My Music Lexicon: C is for Cream (and Cohen)

Until I was about fifteen years old I never realised that you could make music up as you go along. I mean, who knew? Virtually all my exposure to music was through records or the radio – which just played records. ‘Pop’ music came in neat two and a half minute packages that always sounded exactly the same – because it was exactly the same. Even classical musicians were reading from a script – albeit one that was quite incomprehensible to me.

Then, through a combination of John Peel’s radio programmes and schoolmates who were rather more ahead of the curve than me, I started listening to groups that not only played different music – the blues, predominantly – but also had this magical ability to do it on the hoof, as it were.

And the greatest of these was Cream: the short-lived supergroup featuring Eric Clapton (so that ticks the box on another very strong ‘honourable mention’ contender) but also, in my view, the greatest rhythm section that ever trod the boards. Eric provided the brilliant pyrotechnics of course, but he was given the freedom to do so by Ginger Baker on drums and, especially, Jack Bruce’s bass guitar.

Cream made me listen to music properly and to glean some appreciation of how the separate instruments fitted together to make the whole greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Of course there’s no ignoring Clapton’s lead, but this track in particular – from the double album ‘Wheels of Fire’ – made me appreciate that great music isn’t just about the fireworks. Listen, if you will, to the bass guitar burbling away in your left ear.

It made me think that I really wanted to be the anchor rather than the showman. Except that I couldn’t play bass either.

Honourable Mention

Just as The Beatles were the soundtrack to my (senior) schooldays, so Leonard Cohen is synonymous with my three years at University.

I’m not entirely sure when I first heard anything by Leonard Cohen. His first album was released in December 1967, but my Christmas present LP that year was definitely ‘Sergeant Pepper’. He subsequently appeared on British TV a few times, but I don’t recollect having watched any of them.

What I do remember – to this day, and never without a wince of sheer embarrassment – is that I slept through his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. So, having missed out on that August weekend, I’m positive that I headed off to university at the beginning of October without any Cohen in my collection. To the best of my knowledge, therefore, my first hearing of Leonard Cohen was when a new friend put ‘Songs From A Room’ on his record player.

It was a revelation: this was poetry – properly melancholic, introspective stuff for any self-consciously tortured young intellectual. Naturally, I lapped it up and soon acquired the first three albums. It was a great comfort to know that, however bad things got (it would be more accurate to say however bad you told yourself that things got), there was always someone worse off than yourself.

The Leonard Cohen collection was also an important part of the soundtrack to the courting of the future Madame. We both loved it, but he didn’t go down well with the parents at either house. There were several complaints that the mournful music emanating from the front room was spreading gloom and despondency. Apparently, this was supposed to make us change the record. It didn’t work.

After university, real life rather overtook matters in the Leonard Cohen appreciation department, and I have never added to my collection. I was vaguely aware that he gave it all up and entered a Buddhist monastery for a few years but came out of this meditative retirement when his manager stole all fhis money, Now, sadly, it’s too late. To me, though, nothing comes close to those first few albums, not only for the music itself but also its ability to summon up remembrance of things past.


5 thoughts on “My Music Lexicon: C is for Cream (and Cohen)

  1. This was the first Cohen album I heard, while on a student exchange program in France.

    And to almost equal your dozing off at Isle of White story ….

    I was working in Chester as an apprentice hairdresser to a lady named Jennifer, and one day she mentioned in an offhand way that she and several friends had driven to the Isle of White festival in a VW van.

    I was agog. I was also 16 and an absolute Hendrix fanatic. She was discussing with a client how she had gone to the festival specifically to see Dylan and then confessed she had fallen asleep …. during Hendrix’ performance. I was devastated.

    Now …. tell me you saw Hendrix for gods sake?

    • Oh yes, I was awake for Hendrix. The thing is though (and I apologise for being an anorak here), Dylan was at IOW in 1969 and Hendrix in 1970, so they weren’t on the same bill: Jennifer may have been a bit confused. I also slept through The Who, and that really takes some doing.

      • Yes, it certainly sounds like it!
        I have never checked the full 1970 line up, I was only really interested in Jimi, and I didn’t really like Dylan much back then, so never gave it any thought.
        I was her apprentice in ’75, so it does sound like she got something wrong !
        Maybe the van she went down there in was similar to the one Cheech and Chong had! lol!

        ”Dave’s not here man!”

        Anyway, it is one thing I really regret not being a little older back then, as I would have made damn sure I saw him.
        And to sleep through the Who? That really did take some doing … I won’t ask!
        Townsend would have wondered just how loud he should have had his amps turned up?

        Things were easier in the UK back then, I saw the Stones for the first time when I was only 13.

        Took my own kids to see them in Johannesburg on their Voodoo Lounge tour.

        What was Hendrix gig like?

      • I read the Wiki article on the festival last night after our chat and it mentioned the wind and the poor sound quality and how the Who’s PA system had to be employed.

        And of course the ”security chat” interruption during Foxy Lady!
        I have always felt this was part of the endearing charm of Hendrix show.

        As low key as it sounds, I still would have given my eye teeth to have been there!

        The last festival on English shores I attended was Reading ’78 before I flew out to South Africa.

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