I remember once having a heated argument with a table full of coworkers over beers about twenty years ago, regarding which was the better and more soulful singer: Joe Cocker, or Michael Bolton. As I recall, the main thrust of their argument was that Bolton’s albums were currently flying off the shelves in record stores and they didn’t even know who Cocker was; my nuanced retort was that Cocker was a god, and Bolton sucked ass.
That argument was the first memory that popped up this afternoon, after I learned that Cocker fell victim to cancer earlier this morning.
If you are under a certain age, chances are you’ve never heard of Joe Cocker, or even if you have you know his as the man who sang the saccharine-coated dreck that is You Are So Beautiful, played at weddings by terrible DJs everywhere. But there was a time when Cocker was the undisputed king of the white, male rock and soul vocalists.
Although his singing career began in the very early 1960s, he got little mainstream notice outside of Northern England. Then in 1968 he approached Paul McCartney, wanting to get McCartney’s permission to do a rework of Little Help With My Friends. Cocker’s version of the song, which McCartney would later describe as “mind blowing,” ended being just about as reworked as a song can get: Cocker changed not only the tempo and feel, he had the audacity to change the actual meter. He sang the song at Woodstock shortly thereafter, and suddenly everyone knew who Joe Cocker was. Indeed, his rendition of Little Help may be the only classic Lennon-McCartney song whose cover is arguably more iconic than the original.
For years after Woodstock, it never mattered what songs Cocker recorded — just so long as he recorded them. His voice was so rich, so filled with whiskey and passion, that the cliche that arose around him was that even if he just sat and sang the phone book it would be worth listening to every note. Later, of course, as either his vocal chords or his commitment to his craft began to wane, it became apparent just how wrong that cliche had been. His later albums were uniformly terrible, his soulful cries of anguish seemingly replaced by a tepid voice synthesizer that existed simply to churn out adult contemporary elevator music.
I saw him in concert once in the mid 1980s, just as he was beginning his long decline. He was far, far away from the greatness we had come to worship, but he still blew the doors off the small-stage bar where he’d booked a gig. I still remember tearing up during his rendition of Darling Be Home Soon. He was lightyears behind the peak he’d scaled years prior to that night, but he was still lightyears ahead of every live vocal performance I’ve seen before or since.
And maybe it’s just as well. After all, even though I know in my heart how wrong my coworkers were that night many years back, there’s no question that Cocker was on the losing side of history. Bolton’s stylistic formula of cookie cutter Volume+Range+Never Taking Chances has been all the rage for over a decade now. Star Search, American Idol, The Voice — they’re all wave after wave of people singing exactly like Michael Bolton. If Cocker had been born thirty years later and auditioned using Dear Landlord, Simon Cowell would have sneeringly tossed him after the first verse. I’m listening to Mad Dogs & Englishmen right now, and I have no doubt that the voice I hear wouldn’t get a sniff recording contract in today’s Auto-Tune world.
Still, it makes no difference. Michael Bolton still sucks. And Joe Cocker — the real Joe Cocker, the one who every other rock vocalist wished they could be from 1969 to 1986 — is still a god.
And if you doubt me, here is my proof:
Rest in peace, Joe.
Or better yet, don’t — go blow the fucking doors off heaven.
[Picture via Wikipedia]