WHY CREAM WILL NEVER REUNITE
Unless someone offers the mega-mega-bucks that will change Eric Clapton's mind. But Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce are ready.
Story by James M. Clash. Courtesy of Delta Airlines' Sky magazine, June 1997.
Shortly after supergroup Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the group's lead guitarist, Eric Clapton, waxed nostalgic. "I was moved," said the Grammy award-winning superstar, now 52. "I was in some other place. It's been so long since I've been around something from somebody else that's inspired me. For the last 20 years, it's been up to me to inspire me."
The inspiration Clapton was talking about was Cream-mates Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. The trio had just run off a searing three-song set of their old material - the first time they had performed together since the band's breakup in 1968.
"There isn't a drummer on this earth that has the dexterity that Ginger has," Clapton went on emotionally. "And [Jack has] this powerful thing that happens when he starts to sing, and you're off on the side there. It's inspiring."
Clapton's remarks, which appeared in "Fresh Live Cream," a video filmed just after the Hall of Fame induction, offered hope to millions of Cream devotees that the short-lived group might finally come together again. But four years later, much to the dismay of fans and promoters, there's no hint of a reunion.
In case you didn't know, retread rock is all the rage. Kiss, for example, a marginal 1970s metal/show band, reunited last year and should gross more than $100 million by the time the dust settles. The band was even featured, of all places, on the cover of Forbes magazine. Even bigger were reunion paychecks for the Eagles and pink Floyd. The Beatles also "reunited," using prerecorded tracks from the late John Lennon, and won Grammys. And now even all four of the Monkees - once derisively dubbed the "Pre-Fab-Four" - have announced a reunion show.
To get an idea of the importance of Cream, let's put the band into its historical context. In July 1966, Baker, Bruce and Clapton haughtily named their new power trio Cream - for cream of the crop - and the music world didn't object. On the contrary, there was tremendous anticipation: Each band member - Clapton on lead guitar, Bruce on bass guitar and Baker on drums - had each already been proclaimed by music insiders as "the best ever" on his instrument. Overzealous fans had even dubbed Clapton "God" with subway graffiti.
Cream didn't disappoint: During its just-over-two-year life, it sold more than 35 million records. More important, Cream lived up to artistic expectations, producing a new form of "heavy" music that fused hard rock, blues and jazz. High-energy, improvisational concerts featuring such now-classic songs as "White Room," "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Crossroads" became the band's trademark. Its 1968 double album Wheels of Fire - half of which was recorded in the studio, the rest live at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium and Los Angeles' Winterland - became the first-ever platinum album.
But the pressure of a seven-month, seven-night-a-week tour schedule took a fatal toll. The band members had little time left for developing new material and, with strong egos all, couldn't survive their own fabulous celebrity.
Nonetheless, Cream paved the way for more commercial hard-rock acts that followed, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and modern-day heavy-metal knockoffs like Metallica and Poison. Over the years, advances in digital recording-studio technology, an slick live shows replete with sound stages, fireworks and makeup, have allowed even lesser talents to garner more attention - and rake in much more money - than Cream ever did.
So, you say, with retread rock so hot, now's their chance. Why no reunion? I decided to find out for myself - and my fellow band lovers. First, I ventured to England to talk with Jack Bruce, the soul of Cream. In addition to lead vocals, Bruce played bass, harmonica and piano and, along with British poet Pete Brown, wrote the bulk of Cream's original material. Over oysters and drinks at London's famed meeting place, The Savoy Hotel, Bruce talked candidly.
"I'd like it to happen," said the Scotsman, more mellow and less a contrarian at age 54 than in his fiery Cream days. "Apart from the money - I have to be honest, I think it would generate a lot of income - that band tends to get overlooked these days. Led Zeppelin, for instance, has gotten a lot of recognition, and quite rightly so, but it seems to be forgotten that Cream and [Jimi] Hendrix really created that audience. A reunion would help clarify that.
"But I wouldn't be prepared to do it, really, unless it was a challenge. And the challenge would be to come up with new material somewhere close to as strong as the stuff from the old days."
Bruce now lives with his second wife and their three children in Suffolk, just outside London. He spends much of his time composing and performing, mostly his own creations in various genres. But never think he has abandoned rock 'n' roll. This spring, he toured the United States as bassist/vocalist with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. And for the record, Bruce will make himself available for a Cream reunion, should the opportunity present itself.
Next, it was on to Parker, Colorado, to visit with Ginger Baker. Some people think he died years ago from his much-publicized heroin habit. Not so - he's alive and well, and clean since 1981. It is drummers Keith Moon (The Who) and John Bonham (Led Leppelin) who are deceased, Baker, now 57, is quick to point out.
The man many consider the world's greatest drummer now runs - if you can believe this - the Mile High Polo Club just outside Denver, where fans come to watch polo and listen to jazz on Thursday nights for $10 a carload. He has bittersweet memories of Cream and told me over lunch at his modest ranch - complete with five dogs, four cats and nine horses - that he wouldn't rule out a reunion, but isn't as enthusiastic as Bruce.
"There was a point where I wanted to do it, when I totally went broke," Baker said. (He lost his money in a recording-studio venture in Nigeria in the 1970s.) "I went down to Eric and proposed it. He said he didn't want to do it just because I was broke. This really hurt at the time, but it was also absolutely true. That is not a reason to do something, you know."
Though he looks even more frail than in his younger days, when Baker takes the stage it's obvious that he hasn't lost a beat. At a recent performance at New York's Iridium Jazz Club, he launched into a series of frenetic drum solos that left no doubt that if there is a Cream reunion, he's the man to handle the skins. Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, present in the audience, remarked, "I've never seen Ginger stronger. He's just fantastic." Baker laughed. "It's because I live in Denver," he said. "We train at high altitude."
So what about Eric Clapton? With his former mates ready to rock, why isn't he ready to roll?
Record industry insiders will tell you it's not Clapton but his manager, Roger Forrester, who is holding up a reunion. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," says one record industry exclusive who wishes to remain anonymous. "Roger doesn't want to risk Clapton's commercial appeal. He's succeeding in making people think Clapton was Cream, when he was only a third of it. Reuniting the band now would just take the emphasis off Clapton."
(Despite repeated efforts to reach them, neither Clapton nor Forrester would comment on the feasibility of a Cream reunion.)
Ron Delsener, one of the biggest concert promoters in the United States, who has staged the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin his more than 30-year career, ranks Cream among the top five bands of all time. He thinks a Cream reunion could easily gross $100 million worldwide for a year's worth of work. But Delsener is another person who thinks it's Clapton's side that's holding things up. "Eric doesn't need the money," Delsener says simply. "It's Jack and Ginger who do."
In a way, Delsener has a point; since Cream's breakup, Clapton has become a superstar while the other two have moved out of the spotlight. Baker moves in jazz circles and Bruce more in classical and jazz, genres with lower profiles - and lower pay - than rock.
And it's not as if Clapton needs the work. He just won three Grammys (one shared with fellow songwriter Wynonna) for the song "Change the World," featured in the 1996 John Travolta movie Phenomenon, and a fourth for a collaborative effort in tribute to the late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. His time is much in demand. But if you believe what Clapton said after the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction - and there's no reason not to - you must assume he'd like to do something with Cream. Consider the following: "Immediately I went off afterwards and started thinking, 'What could we do? What could we do?' without it getting into the wrong hands, without it getting out of control," Clapton said at the time. "The first thing I thought was, 'Wouldn't it be nice to just go into the studio and play, and maybe do a bit of writing and see what happens then.'" Bruce's sentiments exactly. If a promoter came up with enough upfront cash, Forrester might listen, says Margrit Seyffer, Bruce's manager and wife. This year, Michael Cohl, the Canadian concert mogul who bankrolled the last two Rolling Stones tours, guaranteed U2 a reported $100 million-plus for its world tour, even if the group didn't sell a single seat. Of course, the popular Irish band is having no problem selling tickets and could earn even more once receipts for its "PopMart" tour are added up. If someone like Cohl did approach Cream with a big upfront guarantee, says Seyffer, Forrester would be hard-pressed not to at least consider the deal. "It would only be fair to Eric, and to Jack and Ginger, too," she says.
And to the millions of Cream fans worldwide. According to Delsener, the gate money would be there. "If they did do something, I'd like to see a limited-edition tour, say 50 of the great cities of the world, at a million dollars a night to the band." That would mean the three members would split $50 million, plus maybe $10 million more from ancillary income from promotional stuff like T-shirts and hats.
That's $20 million each. And it doesn't include recording royalties if there was a new album. Forrester would get a nice piece of all that - even at a conservative rate of 10 to 20 percent for a personal manager - perhaps as much as $3.5 million, maybe even more.
In the meantime, Polydor Records plans to reissue completely remastered versions (from the original master tapes) of Cream's six albums in September, which should help generate interest in a reunion. Plus next year will be the 30t anniversary of Cream's farewell concert (November 26, 1968) at London's Royal Albert Hall. A nice, round, promotable number. . . .
Eric, are you listening? Roger?
James M. Clash is a staff writer at Forbes covering mutual funds and adventure travel. For the record, he has been a Cream fan for nearly 30 years.
[Since the publication of this article, Eric has changed managers. This might make things easier for a reunion.]