At the end of December I walked into the Prince of Wales pub, keyboard in hand, all prepped and sorted for another open mic night. Sat at the bar, pint of Carling in hand was Brian, the harmonica player. Behind the bar, kitted out in 1970s-esque black shirt and jeans, was the landlord Nick. The regulars were huddled round their usual spots. The house lights had not yet been dimmed, the spots still cold. Everything was just as it had been for the previous fourteen months that I had been coming here.
It soon changed. As I unceremonially dumped my keyboard bag onto the wooden-effect floor and dropped my coat onto the stool already positioned in my place, the greying, wiry man sat next to me tuning his electronic-acoustic guitar muttered something. Fighting against the strains of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Back From Baby’s”, I craned my neck and said “You what?”
“It’s my last night tonight mate.”
Although I’d known about John Cocks’ intended departure from Falmouth for a six-month sabbatical in San Francisco California, it still felt weird that it would be the last time Brian and myself would be accompanying him to classics such as “Route 66”, “I’m On Fire” and “Key To The Highway”; songs I had never heard before meeting him. A few weeks before, I had sat down to talk to him about his life, determined to hear his story before he disappeared to the West Coast.
John had been running the open mic night at the Prince of Wales for nearly two years. According to him, the previous host would “just go on and on and on and make the most appalling racket, and no-one else would come in. You couldn’t play there. So I sort of scared them off and gradually it sort of turned around.”
Born in Yorkshire in 1948, John moved to Cornwall at the age of two. His parents had met in London during the war. John’s father worked as an RAF engineer due to a lazy eye which kept him out of combat action. His mother worked for RAF central flight control. “As far as I can work out she was one of the people who had long sticks and pushed the little aeroplanes on the maps”, he recalled. “She had to commute in every day during the Blitz from Surrey, taking different routes to avoid the bombed out areas.”
Following the end of the war John’s father became a schoolteacher at Camborne Basset School. His mother was wholly Cornish to begin with, and his father’s family had moved away from Cornwall when the tin mines closed, so in a sense the young Cocks family were coming home.
John hated school. After a fairly inauspicious year at Redruth Grammar – where he was moved down to the B stream – he was packed off to Truro Cathedral School by his appalled parents. He failed Latin, Army Corps and rugby and was promptly put down into the B stream again. By the time it came to take his O-Levels he failed all but two – gaining top grade in English Language and scraping through English Literature. As a result he stayed on in education for a further year at the TEC in Pool, where he found the more relaxed system beneficial. “Suddenly it was a free environment where you were not made to work, it was demonstrated that it was quote a good idea if you did,” he observed. “I retook my O Levels, got them all – just shot through them all cos people were treating me like a grown up, which is what I’d been wanting since I was about 12. Public school also teaches you arrogance” he added.
As well as failing his O-Levels, John was discovering the pub music scene, beginning playing live when he was 15. The catalyst was the Beatles’ “I Saw You Standing There”. He had first picked up a guitar at age 11 after seeing Tommy Steele play and “thinking it was going to be easy, tried it once and it was like “Ow! It doesn’t work!” However with the aid of a self-teaching book he soon began to gain confidence in the instrument.
His first gig was at a youth club in Troon playing lead guitar with a band led by the man who is now head of County Council Libraries in Truro, Terry Knight. Following this he was headhunted. As he put it: “People who could play [live music] were in demand. I joined a band called Circuit Four. Then we got another guy and became Circuit Five. We played middle of the road crap for people to dance to.” Following this, and with the advent of supergroups like Cream, he and two others from Circuit Five broke away to form a power trio called Confusion. “We had an acoustic guitar we used to break up at every gig, then put it back together and break it up again.”
Technology at this time was still in its relative infancy – they were happy if it worked, never mind volume and levels. However then they discovered credit cards, and John acquired a 8x10 Marshall speaker stack. Confusion apparently found its massive power perfect for the tiny little village halls they were playing.
Then came the first major turning point in John’s life. Confusion entered a rock competition in Truro. Amongst the competitors was a drummer by the name of Roger Taylor. Confusion came in second place. In the audience was the deputy manager of the Barclays’ Bank branch in Falmouth. “That was my dad’s idea – for me to become a bank manager. Job for life”, scoffed John. The morning after the competition, the deputy manager called John into his office and made him choose between the bank, a promotion and a transfer to Launceston, or the band. John chose the band. However by giving up his banker’s salary he realised he would have to leave Cornwall anyway to find work. So in 1968 he went to London.
According to John, it was perfect timing. “London was an amazing place in ’68.” John and his friends were regular patrons at the Hampstead Country Club in North London. At that time other, onstage regulars included Free and Pink Floyd. As well as this he saw the Rolling Stones, The Who and the Small Faces at the Roundhouse.
Around this time he also dropped out and became a “bit of a hippy”, living in Wales; on a farm owned by the original bassist from Hawkwind. He became involved in organising the first proper Glastonbury festival in 1971, and cut an album with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers.
Returning to London, he found work at the newly opened Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park; a project funded by US music mogul John Morris, owner of the world-famous Fillmore East and West. John started as a barman, then a doorman, finally ending up as a stagehand. When a new stage manager, Michael J Hoon was appointed, he and John became good friends, sharing a house. Hoon soon made John his number two. John had gone from being a barman to the second most important person behind the scenes in a matter of a few weeks. Being a stagehand he renewed his acquaintances with the likes of the Jackson Five (“I met Michael Jackson when he was a little 9-year old black boy…”) BB King, Jethro Tull, the Faces, Pink Floyd and Stephen Stills.
Then, just as quickly as it had happened, the dream ended. John Morris’ finances – or lack of same – resulted in the Rainbow shutting down. However Morris had “wangled” the production responsibilities for Paul McCartney’s first post-Beatles tour, “Wings Over Europe.” Michael J Hoon was made tour manager so John went too. However it wasn’t as rewarding as John had hoped. “Never meet your idols” he warned. “I didn’t like McCartney at all. He was unnecessarily vain and pompous and rude. He stayed in a different hotel to the band; I felt that was pushing it a bit.” However John’s relationship with Linda was better. “She was lovely, I got to know Linda quite well. I used to buy her dope. She’d say “John I need to score” so I got given loads of cash to get her dope. She couldn’t sing and couldn’t play, but she was lovely.”
A Grateful Dead tour and a Santana tour followed for John, and then he was invited by Hoon to come to America. He arrived in San Francisco, California on December 6th 1972. He had become known as “the guy who did lighting for Macca” – a somewhat inaccurate description as he had only moved to the lighting rig on the Santana tour. However John took it in his stride and was hired by Boz Skeggs as a lighting designer. After a while he set up his own lighting design company, touring all over the US. In one gig he “very nearly set fire to the Tubes’ front-man’s hair” due to the heat of the 1000W bulbs.
In 1977, well after the expiration date of his six-month work visa, John returned – exhausted – to Penryn. He joined “probably the best band to come out of Falmouth”, British Intelligence, who tried and failed to get a record deal. Since then he’s turned sound engineer, doing “brutal” summer seasons all over Cornwall for various bands and projects. He’s produced four solo albums – “Gone West”, “All This”, “Different Game” and an upcoming, as-yet unnamed album. And he’s played live every week for two years at the Prince of Wales.
In January 2005 he left once more for San Francisco. Falmouth has – temporarily – lost one of its rock ‘n’ roll stars. John Cocks lived the dream and came through unscathed to tell a remarkable story.