By Peter Lindblad
|Joe Cocker - Mad Dogs & Englishmen|
When he sang, he sounded as if he was gargling gravel. To some, his disheveled appearance was off-putting, and his spastic stage movements made you concerned for his well-being. "This man is obviously having a seizure. Why isn't anybody helping him!?" That's what I thought to myself when I first witnessed Cocker onstage in all his glory.
The truth was, he was helping us. No singer was more affected physically by the material he was interpreting than Cocker, the son of a civil servant born and raised in Sheffield, England. His delivery on a re-calibrated version of The Beatles' classic "With a Little Help From My Friends," which soared to No. 1 in the U.K. in 1968 and led to his seminal performance at Woodstock, made audiences believe he had no chance of getting by without the assistance of those closest to him. Cocker did the impossible. He actually improved songs by The Beatles. later remaking "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" and "Something" with the blessing of Paul McCartney and George Harrison and giving them some grit and raw emotion. It was "With a Little Help From My Friends" that made him a star, though. Watch the video below. It'll send shivers up your spine.
Cocker belted out lyrics with every fiber of his being, his whole contorted body shaking as if he were possessed by demons and was conducting an exorcism right there where all could see. And he played air guitar, if you can believe it! Right there, onstage. Cultivating some flashy image was the furthest thing from his mind. He was completely lost in notes, wandering around melodies, just living inside songs and finding whatever was beautiful and human about them and translating it for tone-deaf listeners who either didn't speak the same language or couldn't see exactly what it was he'd found.
Cocker was a wild man. So was John Belushi. In some ways, they were kindred spirits. Maybe that's why Belushi's impersonation felt so right. It wasn't that he simply mimed Cocker's movements or sang just like him. Belushi captured his spirit, and he was able to do so because he, too, was untamed, unkept and out of control.
There was only one Joe Cocker, though. His death today at age 70 following a fight with cancer has left a great void. Another voice of Woodstock has been silenced. This was a working-class hero capable of taking a glossy schlock-fest like "Up Where We Belong" down into a smoke-belching factory or a garbage-strewn gutter and giving it to the downtrodden, to the hopeless romantic who experiences indignity after indignity on a daily basis and still hopes for better. And he won a Grammy with it and somebody named Jennifer Warnes.
When Cocker, so loveably gruff, grabbed hold of something like Billy Preston's "You Are So Beautiful," which rose to No. 5 in the U.S., he sounded vulnerable and tough, completely disarmed and at the same time protective of his fragile heart. Beloved and respected by other artists, Cocker performed with many of the greats and added a unique touch to stunning covers of handpicked songs that he could mold and shape into something he took ownership of, at least temporarily.
So play Mad Dogs & Englishmen to your heart's content today. Put on "Unchain My Heart" or any of the other myriad Cocker classics. Lift a glass to one of the most soulful and expressive Brit vocalists to ever get on a microphone. The world has lost one of the good ones.