Mike Cooper does not want to talk about how famous he might have been—how he declined an offer to join the Rolling Stones, how he refused to conform to commercial folk-rock standards a decade later, or how that decision not only cost him a record deal but also sent him into exploratory musical exile for the next quarter-century.
Instead, the 71-year-old British guitarist living in Rome wants to talk about how he has imagined the city of Durham for the last 50 years. After Cooper's first band broke up in the early '60s, he spent a year obsessing over and imitating Blind Boy Fuller, the peripatetic Piedmont bluesman who toured hard and perhaps lived harder in and around Durham. He died in 1941 and is buried just south of N.C. Central University. More than 20 years after Fuller's death, Cooper learned every one of his songs that he could find, even traveling to South London to visit a rare record collector who transferred several obscure singles to heavy acetate discs. Cooper still treasures them.
"I kind of became Blind Boy Fuller. And because of him, I've always had this image in my head of Durham," he says, laughing. "Yesterday, I went and Googled it, and my image is totally ridiculous. I had this black-and-white photo in my head, how it would have been when he was around. But it's a metropolis now, isn't it?"
That kind of curiosity has defined the singular but assorted career of Cooper, an ever-restless musician who has moved between free jazz and blues guitar, electronic improvisation and operatic composition during the last half-century. For a brief but particularly fertile period in the early '70s, after he'd declined the offer to take the Rolling Stones spot that Brian Jones would claim, Cooper funneled many of those interests into a triptych of LPs that stretched the boundaries of folk-rock by pretending they didn't exist. Taken together, Trout Steel, Places I Know and The Machine Gun Co. with Mike Cooper—released in succession from 1970 to 1972—provide a suggestive map of the post-modern eclecticism that's blossomed in an age where the extremes of the world's collected music can be accessed with the few taps of a button. Saxophones shriek beneath simple chords. Would-be ballads veer suddenly through psychedelic spirals. The sense of possibility hangs, pregnant and loaded.
This week, the Chapel Hill-based label Paradise of Bachelors has reissued those three albums, bundling the last two into a double-disc package that, 40 years ago, was deemed too outlandish and audacious to work by another record company. In retrospect, Cooper's decisions feel instead suspiciously prophetic, like a long-range weathervane more interested in the future than present atmospheric conditions.
In 1969, Cooper toured Europe, playing blues guitar on the folk revival circuit. While in Belgium, he spotted a sign outside of a club that read "free jazz." A night of gratis entertainment would suffice, he reckoned.
"The doorman said we had to pay, and I said, 'But it said free outside,'" Cooper remembers, jeering his own naiveté. "'No, you don't understand.' So we go in, we sit down, and this huge group comes on. We were pinned to the wall."
Thanks to Geoff Hawkins, a saxophonist who worked with Cooper at a lumber mill, he knew of relatively inchoate developments in jazz, like aggressive improvisation that lashed at the bop of its predecessors with broken rhythms and discordant themes. But Cooper had never experienced the sound firsthand, and now he'd stepped into the belly of the squall. The band onstage belonged to Peter Brötzmann, the German reedman whose octet had just released the belligerent landmark Machine Gun—a record that, in turn, Cooper would lift as the name for the wild band he used to upend his simple songs.
"I went, 'Now this is what I've been looking for,'" Cooper says. "We had that music in our heads to go back to England with. It was a revelation."
Cooper had earned his reputation, a record contract with the hip label Pye and the chance to work with accomplished producer Peter Eden through his reputation as a singer-songwriter and as a stunning guitarist with a sufficient voice. When he finally entered the studio with Eden, though, he'd abandoned notions of mere pleasantry and adequacy. Influenced both by Brötzmann and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, on which the songwriter led a largely unrehearsed ensemble of jazz musicians, Cooper opted to bring improvisers into the studio, not proven session players. There were no rehearsals. Incapable even now of reading music or speaking in musical theory, Cooper recorded the basic vocals and guitars by himself, then turned the recruited musicians loose.
"What can we turn it into? If you can get jazzers to play this music with you, it's going to go somewhere," Cooper says. "It would be less interesting with studio players, stiffer. Listening back to that music now, it doesn't feel restricted in any way."
Despite the "jazzers" on those three early '70s releases, there is only one unapologetic group improvisation. Named for Pharoah Sanders but modeled more on the paroxysms of Albert Ayler, the seven-minute "Pharoah's March" builds until it ruptures into bedlam, cascading piano and anxious guitar collapsing against sheets of saxophone and bass. Bits of those records also hew to the folk revival through which Cooper rose. "Weeping Rose," which closes Trout Steel, is a pristine bit of preemptive nostalgia, Cooper's delicate acoustic blues promising a distant reunion with someone he's yet to lose. And the piano-and-guitar jangle of "Places I Know" reads like something Don Quixote might have muttered to Rocinante amid their escapades.
And on Places I Know, Cooper modeled songs after Neil Young (the snarling "Three Forty-Eight (Blues for or Against Andalusia)") and Bob Dylan (the searching "Night Journey"). But those numbers feel like mere footnotes, briefs meant to assert that his fundamentals were sound: that he could write, that he could improvise, that he could mirror his heroes.
The more compelling music—and the reason that, 40 years later, Cooper's work remains germane, even prescient—comes when he and his band bend those songs into ecstatic art-rock abstraction, or when they mete out the weirdness through predetermined structures. "The Singing Tree," for instance, feels like a country-rock rollick for its first three minutes, twang licks and electric piano stutters two-stepping beneath his voice. Just past the song's midpoint, a saxophone squawks from the bottom of the mix, wrestling with the melody as though it were a slippery fish. "I've Got Mine" sports one of the best choruses in Cooper's catalogue, the singer brashly proclaiming, on repeat, "I'm ready to go." But it's buried within an 11-minute chimera of darting flutes and prismatic percussion, foreboding bass and spectral harmonies. At one point, Cooper and his support sound like a barbershop quartet, crowded on a train's dining car between a brass band and a bluegrass group, trying to make the best of a hot, humid trip through the American south.
"He was a punk at heart, and I knew that about him, through the music and through friends who knew him," says Christopher Smith. "He was one of us—very inclusive of spirit but very exclusive in terms of righteousness, sticking to good ideals of business and alliances."
Smith is a co-owner of Paradise of Bachelors. He played in Espers, a Philadelphia band that helped define the unpredictable stylistic nebula known during the last decade as "freak-folk." Cooper's music presaged that of Espers and their peers by corrupting familiar, comfortable motifs with spasms of improvisation and veins of atonality.
Though it took two years of frustrating negotiations with major labels, re-releasing this trio of albums was one of Smith's top priorities at Paradise of Bachelors. They'd long suggested that Cooper was his spiritual kin.
"Mike had this ability, or this desire, to not adhere to something completely out, like free jazz, or something as common as Elton John or Van Morrison," he says. "That always stuck with me."
In 1965, Cooper played gigs in a coffee shop in Reading, picking the country blues while slowly developing his own approach as a singer-songwriter. He shared his residency with Derek Hall, a coffeehouse employee and fellow guitarist who had memorized the catalogue of another itinerant bluesman, Blind Blake. The shop's owner suggested that they make a record. He'd pay for it, and an audio engineer could record it in Cooper's home. They cut four songs, issued as a very small edition on the Kennet label.
"Derek could play this Blind Blake stuff. He was a phenomenal guitar player, incredible, and he could do this stuff note-for-note," Cooper remembers.
But the duo was not meant to last. Not long after the release, Hall returned to London, working in the British library and slowly disappearing from local stages altogether. Decades later, Cooper spread the word that he was looking for Hall, hoping only to reconnect with the person who'd jumpstarted his career. Cooper even tried to track him down in person at the library, only to find out he'd quit.
But five years ago, someone passed him Hall's address, saying he'd moved to Northumberland and become a recluse—no telephone, no Internet, no shows. He only taught guitar lessons to locals. Cooper wrote to him, and they began to exchange letters until, one day, Hall mailed a tape of himself playing.
"The last time I saw him was maybe 1967, and it's odd, because he's playing exactly the same as he was all those years ago," Cooper says. "It was so strange. He was a million times better guitar player than I would ever be. It was like Charlie Parker, if he was alive today, playing the same thing he did in 1945."
Cooper says that with more wonder than disdain, as though the idea of static music, or any art that's not actively trying to break past its own borders, had never occurred to him. In the '70s, that attitude likely cost him his record deal. He couldn't afford a band to convey the improvisational attitude of the three records he cut for Pye, and his solo shows often made him sound like only another folk singer. Pye didn't think The Machine Gun Co. was marketable, and they never renewed his contract.
Still, that sensibility has kept him active and inventive. He's always made music, even after being dismissed from his label. Of late, he's experimented with singing scrambled bits of Thomas Pynchon novels, using his voice for the first time since he finished Places I Know and The Machine Gun Co. He's just completed a new album with the American guitarist Steve Gunn, a similarly curious musician four decades his junior.
"I play in groups where I don't want to tell people what to do," he says, pulling taut the thread between Mike Cooper in 1971 and Mike Cooper at the age of 71. "You end up with different music if you don't."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Let it bleed."