An excerpt from the acclaimed book Tragic Magic: The Life of Traffic’s Chris Wood by Dan Ropek
CHAPTER 25 – THE BEGINNING OF THE END
There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but completeness; and for this, the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent. C. G. Jung
Exactly why Traffic shuddered to a grinding halt when and as it did remains, to this day, open to speculation. Interestingly, in later interviews the one who should know has had little to say. While rarely mentioning the stomach ailment, Steve often referred to a sense of being trapped in a “cul-de-sac” of albums and endless road trips – and that was certainly true. Beyond that, a constellation of forces were aligned – Chris’s erratic condition, the lack of ticket sales, long car rides, and the sometimes deranged and/or apathetic audience response – all could have contributed to the tour ending as it did.
But back home among friends, it was clear that more than a road trip had been severed. While no Traffic break-up was ever announced, to those in the know, the signs were there. Paul Medcalf, one of the band’s primal associates, would talk to an exasperated Steve who, while never flat out saying the band was over, made it clear he’d had it with Chris’s excesses, “Well see Paul, he can’t do the job anymore – he’s too out of it – he’s falling asleep on stage…” Medcalf elaborated, ‘the trouble is, Steve was a perfectionist, musically, and Chris was bumbling around… unless he was sharp as a knife, like he used to be, it didn’t work. I think that was it basically. I think Steve wanted the band to be respected.”
Gordon Jackson had similar recollections, “I was working for Steve at the time and I remember him coming home from that tour – and it wasn’t very nice. The flavor that I got from it was that Steve had just had enough. He couldn’t risk going onstage and have that happen anymore – because it was going to ruin his career as well.”
So it was Chris’s unreliability – in particular those train-wreck shows in New York which helped swing things past a tipping point. And if Steve couldn’t work with Chris anymore, Traffic also had to fall – Chris’s personality was far too embedded in its fabric to exist without him; that much at least was clear.
But how did it all come to this? Certainly underlying issues had been festering for years – if not from the beginning. While Chris’s substance problems caused obvious issues, a vicious cycle was also at work. Island Records employee, Suzette Newman noticed the dynamic, “When he was ‘out of it’, he was nervous around Steve because he knew that Steve didn’t approve. I think he got crushed along the way. The more insecure he felt about Steve the worse – the more of a state – he would get into. But none of these things would’ve been talked about – people didn’t talk.”
Indeed. As much as Traffic relied on that psychic link to work their musical magic, verbal communication was another matter. Chris, of course, rarely confronted a touchy area even if it affected him directly, while Jim was the master of spinning nearly any situation in a positive direction. And Steve’s vague restlessness had for years kept the others in a state of near constant uncertainty. The fear that he would pull the plug – for whatever reason – created a very particular type of stress that Jim and Chris each dealt with in their own way.
Musically, the issues weren’t cut and dried either. The tension between Steve’s desire for a more controlled presentation versus Chris’s need to be freely expressive (for better and worse) – an apparent weak spot of the band – was also not exactly what it seemed. In the end, the fuel that Traffic drove on very much required that volatile mix of imperfection and talent; two seemingly irreconcilable states that were actually inseparable. But in severing the ties for good, was Steve aware of the creative loss to follow?
Penny Massot pondered that very question. Having acrimoniously broken up with Steve herself earlier in the year after being a couple since 1966, she would later question his understanding of Traffic’s value, “I don’t think Steve realized that actually, how important it was, those times. They were so close, they were like brothers – and he left them adrift. It’s a shame, a real shame. I began to wonder if he had any idea about what was good and bad in those days. Maybe it was Jim, Chris and I that understood – ‘this is great’. Maybe he didn’t know the difference.”
Jim held similar feelings. While acknowledging Chris’s weaknesses, he also vehemently felt the bad nights were an acceptable price to keep this unique band alive, “It don’t matter! Miles Davis ended up just spitting on stage and playing the odd note – deeeep! And everybody was going fucking mental.” Recalling the night that both Joe Cocker (opening for Traffic) and then Chris fell over on stage, Jim believed the alternative – a polished, artificially perfect stage act – to be much worse, “We toured with Joe Cocker, alright? And Joe was in his terrible phase. And the review was, ‘Joe Cocker came on and fell over, then Traffic came on and Chris Wood fell over.’ He fell backwards off the organ – the organ seat, he just went backwards, and ‘boom!’ and Joe Cocker had been on and just fuckin’ collapsed you know. But who wants to see dancing, and all of this – dry ice? I’d like to see that – because it’s fucking real. And I don’t even mind embarrassing myself in front of you…”
Above all, Jim felt that, when it came to Chris’s overall wellbeing, losing Traffic was the worst thing that could have happened to him. “It was bad man, it was bad. But the two break ups like that were wrong – to be at least very upfront and say ‘this is it’, you know. Chris was falling apart, I know, but – you know what I mean, it would have been better to keep going. It would have given him something to grasp on to. He did (have stage-fright), and his condition was deteriorating – but he could play, he could perform, and it would have given him something… it would have given us more ammunition to keep Chris on the straight and narrow a bit more. I mean, I was prepared to do it. I don’t know if Steve could face it, I don’t know, but my attitude is like, ‘come on, let’s be fuckin’ positive… why walk away from it?’ Chris was a bit flaky sometimes but it would have been better to give him something positive to do. It was better that he could like, work. And when it was all over, Chris just went downhill completely… he just absolutely sank then, there was nothing to keep him going.”
But an invisible door had already swung shut. As much as Jim may have pleaded, and Chris simply hoped, this time there would be no going back; the brotherhood was broken. Hurt and uncertain, with only a gray, British winter looming in front of them, where exactly could Chris and Jim go from here? As far away as possible: Brazil.