Jack Bruce: Composing Himself

January 01, 1970






For an artist as proficient and as accomplished as the
brilliant Jack Bruce, there’s been a surprisingly scant number of volumes written
about his extraordinary 50 year career. That makes the new biography Jack Bruce: Composing Himself (Jawbone
Press) something of a revelation, being that it’s the only tome in recent
memory to trace Bruce’s evolution from his beginnings as a 12-year old
composing prodigy to his early involvement in Britain’s sprawling music scene
of the early sixties and on through his contentious stint with Cream and the
experimental efforts he spawned well beyond. A weighty effort, its 300 plus pages
go into exacting detail as it spans a life immersed in personal and
professional challenges, in which practically every triumph exacted some toll.


Author Harry Shapiro elicits an extraordinary candid
commentary from Bruce himself as well as from a stellar, if shifting, cast of
collaborators – Eric Clapton, Carla Bley, Mick Taylor, Gary Moore and John
McLaughlin among them. Clapton himself writes a special introduction in which
he declares, “If I had to reluctantly commit to naming his most defining
quality as an artist, it would be that he intuitively knows how to step into,
and gather from, all of the genres that he has focused on.” Therein lies an
obvious hint that it wasn’t a caustic relationship between Cream’s two competing
front men that caused the band’s demise. Manfred Mann guitarist Tom McGuiness
offers a somewhat backhanded tribute to his former colleague as he reflects on
Bruce’s reluctant stint with the Manfreds, allegedly done simply for the money.
“(He) was quite impossible to play with at time,” McGuiness admits. “We often
literally couldn’t follow him.”  


So too, Bruce’s efforts have often proved confounding not
only for his fellow musicians, but for his audiences as well. Rarely does he
find middle ground; an unfortunate pairing as West, Bruce and Laing seemed to
many to be a lame attempt to reignite the power trio combo pioneered with Cream,
while his more avant-garde excursions with Bley, McLaughlin and Billy Cobham also
thwarted those hoping to hear him reprise the Cream catalogue. Shapiro notes
one particularly intriguing performance he witnessed. “In front of hundreds of
German rock fans, many on the edge of their seats waiting for ‘White Room’ or
‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ Jack walked out with a chair and a cello and for the
first three minutes of the concert regaled the audience with a spirited dose of
Bach’s preludes.”


Of course, as is the case with many musicians of Bruce’s
generation, the music he made is a backdrop to a much more dramatic tale, one
shaped by drugs, health impediments, bad business deals and interpersonal
squabbles. Bruce’s legendary tempestuous personality is partly to blame, but
the book doesn’t spare the other principals, which isn’t surprising considering
its somewhat prickly cast of characters. In fact, if there’s one criticism that
could be cast on the book itself, it’s the fact that Shapiro is so fastidious
in his detailing of Bruce’s evolving relationships. It’s no easy task keeping
track of the trajectory, especially given Bruce’s prodigious output.  How prodigious? The extensive discography and
performance history offered in the appendix offers all the evidence needed.


Nevertheless, obsessive fans will find this fascinating
reading.   In Composing Himself, Jack Bruce successfully bares himself as well.


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