Remembering Joe Cocker



Joe Cocker, who died Monday at 70, was an anomaly in his era of self-expression — a charged, nuanced interpreter of others’ material who threw himself into his material so fully some thought he was palsied.

This led him to be easily parodied (and he joined John Belushi when he did so, diffusing an act that seemed at first to be mean spirited).

As focal point to the great Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, Cocker took his cues from the great soul men. Later, he acquired a more comfortable niche into easy listening with some of his biggest hits, following his “Up Where We Belong” duet. It’s the same path Rod Stewart took; we can’t fault rock stars for having long, lucrative careers and not fizzling like a rocket at the career’s start.

Cocker’s first moment of American breakthrough came when he was a tie-dyed icon at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where he emerged from England as a hippie- haired heir to Ray Charles in his gritty treatments of songs like “Cry Me a River” and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

“For me, I must say it was a pretty powerful day,” Cocker told me, when I interviewed him in 1998. “When I’m asked to remember important times or significant performances I remember doing, that’s always one. When we go places like Russia and Poland, kids come up and remark about seeing the film. It was so special to them.”

He returned to do the 25th anniversary Woodstock in 1994, but didn’t bother with the “Day in the Garden” concerts on the original Woodstock site in Bethel, N.Y., that they began running at the time.

“I don’t do every year,” Cocker said at the time. “It makes sense to do the 25th anniversary. I just don’t like the idea of doing it every year. I couldn’t believe Pete Townshend would do it.”

But, Cocker added, “nobody approached me.”

At the time, he was in the midst of a tour promoting his then new album “Across From Midnight” which was already a million-seller overseas before it was released in the U.S.

“They’re very hard-core fans,” Cocker said of the Europeans. “Especially the Germans. They stuck with me through the ’80s, when things were not going too good.”

He played 42 dates in Germany that year on a tour where “N’oubliez Jamais” became a big hit. Winding down the world tour in his adopted country of the U.S. was almost relaxing by comparison, where he was expected only to revive hits.

“I’m doing 19 or 20 songs in the shows and only five are off the new album,” he said. “Then I can do the `You Can Leave Your Hat On,’ the `Up Where We Belong.’ Audiences here want to have fun. There’s not the pressure there was earlier in Europe, where promoting the album is part of tour. Here, we can kick our shoes off.”

And American audiences continued to enjoy it for the next 15 years.


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