Monday, December 29, 2014

Farewell Joe, Thank You Mom

My mother bought the Mad Dogs and Englishmen album when it came out in 1970. I was only 12, so she had to explain why the two-disc set was so exciting: the line-up, the repertoire, the captured rawness of life on the road. We listened to it on the stereo console in our den with the sloping floor.

She had an appreciation for contemporary music trends that my friends' mothers did not share. Those other mothers listened to pap; mine understood pop. She knew what made a pop song great. Decades before 20 Feet From Stardom belatedly paid tribute to the unsung heroes of popular music, she pointed out the contribution of the background singers in "Honky Tonk Women," as well as the songs on Mad Dogs and many others. She knew about the roots of rock and had an archive of 78s to prove it.

Our favorite song on the Mad Dogs album was Joe Cocker's "The Letter." We had the 45 of the original 1967 Box Tops version and it was fun to analyze the differences.

Joe Cocker was the king of the differences. Like Linda Rondstadt, he specialized in making other people's hits his own. From "With a Little Help from My Friends" (the Beatles, of course) to "Feelin' Alright" (Traffic/Dave Mason), "Whiter Shade of Pale" (Procol Harum) to "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (Randy Newman) Joe Cocker made everything his own.

A year and a half after Mad Dogs, at 14, I bought the Concert for Bangladesh. I played it in my room and didn't share it with my mother. That's the difference between childhood and the teen years: the adolescent yearning for independence is in full force. I no longer wanted my mother to like the same music I did.

But we'll always have Joe Cocker. When she heard he'd died Christmas week, she sent me a link to a Youtube video of him with John Belushi and the oh-so-true comment "Cocker certainly had a sense of humor."