Tuesday, May 20, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 140): "THE LETTER" (1970) Joe Cocker

Today is the 140th Song of the Day, the end of the 20th week I've been writing these (I began on a Wednesday, Jan. 1st). We’re still sailing but the semester is over and summer looms ahead—that-a-way. I hope I can navigate safely though and keep these things coming. Summer songs should feel a bit different from winter songs, one hopes, and even spring songs, I suppose.

Anyway, it’s also Joe Cocker’s birthday. Joe Cocker. Yeah, I know. “Up Where We Belong,” “You Are So Beautiful,” not songs I care to revisit. Nothing against them, if you’re into that, but, no thanks. But in 1970 this song was on the radio—a cover of a song that was a hit for Alex Chilton’s first band The Box Tops in the late Sixties. I may have been aware of that version, vaguely, in 1970. I was 10 and the way Joe Cocker tears up the vocal on this song was the most awesome thing I’d ever heard.

It was the kind of singing that would set my mom’s teeth on edge. I’d expect the same of my dad, but when he saw Cocker on the Tom Jones Show, my dad actually dug him. I was surprised, and probably more pleased than I wanted to acknowledge, and was also somewhat embarrassed by how wild Cocker seemed. Much later would come seeing Cocker’s spasmodic vocalizing at the Woodstock Festival of 1969 as seen in the film, so I wasn’t really prepared for the contortions that went with that voice.

Now all that is easily parodied, but then it was like a male Janis Joplin had come storming over from Britain with a voice able to have frenzies within frenzies. And Leon Russell’s piano, ladies and gentlemen, is such a distinctive instrument, leading this song the way Leon was the bandleader on that Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. I didn’t get around to seeing the film of that till a few years ago, and that’s when I got the double album CD of the tour. And picked up With a Little Help from My Friends (1969) on vinyl. I really don’t know what sparked that little Joe Cocker revival. Maybe it was just that I wanted to hear the blues by a white blues howler.

“Give me a ticket for an aeroplane / I ain’t got time to take no fast train / Lonely days are gone / I’m a goin’ home / My baby, she wrote me a letter.” Dontcha just love stark openings like that? All well and good, but not so different from Chilton’s version. It’s when we get to “Well, she wrote me a letter / Said she couldn’t live without me no more” that things heat up, and Cocker is somehow able to express both the desperation contained in the letter and the joy of the receiver of the letter. Because they’re the same thing. She needs him so bad he’s filled with joy; he’s filled with joy because she needs him so bad. AND she’s willing to put that in writing!

So, yeah. Just get me on that goddamn plane is the singer’s position. Now, granted, as a pre-teen with no real idea of what erotic need (or sexual healing) was all about, I thought Cocker was borderline insane to get so worked up about this frigging missive. By the time he starts shouting “A letter, a letter” I felt it was over the top and would sometimes mimic it with “Joe” getting hauled away in a strait-jacket still bellowing about “a letter, a letter . . .” I mean listen to how he starts to babble at the end. Don’t let this guy on a public conveyance, it’s to the booby hatch for him!

And yet I still loved it. I loved it because it was over the top. And because those horns smoke his brain when he’s getting more frenzied, reminding us that this song does have structure and isn’t some kind of raving. Cocker’s timing is what floors me most when listening to his live recordings. He has a way of finding the point in the song when words should fail him and vocal thrashing should ensue. To me, that’s about timing. It’s like a dramatic speech—if you start getting tearful at the wrong moment, you’ll lose the thing. It will become gibberish. Cocker risks gibberish all the time but he rarely succumbs, wholly. He’s got the breath to bring it back to smoothness or to out-shout the band for a big finale. On “The Letter” he riffs with the backup singers and that brings it on home.

The version on the LP is not the version on the 45. The version on the 45 can be hard to find, online anyway. The video is some down dude putting it on his turntable and letting it play. This is the best recorded version if only because it’s the one seared into my brain over 40 years ago.

Listen, mister . . . .

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