Hit The Road Jack!
Jack Bruce talks to Pippa Lang about his first album for a decade, the star-spangled 'Silver Rails'. The conversation turns to many things including the Delta Blues, the gorbals, Maggie Thatcher, restlessness, the postponed tour and, inevitably, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker...
It's the tangible things that are important as you grow older, things you can touch and see and feel. The old reliables. In this era of virtual reality and 'cloud' memory banks, trust is laid at the door of technology as guardian of our daily existence. But if the guardian's gone out for a beer and left his door open on a sunny day, the clouds will scuttle away, spilling details and memories we've so faithfully stored, into the ether and away.
Like my Jack Bruce phone interview. (There is a cloud up there - 'Call Recorder app' - holding it hostage.)
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Fortunately, Jack is empathic to my rogue technological experience and with a courteous "well these things happen", agrees to a second phone interview that evening. Tired after a day of phoners and still suffering the lingering effects of flu – the reason for postponing his recent tour – he's dying for the dinner wife Margrit is presumably cooking for him in the background (dinner being one of those 'old reliables'), but nevertheless he kindly complies, graciously patronising damsel in disgust of technology.
Now where were we?
Margrit Seyffer is Jack's third wife and judging by the audible frisson in his voice – a soft, well-travelled Scots burr – when he talks about her, he has found his soulmate. Margrit is not just his wife but the Executive Producer and Co-ordinator of his first album for ten years, 'Silver Rails', and:
"...please make sure you mention that she wrote the lyrics to Candlelight. It was her first foray into lyric-writing and I'm so proud of her."
'Candlelight' opens the typically unpredictable 'Silver Rails' (released this week in the US) and it is entirely suitable she should write a song for her husband's album. After all, many a musician's wife has played accomplice to her husband's creative investigations; who better to explain his motives? It is a song brimming with sunshine despite the title, with a delightfully laid-back reggae motif - although Jack insists: "I would've said it has more of a Celtic influence..." but he has his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, "I'm only joking."
'Silver Rails' derives from the lyrics of 'Reach For The Night' ("now my train can still sing along those silver rails"), the album's second track but, in essence, the first if you consider 'Candlelight' a light starter to the main course. I mention, however, that the album title makes me think of distinguished gentlemen with silver at their temples. He laughs:
"I like that! But yes it is from 'Reach For The Night' and you're the first to notice that, thank you. 'Reach...' and the next track, 'Fields Of Forever', are both about sorting myself out, so I don't have to worry about the future anymore."
Jack has been to the bottom of many a bottle and danced with the Devil on countless occasions as 'Reach For The Night', in particular, attests to: "I was running straight to Hell..." and "You got to help me here, it's getting kinda weird". But he's survived cancer, and his liver transplant in 2003 – although nearly fatal – thankfully brought him back from the brink. He's been to Hell and back and 'Silver Rails' is a tribute to his survival.
Jack is a traveller, not just geographically but mentally and spiritually, and such restlessness has always coloured his music. 'Silver Rails' keeps moving, twisting and turning round unexpected corners...
"I've always been a restless soul I suppose, which is why I've never stayed in one band for long..." but then, as if to counter this, he announces almost defiantly "but I've had the Big Blues Band and Spectrum Road together for years!"
Spectrum Road have officially been together for two years, the jazz-rock band featuring Living Colour's Vernon Reid, keyboard player John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana (yep, Carlos' wife). Both Medeski and Cindy guest on 'Silver Rails'. There are constants in his life, of course, and one of those is his long-term songwriting partnership with Pete Brown, who has a different angle on Jack's life to that of Margrit's:
"Pete has been my songwriting companion since around 1966, the Cream days, almost half a century ago. He writes lyrics which put pictures in my head, images, which I then use to write the music."
This was a process he passed on to album cover artist Sacha Jafri, one of the world's leading young artists:
"I gave Sacha a few ideas and he came up with this amazing abstract painting which, to me, summed up the album."
The sleeve – entitled 'The Child Within' - is a lively melee of riotous colour in the style of a 1950s Columbia Records jazz album, which seems to encompass Jack's restless, hedonistic life, but there is more, much more; it's one of those paintings you can zone in on for hours. At first glance, it looks like a particularly wild Mardi Gras; Jack is a Latin jazz aficionado so maybe this isn't surprising. He has collaborated with American jazz impresario and Latin/world music producer Kip Hanrahan on and off since 1983, and in 2001, formed his own band with Hanrahan's three-piece Latin rhythm section.
Hanrahan wrote the lyrics to 'Hidden Cities', which features Cindy Blackman Santana on drums and Uli Jon Roth on guitar. It is a difficult song to listen to, with a dark, trudging, hopeless core which breaks into softer, more reflective moments:
"'Hidden Cities' is kinda science fiction if you think of cities within cities, like the schemes and gorbals in Glasgow, where I was brought up. They were built specifically so they could stick all us working-class there."
Jack was born John Symon Asher Bruce in 1943 and has been extracting himself from the infamous, grimy Gorbals of Glasgow ever since through his extraordinary musical talent (which includes double-bass, piano, cello, guitar and harmonica). That's not to say his roots are not important to him, despite his family's hardships.
He is immensely sad about the heroin addiction that riddles Britain's inner cities – particularly Glasgow – having been there himself. As a nod to his past, Keep It Down provides a warning: "It's an anti-drug song, but I find it difficult to lecture to kids having been there myself."
The charming but incredibly sad 'Industrial Child' embodies a kind of bleak resignation and reminds me – being a southerner – of the grubby Victorian underworld of Dickensian London, aka Oliver Twist, despite its contemporary commentary: "I hate Maggie Thatcher and what she did to this country," he says by way of explanation.
'Industrial Child' features a simple vocal and piano (played by Jack) and acoustic guitar, a far cry from the discordant, grungey 'Drone', which I mistakenly interpret as a reference to Indian raga drones (don't laugh - google it):
"Ah, I see what you mean... But no, 'Drone' is a direct reference to the sound of the bombs flying overhead during the war, imagine the noise! It was the first song recorded for 'Silver Rails' around which the rest of the album was built. We had a lotta fun with it – just bass, vocals and Milos (Pal) pounding away on the djembe and a lotta distortion. Just the sort of track Heavy Metal fans might like..."
Suddenly I'm reminded that this is a bass-player's album – it hones in on the pulse of a song before even considering the top melody. That is one reason why Jack's songs are so unique: bass-players are on a different frequency to singers and guitarists, for example, locked in on rhythm, tempo and groove: "I do like to work with different, unexpected tempos – that's my trademark...", he states, as if we didn't know.
Jack is a man of unique gestures, only one of three bassists to be awarded the International Bassist Award (in 2011) by the prestigious NAMM (North American Music Merchants), the other two being Jaco Pastorius and session bassist Nathan Watts. As such, his list of collaborators is – well – mind-boggling.
My personal favourite collaborative album is BLT (with a mouth-watering bacon, lettuce and tomato on the sleeve), recorded in 1981 with Bill Lordan and Robin Trower. The latter, who played on the chugging Cream-esque 'Rusty Lady', is one of a handful of prestigious collaborators on Silver Rails. But rather than a case of premeditated collusion, most of his guests just happened to be in the area at the time (well, close):
"One thing I loved about recording this album is that it just came together naturally. Cindy was somewhere in Europe and flew over to play on 'Hidden Cities', and Bernie Marsden was recording next door in Abbey Road. I literally bumped into him on the stairs and asked if he wanted to play on 'No Surrender'. You know his guitar is an exact replica of the one played by Paul Kossoff? Beautiful instrument. And Phil Manzanera, I was very lucky to get him for 'Candlelight'."
The wonderfully eccentric Uli Jon Roth brought a psychedelic flavour to 'Hidden Cities', and livened up recording sessions with his unique sense of humour:
"Dear Uli is such a lovely guy. He comes up with some great little philosophies. You know he moved back to Germany, but moved back to the UK again because of our sense of humour!," he chuckles.
We talk about Uli for a while as I had the pleasure of hanging out with him and his future wife, Jimi Hendrix' last girlfriend Monika Dannemann, in London about 25 years ago. I remember Uli wearing Jimi's legendary hat at dinner one night (meeting the 'hat', if not Jimi, was quite an experience!).
Talking about Jimi and the 60s, we naturally turn to Cream. It still seems incredible that they were only in existence for two years yet effortlessly stamped themselves on rock history's well-pitted face with their mind-bending interpretation of the blues. I mention that many young musicians these days seem to know a great deal about the blues and that at my Uni, Kingston, most of the music students, when required to form groups for assignments, invariably turn to blues covers.
"That's great! It's important for them to know it didn't all just start in 2000 or whatever. Of course, most of them know that, but I wonder if they know it goes even further back than Muddy Waters etc., all the way back to the Delta in the early 20th century. Now, Eric is a real musicologist, he knows all about the Delta Blues. I don't know so much about those origins but he's so knowledgeable, he could educate anyone.
"I remember meeting Sun House (pioneer of the Delta blues) once backstage. Now he's the man who taught Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson to play guitar, so that was an honour. I also remember hearing that Skip James, who originally recorded I'm So Glad in 1931, had said he'd earnt more from our cover than he'd earnt in his entire career. That was really really good to hear. These guys deserve respect. They loved the fact that white boys like us and the Stones were playing their songs, bringing attention to them."
Finally, before letting Jack go and eat his dinner, I have to ask: how is Ginger? Knowing very well about their toxic relationship, I'm not sure if I should've asked this, but Jack is a mellower man these days. A pause, as if gathering his wits:
"I have no idea what he's doing these days. I wish him well with whatever he's doing and wherever he is. You know we used to call him 'Ginger Nuts'..."
A picture suddenly leaps into my head: Jack, a man who thrives on exploring, experimenting, venturing into unknown territories, in a rehearsal room with a barking mad drummer whose all-consuming interest is to batter the life out of his drumkit. Being a bassist myself, I know what it's like trying to work out the rhythmic nuances of a song when you have an energetic powerhouse drummer right behind you, killing your eardrums. I may be wrong but I think I understand.
So, will Jack's recently postponed tour be rescheduled?
"Yes it will, but it's all down to my doctor. If people keep checking my website, I promise we'll let everyone know."
(JackBruce.com – you know where to go.)
Thank you, Jack and - hit that road... soon, please.