JOE COCKER, Sheffield, January 1971

Fifty-three years ago last month Melody Maker got word that Joe Cocker, who’d spent most of 1970 on the road with Mad Dogs & Englishmen, had returned to his home town of Sheffield and, unlikely as it might seem, was back living with his mum and dad. Editor Ray Coleman suggested I drive up to Sheffield, find out where ma and pa Cocker lived and pay him a visit. 

Joe was a big star then. In the current era it is unheard of for a music writer to simply roll up at a big star’s home uninvited and knock on the door. It was taking a bit of a liberty even then but Ray liked to subvert convention so I did as he suggested. I drove up the M1 very early on a Saturday morning, discovered his address in the Steel Bank area of Sheffield by inquiring at a music shop where, luckily, someone knew him and knocked on the door. He was still in bed but his mum and dad roused him. While his mum made him breakfast, we spent about an hour chatting before strolling down the street to his local pub and chatting some more. I left him on the corner of the street where he lived and drove to Skipton, spending the night at my dad’s house before driving back down to London. Back in the office on Monday, this is what I wrote for the January 16, 1971, edition of MM. It was trailered on the front page as Joe Cocker: What Can I Do Next? 

Joe Cocker’s turned full circle. Los Angeles, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the Woodstock nation and bad trips are a far cry from the backstreets of Sheffield. But Joe’s come back. He’s living at home with his mum and dad and that’s where he’s content to be – for the time being at least.

    Tasker Road is stretch of terraced houses. Mr and Mrs Cocker and their son Joe live at number 38. There’s a brand new Rover 2000TC standing outside. The shiny new motor looks a bit of out of place against the shabbier ’64 models parked around it.

    Joe’s dad answers my knock. He is surprised to see me which isn’t surprising because he didn’t know I was coming. Neither did Joe, who is in bed, and is equally surprised that Melody Maker is visiting him at his Yorkshire home. “He was a bit late in last night,” explains father Cocker. “Went to a friend’s house. Unusual for him. First time he’s been out in a while.”

    Five minutes, a chat with dad about the weather and Joe appears, grinning. He’s grown a beard and his untidy curly hair reaches his shoulders. The pot belly is still there. He seems genuinely pleased to see Melody Maker on home ground. In his red polo neck sweater and blue cords – no familiar tie-dyed vest up here – he confesses he hasn’t much to say. 

    We’re in the small living room, huddled around a gas fire. It’s one of those houses where the front room is reserved for weddings and funerals only. MM interviews aren’t in that class.

    “I came home about three weeks ago,” Joe tells me. “I had been in the States since March. I wanted to come home for Christmas. I don’t know why.”

    “Tell me about Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” I say.

    Joe lights a cigarette, his first of the day. “Well, the reports in the papers about it were pretty true,” he says. “I just went to America to meet Leon Russell with the intention of getting a group together. I met Chris Stainton and Leon and they got all their buddies to join. It finished up with us all going on tour together. Somebody filmed it and they are supposed to be putting this two and a half hour film out. They had 60 hours of film.

    “I don’t know how many cities we visited. We just worked seven days a week and kept going. They kept putting in dates here and there. The band kept changing because nobody could stick it all the down the line. At times there were about 40 of us, musicians, socialisers and choirs going from place to place in a plane. A girl in the choir had a dog that used to come up on stage with us most of the time.

    “After the tour we made the album. Somehow, I can’t think it about now but everyone made a big fuss about it at the time. I liked the idea of getting a big band together to make a living with but everybody got too closed in about it.”

    Joe sits in silence, his mind somewhere far away. It seems he doesn’t really want to talk about the Mad Dogs. It’s over – according to Joe – and it won’t happen again. After Joe’s mum had served us another cup of tea I asked Joe about his plans for the future?

    “I’ll be living in England for a while now,” he says. “I’m looking for a house near London and I’ll be rockin’ on all right. Right now, I’m having a rethink. I seem to have gone the full circle and now I’m back in Sheffield.

    “As far as playing goes, I’m just not there at the moment. These days everyone seems to analyse lyrics and that annoys me. I start singing and people pick up the lyrics and make side-waves (sic) from them. I despair when people are thinking too much about what you are singing. Audiences will say anything, no matter what you are. I’m going to try and sharpen up my diction a bit so people can hear me. I don’t know when I’ll go back on the road again. I’m getting my own things together but there’s a bit of a delay. Just before I came back to England I was in the studio at Muscle Shoals doing some new stuff with Chris. There as Wayne Perkins, a nephew of Carl, on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums. We just composed as we went along.”

    Any chance of you teaming up with Leon on his upcoming British tour?

    “No, there’s not much chance of that. I don’t fancy the idea of just getting up and messing about. He’s touring right across the country and I’m sure to see him somewhere along the line. There was talk at some time that Leon and the whole Mad Dogs crew would all fly to Britain for some shows but it didn’t work out. 

    “The feeling at the end of the tour was entirely different from the start. My attitude changed a lot. If you have a group of five people, they are all on the same thought wave but when you have that many people on stage everybody is thinking different. I mean some people’s heads weren’t on stage at all times. When it was finished I was quite happy it was all over.

    “The change in me will show eventually but I’ve got to sit down and think about it first and I don’t know how long that will take. I know I don’t want to go out and do the same songs again, although the audiences expect me to sing them. I want to write some new stuff. We must have performed some 60 dozen times and that’s too many times for me.”

    By now it was opening time and the pub down the road seemed inviting. Joe is no stranger to the Mason’s Arms. Old men twice his age greet him over the racing pages of the daily papers, puffing at pipes and frowning into the froth on their pints.

    “Now then Joe lad, o’reet?” says the chap behind the bar. 

    “Aye, not so bad,” Joe replies.

    “On ‘oliday Joe lad?” asks another gent.

    “Aye, that’s right,” says Joe.

    We take our pints to a corner table and talk about the current music scene. Joe doesn’t seem to have any favourites at the moment. “Nothing has zonked me out recently,” he says. “Although I saw Procol Harum and they made a big impression on me.”

    We discussed a few bands, the Who, Deep Purple, Beatles and the wave of heavy groups who all seem to sound like Led Zeppelin. Joe doesn’t say much, just nods, grins and smokes cigarettes. After three quick pints he’s ready to go. He used to play in Sheffield pubs like this before the world heard about him.

    I don’t think he’ll ever sing in places like this again. In fact, it may be a long while before he sings anywhere again. But don’t worry about Joe. He’ll get by – with a little help from his friends.

1 comment:

Colin Harper said...

Fascinating. Surprised you printed his (folks') address, though!