for pomade cretins - best exemplifies the syndrome. The event has been consistently marred by racial-driven violence (SWP-types versus pachucos), sales booths hawking everything from Confederate flag merch to T-shirts championing Nazi- skinhead bands, and a looming mood that some percentage of the concert-goers would love to see a national return to the days when Bull Connor ran rampant over the "Negras" in the deep South.

The irony of the fact that the rockabilly movement was based on the reverse position, that the revolution was more than merely musical, seems hopelessly lost on these morons. Rockabilly was, in fact, the sound of white hillbilly and black jump blues merging together, a bold miscegenation that was considered so pernicious in the institutionally Jim Crow '50s that rockabilly performers took their lives into their hands whenever they stormed a stage in some backwater juke joint, toothless Ezras all a-twitter, lusting to stage a blanket party for the colored-lovin' Commies. Early rock & roll shows were among the first public events to be desegregated in the South; often spontaneously so, in the midst of out-and-out rock & roll riots in which the local black kids mixed freely with white kids in impetuous, giddy outbursts of social liberation.

Lee Rocker notes, "The whole essence of rockabilly was taking black music and grafting it onto white music. It was a rebellion against segregation and racial hatred. Elvis was a white guy singing like a black guy, and that broke down a lot of barriers. And a lot of those old Sun records had black and white musicians playing together on them."

Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of psychobilly founders the Cramps are even more pointed in their observations. "There are contingents that are very open about being racist, there are skinhead and Nazi

affiliations," says Ivy. "It's really horrible because rock & roll was just the opposite. Rock & roll brought people together. Rockabilly never represented negative aspects of Southern culture."

Adds Interior, "If anything, I think rockabilly was the first time in the history of rock music that white people were hanging around with blacks and openly listening to black records. Rockabilly was not only anti-racist, but was also the beginning of what became the youth movement of the '60s."

So there's your history lesson for the week, bigot-greasers, direct from the mouths of some of your heroes. However, if you truly insist on being a rockabilly fan of the weenie persuasion, I've compiled a brief list of rules to help you achieve your goal. To wit:

-Make sure grime is embedded under your fingernails at all times; claim it's from working on your '49 Merc, even if you don't really know how to change a tire.

-Learn to recognize the subtle textural and aromatic distinctions between Royal Crown, Dixie Peach and Murray's pomades; discuss in depth amongst peers.

-Drink lots of cut-rate, vile, urine-colored beer from a can; speak derisively of all superior brands as "beer in a green bottle."

-Be a hardcore Republican, even though you earn minimum wage at your gas-station job and can't name the current vice president.

-Attend the Social D show; glare menacingly at anyone who doesn't look like you.

-Refuse to listen to black performers or acknowledge R&B's sweeping influence on rock & roll, which was, as all should recognize, single-handedly begat by Elvis.

-If balding, shave your dome and become a skinhead instead of a rockabilly guy. Now you can openly hate black people, like you always wanted to!