the other bruce

Calling this a recommendation for new summer reading is late on a number of counts. First, the book in question actually came out last year. Plus the season, as we know it, is pretty well finished.

Nonetheless, the days around and after Labor Day were spent with Composing Myself, Harry Shapiro’s very insightful authorized biography of Jack Bruce. To many, Bruce is known almost exclusively and the bassist, songwriter and primary vocalist for the late ‘60s rock trio Cream. And it is the pop music premise that Bruce should have met or exceeded the stardom level attained by Cream guitarist Eric Clapton that fuels much of the book.

“Should have” is the operative term. Classically trained and infatuated with jazz, Bruce’s music was simply too advanced, complicated or outside parameters of what most rock stars operated by. And by the time he assembled sustainable bands that could address such commercial concerns, the pop world had moved on.

Bruce, who has often come across as notoriously self-involved in interviews over the years, speaks with candid humility throughout Composing Myself, especially in the book’s early chapters that trace him as a teen touring across Europe with the likes of Graham Bond and John Mayall, knowing little of the world outside England and his proud birthplace, Scotland.

The Cream chapters take up remarkably little of the book, which is probably natural as the band existed for barely two years, even though it pioneered the template for rock trios by covering, in almost scholarly fashion, the jazz, blues and psychedelic inspirations of the day.

But the Cream narratives are still comprehensive as the book views the sense of artistic excitement that surrounded the band’s two finest albums (Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire) as well its very tumultuous relationship – especially within the ties between Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker.

Such troubled relations fracture almost every time the two players meet, especially during a later chapter (A Question of Time, named after a 1989 Bruce solo album of the same name) where the bassist and drummer attempt to reconcile before and during a joint tour.

Shapiro makes the rounds on the interview front. A litany of career-spanning collaborators offer comments, including Clapton, longtime lyricist Pete Brown, jazz artists Carla Bley, Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham, guitar greats Robin Trower, Gary Moore and Chris Spedding along with several members of Bruce’s immediate family.

While the author succumbs to hero worship at times in his assessments of some of Bruce’s music, one still leaves with renewed appreciation for his post-Cream work – especially the troubled, drug rattled Los Angeles sessions that led to Bruce’s most underrated recording (1974’s Out of the Storm) and the formation and quick implosion of his short-lived mid ‘70s supergroup with Bley and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.

Most of all, you gain appreciation for Bruce’s artistic temperament – a skilled, schooled and complicated vision that was perhaps denied the level of stardom he deserved but shines brilliantly within these pages.

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