Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Smattering of Notes About Wheels of Fire, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Life

Let's go down to where it's clean
To see the time that might have been.
The tides have carried off the beach.
As you said,
The sun is out of reach.
~Jack Bruce, Pete Brown

The passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this week brought to forefront once again the dilemma of how to respond to people of exceptional talent, their subsequent fame, and their character disorders. It challenges us because all too often we look up to people who have the same feet of clay that we do. They are not gods. They are flawed. How do we separate their failures as role models from the exceptional gifts they have?

The song As You Said by Cream bassist Jack Bruce and poet Pete Brown is from one of the great rock and roll double albums of all time, Wheels of Fire. It's psychedelic, surreal art is an attempt to convey the heady times and the remarkable music that Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker performed on stages both sides of the Atlantic. Clapton was practically still a kid when he linked in with Bruce and Baker, two very seasoned musicians with a volatile relationship.

The music they produced was remarkably sophisticated. Each of the men was a virtuoso. And the songs were poetry in motion, lyric content often hearkening back to historical literary roots. For example, the first stanza of As You Said ends with what is likely a reference to Icarus, who flew too near to the sun. The song is an exquisitely crafted lament, and perhaps serves as a warning about stretching too far or attempting to fly to high. Tales of Brave Ulysses from their Disraeli Gears album is explicitly rooted in Homer's Odyssey.

The album itself draws its title from Ezekiel's vision of wheels within wheels:

13-14 The four creatures looked like a blazing fire, or like fiery torches. Tongues of fire shot back and forth between the creatures, and out of the fire, bolts of lightning. The creatures flashed back and forth like strikes of lightning.

15-16 As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground beside each of the four-faced creatures. This is what the wheels looked like: They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope.*

The chief feature of the double album that so set it apart was the manner in which the first two sides were produced in the studio while the second two sides were recorded live at the Fillmore in March 1968. I have often felt that Side A on this second vinyl is one of the best live rock recordings of all time. The interplay between Clapton and Bruce is unmatched for virtuosity and power as they tackle those blues classics Crossroads and Spoonful. The improvisational breakouts and breathtaking bounty of sound simply soars through the senses.

The personal conflicts between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were something to which the average teen like myself was oblivious. And maybe its this naive obliviousness that enables us to place these mortals on pedestals and treat them like gods.

Much has been written about Clapton as a god, but the real Clapton was a troubled, self-destructive man for a very long time as he wrestled with personal demons and pain. Fortunately, he came out the other side, clear-headed, clean and sober. He was rescued by love.

The same cannot as yet be said for Mr. Baker. A documentary has been been produced on Britain's most gifted drummer, aptly titled Beware of Mr. Baker. It's a gripping portrait of a self-centered, dysfunctional human being. As this Guardian interview shows, the great drummer is anything but a role model. Those who loved him were those whom he hurt most.

Which brings us back to Mr. Hoffman. Are we asking too much to expect our heroes to also be role models as well?  How do we respond when our heroes break the law, hurt others or self-destruct? The reality is, we live in a broken world. Disillusionments will be our lot time and again if we forget this truth.

*Ezekiel 1:13-16, The Message

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