Monday, April 6, 2009
#1 Greatest Rock Moment: Joe Cocker, "With a Little Help From My Friends," at Woodstock 1969
"All we gotta do is love now," he starts croaking, the bass starts sliding away then rolling forward with a spine-tingling acceleration, in come cycling piano thirds, pounding drums, Cocker just roaring along like a big Welsh punter on his first acid trip. It's Woodstock, the movie... if we've slogged through all the dated folksy stage-building and soggy folk songs to this moment, it's suddenly all worth it-- all those Mrs. Gulch's bike chained and-pig-shit covered black and white-mired Kansas black and shirtless hours--for this emerging into Oz-colored unity and sun, this big lovable probably-wasted Welsh set of sideburns flanking twisted lips spazzing up to the microphone as the bass and drums slow to gentle coaxing relentless draw.
The charge of "getting together with all my friends" was huge at Woodstock and it comes through in the movie and the sound quality--way better than we'd expect. What we're hearing of course is the preservation of a beautiful and transcendent moment in time--witness and experienced in unison so profoundly that the recoding medium seem improved, altered, as if carrying a message beyond either sight or sound but some third thing.
That's part of why Woodstock is so well-remembered, such a collective high the way a loving group will always remember the moment they all became friends--when boundaries and self slipped away together, like falling in love spread over an entire group just dropping acid together and dancing late at night--the way nature and circumstance seem to respond, plants change their growth and water crystalizes in new ways--we can't repeat the magic, of course, and we know because we try, with Altamont and the Isle of Wight, and every party the group gathers for for years in the future.
But luckily, for us as a nation, a world, even if we were then unborn, have this one song so brilliantly captured.
It's glimmer not just into universal brotherly love but a moment in time when being on acid and being a moron weren't one and the same. Super competence reins because these are the kids who already knew stuff, were in college studying to be doctors and lawyers, before they dropped their first hits. They already knew guitar, or sound mixing, or bass frets, and then the acid came and blew them to the next level, and beyond, wafting them to the pinnacle of their crafts the way a wind might blow leaves up the steps.
I forgot that myself, when I was in a band. As acting coaches and patient directors tell actors, you learn the words first and then forget them...
Whoa, flashback just thinking that. In fact I get one every time I see or hear Cocker's amazing anthemic freak-out. To me it's like watching Jesus appear, the perfect blend of high, help and friends surging through his soul. One can't imagine a better moment in a rock singer's life - a big crazy stage, fans into infinity, the dawning of the age of aquarius; everything was going to be okay. There was no longer any doubt of it in anyone's mind. We, the freaks, had won. Cocker comes on with a little glass of beer or water or something. A little drunk, tripping, mystical, massive beautiful side burns, a colorful T-shirt completely soaked through with rain and sweat, hair wet, hair blowing back as he bobs, Cocker howls like a deep banshee, not from need or want but in the name of love, an electric feedback squall of pure transformative selfless but sexual, fraternal, familial, audiencial and ballsy rock. Look at the picture up there, with his tie-dye exploding outwards like he just took a love bullet in the ribs, his wild English face is the mirror to the explosion on the shirt, from the depths of his diaphragm and soul, all eight chakras blazing, out through the diaphragm from the serpent lair West Village, clearing the stalled traffic with mighty kundalini light rays all the way to Woodstock, to and through the people, the past, the future, to and through the endless masks of God... until all masks are gone and it's just empty space, all clouds remembering they were only ocean and air and then letting go even of that, then letting go even their own existential despair at losing the illusion of separateness, and then letting go even of emptiness. And then finally - love without limits. Born anew in the arms of friends to the sound of Cocker, the smell of mud and crap and weed and patchouli.
The performance would be nothing without the Beatles original though, from the influential Sgt. Pepper's. Ringo's pleasant modesty in answering the spiritual questions: "Yes. I'm certain it happens all the time," it was all too much genuine open-hearted non-gender specific communal love for the unprepared ego to handle. Sgt. Pepper's lit the minds of anyone who heard it on fire, you didn't even have to lick the buttons on their tacky uniforms to get way high, it was in the wind, a wind which had fanned a big flame that was now a raging Woodstock bonfire sea. The words are like Poe's (and Zizek's) Purloined Letter finally and inevitably arriving at its full expression. Just one simple message in that letter: Love Everyone, Right Now. It's okay. We all love you. That was all we needed, and in that one moment, Cocker was its undeniable messenger, and his message was heard and embraced by all.
Everyone, man, they spend so much time worrying about who loves them and if they are loved. Dig, it only works the other way around man. That's what the Professor was trying to tell Dorothy. "It's not how much you love," he says, "but how much you are loved by others." That's the attitude of Hollywood stars when they lose the ability to love something beyond themselves unless it's with the implicit advance understanding they will be getting all that love back immediately and with interest, like insecure kids so terrified no one will sign their yearbook that they have no nerve to ask a single person.
Whoa, get back on track, man! Before we returned to that nervous self-sabotage and fruitless longing to return to ignorance-is-bliss apple allergy mall rat innocence, there was one more echo of Cocker's great performance, John Belushi's hilarious, dead-on impersonation on the then-cool Saturday Night Live. Obviously loving and heartfelt, Belushi could clown it to the top with air guitar and staggering and still honor the greatness of Cocker's moment in time, a moment we all can still feel in our blood every time we watch it, especially loud.
And there you have it, the decline of manhood in a post-feminist age, from . into the raging rock manhood of today, from the empathic outward feel good angelic possession of Joe Cocker at that one particular moment in time, to the narcissistic nightmare miasma of today, with Tom Cruise our fetishistic icon, soon to be dipped in the volcano wax like a wick (-er man), and Bono still prancing around going "Take me instead, I'm ever-so mythic!"
Alas, the Carnaby-spruced titans of old are now just that -- grandfathers with overlapping generations of children and mistresses who tour and record only to have an excuse get out of the house. Cigarette-related illness, ODs, and pop corporate selling out took the rest. And now the only people singing at Cocker's full raspy bold levels are loners adrift in the critical acclaim and mainstream avoidance of selling a safe amount of no records. Love has a hard time being so cross-generational in our splintered endless entertainment options landscape- which is not to say it's gone, man. We're getting by and our little friends are helping - via Skype, if we can handle the glare.