by Lael Ewy
A while ago, I pledged to explain Joe Cocker. It's not an easy thing to do: by turns gruff and spasmotic, to any even halfway intelligent outside observer, Cocker should have long ago succumbed to some agonizing, long-term, debilitating neuropathy.
And yet, he persists.
Laying aside the apparent physiological impossibilities for a minute (for this will only take a minute), listen sometime, if you dare, to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes' 1982 hit "Up Where We Belong." Easily Cocker's most famous piece of work.
True to its origins as a cheezy love song from the film An Officer and a Gentleman, and to its writers, Jack Nitzsche, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Will Jennings, the lyrics and music are pure '80s pop schmaltz.
But if you want to understand Joe Cocker, you'll move past all that. Here Cocker is best displayed because of the contrast to Warnes. From her first "Who," delivered in a way both diaphanous and powerful, Warnes' voice is everything Cocker's isn't: it is genuinely operatic but with a slight folk-singer edge. These qualities force us to really listen to Cocker's voice, which is as rough and proletarian as Janis Joplin's ever was but with an utterly inexplicable tunefulness.
Listen to any classic Cocker track, like his cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends," and then put on some Led Zepplin. Go ahead. I'll wait.
See, that wasn't so hard.
Now, did you notice something? Yeah: no matter what kind of Robert Plant fan you are, you are now ready to realize what I have: Joe Cocker did, seemingly by accident, what a young Robert Plant was trying way too hard to do.
What I'm talking about, of course, is the blues.
This is also why, vocally, Plant's later work was so much better; he finally grew up a bit and came to terms with the fact that if he worked less hard he could get more done.
And Cocker? Well Joe Cocker just can't help himself, and that may, in the end, explain his greatness better than anything I could do.