Friday, December 25, 2009

Cream - "Passing the Time" from the album Wheels of Fire

First off, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it. May you each get the EP, LP, CD, DVD or iStore gift card you've been coveting.

Next, let me be frank: while I've certainly tried to get in the spirit of the season with the snowy roof I've installed up top, with the little snowstorm I've brewed up, and with a really evocative wintry tune, "Passing the Time," is not, technically, a Christmas song.

But I think and I hope you'll find it's OK, if only because I'm not, technically, a Christian . . . .

But I like givin' gifts and gettin' gifts and I like pretty colored lights, so nobody call me a Scrooge, OK? I'll even cop to having a Christmas tree in my living room. We always insist on the Fraser firs, and like 'em around five foot high.

I was raised Jewish, and was even bar-mitzvahed, but at some point shortly before the big event, I realized that I wasn't buying any of it.

Of course, Christmas envy wasn't my reason for having left the Jewish religion: the reasons, I assure you, were a lot larger than the varying methods of celebrating some Solstice-celebration analogue. I didn't just leave Judaism; I left organized religion.

But now that I can be impartial in comparing religious holidays, I will tell you what: Christmas kicks Chanukkah's ass.

It's not even close. The menorah candles are the best thing about Chanukkah, and if they were included with Christmas, they'd be in the lower teens on any ordered list.

If Chanukkah had been better, I'd have probably stayed with that as the excuse to get happy and festive and drunk each December. But it wasn't, so I've got a Christmas tree in my living room.

But a winter-song on my blog. Ah well, call it striking a blow for the secular, I suppose.

But let's get to the music, shall we?

There's not much to be truthful that's Christmasy about the center section of the song, where Baker Bruce and Clapton * simply start wailing to the best of their jaw-dropping abilities, but I will ask--since I'm being reminded--how people can call some Grateful Dead-worshipping band like Phish or Dave Matthews a "jam band" when Cream so clearly sets the example for what jamming should do, and when Phish and Dave Matthews play so very differently what Cream is doing here.

German 7-inchCream is jamming; I don't know what it is you call what those other guys do. Maybe an adaptation of the term that I use for boring postrock bands ("noodling") describes it as well as any.

Regardless as to what it is these pretenders do, listening to Cream take flight into their best improvisations, whether in the studio as here, or live (as on "I'm So Glad" from Goodbye), is still thrilling for me, even after having known the material for years and years. Their ideas were just that good.

What's kind of interesting here is how Clapton is the guy in the background during the instrumental workout. Baker--still the only drummer I've ever cared to hear a drum solo from--and Bruce--who may not be my favorite bassist of all time, but would be in any top five list I might make--are both in the forefront, while Clapton sounds like he's comping, supplying the rhythm as his rhythm section goes free-form.

The song is credited to drummer Ginger Baker and to Mike Taylor, and it is to be supposed that Baker handled much of the lyrics, while Taylor handled most of the music. Taylor--a pianist--had played with Baker in trad jazz bands in the early '60's, and had, by the time Wheels of Fire was released in 1968, put out two albums of his own that had become semi-legendary in the annals of British jazz.

He was also by 1968 homeless, a complete schizophrenic, and an acid-gobbler of tremendous consumption. Within a year, Wheels would ship 500,000 copies, and Taylor would be dead. His bloated, partially decomposed body was fished from an outlet bay to the Thames River in January of '69. The coroner noted that the body was at least two weeks old, but declined to cite a cause of death.

Whoah. Sorry to harsh your Christmas, there. Sometimes I get carried away with the twists and turns of things, if you hadn't noticed. Anyway, what's important here is that Taylor (who also co-wrote the amazing "Pressed Rat and Warthog" with Baker) had been known as an inspired composer; Ginger, not so much.

But, boy, the Cream drummer could write himself some lyrics. "Pressed Rat's" were psychedelia at its absurd finest, and the calliope and glockenspiel section of the song under consideration today features concrete, evocative language that transports the listener into the lonely woman's wintry world.

Hearing Jack Bruce warble on about the roof being a white blanket or about the icicles on the windowpanes truly puts a picture in the mind's eye. I picture an isolated house on a snowy hilltop. A few evergreens dot the hillside and a pebbly path from which the snow has been cleared winds lazily up the hill.

White smoke issues forth from a brick chimney into a clear blue sky. Wreaths dotted with berries and pinecones have been placed above the doorways, and candles twinkle through the iced windows.

There are worse places to pass the time, for sure. I've lived in South Florida my entire life, so a white Christmas has always been something of an abstraction to me. It's something other people, living in more normal places, might have. Well, I'm still stuck here, but here's wishing you a Christmas that looks (if not feels) like the calliope and glockenspiel portions of "Passing the Time."

I totally stole this image from a religious art site, so am providing a link just in case you want to buy the painting . . .

Cream - Wheels of Fire - 03 - Passing The Time.mp3

This file was removed May 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: Supergroup Rock, Merry Christmas!

*I don't see anywhere that Cream ever considered calling themselves "The BBC," but they totally should have. (Return)

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