The raspy blues of the inimitable Joe Cocker

There are voices in the world of rock n’ roll as quickly recognizable as one of those classic guitar riffs which peal off a Jimi Hendrix or an Eric Clapton Fender Stratocaster. Even from the first syllables we know Aretha Franklin, or Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. It is a stellar list and a passionately contested one.[1] What is certain somewhere on this list we find the inimitable Joe Cocker, he of the spasmodic movement and of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” fame.[2] Yet he still remains underappreciated. Perhaps he is too often typeset into those images of the young and wild rocker from the 70’s who made his iconic mark with a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help of My Friends” at Woodstock on August 17th, 1969.[3] And yet “[c]ontrary to his image”, writes Jimmy Webb, “[he was] sober for most of his life.”[4] John Robert Cocker born 1944 in Sheffield, England, passed away after a battle with lung cancer in Colorado on 22nd December 2014.[5] His body and soul were a well weathered seventy years of living. And a voice from the depths of the earth which could break you into a thousand pieces and put you back together inside the time-frame of a song. There is a broad consensus in the music world that the bluesy and raspy Cocker was “without doubt the greatest rock/soul singer ever to come out of Britain.”[6] It is not surprising that one of his great musical influences was the pioneer of soul music himself, “The Genius” Ray Charles.[7]

There is a wonderful moment in time captured on video where a noticeably emotional Joe Cocker shares the stage with his boyhood hero to deliciously belt out one of his signature songs, Billy Preston’s and Bruce Fisher’s, You Are So Beautiful.[8]

Similarly to Joplin, his was not the most beautiful voice, but like Janis herself, it was one of the most recognizably soulful. A “soulful growl” some have called it. I came to Joe Cocker later in life but it was all the sweeter to make this discovery at a time when the great anthemic music of the 60s and 70s was disappearing. At high school like most of my mates I was into the progressive hard rock bands, soloists were not your typical “cool”.

In a characteristically relaxed interview with ZDFkultur, Joe Coker smiles: “My dad would say get a proper job.”[9]

An hour ago I was listening to Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite Requiem[10] and now I am enthralled by Cocker’s gravely sorrowing in “The Letter”. How is that possible? “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness” (Maya Angelou).

Sometimes it can be too difficult to pray, music is the only honest alternative.

Below is a selection of Joe Cocker songs which have accompanied me on various journeys. Two of my favourites are Noubliez Jamais (J. Cregan and R. Kunkel) “So dance your own dance, and never forget” and Unforgiven (M. Allen, K. Dioguardi, et al.) “As much as life seems less for living/ I still try”. Harold and Madge’s son might not have been a song writer nor learnt to play the guitar, but very few could cover a tune like he could and make it distinctively their own.

The soundtrack of our lives

Kiama, NSW

Songs, great songs, have the power to transport us back to significant years or moments in our lives. Some speak of this evocative effect as a ‘soundtrack’ which is embedded within us… and try as we might we can neither delete nor outrun it. At other times a song can prepare us for what is still ahead and make it more bearable, or force us to re-evaluate our relationships and even our beliefs. One of these “great songs” for a large number of people is Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.[1] The haunting and unforgettable lyrical ode to the deep aching of loneliness and insufferable loss: “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” In 2013 the song was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress “for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”[2] But even today it is being discovered anew outside any allegiances to genres. Why? It speaks to the core of our shared sense of alienation, of our needs and fears, of what we could confess to each other when down and vulnerable. It is a song with soul it has been somewhere said. “In restless dreams I walk alone/ Narrow streets of cobblestone…”

The song has been covered countless times, sometimes very well, other times brilliantly and yet on other occasions very poorly. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most-performed songs of the 20th century.[3] When I fall in love with a song I will invariably seek out covers, and quite often I am amazed at how beautiful and true to the spirit many of these covers are. Sometimes we find that the cover can be even more powerful (or at least equal) to the original, and here I am particularly thinking of Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails disturbing and yet surprisingly redeeming Hurt.[4] The covers of Paul Simon’s folk rock classic offered here are outstanding examples of how a great song can be reinterpreted to express different nuances or to reach a new audience without damage to the intent of the original. Of interest from these offerings below: a poetical reading from Leonard Cohen; a startling delivery from Sharleen Spiteri; and yet another from the heavy metal American band, Disturbed.

“We human beings are tuned such that we crave great melody and great lyrics. And if somebody writes a great song, it’s timeless…” (Art Garfunkel, b. November 5th 1941)

“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” (Paul Simon, b. October 13th 1941)

“This deep relation which music has to the true nature of all things also explains the fact that suitable music played to any scene, action, event, or surrounding seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears as the most accurate and distinct commentary upon it.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860)

On a personal note, The Sound of Silence has been on my ‘soundtrack’ since about the time of the First Gulf War (1990-91). When during those imperilled months I was preparing to leave for London and Madrid, to come face-to-face with a much smaller crisis of my own.

“But my words like silent raindrops fell, And echoed/ In the wells of silence…”


Paul Simon and Art GarfunkelPaul Simon and Bob DylanDisturbedMike Masse and Jeff HallSharleen SpiteriNouelaEmilίana TorriniLeonard CohenDana Winner


[1] The song was recorded and released by Columbia Records in October, 1964. It was included in Simon and Garfunkel’s first studio album, Wednesday Morning, 3AM. It was famously written by Paul Simon over a number of months.