Joe Cocker’s performance at Woodstock was so freaking outrageous, his live act was so demented that when I first heard he’d been a working man I didn’t believe it. I thought he must be mad. And what a band he had, that Grease Band, one of the great forgotten bands of the time. They are so hard and so on, that crunching guitar is so gigantic, those ridiculous backing vocals are so perfect, and when Joe says Baby it sounds like a hurricane, a tornado, a volcano blowing itself to pieces. That silly little nothing of a Beatles song rendered rough and Wagnerian by a band you could have seen in a bar. Nothing but dynamics, loud guitar, cool organ, falsetto, a hard ass rhythm section and a voice like a really angry god. Joe loved his Ray Charles, obviously, but, Ray never hurled a Baby into the void like that, this wasn’t soul, it was Götterdämmerung. Joe was on that day. And if there was one day you wanted to be on, it was that one, in front of all those people and all those movie cameras. I doubt he was ever that on again. Some things come only once in a lifetime, you do it, and spend the rest of your life wondering just what got into you that day.
I remember seeing Woodstock back in the early seventies when I was impressionable and fragile and sitting in a dark, dank movie theatre full of hippies and freaks and weed smoke and thinking uhhh, wow. Still, my experience was nothing like my pal Richie, rest in peace, who spent a wintry New Jersey afternoon smoking hash and wandered into the local cinerama dome to see Woodstock feeling three feet tall and the light was vibrating and like a little kid he decided to sit in the very front row and melted into the seat and the music and images surged over and around him and Joe Cocker was like some enormous monster, Godzilla sized, destroying the city. Richie was frozen, wide eyed, terrified, exultant, and when Joe let loose that Oh Baby to the gods above Richie thought it was the end of the world.