Poet/lyricist Pete Brown, Cream’s unofficial fourth member, watched from the audience as guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker played the first of their four reunion concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 2nd. “I was fairly surprised — I didn’t really see it coming together,” Brown confesses a week after that show, describing his initial reaction to the trio’s first gig since 1968. “Yet, there it was. There must have been thoughts of retirement and mortality, of going out on a high. Which is a nice thought, if you’re able to bring it about.”
With bassist Jack Bruce, Brown co-wrote many of the trio’s best and biggest songs, including “White Room,” “I Feel Free,” “Politician” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart.” In the four decades since, he has been an active songwriter, producer and performer. Some of his best work with Bruce appeared on the bassist’s solo albums, including Songs for a Tailor (1969) and Harmony Row (1971). In the Seventies, Brown led the eccentric, progressive-rock band Piblokto! and recorded with the late Graham Bond. More recently, Brown has been co-writing and producing an album with Bruce’s son Malcolm.
In a conversation with Rolling Stone, Brown looks back at his association with Cream in fondness and detail. He is also looking forward, contributing material from his archives for a future Cream exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and planning U.S. concert appearances to coincide with the opening.
What were your impressions of Cream’s first concert in thirty-six years?
I wish they’d played a few more of the things I wrote, because I need the money [laughs]. But apart from that, I absolutely loved it. I was wondering where the perennial conflict was going to take them, whether it would get in the way of the music. But it sounded and felt mature. They had obviously worked hard to get in shape for the shows. They are excellent musicians with strong imaginations, and the inventiveness was not diminished in any way.
How much did the well-documented tensions between Jack and Ginger drive them as a rhythm section in the Sixties?
The competitive spirit drove them — I’m fairly sure of that. Sometimes it got in the way, when it turned into outright warfare. But you find that in a lot of great bands: Just because you’re in a band and can play well together doesn’t mean you have to love each other all the time. You’re working for a common cause.
Can you describe what a Cream gig was like in the beginning, in England in 1966 and early ’67?
It was very brash and loud. They were master musicians before they formed Cream — Jack and Ginger had been jazz musicians, and Eric had a considerable grasp of where he was going — but together, the music was much more aggressive.
At these recent gigs, they did a lot of things from Fresh Cream — that was a lot of the set in the beginning, too. They rarely did songs [live] that required many backing vocals and harmonies. To my knowledge, they never did “Wrapping Paper” [Cream’s debut single] live. And they rarely did “I Feel Free,” because that would have needed a number of other musicians to do it justice. I remember them doing “We’re Going Wrong” [from Disraeli Gears], but I don’t remember it being as good as it was this time.
How much of yourself — your younger self — did you hear when they played “White Room” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart” at the Albert Hall recently?
I like to think that people can still relate to those songs. I’ve come a long way since then, and I write in different ways. But “White Room” is a state of mind, as well as a description of a particular place and time.
How did you come up with the words to “White Room”? Did you write them knowing what the music was beforehand?
The music was written first. I had one stab at a lyric that had nothing to do with the final song. It was called “Cinderella’s Last Goodnight” — it was about some doomed hippie girl. Jack didn’t like it, which was fair enough. Then I found this eight-page poem I’d written that had things about white rooms and other stuff in it. I worked that into a lyric that went with the atmosphere and meter of the song. Jack and I always had that chemistry, the telepathy of knowing what was needed.
For rock fans under the age of forty, Cream are more of a myth than a band. How would you characterize their power and legacy for someone who didn’t hear it the first time around?
None of them were particularly beautiful — they weren’t a pop group, as such. But it was quite clear they were good musicians. Even now, in Britain, you have this horrible thing where you have to look right to get anywhere in popular music. Cream were completely against that grain. And there was their experimentation with form, the evolution of what they took from the blues. Before Cream, there were very few improvising rock bands. Psychedelia was rock bands trying to improvise.
The astonishing thing about the reunion shows is that people waited nearly four decades to see a band that was together a little more than two years. How much unfinished business did they leave behind in 1968?
Had I been promoting these gigs, I would have suggested they take a look at employing additional musicians to do the more ambitious pieces. In the studio, that enabled them to work on a broader canvas, especially Jack. I think that’s one of the reasons they broke up. Jack was growing as a composer — he needed that bigger canvas. But they couldn’t play that kind of music live as a trio and with the limits placed on them by their management, which wanted them to churn out the same thing all the time and keep touring.
But I was pleased to see the guys getting the accolades again. Obviously, Eric gets it regularly now, but Jack and Ginger don’t. And they deserve it. They’re great musicians. I don’t like fakers, and Cream never faked it, not for a second. They loved what they did. Even when they didn’t love one another that much, they loved what they were doing.