One of the great cinematic scenes occurs in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas as Jimmy Conway (played by Robert DeNiro) staring through a cigarette haze, mentally making plans to kill one of his partners in crime. As DeNiro schemes, the opening riff to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” blares, accompanied by Pete Brown’s lyrics. Scorsese gushed, “Pete was a great songwriter. Whenever the lyrics are repeated in my head, these images stay with me.”
“Sunshine’s” opening line was simply Brown writing what he was seeing during an almost fruitless writing session with Cream bassist/co-writer Jack Bruce.
“Jack and I had been up for hours and hours. It was five in the morning and Jack in desperation grabbed his double bass and said, ‘What about this?’ and played the famous riff. Then I looked out the window and saw it was getting light and I thought, ‘It’s getting near dawn.’”
The single version of “Sunshine” went to #5 on the charts, helped by its flip side, “SWLABR, “an acronym for “She Was like a Bearded Rainbow.” Fifty years after the song was released, Pete apologized: “It’s a bit misogynistic. It’s about this guy whose girlfriend just kicked him out and he’s defacing pictures of his girlfriend, like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
For their smash hit “White Room,” Pete wrote what he was seeing and feeling: “There was this kind of transitional period where I lived in this actual white room. It’s a place where I gave up all drugs and alcohol at that time in 1967 as a result of being in the white room, so it was a kind of a watershed period.”
But before Pete made his fortune and name as Cream’s go-to lyricist, he was a poor traveling Beat poet, sometimes sharing bills with legends Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Pete finally made a little bit of cash as London’s Marquee Club “jazz poet in residency.” His job was to recite his poetry as Britain’s best bands played behind him.
One such group was the Graham Bond Quartet whose members included drummer Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, about to launch a group called Cream with guitarist Eric Clapton. For the grand sum of £25, Pete added lyrics to Cream’s first single (“Wrapping Paper”) and soon became a de-facto member of the short-lived super-group.
When he wasn’t writing songs with Bruce, Pete helped build the Indica Books and Gallery, an art gallery/bookstore where Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Paintings show drew a crowd and, as rock legend has it, where she first met John Lennon. Pete recalled, “I was sawing shelves when I met all those people.”
After Cream’s demise, Brown and Bruce were still a creative force, with Pete supplying lyrics to Jack’s excellent album, Songs for a Tailor. The LP included the top-notch “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” which was later covered by Mountain.
When Jack’s album was released in 1969, Pete was working on songs that were about as commercial as Yoko’s work. His first band, Battered Ornaments, gave him the boot the day before they were to open for the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, there to mourn the recent death of guitarist Brian Jones and introduce his replacement, Mick Taylor.
Pete’s penchant for naming his groups with ear-catching monikers continued by starting Piblokto! The exclamation point in its name could be because “piblokto” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a condition among the Inuit that is characterized by attacks of disturbed behavior (like screaming and crying) that occur chiefly in winter.
After the band’s label, EMI, informed the group that their services were no longer required, Pete teamed up with Graham Bond. Bond, a drug and drink-addicted occult enthusiast who once made his band stand around a pentagram in order of their birth signs met his maker at 36 when he dove in front of a London subway train.
After Bond passed, Pete had short stints in two other bands (The Flying Tigers and Back to the Front), only for punk rock to come into the picture and make Brown’s jazz-rock forays obsolete. Pete was not a fan of the three-chord genre where playing instruments was sometimes secondary to looking the part. He scoffed, “The clothes came first and then the people to fit the clothes.”
Meeting Cream fanboy Martin Scorcese planted the seed that he should try his hand at writing screenplays. Pete took his advice and was one of three writers on the decidedly not critically acclaimed Felix the Cat film.
In one of his last interviews in 2022, this Renaissance man, who died on May 19th, 2023, provided an interesting scenario that sounds like the makings of a movie called Timothy Leary, Secret Acid Agent Man: “I was always suspicious of Timothy Leary. I thought he might’ve worked for the CIA, as LSD had been developed as a weapon of war.”
Photo: Cream (l-r, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton) Public domain