|Chris Wood's Vulcan|
Chris Wood was, in some ways, the ideal ensemble player; his multi-instrumental contribution to Traffic provided the unifying forces of mood, atmosphere and color in many of the groups finest songs. Try to imagine Traffic songs without Chris' flute, saxophone and other instruments - he was literally embedded in the 'Traffic Sound'. Viewing him outside of this context is difficult, since he did relatively few non-Traffic sessions, and more importantly, in his lifetime he was unable to complete a solo album - something that would have given him a distinct and separate musical identity. At the time of his death in 1983, Chris was working to build that identity, and had a rough version of an album sequenced - with the tentative title of Vulcan. The only known surviving tape (at present) contains the following songs:
The title can be traced to the song "Vulcan" (or "Moonchild Vulcan") that was recorded for, but left off When The Eagle Flies - Traffic's last album in 1974. The genesis of Chris's intended solo effort is unclear; in August of 1970 he seemingly had no such intentions, as he said (in Rolling Stone): "I'm not a song writer...my instrument is my voice...but it's hard to write songs that way". The first mention of the possibility seems to have been in 1973. Perhaps the outtake status of "Moonchild Vulcan" in early '74 gave him the push (and material) to start the project - it's also possible that Chris was reading 'the writing on the wall' in regard to Traffic's long-term future at that point as well, and felt the need to start to find his own path..
Bill Henderson of England's Sounds magazine did one of the few comprehensive interviews with Chris (published September 14 and 21, 1974), and got him to describe the status of the then rumored solo album:
B.H.: "So how far advanced is the solo album ?"
Later in the interview, Chris makes clear that he sees the bulk of the playing on his record to be with his Traffic mates Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi, and that he intended to record at Steve's eight track home studio in Gloucester. He also made declared his intention not to "rush" the project, since to do so could lead to a product below his standards: "'Cause you can't destroy a disc. If you are a painter, you can destroy the painting, but you can't destroy a disc once it's out."
Chris's view of the immediate future seems to have been quite bright at this juncture. With his solo album sketched out, and Traffic ready to embark on yet another American tour (fall '74), there was reason for confidence. Yet, the 'wheel of fortune' was about to turn once again, and the result - a sputtering conclusion to the tour (with a number of the later dates canceled), and the following demise of Traffic as a band, dealt a devastating blow to his self-esteem, and more directly, to the finalization of his solo album. Whatever his prior plans, Chris Wood never worked with Steve Winwood again.
From that time until his death from liver disease, Chris seems to have worked in fits and starts on his record, but never quite got it right - a sense of completion or satisfaction always eluding him. At one point his father commented (regarding the album): "He changes the songs on it all the time." Thus, many versions of the album were assembled, then scrapped. With the cohesive glue of Traffic gone, Chris was unable to develop a working group that was anywhere near as sympathetic to his talent. Instead, he worked with shifting aggregations of local Birmingham musicians, some of which were not even professional players.
His own self-destructive alcoholic behavior - a dark side spinning out of control - further reduced his potential. Consequently, his health in this period was generally poor, with many months of forced inactivity. The unfinished album, while a constant reminder of his inability to complete a independent project, may have also been his lifeline - a reason to stay alive as his health deteriorated. In what may have been his last interview, for the local Birmingham radio show , "Coming Home" in 1982, a sometimes melancholy sounding Chris gamely recounted a brief history of his career, aired demos of his recent studio efforts and tried to explain his muse:
"I don't write lyrics. The reason that I don't write lyrics is that I find that they are very direct, and very... they mean something, they are very strong - unless you are using a metaphor or a symbolistic way of writing. I prefer to create a particular mood in a musical way."
In a sense, this encapsulated both his weakness and strength as an artist - and helps to explain why Vulcan was essentially an instrumental album. Also, the dimensionality of the wonderfully metaphoric lyrics of Jim Capaldi may have been missed by a man who could not express himself in that way.
Chris goes on to lament the intense commercialization and expenses involved with popular music and to emphasize what he felt were the most important components of recording:
"It's the atmosphere of the sound that makes it - if you can get that. When we were in Traffic, we used to put things demo down, put it down on a small stereo tape in a room in the cottage. And then we came into the big studio - we could never recreate the feeling that we had there. And we started thinking about it - the surroundings were different; there's no low ceiling, or there's no open door to a field, with birds chirping. There's a place for technique, and I'm not one to stop progress, but one has to be very careful that progress isn't taking over you."
To those ends, Chris spent much of what time and money he had left in opening his own small studio in Birmingham- Sinewave, that he used to record his own music, as well as to provide an outlet for local musicians. The final Vulcan tracks such as "Grasshopper", and "Manic Girl" (or "See No Man, Girl") were recorded there in the early '80's.
So what of the Vulcan album itself ? A solid core of good, finished songs can be found here - "Vulcan", "See No Man Girl", "Indian Monsoon" and "Birth In A Day" would have all been fine on a completed album. They all find Chris in his element: creating, texturing and shifting musical moods. "Vulcan" alternates between Spanish, New Orleans and Caribbean vibes tied together into one structure. "See No Man Girl" starts with a low and breathy flute theme - very relaxed and mellow - then sails into a great reggae groove - a super track. "Indian Monsoon" takes you on a shimmering mind trip, floating on a lazy river through the jungle - complete with animal sound effects. The other songs are clearly rougher tracks, in many cases sounding like jams. While there are fine moments throughout these tunes, there is a tentative, hesitant quality that would indicate that this was not the record that Chris was hoping to release. For example, the three tracks of "Letter One" are not significantly different from each other, and may just be different mixes that Chris wanted to compare. Also, "Tragic Magic" seems like padding, and makes little commercial sense as new material since it had two prior releases (studio and live versions) as Traffic product some ten years before.
There is evidence that even very near the end of his life Chris was fighting to pull the music together - and having some success. One of the rough tracks from Vulcan is "Sullen Moon" - a flute/piano demo that had the spark of a haunting theme, but remained undeveloped. In April of '83 Chris assembled a band in his studio and worked on a "Sullen Moon" remake. The song, lead by Chris' lilting and trilling flute began to blossom into a lively, compelling song. Chris played the flute here in a way that belied his condition - as if the spirit were soaring, even as the body's strength ebbed away. Unfortunately, the band were unable to keep up, and a master quality take was not achieved- keeping it off the album. The story of Vulcan seems to end on that note - this was apparently the last session attempted.
One might wonder if Chris Wood's struggle to finish Vulcan was a sort of mirror of his own life - and its lack of completion a reflection of Chris' inability to complete himself, or reconcile the opposing but intertwined forces of his creativity and self-destructiveness. He was a man who, according to his sister Stephanie, was always fascinated geology, and she speculated that he would have loved Pompeii, the ancient ruined city that erupting Mount Vesuvius covered with lava. Was his interest one of geology or a form of identification? Ancient as well as modern people look at volcanoes as places of both beauty and danger - since they create and destroy at the same time. Of course, the word volcano is derived from the Roman God of fire and metalworking - Vulcan.
-- Dan Ropek
(This story could not have been written without the generous assistance and contributions of Elena Iglio. Thank you Ellie. Equally, there would be little to report about Vulcan without the help of Chris' late father Stephen and sister Stephanie - who open-heartedly shared what they could about Chris.)
Page created November 17, 1997.
Last updated March 15, 1998.
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999 by Dan Ropek.