Like most people, I was introduced to Joe Cocker via the documentary feature “Woodstock” which, as a teenager, I must’ve seen a dozen times. I loved that movie so much I even bought tickets for my parents to see it with me.
Joe Cocker was only on screen for a few moments. But the performance was indelible, one of those explosive instances when you were treated to not only all the fiery possibilities of rock n’ roll but the birth of new star.
His was an energy so raw and emotive that you wondered how anybody could sustain it for a full set, let alone a career.
Around the same time “Woodstock” was affecting the culture, I was finishing theatre school, under the tutelage of a teacher who engrained a serious work ethic in his students.
Decades later, Bruce Springsteen would define his own approach to performing as a simple understanding that somewhere in his audience was somebody seeing him for the first time and somebody seeing him for the last. Both deserved the best show he could give them.
I learned the same thing. You gave 100% every night, no matter what. There was no such thing as a small audience, a matinee full of doddering Seniors or being down with the flu, dog-tired or bored with the show.
100% every time you stepped on stage. Joe Cocker embodied the code completely.
There’s probably no better example of that than a film he made a year after “Woodstock” entitled “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” a Rock-doc chronicalling what has often been called “The greatest Rock Tour of all time”.
It features Cocker on the road with Leon Russell, a band that would form the core of “Derrick & The Dominoes” and the likes of Rita Coolidge working as a back-up singer.
Late in the film, after dozens of electric Cocker performances, the camera follows the band into their dressing room. People laugh and joke, pass around bottles and joints, ready to kick start the after-party.
Cocker sits alone, drenched in sweat, sopping it up with a towel, unable to speak or engage anyone. Utterly spent.
I’d never seen that level of commitment and doubted he’d make it to 30.
But he did. And although I never got to see him in his prime, sometime in the 80’s he played a small nightclub in the North end of Toronto.
I made it to the remote (at least for me) location a couple of songs into the first set and opened the door to see a much depleted Joe Cocker on the tiny stage, backed by a disinterested band, playing for a bunch of drunks wrapt in conversation and oblivious to the legend onstage.
I stayed for one song, watching a man whose talent had been diminished terribly by alcohol and drugs struggle to perform, his once awesome engine running on little but fumes. Not wanting to witness the train-wreck or be left with my illusions shattered, I left to make the long, cold journey home.
Cocker would later get his demons enough under control to record several more hits and thrill live audiences. Perhaps an example of learning to give 100% off-stage as well as on. Or maybe realizing that Life is short with little of it is spent in the spotlight.
Joe Cocker died today at the age of 70. Some say it was a result of lung cancer and others that he passed from nervous exhaustion.
Part of me hopes it was the latter, a fitting end for a man who not only blazed in like a comet but had the courage and fortitude to relight his fire when it threatened to go out.
A moment from “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”…