I was hesitant to cover Cream’s Wheels of Fire. It’s so obvious and well documented that it’s almost like a movie reviewer revisiting The Godfather. That said, this record was monumental to me, and it’s a major reason I’ve dedicated myself to playing guitar for more than 45 years.
I bought Wheels of Fire in 1972, while I was still purchasing records based on the length of their tracks. For example, if a non-Beatle or non-Hendrix record had three-minute tracks, I wasn’t interested. My “blind” purchases based solely on such criteria included John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and Larry Coryell, and I really hit the jackpot with Wheels of Fire.
The track “Spoonful” served as a beacon of information on free-rock improvising, and, being an obsessed pre-teen, I literally listened to that song 30 times a day. Through “Spoonful,” I discovered how musicians could take a journey in an awesome musical laboratory. I would listen to each instrument independently, and marvel how three different musical conversations seemed to be making the same point. There’s a violence and camaraderie between Eric, Jack, and Ginger that wanders in and out, and, at 9:46, there’s a fascinating departure where Eric steps away from rhythmic constraint to play violent blues phrases that forego cohesiveness to prioritize raw emotion. It still amazes me how Clapton plays his pentatonic phrases backwards, forwards, sideways, and upside down while they remain incredibly captivating. I also took note of the art of changing sounds to alter your “voice.” Clapton could vary from a cutting and bright bridge pickup sound to his “woman tone” at the drop of a hat, depending on the fury of the rhythm section. This lesson was immensely important to me, and it helped me learn to tell a story, because Clapton told his story so successfully.
Cream records were like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to me. I preferred their live recordings where improvisational excursions abound—three Mr. Hydes playing as if it were their last day on Earth. The Jekyll-like studio tracks always seemed much tamer, as if “adult supervision” was involved. I still carry the legacy of Wheels of Fire 45 years after first hearing it, as my current trio with Chris Morrissey and Josh Dion performs “free rock” in the spirit of Cream. And I continue to listen to live Cream with appreciation and humility.