I was 15 when The Wonder Years debuted on ABC in 1988. That’s the age when kids aren’t supposed to agree with their parents. They’re supposed to differentiate themselves violently, or at least snottily. I did my share of that. I got into punk rock when I was 15, and my mom shook her head sadly as I came home with weird haircut after weird haircut, and as the music blasting out of my bedroom grew faster, cruder, and angrier. The funny thing about the ’80s, though, was that the decade was obsessed with the ’60s. Baby boomers like my mom were feeling the first twinges of middle age, and with that came TV shows such as The Wonder Years—a fictional account of what it was like growing up in Nixon’s America, what with all its Watergating and Vietnam Warring and Woodstocking.
Joe Cocker—who died this week of lung cancer at the age of 70—sang at Woodstock, and he also sang The Wonder Years’ theme: In both cases, that song was his 1968 hit version of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” a rendition that features Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page on sky-splitting guitar and makes Ringo Starr’s jaunty little ditty sound downright anemic. The Wonder Years wasn’t the only show in the late ’80s whose theme song was a ’60s anthem; two Vietnam-set programs, Tour Of Duty and China Beach, used The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” and Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Reflections,” respectively. Those are two immortal songs by two of the best groups of all time—but as I sat there watching The Wonder Years with my mom each week, it was Cocker’s song that made me realize the music of my mom’s generation might just have something to offer a Clash-shirted little punk.
Cocker was born in 1944, a working-class kid from just outside the industrial city of Sheffield, England. In his teens, he sang in bands while working an apprentice gas fitter. Who knows what he inhaled during that job, but by the time he started getting noticed in late ’60s with The Grease Band—what better name for a band led by a blue-collar bloke with a voice like a rusty carburetor?—he already carried a corroded majesty. He was only 24 when he recorded “With A Little Help From My Friends”; with his scraggly hair, spastic posture, and sandblasted vocal chords, he looked and sounded a thousand.
Why this appealed to a 15-year-old kid in 1988, I have no idea. Actually, that’s not true. At that age, I was still a couple years away from diving headfirst into ’60s music, but I remember what absolutely fucking riveted me about Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends”: the way it moved me. Cocker took a silly, throwaway lyric and poured an oil tanker’s worth of tears into it. He sounds like he’s bleeding as he sings it. Dying, really. He’s turning his entire body inside out, it seems, which makes me wonder in hindsight not why he writhed around onstage when he performed, but how he managed to keep himself in one piece. Joe Strummer may have been my hero when I was a kid, but I have no doubt in my mind that he got at least some of his ragged, go-for-broke desperation from Joe Cocker.
I didn’t know anything about Cocker the first time I watched The Wonder Years, but I was already familiar with his voice—or at least a shadow of it. “Up Where We Belong,” his 1982 duet with Jennifer Warnes, became a platinum-selling smash after being featured in An Officer And A Gentleman. I’d heard it on the radio a hundred times, but I never thought anything of it. I still don’t, aside from a mild nostalgia. That’s pasteurized, processed Cocker; I prefer curdled, clotted Cocker.
Like “With A Little Help From My Friends,” his lesser hits of the ’70s are also cover songs, including a savagely funky workout of Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” and a startlingly tender take on Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful” that honors the song’s Hallmark-card sentiment while giving Cocker room to flaunt his fractured-heart rawness. On earthy originals like 1969’s “Change In Louise,” he drags his own vulnerability through a gauntlet of barbed wire and makes it sound romantic. He sang soul in the Ray Charles tradition—capable of ecclesiastical yelps, nerve-shredding screams, and 2-in-the-morning whispers, all in the same breath.
Two summers ago, on my mom’s birthday, I took her to see Joe Cocker. Huey Lewis & The News opened; I loved that band as a kid, but Lewis sounded tired, deflated, cynical, bored with himself. After that, I was expecting very little from Cocker. When he hobbled out onstage, I thought he might topple over. He looked like a boiled ham crammed into a suit. He smiled like any grandpa would, shuffled to the microphone, and gripped it as if it were the only solid object left in the world, an artifact of his youth that he’d stumbled across and clutched for dear life.
Then he opened his mouth.
He still had it. All of it. A minute earlier I’d been checking my phone, wondering if I might be able to convince my mom to head out early and beat the post-concert traffic. Now I was riveted all over again, just like I was hearing “With A Little Help From My Friends” for the first time. Song after song, he nailed it. He flailed a bit here and there, but mostly he just stood still and let his lungs—the very organs that killed him—open up like twin thunderclouds. Cocker couldn’t have been less cool circa 2012, or in 2014. He’s an icon to the boomer generation that everyone loves to bitch about; he became popular singing other people’s songs; and he was only sexy if you closed your eyes. But with a little help from “With A Little Help From My Friends,” he all but invented the power ballad—and that power stands.
When my mom and I walked out of concert that night, she asked me if I remembered the show The Wonder Years, the one we used to watch together when I was a kid. I told her I did. She nodded. Then, already cranky because she was turning one year older, she started griping about the crowd. I griped along with her, happy to agree.