Jack Bruce: Composing Himself
By Harry Shapiro

Jawbone Press 2010, $19.95/14.95, pp319

It was while I was having a walk, quite recently, that I happened to spot two familiar faces looking at me from the "international sector" of my favourite newsstand, right from the cover of the most recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine (Issue #1099, March 4, 2010). Having fun looking at me, none other than Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The cover story (by David Fricke) was intended to celebrate the two guitarists and to announce the small series of concerts they were about to play together - or at lest, on the same stage.

I had a look at the "who comes first" factor. On the cover Beck is placed on the left, the names being Beck & Clapton. In the fine picture (b&w, a two-page spread) that opens the piece Clapton is on the left, here the names being Clapton And Beck. The table of contents reads: Cover Story. Beck, Clapton and the Way of the Guitar: Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck talk old rivalries, blues heroes and the secrets of their craft.

While the magazine tries quite hard to paint the two gentlemen as being equal, it goes without saying that Clapton is quite definitely the famous one. Which doesn't only mean that he sold a lot more records, but also that he frequently appeared in the pages of media that are not strictly about music, but which feature all those who can be defined as being a "personality", better yet, a "colourful personality". It goes without saying that's at this point that any Jeff Beck fan worth his/her name would immediately say that (Jeff) Beck is without a doubt a "colourful personality". But a true (Jeff) Beck fan is also quick to understand that there are many different ways to be a "colourful personality"; and that the majority of people appear to "get" some ways way better than others. And that music is not really high in this totem pole, something that most magazines are more than happy to prove as being true.

(Here the usual excuse is that "papers must give people what they want". But - since we're talking guitars here - I'd really like to see how many of those who write about music know what an "artificial harmonic" is, or an harmonic played with the side of the pick, or with the flesh of the thumb.)

While Clapton's "true fans" consider him as being a great guitarist mostly thanks to the work he did with Cream, the majority of "average buyers" mostly know Clapton for his "unplugged" version of Layla, or for the song Tears In Heaven. Then there are those who don't even know that Clapton is indeed a guitar player, while knowing many of his hits as a singer. So, those who want to write a biography of Clapton can have access to a wide palette of possibilities, approaches, goals, and targets.

But what about a biography of Ginger Baker? Baker was a great drummer, especially with Cream. A "colourful personality"? Definitely. But is there enough material for a biography? - that was what I asked myself upon seeing a few articles about a recently published tome, pictures included.

Ginger Baker - Hellraiser (The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Drummer), by Ginger Baker and Ginette Baker (John Blake 2009, 18.99, ppxi-291), is really a disaster. The most absurd thing being that Baker appears to have absolutely nothing interesting to say about his drumming (nor about music), while appearing to show more interest for discussing things such as drugs, women, horses, rallies, financial problems, and health issues. Whatever the reason (a short-sighted editor? considering his own music as something people already know? the author's low boredom threshold?), it's a waste of time for all, this reader included, and a book that's sheer agony to read.

It was almost by chance that I got to know about the release of Composing Himself, the recent "authorized biography" of Jack Bruce written by Harry Shapiro. To this day, I've read no reviews, nor articles such as those that have appeared about Baker's biography. Which is not really surprising, in a way, given the fact that Bruce is definitely a "colourful personality", but in the general direction of a Jeff Beck. And even if his life has had quite a few "colourful moments" (a few of them appear in the book, just don't expect any gratuitous dirt), this happened far from the spotlight, and in a subordinate manner to the music.

I'll immediately say that Shapiro has written a fine book (I managed to find just one - definitely minor - mistake, on page 111: The live version of I'm So Glad does not appear, as stated, on Wheels Of Fire), and here are just a few fine points.

The framework of the narration offers both biographic and music aspects. It's nice to read about Bruce's childhood and adolescence, and about many historical and social aspects. The music side is rich and detailed without being too technical - there are many readers who could find technical issues cold and off-putting, and of course those who play bass and musicians in general already possess a lot of articles with transcriptions and technical information about instruments and amps. But the book offers quite a few astute observations that sneak on you.

It goes without saying that the book has a chapter about Cream, and rightly so. This is not, however, at the expense of more obscure chapters of Bruce's life story, such as The Tony Williams Lifetime, the mega-album Escalator Over The Hill, or the quintet that featured Mick Taylor and Carla Bley, about which we learn quite a bit. It goes without saying that the lion's share of the discussion about the solo albums is devoted to those undisputed classics called Songs For A Tailor, Harmony Row, and Out Of The Storm. There are also fine chapters about the Graham Bond Organization; the controversial trio West Bruce & Laing; the quartet featuring Simon Phillips and Tony Hymas; the large Kip Hanrahan line-up; the trio with Gary Moore and Ginger Baker; the recent "latin" groups; and the Cream reunion.

The narration by Bruce is quite generous, never reticent. But there are many interesting voices here: wordsmith Pete Brown, an alter ego in the course of the whole book; drummer John Marshall and guitarist Chris Spedding, on the fine albums they played on; Carla Bley and Ronnie Leahy, who tell very interesting tales about that short-lived quintet; Phillips and Hymas, on a fertile but not successful line-up, that's seldom discussed; Kip Hanrahan, whose records featuring Bruce definitely deserve a second listen. Then there are managers, engineers and producers, and various assorted people. At the end of the volume there's a tiny "technical" part; a long, quite detailed complete discography; and a live chronology, which manages to say a lot.

Hard as I tried, I couldn't find any real weak points in this book. Those who love Bruce will like this book. Those who only know a few chapters of his musical journey will get to know quite a few more.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 28, 2010