Pink Floyd: “Crying Song” (Soundtrack From The Film “More”, 1969)
If you follow the music news wires, there’s little chance you haven’t heard something about the big wave of Pink Floyd reissues coming out this fall, starting this week. The albums have been remastered and repackaged yet again (you can buy them all together, again, in a big boxed set that has the exact same tracklist as the Oh, By The Way set from just a few years ago).
Three of them are getting what the band, or its label, or somebody involved in the Why? Pink Floyd project are calling the Immersion treatment, with bonus discs and all (you could likely guess which three), and Nick Mason has talked bout possibly scouring the vaults over the next year or so and doing a series of archival releases, which, well, about bloody time, isn’t it? I’ll be talking about this elsewhere soon, so I won’t use a lot of words on it here, but this band’s hands-off treatment of its recorded legacy has driven fans nuts for years.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on what we’ll be left with when the historical dust settles, which of course is the music. I have a languishing side project on Tumblr that was devoted to this but got abandoned when time ran short, but I’ll do a few entries here over the next few weeks focusing on songs that no one ever talks about. First up, a song from the band’s soundtrack to Barbet Schroeder’s film More.
The More soundtrack has long been one of my favorite Pink Floyd albums. That’s different from saying it’s one of the best—it’s not. It’s disjointed and full of sketches, but that is ultimately what I love about it. It shows a band that had been caught at a creative impasse finding its way out of the cul de sac it had driven into. Listen to it alongside Ummagumma, the Zabriskie Point sessions and a couple live bootlegs of The Man and The Journey, two suites of old and new music they played a lot that year, and 1969 pretty quickly becomes the most fascinating year of the band’s career.
The music Pink Floyd made in ‘69 runs a wide gamut from avant garde experimentalism, tape noise fiddling, neoclassical weridness, performance art, and flirtations with ambient music to mellow pop, acoustic folk, hard rock, blues, surf and psychedelia. A lot of it is very good, and intentionally or not, quite forward-thinking. The band may have been trying to fight their way out a box, but they invented a bunch of other boxes while doing it.
"Crying Song" is situated third on More. The vibraphone rises out of the fade of "The Nile Song," the hardest rock song the band ever did (it sounds like grunge 20 years early). It’s a clear trick of sequencing, cooling things down after the early energy peak, and "Crying Song" is easy to breeze right past because it is so quiet, but I think it’s actually pretty great, even if it is dead simple.
If you’re looking for a modern reference point, it sounds maybe a little like Tindersticks without the drama. Rick Wright’s vibes have much to do with that. He lays out a lush bed for the song to lie in, and then the rhythm section sneaks in behind him in a reverse fade. David Gilmour’s double-tracked vocal repeats the same melody over and over—The Floyd rarely wrote a chorus—but there’s enough shifting going on in the music that it doesn’t really matter much.
The last two bits of lyric are interesting entries in the Roger Waters song book. “Sadness passes in a while” seems to be one he ultimately forgot when writing sprawling opuses about fame and the death of his father. “Help me roll away the stone” is the first appearance of an image that pops up in his songwriting with fair frequency thereafter.
Finally, Gilmour’s guitar solo is quite good. He is of course, a much-admired guitarist, and his solos from later songs such as “Time” and “Money” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” have been fodder for guitar magazines and young learners for ages, but in his early years with the band, before he established his signature voice on the instrument, we got to hear him do a lot of other stuff.
He was a pioneer of using guitar as a directed noise instrument, though I doubt he sees himself that way (he’s rarely in those conversations as it is). This solo is perfect for its song, hazy and sleepy, phrased around just a couple drawn-out thoughts. Gilmour was never a technically flashy guitar player, and that’s what makes him good—he was always about tone and phrasing.
That goes for the whole band, really. Nick Mason barely does anything on this song—all you can hear is his snare quietly quietly tapping out the accents with no embellishment. For a band that became a dictatorship and pulled itself apart in public, Pink Floyd had a funny way of sounding very democratic. If these reissues accomplish anything, I hope it will be to send a few more people back to the fascinating music they made during their lengthy transition phase out of the psychedelic wilderness.
Snowman: “The Last Train Outta Town” (Snowman, 2006)
I considered saving this one for my year-end wrap-up, which I’ll be doing in December, but this song came up on the shuffle yesterday and I was too excited about it to wait.
Really, I could have chosen any number of Snowman songs, but this one’s on the brain, so I’ll roll with it. Snowman broke up earlier this year after three LPs and a mini-album. Their final album, Absence, is a lock for my 2011 top five and has been since it came out—“Last Train Out Of Town” hails from their debut, though, when they were a much different band, musically.
Snowman were a special band to me for more than their music. First, let me explain that I’m not a scene-y person. I think a lot of people have a perception that music critics are all constantly out at shows and pulling strings to go backstage and showing up at Brooklyn loft parties where there are artists to rub shoulders with. For some of my colleagues, this is a reality, but I’ve been a music critic in some capacity for eleven years now, and it never has been for me.
I’ve lived in Boston, the northern suburbs of Chicago, Fayetteville, Arkansas and now the Detroit area in that time, and I have only ever had contact with a few artists, and only ever gotten to know a tiny few in any kind of personal way. Snowman was one of them.
I actually met them in their homeland, Australia, at, well, an afterparty when I was on one of the only jet-set assignments I’ve ever had, covering the Laneway Festival in Melbourne and Sydney. I’d seen them perform earlier that day, and it was one of those rare, absolutely face-melting performances that sticks with you and overshadows everything else you’re seeing at the festival.
I found myself sitting next to them in a bar and started talking to them, and immediately it wasn’t like a journalist/artist conversation, but more of a people with mutual interests conversation. They had one album out at the time and were in the early planning stages of a move to London. The band formed in Perth, which is about the most edge-of-the-world city on earth, and they’d done all they could do without moving to somewhere bigger and more connected. Somewhere more proximal to the wider musical world.
I followed their music after that, even had the occasional friendly exchange. They made two more LPs and both were great—it was an odd sort of relief when the first one they released after I met them (The Horse, The Rat And The Swan) turned out to be one of the best I heard that year. That’s one of my favorite albums, period, these days.
The band’s move to England helped a bit, but it also ultimately ended the band. The rhythm section moved to Iceland to start a new life together. The band’s two guitarist/vocalists, Joe McKee and Andy Citawarman, have both moved on to other musical projects that I have little doubt will produce more excellent music. But Snowman definitely leaves a space no one else will be able to fill.
This song offers a small hint of the unique vision that made this band special—this is that vision in its embryonic form, when the elements that comprised it were still largely unmixed. You can hear the tribal music, surf guitars, hard rock, glam rock, industrial, avant garde and ambient tendencies of the band at the moment of collision, before they recombined them into a more seamless whole.
McKee (verses) and Citawarman (chorus) both sing here, and I love the tension between their differing approaches. McKee’s voice is portentous and kind of foreboding; Citawarman’s is much more exuberant, and he has a pretty freaky falsetto he can get to pretty much whenever he wants. The instrumental break with the sax and electric violin is awesome, too.
I’m going to miss this band a lot. They did their own thing from start to finish, and did it really well, making a couple of my favorite records in the process. I revisit them often.
OK, let’s talk about Styx, as featured on yesterday’s Cold Cassette. This band made a lot of ridiculous music—Dennis DeYoung’s reedy voice makes some of it seem even more ridiculous—but still… I think I still value them as a band, even though they have maybe two songs I can listen to these days.
"Renegade" is one of those songs. Hell, it’s their best song. I don’t even know what would challenge it for the title. To me, "Renegade" is kind of an icon for things that mainstream rock used to do and doesn’t anymore.
"Renegade" is a true ballad with a cogent, character-focused story, dressed in the high-gloss production and highly developed musicianship that characterized pop-accessible hard rock in the late 70s. The production isn’t just high-gloss, though. It has depth and dynamic range.
At exactly the same time this was released, punk was making a strident argument against the value of musicianship as an end in itself. Good argument, and a point well-made. The problem arises when the point is carried too far, and musicianship alone becomes an object of disdain. Because you know what? You may not need to be good at playing an instrument to make good music, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt if you keep your ego in check.
Listen to the drums on this song. John Panozzo is the guy’s name. It’s not flashy, but there are little things he does with the fills that give the song an added sense of velocity when he lands back on the beat, and that up-beat thing he does on the bell of the ride cymbal automatically makes the middle of the song feel like it has a lighter step. It’s musicianship translated into musicality, and I hear a lot of records by bands whose drummers would never think to do anything like that, and they’re more boring because of it.
More importantly, though, the song has a sense of bigness—the band seems to believe in the power of its music, which, sure, is tied in part to ego, but man, whenever I hear some monochromatic Pearl Jam Jr. Jr. Jr. Jr. Jr. grinding away on a radio somewhere, I get a little misty-eyed for a pre-Nirvana world where mainstream rock got be ridiculous and overambitious, theatrical and a little embarrassing. Hell, it was expected to be all those things. I love Nirvana, but they made it hard to do all that in their wake, though I think some of it has crept back in.
Let’s be real for a second: people who aren’t looking over their shoulders constantly, worrying that someone might find their interests and ambitions mockable, make some great music. Styx thought they were the shit and you know it. When they did “Blue Collar Man,” you know they thought they’d written an anthem for working people like the ones they grew up around. And it’s a pretty rad song!
These same people also make shit like “Lords of the Ring,” which is on the same album and doesn’t even get the title of the book it’s referencing correct. “Lords” plural? “Ring” singular? Risks have returns. Sometimes they’re debits and sometimes they’re credits. Risk was a pretty key ingredient in rock when Styx was at its peak.
Styx also have the distinction of being one of only a very few successful American prog bands. Kansas was the other really prominent one, and both groups tempered their prog tendencies with a big portion of pop. Prog was, for the most part, the province of British and European bands.
This probably reflects some broad cultural difference, but I don’t know precisely what it would be. Something smart-sounding about American work ethic, and self-perception as a nation of gritty do-it-yourselfers versus European toleration of refinement and esteem for art for its own sake, maybe. There’s probably a future essay in that.
“An international team of scientists said on Thursday they had recorded sub-atomic particles travelling faster than light — a finding that could overturn one of Einstein’s long-accepted fundamental laws of the universe.”—
One wonders what the implications for interstellar travel might ultimately be, though. Also, it often happens with these observations that peer review fails to replicate the findings and it never moves into the theory.
By now you know: R.E.M. announced their breakup yesterday. In my opinion, it wasn’t the worst news to come out of Georgia yesterday, but this blog isn’t about politics, so let’s talk about this band.
As uninterrupted 30-year runs go, very few bands can lay claim to having one as rich and rewarding as R.E.M.’s. Even if you think, as I largely do, that their post-Bill Berry output never quite matched the work of the original quartet version of the band, it’s hard to deny that hey were creative and interesting to the end. They never stopped trying.
Back when they chose the name R.E.M. for their band, I doubt these guys knew just how appropriate the name would be. They made a lot of different types of music over their career, but to my ears, there is a thread that runs through it all. Even their most demonstrative music seems to live in this place where the dream state can intrude at any time.
Put another way, in both music and lyrics, the band filtered reality and memory in such a way that it felt hyper-real and surreal at the same time. It’s a hard intangible to describe, but they had it.
I like a lot of their post-IRS output (Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi especially; I also seem to like Reveal a lot more than most people), but for me, the five albums they made for that label possess a consistency and mystique that they never duplicated. I can’t really think of another band that duplicated it either.
The first R.E.M. record I bought was Document. I think I was 15 or 16 when I bought it. I listened to classic rock and had only a small handful of records made during my own lifetime at the time, and most of those were by weird little bands that didn’t feel like they had any bearing on the larger conversation of contemporary music. Buying Document felt like a step toward engaging with where things were at the time, though I should note that the album was already 7 or 8 years old at the time and “The One I Love” was embedded in the classic rock playlist.
Maybe that’s a testament to how far ahead of the alt-rock curve R.E.M., maybe it’s more reflective of my own ignorance at the time; regardless, Document sounded modern and vital to me. My favorite songs on it were “The One I Love,” “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Oddfellows Local 151” and “Finest Worksong.”
I’m going to talk about the last one here, but before I do, I wanted to mention that for me, the key to why I love “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” isn’t the parenthetical “(And I Feel Fine).” It’s the “As We Know It.” The way I see it, the end of the world “as we know it” could go two ways: it could get worse or it could get better. It’s easy to forget that the world as we know it now hasn’t got everything all figured out. Change can be painful, but it’s almost always necessary.
But to “Finest Worksong.” The first time I put on Document I didn’t expect something so strident to come roaring out of the speakers. I had R.E.M. pegged as the jangly rock band everyone always said they were. I knew about six or seven of their songs at the time and apart from “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Drive,” they all seemed to basically fit that label. Hearing Document in full was my first confirmation that jangle was just a part of the story.
Document is the band’s most overtly political record. Reagan/Thatcher fatigue covers the whole thing like a scab. “Finest Worksong” appropriately sounds like a call to arms. Buried in the cryptic exhortations to do something with the moment are hints of emerging American class divides. In that sense, the song travels well to the present day, where those same divides are wider than ever.
These things do proceed in cycles, so most well-written commentary gets a second life at some point, but what I can’t help noticing is that this particular cycle seems to grow more extreme each time it comes around. “Finest Worksong” makes even more sense in 2011 than it did in 1987.
Is that one of the reasons the band had trouble making new music that sounded quite so relevant toward the end of its career? Their own old music was standing in the way. It’s hard to stay on top. that’s why most bands don’t last thirty years, and those that do don’t often sound as good as R.E.M. when the end finally comes.
King Crimson: “Lament” (Starless And Bible Black, 1974)
Back in high school, my love of progressive rock crystallized around a few bands. One of those bands was King Crimson, who seemed to do prog just a bit nastier than everyone else.
On no album did they play it nastier than Starless And Bible Black. This album is a strange one. A lot of it was improvised live in concert, and included on the alum with the applause edited out. In a business where “live” recordings were often faked in the studio and then dressed up with canned applause, this approach comes off as a bit contrarian, and I’m sure Robert Fripp wouldn’t mind.
"Lament" is one of two songs on the record (the other is "The Great Deceiver") that were recorded entirely in the studio. The lyrics, written by the band’s then-lyricist Richard Palmer-James (and original member of Supertramp), are written like a typical post-fame whine session, but sung as they are by John Wetton for King Crimson, they come off as more a hideous parody of that kind of song than an actual entry in the canon.
The song does a good job of faking you out in its opening verses—the little melodies David Cross plays on his violin behind the second verse are almost hilariously serene. Robert Fripp is in a fighting mood, and does basically nothing but punch from the second verse onward.
Fripp is a such a strange figure. He’s a guitar virtuoso. He has a professorial air about him—I’m seen him do a very patient Q&A after a solo show, and was funny and engaging. And then out of this guy comes some of the most pulverizing guitar playing and willfully ugly music. He leads this song to its sudden ending on a headlong riff that ends without resolving at all. Beneath his manners and calm exterior there appears to lurk a Fripp that wouldn’t mind tearing up a hotel room or two.
I’m glad he just wrote “Lament” instead. He seems to me like the kind of professional and thoughtful person you’d want to have working on your project. and he has worked on a lot of projects, producing and playing on so many albums you could make a hobby out of collecting only work he was involved in. Recently, I think his intellectualized approach has taken the latter-day Crimson lineups in directions that are more technically than musically interesting, but I still respect it.
Modern English: “I Melt With You” (After The Snow, 1982)
Quick post today on an old favorite that’s been in my head lately. Modern English began life as a Joy Division imitation called The Lepers, but they changed their name quickly, and by the time of their second LP their sound had opened up considerably.
"I Melt With You" is one a handful of classic singles this band released (the LP, After The Snow, also contains “Life In The GladHouse,” one of their other classics), and it’s among the earliest singles I can think of that embody a particular sound I associate with British rock from the mid-80s into the mid-90s. It’s serious music but never heavy or self-pitying. Think The Sound, House Of Love and Kitchens of Distinction to get the breadth of the stuff I’m thinking of.
Under most circumstances, I actually prefer “Life In The GladHouse” for its clattering beat and ominous tonality, but there are feels in music that I find myself craving from time to time, and this song has the feel I want right now.
When Love went into the studio to make Forever Changes, the band almost missed its chance to be on its own album. The group was in such disarray that the first session was played by session musicians, with only Arthur Lee’s vocals and a bit of guitar from Bryan MacLean making it to tape.
When the rest of the band heard the tapes, it became clear to them that they had better get it together or the record was going to get made without them. Lee had a grand vision for the album, departing from the fuzzier rock sound of their previous records in favor of something much more ornate. He reportedly spent weeks with arranger David Angel singing and playing the string and horn parts he wanted but didn’t know how to arrange himself.
This vision is best realized on the album’s closing song, the suite-like “You Set the Scene.” The strings that answer his trailing-off “oh oh oh”s with the trilling swell in the final third (or movement, if you prefer) are one of the most goose bump-raising arranging effects I can think of in a pop song. If you want to call this a pop song, that is. “You Set The Scene” is ambitious and big enough that it might qualify as something else. Brian Wilson would probably call it a “teenage symphony to God.”
I remember the first time I ever heard this song. I’ve mentioned this before in my Cold Cassettes series, but there was a syndicated program out of New York that classic rock stations used to play on Sunday mornings called “Flashback.” It was slickly produced and built around the established classic rock canon, embroidered with interview clips, sound bytes from period films and trivia. It was a good way to learn before the internet was really an effective tool for communicating large amounts of information.
Flashback would run themed blocks of three or four songs between commercial breaks, and one of them would always be something a little outside the usual playlists. “You Set The Scene” was the deep cut in one of the blocks one Sunday morning, and I taped it off the radio. I had never heard of Love before. It seemed amazing to me that a band capable of producing something like this would be ignored by classic rock radio, but of course quality alone has never been a guarantee of something like that (hey, you know, being a racially integrated rock band in 1967 made it hard to get airplay).
This song doesn’t sound like a band falling apart. It sounds like a band coming together to make its defining statement. But they were falling apart. Drugs and other problems caused the band to disintegrate just after making the album, though Lee continued on with the name until 1974 with various other musicians.
The Left Banke: “Pretty Ballerina” (Smash 2074, 1967)
The Left Banke could’ve been bigger. All it would have taken was a little more communication and one less mistake. The group appeared to be on its way in 1967 after its first two singles, “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” both performed well. And then the band’s leader and author of those two singles, Michael Brown, went and recorded the band’s next single. Without the band.
"Ivy Ivy" might have been the band’s third consecutive hit, but the rest of the band sent Brown a cease and desist order. The publicity around the suit confused DJs, and not knowing who exactly the Left Banke was, they didn’t play the single. It stopped the band’s climb dead in its tracks.
It didn’t break up the band, though, oddly enough. They got back together and kept recording, making two albums, though Brown isn’t on all of the second one. There’s quite a bit of good music scattered across them.
Even though they sputtered in lieu of soaring, the Left Banke still occupies a pretty outsized space in pop history for being one of the groups that most effectively injected ornate orchestration into the psychedelic conversation. Baroque ‘n’ roll, they called it.
"Walk Away Renee" is their finest song, but "Pretty Ballerina" may actually capture that baroque ‘n’ roll spirit more thoroughly. The delicate piano, the light touch on the drums, the string quartet that takes over mid-song (with violin played by Brown’s father, who was the band’s producer), and the oboe solo all take the idea of chamber pop to its logical extreme before anyone was even calling it that.
So what’s the lesson we can learn from the Left Banke? Probably goes something like, “If you’ve got a good thing going, don’t let it go to your head.” If Brown had just called up his bandmates to record “Ivy, Ivy,” things might have gone very differently. As it is, Brown wound up playing in obscure bands like Montage, working to get back on the charts and never quite making it.
The Chambers Brothers: “When The Evening Comes” (New Generation, 1971)
The Chambers Brothers had one of the coolest, weirdest hits of the 60s with their eleven-minute, freaked-out masterpiece “Time Has Come Today.” It is an awesome song, definitely a favorite of mine. But it’s also not the only great piece of music they ever released. They were actually a pretty damn great band for about a full decade.
The LP that “Time Has Come Today” was first released on, The Time Has Come, is really solid, for one thing. Fatboy Slim owes some of his success to that album’s opener, “All Strung Out Over You”—the album’s been remastered and reissued a few times, and it’s worth hearing in its entirety.
The rest of the band’s vast discography is a lot harder to get your hands on. I’ve collected a bunch of it on LP over the years, and I’ve never been disappointed. The Time Has Come is their best LP by a hair, but 1971’s New Generation comes very close to topping it. “When The Evening Comes” is a big part of the reason.
There are certain types of longing and sadness that I don’t even know that our language provides ways to talk about. But songs like this can capture them in great detail. The elaborate orchestration here isn’t just an ornament—every stab of the horns and repetition from the flutes plays into the ache at the center of the song.
In some ways, The Chambers Brothers were like The Temptations and the Funk Brothers rolled into one stand-alone band. Four-part harmonies and traded leads from Lester, Joe, Willie and George Chambers, inventive drummer from their childhood friend Brian Keenan, and plenty of wah guitar and sharp full-band interplay… there wasn’t a whole lot they couldn’t do as a band. This song is one of their best.
At heart, most musicians are also fans of other musicians. Their fandom may even be the very thing that got them to take up instruments and unite in a band in the first place. The Nazz were fans. They announce it right at the beginning of their hard psych classic “Open My Eyes,” opening it with a direct quote from the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.”
After that, it launches directly into Todd Rundgren’s thrilling guitar riff, whereupon it becomes one of those innumerable “I can’t believe this wasn’t a huge hit” songs that litter the pop landscape. Rundgren wrote most of the Nazz’s first album and all of the band’s second and third album (Nazz III was released after the band split), but he left the lead vocals to keyboardist Robert “Stewkey” Antoni for the most part.
That worked—Stewkey has a voice much better suited to hard rock than Rundgren’s. He reminds me a little of The Move’s Roy Wood, and band I wouldn’t doubt had some influence on The Nazz. They were generally pretty heavily in debt to British mod and rock bands, so I’d bet they were listening.
After leaving the band, Rundgren of course went on to have a long and largely fruitful career as both solo artist and leader of late prog band Utopia. Rundgren’s biggest solo hit, “Hello It’s Me” was a re-recording of the original b-side to “Open My Eyes.” Rundgren never stopped being a fan, either—side one of his 1976 LP Faithful is devoted to covers of some of his favorite songs.
Here in Musicnerdland, we make a lot of lists. They’re mostly lists of albums and songs (or “tracks,” as the case may be), and as such, they’re often wrapped up in ideas of importance, relevance, or some kind of canon. We make lists to record what we thought was important at the time.
Much more rare are lists that value the emotion and physicality of music. I’m thinking of something like a list of favorite moments in recordings—something that would force us to grapple with what exactly grabbed us about those two or three seconds and forces us to respond.
This song contains one of my favorite moments in recorded music. It comes exactly four minutes in, after the band returns to the opening fanfare—this time, they drawn it out for a false ending. You get the feeling you’re going to be left hanging on this unresolved note, but then the whole thing kicks back in again with a really nicely phrased opening to the guitar solo that takes the song to the fade.
That moment has always felt so good to me—it’s like a return of gravity after a period of weightlessness, heavy, but still clear. Eric Clapton’s particular choice of notes is key. The solo begins tightly coiled and then gradually unspools as the song runs out the clock for another minute.
Clapton basically owns this song all the way through, though. That pompous intro, which was created by blending his harmonized guitar with viola, played by producer Felix Pappalardi (who later founded Mountain), is nice and all, but he does some great things responding to Jack Bruce’s vocals on the second verse, and even his basic rhythm playing is really interesting if you cut through everything else to really listen to it. There’s a particular thing he does in the chorus, where he lets these wah pedal-drenched chords drop and sort of hover, rather than trying to push the rhythm.
Wheels of Fire, the album this was taken from, was the first double LP to go platinum in the US. On the second LP, recorded live at the Winterland and the Fillmore in San Francisco, there is a lot of flashy playing, and a lot of the studio LP has frankly not dated very well—the album overall is basically the sound of a band reaching a point of unsustainable decadence right before its collapse.
Drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce had never liked each other. When they played together in the Graham Bond Organization, Baker and Bruce had fought often and even sabotaged each other’s instruments—Baker had forced Bruce out of the band at knifepoint. Clapton had no idea about any of this when he invited both of them to play in a new band with him. You could read the frenzied talking of Clapton’s guitar on this song as an airing of his frustration at constantly having to mediate between his two bandmates during their brutal touring schedule.
Anyway, the band did a little last touring and recording in late 1968 and was broken up by the time its last LP came out. Clapton and Bruce joined up with Steve Winwood and Rick Grech to form Blind Faith, and band that proved even more fragile than Cream.
Traffic: “Rock and Roll Stew” (The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys, 1971)
For people my age (I’m 31 as of this writing), the suicide of Kurt Cobain is typically the rock and roll death that had the biggest impact. His death devastated a lot of guys I knew in high school—a lot of people had the sense that they’d lost “their” guy, and it shook people up.
I remember Cobain’s death well because of its effect on my friends, but honestly, I was little affected by it myself. I liked some of the music, but I had little invested in the man himself. I think I considered the suicide a terrible shame rather than something that changed my whole world.
Oddly enough, the rock and roll death that I think did affect my the most was that of a man in whom I had even less invested, Traffic’s Chris Wood. Wood died of pneumonia at 39 1983, when I was three years old. I wouldn’t know who he was until I read his name in the credits of a traffic CD I bought twelve years later. I still know very little about him, actually.
But here’s why I think of his death as the rock and roll death that affected me the most:
I liked Traffic enough in 1995 to consider myself a fan and buy a few of their albums. I was a liner note reader—I liked knowing who was doing what on a record. Wood played flute and sax, as well as a bit of keyboard, for Traffic. He was, as such, one of the things that made them a unique-sounding band—the fact that he was self-taught on both flute and sax probably made him an even more distinctive player.
Anyway, I thought him as a member of a band I liked, and I knew they’d had a reunion in 1994; I never figured Chris Wood was dead. And then, they mentioned his death in 1983 on the radio one time after they played a Traffic song.
I don’t know what it was. Maybe I was just having a particular type of day, but hearing that this guy I’d assumed all along was still alive was actually long gone really stuck with me. I started thinking about the musicians I was hearing in all this old music and wondering where they were now, what kind of people they were, whether they’d had addiction and whether they’d been able to free themselves from them (Wood had problems with substance abuse that lasted to the end).
More than teaching me how mortal my heroes were, I think learning about Chris Wood’s death made me realize that they were people, essentially like me. I’ve never been particularly interested in meeting or talking to the artists who make the music I like, and I think that lack of interest actually stems from this realization.
It’s harder to hear Chris Wood on this particular song than most other Traffic songs—all he’s doing is singing backing vocals fro Jim Capaldi, who here has only one of three lead vocals he ever took on a Traffic album (all the others were by Steve Winwood).