For seasoned connoisseurs of rock music documentaries, there is typically a waiting period before fully buying in. Rock docs tend to vary wildly in terms of quality and execution, and for every great entry into the genre, like the punk-rock tone poem DOA: A Rite Of Passage or the Big Star tribute Nothing Can Hurt Me, there are ten hastily assembled clip jobs that only do the cruelest disservice to their subject matter. In the case of the 2017 Joe Cocker documentary Mad Dog With Soul (recently made widely available on streaming services) the probationary period lasts roughly 30 seconds. That is how long it requires for the film to reveal the first of its many striking images: an addled, crazy-eyed Cocker performing onstage in 1970 alongside the equally bonkers, top hat-wearing Leon Russell, a tableau of wild hare lunacy fit for a 17th century sanitarium. And so it goes for the next 90 minutes, providing fascinating insights and nutty stories regarding the spasmodic Sheffield-based blues and soul singer who for thirty years proved one of rock’s most strange and enduring success stories. Here are seven takeaways.
1) A Case Can Be Made for Cocker As the Greatest British Soul Singer
As a young man growing up in England in the 50’s and early 60’s, Cocker was one of a number of extraordinary soul singers who seemed to emerge fully formed as the linear inheritors of the American blues and R&B tradition. Along with Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Eric Burdon and others, Cocker so profoundly identified with performers like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as to utterly annihilate the line between influence and identity. Less suave than Stewart, less versatile then Van and less astutely self-aware then Mick Jagger, Cocker nevertheless is the one who pushed furthest and drove hardest into the psychic deep waters of the blues. No performer this side of James Brown demanded as much of himself and his singing voice onstage night after night.
2) Talent Aside, Cocker Is On The Short List Of Our Most Unlikely Rock Stars
Cocker’s most famous stateside appearance was at Woodstock, performing his signature rendition of the Beatles ‘With A Little Help From My Friends”. It is a great version – a half-deranged, fully reverent gospel reading that transforms the original’s charming kitsch into a harrowingly desperate existential plea. But my word, what an insane figure the singer cut. With the long, unkempt hair and beard of a month’s lost seaman, coupled with “air guitar” moves that looked far more like a seizure, Cocker never seemed less than a few weeks away from a long stay in a padded room. Brilliant though he was, it is nearly inconceivable for such an idiosyncratic character to achieve something like household name status in these carefully curated times. You just don’t see this sort of thing on The Voice.
3) Fatigue And Pressure To Tour
Rock music history is littered with casualties, many of whom died on the road. The Cocker documentary does a uniquely good job of exemplifying the ways in which popular artists have been driven to the brink by the demands and expectations of keeping a touring band on the go. Regarding a series of early 1970’s US engagements which an exhausted Cocker was first unaware of, then hoped to avoid, the singer Rita Coolidge describes a scenario in which Cocker is told by his own manager that he is sure to have his legs broken if he doesn’t comply. When asked about this account, famous tough guy and A&M label boss Jerry Moss doesn’t exactly dispute the account. Rough trade in those days.
4) The 1970 “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” Tour Was Extraordinary
Credit where due, that compulsory tour’s resulting spectacle was astonishing, The fifty strong caravan which was assembled by hard-living rock legend Leon Russell included stalwarts like Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner and provided an ecstatic experience which predated the traveling carnival of Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Review” and established a new bar for joyous communal rock-as-theater. The fact that the tour — wildly successful in terms of artistic merit – essentially bankrupted Cocker on the basis of its unmanageable overhead is a poignant distillation of a frenetic career largely spent doing rather than thinking.
5) He Was One Of The Survivors
Cocker was nuts. Cocker drank all the drinks and took all the drugs. There is a part of the picture when he is just taking random pills from random strangers and putting them in his mouth. There is another part where he says “Why take one tab of acid when you could have ten?” Or something. Anyway, one of the best parts of the picture is where Cocker quits his drinking and drugging. This is a fairly standard pivot point for many rock docs, but there is something gratifyingly unassuming about the onset of Cocker’s sobriety. It apparently occurs cold turkey, without terrific struggle and he seems none the worse for wear. So many of his peers succumbed to their sundry deprivations. Cocker lucked out, dried out and lasted longer than anyone expected.
6) “Up Where We Belong” And Others
Long after what was thought to be his commercial peak, Cocker just kept turning up with hits. In 1975, the apex of his hard-drinking wilderness years, he managed a Top 5 hit with a cover of Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful”, a potentially wussy ballad which a broken sounding Cocker renders earnestly moving. Seven years later he had a number one hit dueting with Jennifer Warnes on “Up Where We Belong” which is a much better tune than I recalled, and a recording that benefits immensely from Cocker’s inimitable growl. He even managed to have a minor hit in 1987 by covering the Ray Charles chestnut “Unchain My Heart”, which could scarcely have veered further from the fashions of the day. In an uncharacteristically charming appearance, a deferential Billy Joel compares Cocker to a cockroach, as in unkillable. Anyway, I think he was being deferential.
7) Cocker’s Legacy Remains In Limbo
Joe Cocker is not in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and is not typically spoken about by critics with particular reverence. Ever since Bob Dylan functionally destroyed the barriers between songwriter and performer, popular music has struggled with contextualizing the importance of strict musical interpreters relative to their more auteur-oriented counterparts. Cocker was not a great songwriter in the Dylan or Lennon-McCartney mode, but as a performer of others’ songs he was nothing less than an alchemic medium, frequently transforming relatively mundane material into elegies of staggering emotional consequence. In this way he might be better be thought of as a figure in the pre-rock tradition like Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra – an iconic voice giving new weight and meaning to everything he touches. Ironically, this is the very footing a late-in-life Bob Dylan aspires to occupy in his current desiccated-crooner phase.