Joe Cocker: 'I took black acid once ... it was a very dark trip'

The Sheffield singer on performing for George Bush, bad dance routines and tripping at Woodstock

Hello, Joe. When you started out playing the Sheffield pubs and clubs in the early 60s you called yourself Vance Arnold. Where did the name come from?

It was self-invented, much to my embarrassment for years. But everyone used to have names in Sheffield – like Johnny Tempest (1) and the Cadillacs. We were called the Avengers, and the guys said: "You'd better come up with a name." I remember just sitting one day, and I thought of Eddy Arnold, the old country guy, and the Vance was from an Elvis film (2), I think.

Was the spell ever broken by the audience knowing you were actually a gas fitter, not a Memphis rock'n'roller?

One of the best things that ever happened was when I was gas fitting. I went to someone's house and the woman said to her husband: "Oooh, come and look – Vance is putting our fire in!"

What did your mum and dad think of rock'n'roll? Were they of the school that it was all noise and you can't tell if they're boys or girls?

I took my dad to Rock Around the Clock with Bill Haley and he was absolutely horrified. To him it was the start of something new, and he was dead right. I used to go out and dress in all the insane rock'n'roll clothes, and he never got it. Until I was on Top of the Pops. He was quite impressed with that – that I could come into his living room without him trying.

Can you sing the blues without having suffered?

It's an emotion – a way of carrying an emotion. It's a very simple format but I find myself leaning that way as I get older. It's a very nice way to sing.

Where did your unique dancing style come from?

You mean my arm movements? I actually saw myself with Eric Clapton – you know you see all your old stuff on YouTube now – and I was horrified at myself, with my arms just flailing around. I guess that came with my frustration at never having played piano or guitar. If you see me nowadays I'm not quite so animated, but it's just a way of trying to get feeling out – I get excited and it all comes through my body.

You played at Woodstock, which looks like the worst experience on Earth from the movie. How was it for you?

We were kind of lucky because we got on stage real early. It took about half the set just to get through to everybody, to that kind of consciousness. You're in a sea of humanity and people aren't necessarily looking to entertain you. We did Let's Go Get Stoned by Ray Charles, which kind of turned everybody around a bit, and we came off looking pretty good that day. A lot of other artists didn't enjoy themselves at all.

Did you try the legendary brown acid? (3)

I was furious because all the band had taken acid and they didn't tell me. I was the only one straight. I have been offered brown acid in my time, though. Even black acid – I took that. That was very weird. It was a very dark trip.

You told an interviewer back in the early 1970s: "My manager tells me it's good not to have a lot of money in your bank account because that way you don't get a lot of beggars and parasites trying to peck your neck off." Were you easily parted from your money?

Denny Cordell (4) gave me a copy of Khalil Gibran's The Prophet, so we all got into the spiritual thing of saying we should give everything away. And people would take it. Ten grand here, 10 grand there. Anything businesslike I didn't want to know. So in many ways it was my own fault. But there were the men with big cigars and the sharks. We fell for them – not just me, but many artists.

In 1972 you were arrested for marijuana possession in Australia. One Australian writer described you as "yet another of these uncouth dirty haired, sloppily dressed show business freaks". What's the worst thing anyone's ever said about you?

The Australians actually owned up that they set us up. Somebody wrote a book a few years ago saying it was a government thing, an election thing – we were just used as guinea pigs. But at the time it was real scary to be down in Australia. You didn't have that communication thing you do nowadays. But I don't know if anything written has ever really bothered me. When my movements used to be called "spastic motions", I didn't like that one bit. I thought that was a pretty cruel thing to say.

But at least you didn't have to put up with gossip mag intrusion …

I had a little flat with a girlfriend from Sheffield when we first moved to London. Little Help was No 1 and I went to Sloane Square to get a newspaper and there were a bunch of schoolgirls on a day out. There's me with my long hair and my tie-dyed T-shirt, and they saw me from across the road and came running. It was in my hash-smoking days. And I remember the horror in my heart as these teenyboppers came running towards me. We weren't into the old autograph thing.

We've just had the Obama inauguration. What's it like to sing at an inauguration ball? (5)

It was strange for me because I lost my voice. I remember seeing the old George Bush bringing in Barbara his wife – they're very tall. And I get up there and I go [croaks] "You are so beautiful …" (6) I tried my best to sing but I could not get a note out. I'd been singing all night the night before with Sam Moore at rehearsals. We'd just been singing the blues …

It seems very odd for a Woodstock veteran to sing for a former director of the CIA …

I'd been living in the USA and I'd been busted on a few occasions, and when I married my wife they eliminated one of them from my record. I was settling in the States and I got this memo: Will you sing for the president? It was a bit like being asked to do a Royal Command performance in England. I just went with it. I had no political leanings. If I had any now I'd be leaning more towards the Democrats. But at the time I really didn't have any thoughts either way.

To a generation you are the man who sang the Officer and a Gentleman theme song

I absolutely hated Up Where We Belong when I first heard it. But I could tell as we were putting the track down that it was going to be a big record. It was the only No 1 I ever had in America.

You've said your version of You Can Leave Your Hat On is the strippers' anthem since it was used in 9 1/2 Weeks. Is there a song that could be the gas fitters' anthem?

[Laughs] A gas fitters' anthem? I can't see that.

The ZicZac Rock Hotel in Zurich has a room called Joe Cocker. Have you ever stayed in it?

No, I stay in another place up the road.

You're right to do so. TripAdvisor's users say the ZicZac's rooms are dirty and smelly and the floors slope.

What's the name of it? I've got to check into it.

Do you have routines to help you relax in unfamiliar hotel rooms when you're out on the road?

I've been taking Ambien for a while now. I have tinnitus from years of loud music and some nights it's the only way I can put it out of my mind. My wife's always trying to get me to stop. You don't dream, which is not the best thing in the world. But I know I'm going to get some sleep. I'm 69, and you know you're going to be a casualty of the rock world somewhere down the line.

Are you an Owl or a Blade? (7)

I stay in tune with the Blades. But they've gone from the Premier League back to League One. I do take an interest. It's a wonder of technology that we get all the soccer on a Saturday morning. I'm going to watch Bradford play Villa when we're finished with this interview.

The Blades get all the showbiz fans – you, Sean Bean, Def Leppard. And the Owls get Roy Hattersley. What have they done to deserve that?

Paul Carrack, he's a Sheffielder and he was always a big Wednesday fan. (8)

Can you name another Cocker to have had a UK No 1?

Did Jarvis?

No he didn't. He never got past No 2.

A Cocker? A man called Cocker? No. Go on.

Les Cocker!


Yes, he was the trainer to the England 1970 World Cup squad and he sang on their single.

What was the song called?

It was called Back Home. [The Guardian sings it down the phone, badly, though no worse than the England 1970 World Cup squad]

I'm going to Google this.


Back to article Johnny Tempest was really called John Greaves and was an apprentice at a printing firm.

Back to article Vance Reno – brother of Elvis's character Clint Reno – in Love Me Tender

Back to article As one stage announcement put it: "To get back to the warning that I received. You may take it with however many grains of salt that you wish. That the brown acid that is circulating around us isn't too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that. Of course, it's your own trip. So be my guest, but please be advised that there is a warning on that one, OK?"

Back to article Cocker's producer.

Back to article Cocker sang for the first President George Bush in January 1989.

Back to article e should have pulled a Beyoncé.

Back to article A fan of Sheffield Wednesday or Sheffield United.

Back to article He was in Ace and Mike and the Mechanics. You may feel this proves rather than disproves the point.

Fire It Up by Joe Cocker is released on Columbia on 18 February.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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