Rolling Stone, August 6, 1970
The Fillmore is weird in the daytime. The day-time people come at
dawn and turn on all the lights and all of a sudden it's a
basketball court instead of a dance hall. The luminous light-show aerie is now little more
than a raised, rickety platform; the
stage has lost its dark, enticing corners and its brooding domination of the room. It's
just a basketball court with strange piles
of electronic paraphernalia at both ends. If they cleared the junk away, they might have
some good bleachers.|
At the top of the key stands Chris Wood, squinting across the room. His face is set in a small, vague smile; in one hand he carries his tiny black flute case. "Too fucking hot," he says, still smiling. The thermometer outside says only 75 degrees, but in San Francisco - and Birmingham, England - that's a heat wave. Chris moves across the vast echoing room to the multi-tiered dressing room behind the stage. His movements are effortless and economical, as though he had found a jetstream in the room and was letting it rush him along. If for just one moment he were to step outside his mind and float across the ceiling, it would come as no surprise. He probably spends a fair amount of time up there.
Chris Wood is one-third of Traffic, which is arguably one of the two or three best rock and roll bands in existence. There used to be four men in Traffic, and after that there were three for a while, then none. Early this year however, Traffic stirred its ashes and reincarnated itself as a trio. Now there's a new album (John Barleycorn Must Die) an American concert tour, and a feeling that if we could only get Buffalo Springfield back together too the world might yet be saved.
Chris has been with Traffic through all its changes, his brilliant, fanciful reed and flute work wrapping its delicate ribbons around Steve Winwood's remarkable voice, providing Traffic with much of its character and grace. It's nice that Chris has come first and alone. The most retiring member of Traffic, he usually lets Steve or Jim Capaldi, the firesign drummer and lyricist, speak for the group. But now it's just him in a dim cubbyhole of the dressing room, and he speaks easily.
The conversation opens with a question about why there are so few rock and roll reed and woodwind players. And even fewer good ones. "When you learn how to play," Chris says, settling back, "you have six months of horrible noise before you can get anything that sounds good. And I think most kids are interested in song-writing. You can's really write songs on a flute, but you can on guitar. Besides . . . well, the guitar is both a solo instrument and a group instrument. You don't stop playing during a song. Now occasionally . . . on 'Medicated Goo,' for instance, I lay down something continuous.
"And I'm not a song-writer. I think most song-writers are singers, too. They have to get into lyrics and use their voices. But my voice is my instrument. On reeds and woodwinds, you see, the mouth is still used. It's like singing to me, but it's hard to write songs that way."
How did he get into reeds and woodwinds?
"I was made to learn piano as a child. Classical music. And then I was listening to the start of it-Bill Haley, Elvis, like that. Then I got into a jazz thing. I think I made myself listen to jazz because everybody was listening to rock and roll. Very avanti. Then I heard a flute on a Dizzy Gillespie record, and I saw the film 'Jazz on a Summer's Day' and there was someone with Chico Hamilton playing flute, and I knew just what I wanted to do.
"Then I was going to art college near Birmingham-I was a painter, you know-but I was playing in a blues group too. We'd play weddings and boozing clubs, that kind of thing. We'd play Saturday lunchtime for two bob admission, and all the students would come in to get drunk.
"It was right in there that I met Steve. In Birmingham we'd get together and jam and play. Eventually, I went to the Royal Academy of Art. But painting was well, I was kind of wrapped up in my own world. The music seemed more important. And we had been talking about this thing we had, this thing we knew we could do. Steve was with Spencer Davis, but he quit and we got the cottage-April 1st, 1967, it was-and all of a sudden we were Traffic. We played our first date in Sweden."
Shortly after that, Traffic made its first album, Mr. Fantasy, a flawed and amazing record remembered with great fondness by the group. "You don't really know whether something is good until six months-or a year later-but Fantasy, well . . . 'Mr. Fantasy, of course' and 'Coloured Rain', 'Paper Sun' and 'Heaven Is In Your Mind.' It was kind of our first expression, that album."
Still strolling down memory lane, Chris mentions the second album, Traffic. In particular, Chris remembers, "No Time To Live:" "I listened to that a while ago, and I couldn't believe it. When we did it, I had no idea it was that good. Fantastic."
As Chris was talking, music has been filtering into the dressing room from the stage outside-heavy organ chords overlaid with skittish, amusing drum riffs. Chris uncoils and walks around to the front. It's Steve on drums and Jim hunched over the organ.
"Just fucking around," calls Steve, and Chris smiles. Then Chris starts fooling with the electric piano, and Steve leaves the drums and moves toward the back room.
Steve Winwood is . . . Steve Winwood. You've read the clippings: boy genius, superstar, virtuoso, a rock and roll band all by himself. He doesn't play the genius game, however- fame seems to have stripped the layers of affectation from him.
He is asked about Traffic's peculiar history - the odd, long episode with Dave Mason, in and out, back and forth, the final breakup, after which Steve toured with (it seems a century ago, a footnote) Blind Faith. At first he is reluctant.
"Well, the changes were, you know changes. We all went through them. The group now, today . . . well, it's more loose and more . . . evasive. Difficult to put a finger on. The vagueness that we have is often missed, you know. But we all benefited from doing those things. We all played with different people, and we learned. Before, in Traffic, there was almost this jealousy thing if we played with someone else. That doesn't exist anymore, you know, that's just bullshit."
"Should I talk about it? I got into some very bad scenes with Eric [Clapton] over some of the things I said about it. But . . . the thing about Blind Faith was, you know, as soon as we thought of the name it was all sold. We had no control over any of it."
Were there a lot of ego trips?
"Oh, yes. It's wrong for a musician not to want to be told what to play. It's even easier . . . at least once in a while, someone should say, play this. But it didn't happen. I kept feeling as though I had to prove myself musically. And the more you try to prove yourself, the less you can do. The less relaxed you are, the more you try, the worse it gets."
How did you feel when Traffic broke up, before Blind Faith?
"Well, you know, we never thought we'd break up. It was such a permanent thing. But then everybody also felt that . . . what is to happen will happen. When we came back together, that seemed natural too. A continuation of the same scene."
We got onto Winwood the one-man band, talking about things he's done on at least two albums ("Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring" and "Means To An End" on Traffic; "Stranger To Himself" and "Every Mother's Son" on John Barleycorn Must Die), playing all or almost all the instruments himself, brilliant exhibitions of virtuoso overdubbing.
"I don't see myself as a virtuoso, you know. It's a form of writing on a manuscript when you write on a record. It is a kind of inhuman thing to do, playing with myself, but it is a good way writing."
Did the boy wonder image hurt him? "Yes, sure. I was really beginning to think that everything I was doing was fine. That was a hindrance. Only lately, I've been broadening the scope of . . . of the music I'm listening to, among other things. Folk music and a bit more classical music. At first, you know, I hated the stuff. Chuck Berry and 'Roll Over Beethoven,' that's what I thought. But I think it's something that rock and roll still has to come to terms with classical music."
The subject changed again. What about the printed rumors that Traffic was going to add a fourth man?
"Oh yes. A fourth and probably a fifth man, when we get back to England."
"Well, I don't want to say, because nothing's been agreed to. But one will probably be a horn player a French horn player that I knew in Birmingham when he played in a brass band at school. I haven't seen or heard him in five years, but he's in a rock and roll band. That tells me something."
And the fifth . . .?
"Bass guitar. You know, we've really got too much to do up there. Chris can do certain things with bass lines, but he's primarily a flute player. And I like playing. I like feeling, the bass lines myself, but I'm singing and accompanying myself besides the bass. It doesn't give us as much freedom as we'd like."
The conversation stutters a bit, winds up at the famous cottage in the Berkshires, out of which Traffic was kicked a few months ago.
"Well, you know, the land was owned by an aristocrat who started taking acid in 1967 - a bit trendy, he was. He just decided he wanted some musicians on his land. We didn't sign anything, we didn't pay rent, and eventually we had to leave. I'm looking for a new place."
Would you all live together again?
"Oh, no. We've got Island Studios now, to play together all we want. What we needed the cottage for was to get into each other's heads. It's all involved with the difficulty musicians have communicating musical ideas, especially since people stopped reading notes. It gets very difficult to get over the sounds you want to make. It's all . . . you have to play as one. Some people just can't play as one sound."
Like Blind Faith?
"Well . . . Eric and I made some beautiful sounds together. But, in Blind Faith, there was so much attached to it before it even existed that there wasn't any time to communicate with each other. But in Traffic, we complement each other . . . personally, and all kinds of ways. Astrologically for instance." (Steve is a Taurus while Chris is a Cancer and Jim is a Virgo).
So Traffic, continued, is stable for a while.
"Oh, we're not going to split up. We are going to expand, explore the differences in music, branch out. Music is limitless. There's nothing you can't do. Like, I've always dug the idea of music and visuals. We're going to do the score for a movie called Nevertheless by a young Dutch guy named Antonio Coyas. The way we're going to do it, we're going to compose tunes and melodies right along with him as he's doing the movie. He's going to shoot in Morocco and we're going to be there in three weeks' time. It's nice-we'll be right along with him, at the same place, while he's doing the movie. I've never had anything to do with music and visuals like that. All Around The Mulberry Bush - well, I thought that's what it was going to be about, but it wasn't."
It seems that bad rock and roll is especially prevalent in film scores. For that matter, there's lots of bad rock and roll everywhere.
"Again, a lot has to do with the fact that groups don't have any real way of communicating musical ideas. They play like they play. We've experienced that Dave used to have trouble communicating all the time. That wasn't how it began, but then . . . Dave would just come to us with a definite number, with him singing and playing the acoustic guitar. And we'd accompany him, and fill in. Most of what else happened on a song was ours - the sentiment was Dave's, and it was always very good, very nice, but the sound was usually ours. We tried to blend certain things with Dave, but in the end it just didn't happen. We had such difficulties . . . anyway, we're still friends, you know. Dave and I. I haven't seen him lately, but we played together a while ago. I dig his new album."
The Last Exit album (which came out after Traffic disbanded) was a sad album. Was the whole break-up trip unhappy?
"Not any more unhappy than now. Last Exit was an album without us really wanting it. Some people just put together what they thought was the last bit of Traffic. We knew about it, of course, but . . . anyway, that broken symbol [on the back cover] was Guy Steven's idea, who produced a couple of the cuts on our last album. He's not really musical, you see, he works on purely an emotional thing. I guess that's what he thought about the thing."
Steve looks up, Jim Capaldi is leaning diffidently against the door. "Just thought I'd come back," he says.
Jim Capaldi proves less accessible than either Steve or Chris. He's more cynical and thoughtful, older somehow, with the instincts of a moving target which men who have been winged a few times develop. On stage, he serves as Traffic's good old-fashioned syncopated glue, sewing together the brilliant patchwork of Steve and Chris into a piece of music.
Interestingly the conversation starts with silence.
"Man, I hear some groups up there, like a whole great train, going down. But silence is a part of music. Pharoah Sanders has a thing, 'Japan,' that's all about that. There are different ways of doing things, of course, it's just that some of these extrovert-type groups . . ."
Like who? "Well, you know, the Grateful Dead. It seems to be . . . well, I couldn't be part of a chorus set-up. There has to be space there to say something. It's difficult to talk sometimes. You need time." Steve nods, "With the Grateful Dead. I get the impression that [Jerry] Garcia is definitely the leader. The sound of the Dead is definitely the sound of Garcia. But, you know, we all function in different ways."
How does Traffic function?
Steve: "We're about equal, really. Jim and I think of the basic things, and Chris is into embellishments. I suppose I'm the leader, but it's all a circle, really, as far as the roles we play. No one's a leader. There's just us."
Jim: "It's like the Band. Such togetherness, without overriding anything else. There's pure silence, and then there's music. The Band really holds such a fine line on those things. It's not like the drummer is incredible and everybody else is following along. They're playing at one pulse."
Jim is asked what he did when Traffic split up.
"I didn't do a lot. I did some sessions, and I wrote a song with Dave that's on his new album. But I was mostly looning about. I just wanted to find out what I should do. There are times when nobody does anything unless somebody asks them to. I didn't want just to get a job and have somebody tell me what to do. There was a temptation to form a group, of course. There was a thing with me and Chris and Mick Weaver and Dave, but it was just a fling before everybody disappeared. You know there's a time when all you want to do is play. When you're 16 or 17 or 18, it doesn't matter, where the fuck you are. But when you've grown up and you leave the stage, you . . ."
". . .need something to channel into," finished Steve.
"Yeah. And I got into the weird thing where I didn't want to work. I got frightened when I got job offers. I kept thinking they were expecting me to do me Traffic thing, and I didn't know what me Traffic thing was."
And . . .
"Well, here . . .you've got to stick with something. Nothing is nothing until it's worked on. There are really two ways of doing it. One way, you're creating, a group of people making music. And the other . . . is an entertainment form. The old thing, people want to entertain. Jethro Tull - I think Jethro Tull is a new theater. So with one thing, what you care about is that you feel fucking great, that you really got off, and it just happens to be in a hall in front of a bunch of people. Like the Band-they're aware of the audience, but they say, OK, just listen and watch us. The other thing is like Otis Redding and Stax and all that. Really opposite vibes, but just as nice. They're really getting the audience, working the audience. Of course, no matter who you are, you can feel the audience. When they're right on you . . . in a beautiful way, when you get it on, you've been the audience. They feel you. There's a natural state where what you're doing belongs to everybody. It's not a matter of can - can't I. It just is."
Page created November 11, 1997.
Last updated November 11, 1997.
© 1997 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.