He sits in that stuffy hotel room, sweet and sad and ravaged and ready, Joe Cocker, who skated the edge some of the others slipped off. Hendrix and Joplin and Morrison, and while they died and looked like martyrs to those who absolved them of responsibility for their fates, he survives after a fashion, looking like a fool to those for whom it wouldn't do that he didn't go down with his decade.

Such bad form, to outlive the craziness conferred on your life.

"They're saying to me now. 'People are getting tired of you bawling your head off, Joe, do something upbeat,'" he says, blinking sleep from his eyes, as the evening climbs-into the sky over Thomas Circle and it is time for the concert to begin.

He is, of course, aware of the irony imbedded in that advice, after a career in which suffering was the fulcrum of his art. But now they want to introduce Joe Cocker to the '70s, a time whose tempo has less to do with madness than with making it. He's obliging - there are songs on his new album with titles like Fun Time," and he's on the album cover all bright and epiffy in a threee-piece suit. But in person on Sunday he is wearing a blue velour shirt and yellow pants and a fuzzy brown beard and he says that, as always, "I'm a sucker for the down-type material - it's what's always felt right."

And it's what sounded right on the albums, the songs of survival and of love lost and longed for "Cry Me a River," "I Can Stand a Little Rain," The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," the sad songs planted carefully among the rockers and the scorchers.

Washington is the first stop of a cross-country tour that won't end until next month - the first tour in this country in nearly two years - and he is just a bit nervous about how many people will remember him out there, will know about the intensity and the strange spasmodic way in which it is expressed on stage, and how many instead will come because of the tales of tours past - the drunkenness and vomiting on stage, the lost voice and forgotten words, the way be rose like some great mud-stained ghost, playing like a shadow after sundown.

But this time, they're taking it easy, taking care of Cocker. "I figure, if I get myself some sleep and vitamins and stay out of the bars, I'll be all right," he says with the same rueful smile, and he is getting a little help from his friends toward that end.

They're being very careful, says his new manager Michael Lang, about the interviews and the number of people backstage at the concerts and the psychic condiments they bring with them, careful to allow for rest and positive reinforcement and to cushion the great black bruises that used to fuel the songs and seem now only to drown out the ability to cope. They've got him a new house in Santa Barbara, not like the old one where, Lang says, there were 10 bedrooms and troops of guests and no place for him to sleep.

"We take care of him and believe in him and believe in him," Lang says backstage at the Warner theater. "I think each small success ecourages him. He was too open to what was vailable, there just weren't any limits. I think now Joe's enjoying being alive for a change."

In a sense, Cocker has always done what was expected of him. Back in the beginning of the decade, it was the drinking and the drags and the drive into the dark night where artists have always had a notion that inspiration is to be found, and now, it is sipping hot lemonade and the support and encouragement of his young band whose members look about as decadent as an Iowa cornfield.

For a while, it had worked, and he was bright as a comet and they were all crazy about this strange young Englishman who sounded like an old black bluesman and scoured the country with a frenetic motley array of musicians and court jesters, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, who did a tour and made a movie and fed and were fed by the fantasy.

But he lost money on that tour that had made him so famous, and then there was the endless succession of bad deals and bad directions. "It was always the same," he says, "every time they're so hopeful and they say it's going to be great this time and then it starts falling apart. They come up to you before the concert and they say. 'How are you feeling Joe, you all right Joe?' and you know it's not you they're worried about, it's them. It's enough," says Cocker, "to drive a man to drink."

Which it did, rather spectacularly, and led to great black depressions, which returned with the melancholy frequency of a baleful old relative. "They don't really bother me" he says in the accent that still has strong ties to Sheffield, England. "I've had them since I was 16 - you lose all sense of direction, you go someplace else. My old record company used to say. 'You have a morbidity complex, Joe, you're always so down.'"

He is not down now. The goals are more modest, it is not superstar status he seeks, he says, just time to work with his new band, and learn a few chords and write a few songs of his own. "We're not on this tour to make money," he says. "We just want to show people we're back, and that we're ready to kick a-."

On stage that night, his band surrounds and supports him as if he might fall back into their arms at any moment and the intensity in his voice roars out of a daydream that might shatter at a moment's notice. But the crowd there to hear him is older, they remember, and they are affectionate and enthusiastic despite the notes that are now out of reach, the phrases that disappear into the microphone, the mumbled asides.

With the bright horns and the bouncy female chorus, it brings back memories of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but Cocker thinks it is "rather cruel" that people are describing this latest tour as an attempt at a comeback.

"It's just a natural step in the evolutionary process," he says. "You don't make an album for a while or go on tour and then when you do it has to be a 'comeback.' You do it when it seems right, that's all; it's not a commodity that comes out on some assembly line."

He is asked if there is any nostalgia in him for the days of his great, searing success and for the intensity of the times that spawned it. He smiles.

"There does seem to be some lament for that spirit afoot lately," he says. "But here we are today."

And there are yesterdays he'd just as soon forget. One night the roodies played him back the tape of a concert now safety away in the post. "I still flatly refuse to believe that was me singing," he says. "At least I'd always taken pride in my music and to listen to that voice on the tape. . ."

Cocker was sitting with Albert Grossman the other night and Grossman, who was Dylan's first manager and part of the DNA of the '60s, was raging Lear-like at old cultural icons. "He kept saying. 'F--- the bastards, they all disappear down their own manholes.'"

But Cocker feels no such bitterness, he says, no regrets, "although I do wonder, sometimes, what it was all about." He pauses, and his kind, self-effacing expression, vanishes for the moment, into memory. "Maybe, I didn't leave enough of an impact."

But then the brightens and smiles and adopts a perfect Jamaican accent. "It's like the Ras(tifarians) say, "Life go on girl.' And that's what it's all about.?