Jack Bruce, a major figure in 1960s rock — well, let’s just say all of rock — passed away on Oct. 25. For those of you by chance not familiar with the name, Bruce was bassist and frequent lead singer (alternating with Eric Clapton) of Cream, one of the first (and still one of the greatest) power trios in rock.
While I love Cream, and many Cream songs, at the same time I find quite a bit of their stuff somewhat hard to listen to, from a “maintaining my interest” standpoint. I guess some of their more plodding and heavy songs just don’t thrill me, despite their technically great instrumentation (with Bruce, Clapton, and drummer Ginger Baker, you’d never get a badly played song, regardless of how else you might feel about it). Interestingly, and maybe not coincidentally, my favorite songs by Cream are sung by Clapton: most notably, “Badge” and “Strange Brew.” However, I do feel that Bruce had one of the most powerful voices in rock: confident, strident, maybe a little arrogant, but always powerful.
My favorite song sung by Bruce is “White Room.” When I was young, maybe 6 or 7, I recall that there was a TV ad on frequently for some sort of K-Tel-like rock compilation — the kind of ad that had the titles scrolling by from the bottom to the top of the screen, with every third or fourth song having a snippet playing in the background as the announcer spoke. I don’t recall the title of that collection, by any means, but I do recall that it was the first time I became aware of Cream, via “White Room” being on that collection. For some reason, it’s the only song I can be certain was on that collection; it made an impact on my young, music-loving mind. Maybe it was different enough than any other type of music that I was familiar with from my parents’ record collection: while they had some rock (most notably, the Beatles, which became my lifelong favorite band as a result), there wasn’t really anything nearly as heavy-sounding as Cream (they didn’t own The White Album, which of course has a few contenders). That intensity is most likely what grabbed my attention as it zipped by for a few seconds in that ad every day or two (I saw it as I watched the syndicated shows of my childhood: Gilligan’s Island, The Flintstones, and so on). That, and the mystery of what might have been in that “white room” (I pictured completely blank walls with nothing but a window looking out to the sky).
When I finally got my first Cream album years later, it had to have “White Room” on it (although the song originally appeared on 1968’s Wheels of Fire, I believe it was the Strange Brew hits compilation). And the song still impacts, with its dramatic orchestral intro, followed by a moment’s break and then Bruce’s commanding vocals kicking in, with Clapton’s guitar wailing in the background. I didn’t, and still don’t, really have any idea what the song is about, but that doesn’t lessen its resonance. Clapton’s guitar may be a defining sound in the song, but I doubt “White Room” would have been nearly as great with Clapton’s typically thinner vocals in the mix; it’s all about the force of Bruce.