Back Down to the Crossroads
Updated: Oct 14, 2018
In a previous 5-blog series I described 2 personality types when it comes to how musicians relate to each other and to music.
I defined Type 1: They consider the iconic recording of the song to be the goal. They are concerned with recreating the sound of the original recording as close as possible. The original recording is to them what the written score is to the classical musician. These are the guys who transcribe and memorize parts and solos note-for-note and play them perfectly every time. The parts are set in concrete and not to be messed with. That's the mind-set.
I defined Type 2 as musicians who consider the iconic recording of the song to be the starting point, not the goal. The tune-as-recorded is the springboard or launchpad for taking it somewhere else, maybe somewhere the original artist never even thought of. It's an improvisational attitude - I call it a jazz attitude, as opposed to a classical attitude. Type 2s are ALL about improvising, being in the moment and taking chances.
I believe these mind-sets are inherent within the personality-type of the musician. That's just the way different brains are wired. It exhibits itself from the very beginning of a person's musical development.
For example: Two kids take piano lessons; one kid works really hard at getting the notes perfect, and follows the teacher's program. He thrives with structure and weekly assignments that have defined goals. He does what the teacher says and only what the teacher says.
The other kid is always messing around. He works on his lesson but is constantly following rabbit trails. Something in the lesson triggers his ear; maybe it sounds kind of like something else he's heard and he starts tinkering with it. So he winds up spending 5 minutes on his lesson and then an hour hunting and pecking on the keyboard trying to find the associated sound that something in the lesson prompted in his mind.
The first kid is a Type 1. The second kid is a Type 2. They bring their respective types to the table. It's not learned or programmed into them; that's just the way they're wired.
I stated that I am more of a Type 2; I have an improvisational mind-set. I like to start with the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure of a song and take it somewhere, or see where it leads me. I call it a jazz mind-set but it can occur in any genre – even classical. A classical composer has a high degree of Type 2 because he's a composer; he makes that stuff up. Mozart was famous for his improvising abilities.
I'm going to share a story from my own experience that illustrates the inherent nature of these types and how one single song influenced my development and set the course of my musical journey.
When I was about 13 years old (1968-69) I got hold of an album called, “Best of Cream.” Cream was together for 2 years (1966-1968). This album was a compilation of their greatest hits. It was all studio recordings except for one track; Crossroads. Crossroads was recorded live on March 10, 1968 during a concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. That's the version I'm talking about.
For some reason (the reason was because I'm a Type 2) that track grabbed me – I mean majorly grabbed me. I spent hours listening to it over and over. I laid on the floor with the stereo speakers on each side of my head and mentally and aurally picked it apart (we didn't listen to records with headphones in those days). What was the guitar player (Eric Clapton) doing? What was the bass player (Jack Bruce) and the drummer (Ginger Baker) doing? I would try to listen to each instrument separately, over and over. Then I would listen to it as a whole and how the parts fit together. I could sing the guitar solos note-for-note I listened to it so much.
By-the-way: Here is a clip from an interview Eddie Van Halen did in 1985 where he off-the-cuff played Clapton's solos from the Winterland recording note-for-note - albeit a little faster than the recording.
I could already play minor and major pentatonic patterns at the time – although I didn't know the names. Even at that age, I could tell that Clapton was improvising from those two scales. Not much more than typical Blues licks. Something that Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were doing behind him was making Clapton sound better, making his playing sound more complicated.
Don't misunderstand me; I have a lot of respect for Eric Clapton but I confess to some mixed feelings about his guitar playing. In my opinion, I don't think he's musically surpassed what he did with Cream. That band was greater than the sum of its parts. In my opinion, the way he does Crossroads now doesn't even come close to the excitement and energy of the Cream version. I don't think he was comfortable with the “Clapton is God” episode and I don't think he considers himself a virtuoso. He loves the Blues, and he occasionally writes a brilliant pop song that has some musical depth. Everything he's done since Cream (with the exception of certain Blues projects) has been song-oriented – not jam-oriented (I think he has a strong Type 1 streak!). He has survived all the traps of being a rock star, even after falling into a few of them, and has successfully navigated his career through the corruption and politics at the highest levels of the music business. You gotta respect all that. Just his survival is a miracle.
Back to my story: Later, because of Crossroads, I went out and bought “Live Cream” and also “Live Cream, Volume 2.” I devoured those as well. It became clear to me that Cream used their recorded hits – the studio recordings – as jumping-off points for improvisation when playing live (I never got to see them live). A studio track that was 3-and-a-half minutes long would turn into 10 or more minutes live. Furthermore, 2 different live recordings of the same song would differ significantly. All this was fascinating to me.
Note: Cream also played "Crossroads" during their final concert at London's Royal Albert Hall on November 26, 1968. The expanded version of Cream's Farewell Concert film released in 1977 contains that performance. Compare the two performances and note the differences.
In retrospect, I've realized that one single recording opened my ears up so that when I was exposed to jazz music 6 or 7 years later, I could already “hear” it.
I didn't know it then, but Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were jazz musicians. Now, when 60-something (WTH!?!) me listens to Crossroads (and it still sounds good!) I understand what 13-year-old me was hearing but not understanding at the time. I knew I didn't understand what was going on; I just knew I liked it!
During the vocal sections, all the instruments are playing parts behind Clapton's vocals. It's not complicated; it's a 12-bar blues, there's only 3 chords and 13-year-old me could "hear" them. I was familiar with the 12-bar blues form. I could even hear the position Clapton was playing in; the hook was in open A; the second chord was a 1st-position D7 - and so on.
But as soon as the guitar solo starts, things explode. Ginger Baker starts propelling the whole band with eighth-notes on a ride cymbal. That's the way jazz drummers play. At the same time, Jack Bruce starts walking bass lines all over the place; like jazz bass players do.
At first, the primacy of the ride cymbal combined with the walking bass line threw me and I lost “one.” It's still a 12-bar blues but no one was slamming 2 and 4 – the explicit backbeat went away - and 13-year-old me took a while to be able to hear where “one” was. And because I lost "one" I couldn't hear the chord changes or the 12-bar form. But after listening and listening - and listening some more - I began to be able to hear the form of the tune being maintained all the way through the solos. It was like the 12-bar form to which the band was adhering existed in an absolute sense out there in the ether, even if no one actually stated the obvious; like where “one” was! And the ride was exhilarating!
Years later, after discovering and consequently being completely obsessed with jazz music for several years – I characterize it as, I'm ashamed to say, my “jazz nazi” stage – and literally repressing and denying the influence of all the rock music of my formative years - including Cream - I wound up in a working rock band (irony strikes again!). I'll tell that story another time. The point is, I found myself wanting, but not being able, to access the sounds (primarily playing with distortion and the kind of tone rock players use), the feel and the phrasing of rock music; I had denied and repressed it so much. I knew it was in me, it's how I learned to play in the first place - I just had to somehow recover it and bring it to the forefront again.
For reasons having to do with my jazz nazi-ism and also various personal issues (that's another story as well), I had given away most of my records to a friend. As part of a strategy to try and recover that way of playing, I borrowed what were formerly my own records from my friend, including Best of Cream and Live Cream.
As soon as Crossroads hit the turntable I felt the years of repression and denial just fall away. My jaw dropped. I was amazed at how that guitar tone connected to something in my soul; that sound was still in me! But now, because of the years of study and training in jazz, I instantly understood the significance of that recording to me. If it wasn't for Crossroads, I wouldn't have taken to jazz like I did, when I did.
And then come full circle – back down to the Crossroads.
P.S. I do Crossroads sometimes when playing solo acoustic gigs. I use a looper and track the rhythm guitar while I sing. I use the same rhythmic feel as Cream's Winterland version although I add a couple of extra chords and I don't play the solos verbatim - I improvise my own - that's what Cream would do!
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