[4 December 2008]
Joe Cocker burst onto the scene in 1968 with his first record, With a Little Help From My Friends, consolidated his success with its eponymous follow-up, became a star at Woodstock, and in 1970 teamed with Leon Russell and a cast of dozens for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. That tour essentially wore him out, and although he continued to have hits throughout the ‘70s, he never really scaled the heights of his earliest records until an unlikely duet with Jennifer Warnes. “Up Where We Belong”, from the film An Officer and a Gentleman, was a massive hit, and gave Cocker a second career. But that wasn’t until 1982. A lot (or a little, depending on your perspective) happened in between.
And so we find Cocker in 1980, having not put out an album in two years, performing for the German TV program Rockpalast as though he’s entirely unaware of what’s going on. Cocker is the only person in this entire hour-long program who seems oblivious to the fact that he’s being filmed. Worse, it often seems like he couldn’t care less that there’s a live audience a few feet away from him. His band, to the contrary, is obviously all too aware that they’re on TV, and look like a bunch of fools as a result, making agonized, exaggerated faces and never looking like they’re being spontaneous or actually having fun. This role-playing has the effect of making Cocker look even more bored, and since he’s supposed to be the star, this sinks the performance.
It didn’t have to be this way, necessarily, as the set list is heavy on classic Cocker. But the opening “Cry Me a River”, the Julie London torch song transformed into a raucous free-for-all, would never reach its Mad Dogs level of brilliant chaos. While Cocker looks awful, he doesn’t sound particularly bad, just uninterested. And it’s hard to blame him when you watch and listen to his five-piece band and three backing vocalists. Everything that’s wrong with all of them is on clear display during the opener. The band is solidly professional and polished, but prone to rock-star posturing and very unsuited to be backing up Cocker, who needs something a bit looser and more spontaneous to work with. And the girls are just awful. They’re screechy and don’t mesh well. (And those outfits!)
These problems inform the entire set and especially destroy the vintage numbers like “Feelin’ Alright”, “Delta Lady” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”, which is overly long because the players apparently think it’s supposed to be. Similarly, just when you think the closing “High Time We Went” is threatening to turn into a bloated instrumental showcase, it does.
Two covers from Cocker’s then-most-recent effort, 1978’s Luxury You Can Afford, look great on paper and absolutely tank musically. The crowd really digs “Whiter Shade of Pale”, presumably since it was a mammoth hit everywhere, but there’s no sense of drama and the excitement is inexplicable. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” has a rock-oriented arrangement that just doesn’t work.
There are two performances that rise above the mediocrity. “Put Out the Light” isn’t even all that special, but it’s a tight performance that avoids any excess noodling and faux showmanship, and that’s enough to make it a standout on this particular night. But the real highlight of Cry Me a River is “You Are So Beautiful”, the extremely sentimental but quite lovely ballad sung by everyone from composer Billy Preston to Marge Simpson. Cocker’s version is the most famous, and the modesty of the arrangement is a godsend here, because for a brief couple minutes he’s naked and can’t coast through the song. The feeling vanishes as soon as the song’s over and “With a Little Help From My Friends” starts up, but it’s nice while it lasts.
“Up Where We Belong” would lift Cocker to number one, a Grammy, and rejuvenated possibilities. Cry Me a River makes that seem like a miracle.