I rarely practiced.
But I think Guy needed the money.
At first, I took guitar lessons with my sister at some folkie’s house. That’s what you learned back then, Peter, Paul & Mary were kings, or queens. The teacher was a housewife, my mother heard about her through the grapevine. The smaller the community, the more people you know. But we burned out quickly, she wouldn’t teach us the hits.
And then the Beatles broke.
The folk guitar was no longer useful. You needed something with a narrow neck and metal strings. And I got one for Hanukkah, sans amplifier, not that I cared. And then a case, although its plastic handle ultimately broke, I think that’s one of the reasons I lost interest. And then I started taking lessons across town from this guy in a music store, with hair like Elvis and a big red semi-acoustic guitar, he scared me a bit, his interests seemed to be elsewhere, and one time when I showed up for my three dollar lesson and he’d cross-booked, since I’d been out of town a bunch, that was over.
And that’s when I found Guy Smith. Ensconced in one of those buildings in downtown Bridgeport that hadn’t yet been torn down. My father would drop me there every Monday night, I’d play what he’d given me the week before, then he’d write out something new, and then we’d play it and the lesson would be over. Guy was nice, and he always wrote down the hits. I remember doing the Turtles’ “You Showed Me,” I could tell it was one of his favorites, and one week I got him to write down “White Room.” Guy didn’t want to, maybe that’s why I remember it. He said it was too simple. But he did.
At this point, Cream was gigantic, and it wasn’t that long thereafter that they said they were gonna break up. I’d bought “Disraeli Gears,” I loved “Tales Of Brave Ulysses.” And “SWLABR” and “Dance The Night Away.” And nearly a year after it was released, “Sunshine Of Your Love” crossed over from FM to AM and the band became ubiquitous. That’s what changed music, almost as much as the Beatles, FM. Kinda like Spotify, et al, today, they’re making short songs de rigueur, but the streaming services have only amplified the power of hip-hop so far, no new musical strand has emerged. And once something was on AM, the cat was out of the bag, singles and albums sold prodigiously. Acts could sell more tickets. Everybody knew who they were, in an era where AM radio reached everybody. Just like network TV, if it was on, it was known.
And in the fall of ’68, right after “Sunshine Of Your Love” was fading, Cream released “Wheels Of Fire.”
Now if you got in early, and I most certainly did, the album came with a silver foil cover. This was back when we were all collectors, when our albums meant something to us, when we thought they were forever. And on some level, they still are, what with the vinyl revival, but now on eBay, you can find everything and life is all about access. If you find a collector, you find someone lost in the twentieth century.
Now at this point, “Wheels Of Fire” is most famous for the tear through “Crossroads,” with its Clapton vocal and searing fretmanship.
But back then, the two highlights were “Spoonful” and “Toad.” This was back when most bands were lousy live, long before tapes/hard drives, during the era of poor PAs. But these three tracks were all recorded live, “Wheels Of Fire” had one studio disc and one live disc.
This is when Clapton became God in America.
And this time, unlike the year before, no time was necessary for the track to percolate on FM before it crossed over to AM, “White Room” hit the airwaves immediately.
Did you know you could talk to the Amazon Music app? Yup, Alexa is there for you. Spotify has copied this feature, but to be honest I’ve never utilized it. And the other night, long after dark, I called out to Alexa on my phone to play the rock hits of 1968, since Amazon Music can create playlists on the fly.
I got way too much “White Album.” And for some reason, I got “Fire And Rain,” twice, even though that wasn’t released until 1970, but I also got “White Room.”
It was a revelation. The majestic full-throttle intro, how were all those sounds created, and then a Ginger Baker drum hit and Jack Bruce vocalizing, everybody involved considered the pinnacle in their world, a true supergroup, they made that movie about Ginger but today everybody talks about Neil Peart and people rarely mention bass players, even though students know Jaco Pastorius was best, as for Clapton….the past few decades have been about pulling him down from his perch, one he never seemed to want.
But Jack Bruce could sing too, his mellifluous voice was an indispensable part of Cream’s success.
I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves
And if I could tell you what that exactly means, I would, but I can’t, but I know this couplet by heart, the way Jack loses all harshness and goes for honesty, becomes almost sentimental, and touches your heart.
Now there was privilege in owning the album, the single version lasted barely longer than three minutes, whereas the five minute album take had Clapton wailing on and on, inspiring wannabe axemen around the world.
Funny how music can bring you back. It’s not a memory of, you’re right in the moment, you’re a teenager once again, when the goal was to be a guitar hero, when we only talked about music, when radio was our religion and music drove the culture.
Jack is gone. Stunningly, Ginger is still here. And now Clapton plays occasionally to fans, seemingly more interested in fishing. Live long enough and you see the whole arc, from nobody to star and back again. You can even book a hotel room under your own name.
But those records…
They’re locked in amber, they’re FOREVER!