When it comes to rock and roll, one of my most memorable experiences turned out to be that most rare of events: seeing a group — dare I say it, a “supergroup” — that I missed in the late '60s, but miraculously caught 35 years later at Madison Square Garden.
Actually, I’ve been pretty lucky when it came to catching the rock acts I’ve wanted to see. When I was in eighth grade, I saw the Rolling Stones play the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, N.Y. Through various twists of fate, I wound up seeing the Stones in different venues and cities in the subsequent decades of the '70s, '80s and '90s and was able to watch them evolve, but never stagnate.
In high school, I hosted a local weekly radio show in Syracuse called “The Young Set” on WOLF-AM. Those last two letters are important, because AM stations in the late '60s weren’t supposed to play album cuts (When was the last time you heard that phrase?) exclusively. On my first show, that’s exactly what I did, and got in big trouble. Eventually the station let me play three or four album cuts during the hour, but it hardly mattered because there were so many good singles on Top 40 radio at the time.
Even better, I had backstage access to the rock shows that came to town, and was able to see acts like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Elton John, and Derek and the Dominoes, featuring Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. I was a sucker for electric guitar and in college was thrilled to see B.B. King and the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, not once, but twice in the same day (a spring afternoon gig at Cornell and an evening concert at Syracuse University).
My luck continued after college. I got a job covering the music business for Cash Box magazine, a now defunct trade paper rival of the better-known Billboard, and was able to both review and get good tickets for the top rock acts of the '70s. But the most fun was being able to see the up-and-comers first, most memorably a completely unknown goofy-looking British guy who dressed like Buddy Holly, had a smoking band called the Attractions and absolutely blew the roof off a Ukrainian social club on Second Avenue in the East Village. Yes, Virginia, that was Elvis Costello.
The icing on the cake was the fact that I lived two blocks away from the legendary CBGBs, although I have to admit I was more impressed by meeting and talking to the equally legendary rock critic Lester Bangs in that hollowed shithole than I was with most of the punk rock acts who played there.
Still, I always regretted the ones that got away.
In my case, that would be the Doors, the Butterfield Blues Band and Cream. I loved the Doors, and cursed myself for missing them (more specifically, told I couldn’t go see them) one school night when they were in Ithaca. And, as we know, there would be no second chances with that group. Thanks, Mom!
I also really dug the Butterfield band, featuring the great Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar (backed up by Elvin Bishop, thank you very much), who epitomized really talented young white musicians adopting and giving black electric Chicago blues a rock sound, with the progenitors’ blessing and accompaniment.
The Butterfield Blues Band’s first album was an infectious, hard-driving update of Chicago blues standards from masters like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. But their second album, “East/West,” transcended the genre. The title track remains a masterpiece: a beautiful, long, transcendental instrumental blending eastern modalities with a western backbeat, driven to ecstatic heights by Mike Bloomfield’s soaring electric guitar.
To this day, “East/West” is my favorite, take-me-to-another-place, go-to song, but, alas, the original band was short-lived, and the talented but troubled Bloomfield died young, like too many of his peers, of a drug overdose.
Which leaves Cream.
The turbulent history of the brilliant but relatively brief partnership of the three rock superstars — bass player Jack Bruce, drummer Ginger Baker and guitarist Eric Clapton — is well documented. Fortunately, they left us a lot of great music in the two years they were together, and I never tire of it. But boy, did I wish I could have seen them live.
And then, in 2005, I did.
Bruce, Baker and Clapton were in their sixties, but alive and well. Their reunion tour came to the Garden and I was able to get tickets and go with one of my old friends from Cash Box days, also a big fan. When we got to the Garden, I got the sense that most of the people were anticipating the concert as much as we were, but didn’t know quite what to expect.
I hadn’t been to a rock concert in a big arena in a long time, and the first revelation was how good the sound system was. The sight lines also turned out to be excellent. Then Bruce, Baker and Clapton came on stage. The crowd erupted, but they didn’t milk it. They were there to play, and they started right in and never let up.
The three men played with an intensity and passion that belied their age, and certainly their decades-long hiatus. They mostly played their old songs, but you never got the sense they were going through the motions. The reason, I think, was best summed up by Ginger Baker in a recent interview he did in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. He described the band as two jazz musicians (himself and Bruce) and a blues guitarist whose playing remained fresh, even when doing the same songs, because they were constantly improvising.
Exactly! Despite their off-stage personality differences, it was obvious these superb musicians enjoyed playing together and pushing each other to heights they wouldn’t reach otherwise. It was a great night of rock and roll.
When it was finally over, and we — and the band — were spent, joyfully exhausted and perhaps a bit sad because we all knew we would probably never experience anything like this again. Then, as were filing out, some familiar notes came out of that state-of-the-art sound system, clear as a bell and literally giving me goose bumps: the haunting, timeless electric guitar chords of “East/West.”
How did they know?