There was a time when Jack Bruce was synonymous with the bass guitar in rock history, when he was widely revered as the best there was on four strings.
By the time he was sixteen, he was making so much money he dropped out of school. He was a consummate musician. He could play any style, classical, jazz, latin, blues, but what he became famous for was playing the fluid, expressive, wildly melodic and highly charged basslines in rock’s first supergroup, Cream.
A power trio formed in 1966 by Eric Clapton, Cream was a showcase for three of the hottest virtuoso musicians on the London rock scene, Clapton, Bruce and wild drummer Ginger Baker. They were an immediate multi-million selling sensation, a gladiatorial outfit who seemed to be doing musical battle on stage, producing a heavy form of psychedelic blues that heralded the birth of hard rock.They were a famously volatile band. Bruce's love hate relationship with drummer Ginger Baker erred more on the hate side. They loved to play together because each thought the other a musical genius, but they argued all the time, offstage and on, frequently coming to blows (also offstage and on).
It became too much for Clapton, who split the band in 1968. As their pin up guitarist, Clapton was undoubtedly their star, and both Bruce and Baker’s careers flagged without him. But it was actually Bruce who sang most of the lead vocals and wrote the band’s hit singles (with lyricist Pete Brown). Sunshine of Your Love, White Room and I Feel Free are all Jack Bruce compositions. He was, even by the high standards of Sixties rock, a remarkable talent.
So what happened? Bruce slowly disappears from rock history over the following decades. He made a lot of music in a lot of different set ups, but none of it made much of a commercial impact.
There were esoteric singer-songwriter albums and forays into jazz, funk, heavy rock and fusions of all three. He was probably too esoteric for his own good, shifting his musical attention too often, never really pinning his flag to any particular post.
In a way, he was too famous and too restlessly creative just to become a bit player in another band, but too musically complex for the mainstream. His relationship with the usual self-destructive rock star vices didn’t help. When journalist Harry Shapiro told friends he was collaborating with Bruce on his autobiography a few years ago, the most common reaction was surprise that Bruce was still alive. Given his lifestyle, Bruce sometimes expressed surprise about that himself.
But what he never expressed was regret. I spent an evening with him in 2010 at the launch of his book, Jack Bruce: Composing Himself, and he was fantastic company, addressing all my questions with an air of fierce candour, then carrying on the conversation for hours afterwards.
He told me off the record rock and roll stories that made my ears melt but insisted that the only thing he really cared about was the music. The music he had made all his life, and the music he still intended to make. For him, Cream was only a small part of a big picture.
They came, they played, they conquered, and then he went on playing for the rest of his days, whether anyone was paying attention or not. Perhaps his epitaph should be his song Cream, from the very first Cream album. “I’ve been in and I’ve been out, I’ve been up and I’ve been down / I don’t want to go til I’ve been all around.”
By Neil McCormick