Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker -- Cream Plays NYC
Cream: They Play Blues, Not Superstar
By Richard Goldstein
It's Saturday night at the Village Theatre, New York's sad-eyed answer to the Fillmore-Avalon scene. Under the marquee, Slavs gape and Ratner's rejects mourn the loss of Second Avenue. "Paul Muni used to play here," they mutter in mink-trimmed dismay. "Oh yeah?" answers a rakish redhead, lifting his beads absently to the skies. "What group was he with?"
The theatre proper is jammed. Aisles abound with woolly wanderers. Everyone jangles, loose and shaggy. It feels like Saturday afternoon at the flicks with 25 cartoons, a Superman short, and three butchered Frankenstein films. Except the Village Theatre is higher, and they don't sell tootsie rolls.
It's going to be a very heavy trip tonight. Rosko -- in a silver lame shirt -- gets things going with some heavy lines about the turn-on-tune-in thing. Backstage, the Cream wait in a barren dressing room with two broken chairs.
There are eight of them, direct from England: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and an entourage of wives, road managers, and friends. Clapton is England's most acclaimed blues guitarist, Bruce is renowned on bass. Baker is the most versatile drummer in rock -- a music which often regards percussion as inspired monotony.
Together as the Cream, they are the Great Spirit to a tribe of aspiring white bluesers, and heir apparent to a retinue of Jazzmen. Ahmed Ertigan, the Cream's American boss at Atlantic Records, speaks of them with a smile that spreads like sunrise. For more than 30 years, Ertigan has been a blues and jazz collector. Dubious about much of white rock, he looks askance at the Cream's phrasing and their drag. But he digs their sound like a teenybopper in full bloom.
"I can't get into a jazz musician's head," says Eric Clapton. "That music has a whole tradition we're not into. At the Fillmore, we were booked with Gary Burton, and that was very nice, because he complemented us. We both played the same thing in a different context. I guess what we have in common is improvisation. We do a lot of free things. But other kinds of music also use improvisation."
He shrugs, tossing a mane of tumbleweed-hair. "You know, jazz is a very dirty word in England."
Eric Clapton was raised in super-green Surrey. He calls his home "the delta of the River Wey" but it is an oddly suburban birthplace for a blues virtuoso.
"Blues is an outcast sound," he says. "It's the kind of thing people play alone, for their friends. There was a slow infiltration of blues into my life. At first, I'd buy a Richie Valens record for the white Nashville guitar. I grew up with that. Most English musicians will eventually break down and confess that they love the Everly Brothers or Bill Haley."
In those days, when his hair was shorter, straighter, and slicker, Clapton split for Richmond, where he joined the newly formed Yardbirds. They followed the Rolling Stones into the Crawdaddy club. "Every Sunday would be like a tribal meeting," he recalls. "The Stones were much simpler and realer then. They did their act just sitting on high bar stools. Thousands of kids would come to hear them. We got the same kind of adulation. Our fans even wore Yardbirds sweaters -- old green T-shirts with the group's name printed on it."
But to Clapton, playing the Crawdaddy was living in someone else's house. "The Stones started the rave-up, and the Yardbirds picked it up from there. The kids wanted us to play like the Stones, and soon it became more rock than blues."
Clapton worships bluesy raunch, even when he is playing pop. The Cream draw a sharp, almost genetic distinction between blues and rock, and they have little regard for hybrid music (when they talk about Jimi Hendrix's timing, they mean his image). For all their psychedelic cowpuncher gear, they are among the most conservative British pop exports. Like American city folk musicians (before rock devoured the word "acoustic"), the Cream are inspired interpreters if not innovators. Theirs is a big brutal sound, but it is produced with a minimum of reverb and fuzzbos. They treat microphones and speakers as reproducers, not sources, of sound. You can watch their music happening -- changes and all -- because it comes from the fingertips, not the amps.
"I'd waste a hell of a lot of time fooling around with amplifiers," says Clapton. "I play guitar. Each gig for me is a quetion of whether or not I can make it. I just have to keep playing and playing until I can't go any further. And I can't waste time on electronics." The Cream made their New York debut at Long Island's most lumpen discotheque, the Action House. It was an exhausting uninspired event. Now, they are at the Cafe Au Go-Go, one of the city's finer rock closets, where the lights twinkle like a Christmas sale, and the bare brick walls hiss reverb, and the clientele walks out smiling, their eardrums blown utterly...
Bruce met Clapton in the Bluesbreakers. He had already been featured in Alexis Konnor's Blues, Inc. ("If he'd been honest, he'd have said Blues Ltd."), and as a vocalist with Manfred Mann. His voice is sharp and restless, like an open jack-knife. He sings blues with a brogue that is both Scottish and rockish. But he insists, "When I heard Muddy Waters, pop just seemed a drag."
Jack Bruce is a "second generation slum kid" from Glasgow, which he calls "the Chicago of Great Britain." He picked up his first acoustic bass at 14, doubling as a singer of Scottish folk songs. Today, he says, "I'm a tiny hero back home. Not as heroic as Lulu."
...The Cream play three numbers at the Village Theatre. One is a standard called "Spoonful," which Clapton fills with mean, jagged shrieks. His guitar spits an answer to Jack Bruce's vocal. "N.S.U.," a Bruce composition, rides on for a good ten minutes, the crackle of two blazing instruments interrupted occasionally by a short verse:
Driving in my car
Smoking a cigar
The only time I'm happy's
When I play my guitar...
The final number, a medly of three harrowing solos, lasts forever. Clapton plays to his amplifier with such tonal intensity that you look backstage for a second, secreted guitarist. Bruce accompanies himself on a steam-engine harmonica, jumbling music and lyrics into a frenzied, stomping hollar. Baker flays the drums with his mouth open, as though he were about to blow the steam off an immense tureen of soup. He ends his solo -- which he calls "Toad" -- in a tangle of hair and hands. The balloons scurry about, unable to distinguish the rhythm from the fills.
"Every musician has a complete catalogue of phrases," Eric Clapton explains. "At the start of the solo, you play all your cliches. That gives you a basis. You build on it, in steps. The object is to get so far away from the original line that you're playing something that's never been heard before. You tear your stock phrases apart and put them back together, and sometimes you surprise even yourself at what comes out."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]