Sad news about award-winning musician and Rock Hall of Fame member Jim Capaldi: The man best known as co-founder, drummer, and lyricist of the seminal 1960s and 1970s British band Traffic died Jan. 28 following a brief bout with stomach cancer. He was only 60 years old.
The first full-fledged rock concert I ever saw, at Baltimore’s long-gone Civic Center in the early 1970s, featured Traffic. Naturally, I was excited to see Steve Winwood, the famed rock-star prodigy at the group’s center — but I recall being thoroughly knocked out by the band as a whole, and, in particular, by one of the most soulful passionate percussionists I have ever seen. The nearly four-hour performance was breathtaking from beginning to end; it remains one of my most cherished rock-and-roll memories.
After that heady experience, my devotion to Traffic and its members grew exponentially, even after the group’s disbanding. Winwood, of course, went on to have a phenomenally successful run on his own. I caught him in concert on many occasions and even had the privilege of interviewing and becoming acquainted with him in the mid-1980s. Capaldi’s solo fame did not reach Winwood’s heights, but he had no cause for complaint — he enjoyed his own solid career as a recording artist and songwriter. More importantly, he also became an activist, working with his wife, the tireless and accomplished Aninha Capaldi, in Jubilee Action, an organization that, among other child-focused service projects, seeks to help street children in Brazil.
Thanks to my acquaintance with singer/songwriter Al Stewart, I had the rare opportunity to get a glimpse into the fierce heart beating within Jim Capaldi.
The two journeymen, their hit-making heydays behind them, were doing a series of joint concert dates on the East Coast in the early summer of 1999. Whenever Al hits my neck of the woods, I try to make the effort to pay him a visit. In this instance, I trekked to see him in Annapolis, MD; New York City; and Alexandria, VA. The shows were terrific: Al was in fine form, and Capaldi, whom I had not seen since 1994 (when a re-formed Traffic opened for the Grateful Dead), was a revelation. Among the offerings of his set, which included Traffic classics and a sprightly pop/rocker he wrote with the late George Harrison (“Love’s Got a Hold on Me,” which appears on Harrison’s Brainwashed), Capaldi perfomed two songs that lit a fire within me. One, “Favela Music,” talked of street life in Brazil, where the artist shared a home with his wife. The Afro-reggae song’s middle-eight showcased Capaldi on congas in a performance that radiated with the love he felt for Brazil and its rhythms and with the concern he had for its people. He followed this energetic piece with another tonic, the emotional, Richie Havens-inspired “Elixir of Life.”
On each of the three nights I caught the shows, I chatted with Capaldi for a bit and did dinner or drinks with Al. But on the third, which happened to be the last night of the tour, Al invited me to have a late supper with a group of folks that included Capaldi.
We ended up at a lovely French bistro in Washington, DC’s Georgetown. There were six of us in all and we had a wonderful time conversing about wine, music, and a bit of politics. I was seated next to Jim, which allowed me to check up on how Steve Winwood was doing. We also got to discuss a situation involving another friend Capaldi and I had in common.
Al Stewart — you may know him from his 1970s hits “The Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” — is a quintessential gentleman, almost always gracious and polite. Jim was a gentleman too, and like Al, quite intelligent, but a bit more rough about the edges. He had a hearty laugh and a twinkle in his eye and was very warm; I imagine Jim would have been great fun in a pub. But as we talked about our mutual friend, his dander rose a bit.
This friend had married a fairly conservative, right-wing woman. I had met this woman and liked her well enough, but I never understood what brought the couple together. Neither did Jim, who recounted an episode where he witnessed the woman scolding her more progressive spouse about the company he was keeping — she apparently did not approve of him being around people who weren’t devout evangelical Christians. Jim turned to his friend and asked him if he was going to knuckle under to the dictates of his bigoted wife.
Al spoke up, not to defend the woman, but to insist that it was rude to degrade those who hold different beliefs. That was a good point, I said. But Jim stuck to his guns: That may be, he said, but you do no one favors by coddling bigots. “They’re wrong,” Jim said in a booming but raspy baritone. “We shouldn’t put up with it. Period.”
Again, Al spoke for tolerance. “You must take people’s backgrounds and experiences into consideration,” he said, noting that people need time and understanding if there is any hope of enlightening them.
Jim wasn’t having it. “Right. And in the meantime, discrimination goes on, poverty goes on, and we have to be polite to the religious nuts?”
I could see both men’s points. Al’s conciliatory tone certainly was to be applauded. It is important to deal with people as they are and keep open lines of communication. But I agreed with Jim too, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by his passion, determination, and insistence on justice, niceties be damned.
As I said, both Al and Jim are gentlemen and friends, so they agreed to disagree quite amicably. Conversation drifted to the quality of a wondrous 1975 Chateau Lafitte Rothschild. And by the end of the night, there were hugs and kisses all around as our party prepared to part ways. Al and Jim were both enthusiastic about the possibility of hitting the road together again. Alas, that was not to be. As for me, I did not get an opportunity to see Jim Capaldi again.
And now, he is gone. The passing of someone so young with such passion and fire is beyond sad — it’s bewildering. But so is life, isn’t it?
Understanding is beyond me; I can only accept what is. So rather than curse fate, I choose to focus on gratitude. Jim Capaldi was a man who created wonderful works of aural art. He worked toward making a positive difference in the world. And he stood firm in his demand for justice. And I am so thankful to have been able to experience the man, the activist, and the justice seeker behind the music.
Godspeed, Jim. Deepest condolences to Aninha, to their daughters Tabitha and Talullah, to the Traffic survivors, and to all those who mourn.
Love and hatred were walking down a heavy road.
Love was sweetly singing for she did not mind her load.
Hatred looked across and said, “You make me sick to death”!
But, love just kept on walking while the wind stole hatred’s breath.
— Jim Capaldi