Upon hearing news of Joe Cocker's passing yesterday at the age of 70, my mind went back to the first time I saw the film of his performance at Woodstock. I think it was on MTV and I was probably about nine or ten years old. I had no idea who he was. He looked like an audience member who had somehow managed to sneak up onto the stage, perhaps after ingesting some of the infamous brown acid. Decked out in a sweat-soaked tie-dyed shirt, crazed and twitching, he was performing his seminal cover of the Beatles' "A Little Help from My Friends." As I watched him, his spastic, frenzied movements accompanying his crazed, contorted facial expressions almost made me ignore the sheer power of his performance.
I mean, let's face it: He was funny to watch. John Belushi's brilliant parody of him on Saturday Night Live in the mid seventies was actually not that over the top. Something happened to the man's body when he sang that was comical and almost frightening. Clearly, this man was not terribly image conscious. It took me a while before I was able to appreciate the power of what he did. His soulful, bluesy sound, his rich raspy voice, his gift for reinterpreting songs and amplifying their intensity (I've always thought that it was a bad idea to cover Beatles songs, but for me Joe was the notable exception to that rule), these were all things that I would appreciate in time. I looked first and listened later.
See, I grew up on MTV. I grew up with music being a visual thing. My favorite bands when I was little were bands that had carefully crafted images, had learned the right poses, knew the right way to do their eye-liner. Joe Cocker was the antithesis of that. He was unconcerned with how he would look when creating his sound. He bled authenticity. His sound was powerful, ballsy and physical. You don't get that sound by preening.
When he performed, he looked the way some of us look in moments when music hits us the hardest, freaking out or blissing out at a concert, or playing air-guitar in the basement with the stereo turned up to eleven, letting the music go through our bodies and have its way with our muscles. These are not moments we necessarily want captured for posterity, but I will assert that these moments of completely un-self-conscious grooving are why music exists. If you've never made a Joe Cocker face while listening to music, it's possible that you've been listening to the wrong music.
And as people argue that so much mainstream music today has become all about superficialities (at least in my circle, they do), more about image and marketing than expression, we are forced to say goodbye to a man who epitomized the real and gritty, and showed us that rock and roll, at its best, is creating a sound inextricably connected to your body, and by extension, your very being, and hitting people over the head with it. Thanks, Joe.