Rock ‘n’ roll bands, we’re told, are the closest and most combative of families. They come up in the world together, they eat and sleep and ride in a tour bus together, they haunt the recording studio together, they become experts in how to manipulate (and shield themselves from) the media together, and, in a funny way, they break up together. But in 1970, Joe Cocker fronted a band of virtuoso ruffians called Mad Dogs & Englishmen, who put on some of the most musically rambunctious and cathartic concerts of their time, and the strange thing is that the band members barely knew each other.
In 1969, Cocker had made a splash at Woodstock — it was the first time almost anyone had seen his writhing British blues-dog self — and after riding that buzz for a while, he fired his band out from under him and tried to take a break. But an American tour had already been organized and booked for him. A story that’s often been told is that Cocker had to do the tour to keep his U.S. working papers from being revoked. But according to Rita Coolidge, who told this to Rolling Stone, the sometimes mobbed-up music industry threatened Cocker with bodily harm if he didn’t do that tour.
He had almost no time to throw it together, so he reached out to Leon Russell, the already fabled producer, songwriter, former member of the Wrecking Crew, and multi-genre recording artist. Russell called the top musicians in his Rolodex (and recruited Coolidge to assemble a chorus of backup singers), and all of them came together. They rehearsed for less than a week and went on the road with Cocker, doing 48 shows in 52 nights. How to describe the sound of it? It was rock, it was soul, it was Vegas, it was blues, it was gospel, it was pop, and — more than anything — it was big. In its oversize ramshackle way, it was the sound of all those sizzling musicians, most of them in their 20s, still saying hello to each other.
The tour was captured on film, in the 1971 cult concert movie “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” (available only on used DVD), but even if you’ve never seen it, the new music documentary “Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen” is a fantastic companion piece. It’s a performance film, a delectable slice of nostalgia, and a testament to how one gorgeously raucous rock ‘n’ roll moment can reverberate through the decades.
Directed by Jesse Lauter, the film looks back at the Mads Dogs tour, utilizing a wealth of grainy split-screen footage from “Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” But the doc is also set in the here and now. It jumps back and forth between 1970 and 2015, when Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, the married leaders of Tedeschi Trucks Band, organized a reunion, teaming up with 12 of the original Mad Dogs, including Chris Stainton, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, and the 74-year-old white-haired and wizardly Leon Russell, to give a concert at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia.
If, like me, you grew up on the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” album, with its ironically ornate drawing of Joe Cocker flexing his bicep on the cover, it has a special place. The Beatles’ White Album aside, it’s the first of the great, raw, spilling-over-the-sides rock double albums — a tradition that would go on to encompass the Stones’ “Exile on Main St.,” Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti,” Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times,” and Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” Think of the most primal rock drumming you ever heard: Keith Moon smashing his way into the anarchy zone, John Bonham doing his thunder-god riffs. Mad Dogs & Englishmen had two drummers, Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner, and the sound of them in unison was staggering; it surrounded you with drums. But then in song after song, the entire band had that effect. From the ecstatically relentless gospel groove of “Delta Lady” to the ominous descending-and-then-soaring delirium of “The Letter” to the syncopated tenderness of “Space Captain,” the Mad Dogs built a wall of sound from the ground up — tight as hell but loose with pleasure, a rock ‘n’ roll circus that throttled just hard enough to scatter a few parts along the highway.
The whole Mad Dogs tour was big. It was like a commune, only one that traveled in a private jet and didn’t come with cloying utopian rhetoric. It was a floating bacchanal, like the Rolling Thunder Revue with less thunder and more roll. I realize that decades don’t always come in neat packages, but 1970 really was an eye between the storm of two eras. It still had some ’60s tumult (like the Kent State massacre), but the notion that a “revolution” was on the horizon was doing a quick fade, and the decadent glam-rock listlessness of the early ’70s had yet to come into being. You feel that cozy limbo on the Mad Dogs tour. It was a bawdy, soulful good time…without a higher meaning. And that was its glory. The documentary lifts its title from a line out of “Space Captain” (“Learnin’ to live together…”), and there’s a refreshing lack of starry-eyed hippie-dippy-ness to that line. It’s really about the eternal human challenge.
In “Learning to Live Together,” the original “Mad Dogs” footage looks more amazing than ever. And the survivors of that tour who show up for the reunion concert are great company; anyone who thinks that aging rock boomers are simply cranks stuck in time should get a load of these folks. Claudia Lennear, who began her career as part of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, explains that there is white gospel and Black gospel, and that Leon Russel had a unique gift, as a musician, for fusing them together. (That’s as good an explanation as I’ve heard of the Mad Dogs alchemy.) And there are vivid reminiscences from Rita Coolidge, who recalls what a sweet soul Joe Cocker had but also how stressed-out he was (something visible, at moments, in the old footage).
Leon Russell discusses the 300 hours of film footage that originally existed of the Mad Dogs tour, and the X-rated version he always dreamed of making of it, and Coolidge and Chris Stainton recall the hang-loose camaraderie that developed among the Mad Dogs. But Coolidge also describes the tour’s darkest moment, when drummer Jim Gordon, who was her boyfriend, slugged her in a hotel hallway. (He was later diagnosed as schizophrenic.) The critic David Fricke, interviewed throughout the film, provides eloquent testimony to what it was that made the Mad Dogs’ music magical.
Now, as then, much of the focus coheres around Leon Russell, who was hired by Cocker to be the tour’s musical ringleader, and yet the sway Russell held over the band ate away at Cocker, who wanted it to be his band. Watching the “Mad Dogs” footage, you revel in the rock star that Russell, for a brief moment, became: a total 1970 icon of aristocratic country hippie sexiness with his ironically worn top hat, long silver brown hair (which you can see he was very vain about), deadpan scowl, and pants with rosy vines painted on the butt. He’s like Bob Seger as a silky alley cat.
The contemporary performances at the Lockn’ Festival are superb. Tedeschi Trucks Band, enhanced by the older musicians, do a remarkable job of reconfiguring the Mad Dogs sound, and singers from Coolidge to Lennear to Dave Mason to Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes make nice work of standing in for Cocker, even as they get you to realize what an irreplaceably powerful belter he was. It’s Leon Russell, more than anyone, who looms over the proceedings. He’d been through his share of health battles, and would pass away just one year later (in 2016), but working under the stewardship of Derek Trucks (who is an extraordinary guitar player), he spins out his tasty piano licks and surveys it all with a Southern-fried gleam of counterculture wisdom that remains undiminished. In the inside cover of the “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” album, Russell was billed as “the Master of Space and Time.” In “Learning to Live Together,” he still is.