Thursday, September 24, 2009

Eric Clapton

On my last day of attending school in my Matric year (1976) at Paul Roos Gymnasium we enacted one last schoolboy ritual. Each Matric boy wore a white shirt covered in all kinds of illustrations and slogans, and all his mates and teachers were asked to autograph the shirt in the available blank spaces. One boy asked his artistic mate to draw a huge image of Jimi Hendrix's head, based on the photograph on the cover of the I Don't Live Today greatest hits album. Jimi had been long dead by that time, but he was still kind of hip and happening. In my case I decided to put my own artistic talents to use and created a smaller image of a bearded Eric Clapton somewhere on the shirt. This drawing was based n a photograph of Clapton at the time of his "comeback" Rainbow concerts in 1973.

Clapton was not then particularly hip, or cool. He was seen as just another pop artist who happened to play guitar and did not feature in the same cosmic league as Jimi Hendrix (partly because Clapton was still alive) or even Led Zeppelin, Free or any of the prog rock bands then favoured by the hip boys in school. I knew this, of course, and my act of putting Clapton on my shirt was more of an anti-cool gesture, a way of avoiding the obvious, than an attempt to be hip, because I was in fact terminally unhip, at least according to the definition applied amongst my peers.

By 1976 Clapton was a pop star of sorts, since I Shot The Sheriff off 461 Ocean Boulevard was a massive hit in 1974, and with subsequent releases, and constant touring. I knew a bit about his back story, the 'Clapton Is God' mythology and in particular his tenure with Cream whose later live recordings were compiled in an album titled Cream's Cream Live that I played until the grooves wore out. The pop music stuff seemed very lightweight compared to the heavy blues of Cream and sounded like an unfortunate regression for a musician who once left The Yardbirds because their music was becoming too commercial.

Clapton's hit singles were a staple of Radio 5, even in its disco incarnation, because they were so pleasantly lightweight they could fit right in with the rest of the play list. The guitar hero was absent from the pop stuff even if he were still playing a lot of guitar on his live shows, which we did not see. The thing is: I read that Eric Clapton had wanted to become so much part of an ensemble and so unobtrusive that the other guitar players in his band, took the solos. For the star of the show this approach, if true, seemed to take being self-effacing to ridiculous levels especially when most of the audience probably came simply to hear God take a solo. Clapton looked kind of scruffy, with his scraggly beard and semi-Cowboy cool outfits, which were probably meant to be an indication of his commitment to some kind of roots somewhere else than mod or psychedelia. It was well known that he had been a heroin addict and it was also common place that he now drank a lot, though he most likely was not yet tagged an alcoholic.

Lay Down, Sally and Cocaine were the songs off Slowhand that caught my attention and made me listen with new interest. Lay Down, Sally was a tribute, I thought, to the Tulsa sound of J J Cale and Cocaine latter was a cover of a J J Cale song. Both were laid back and did not rock too hard, but were at least more compelling than the pop tunes on this album and the preceding albums.

The first time I really sat up and took notice of Clapton's contemporary work, though, was with the release of Backless, because a number of the tracks, specifically blues tracks, were played on the radio and I think it was The Hobnailed Tacky Show on Radio Good Hope that was the main exposure for these tracks. Again, the blues intensity was not quite there, but it was interesting to hear Clapton's latter day take on the blues, since I had by then bought some Decca albums showcasing songs from a variety of blues artists, with Eric Clapton somewhere in the backing band, playing authentic blues. There he sounded like the real deal: intense, inventive, and emotional. The blues on Backless were nice, but on repeated listening, that was all they were, nice. I guess the best one could say for them was that Clapton kept the blues alive in a way, kept going back to those roots even when he was ploughing a very commercial furrow, and was trying to make the modern audience aware of where it all came from.

I never bought any of these albums at the time they were released, mostly because I did not buy many contemporary albums in the first place, and specifically because Clapton's pop stuff did not appeal on the whole. I bought 461 Ocean Boulevard as a CD album somewhere in the early years of the 21st century and a budget re0issue of Slowhand in 2009. My mate Emil Kolbe bought a Japanese version of Backless on his travels as air steward and left the album, along with a bunch of other records, at my apartment for a long time while he was working in the then Transvaal, and because I could listen to it for free I never wanted to buy it.

At the time I may well have bought Just One Night (the 1979 live double album) because I liked live albums, it had his hits and a lot of blues but I refrained from buying it mostly because I did not like tone of his Stratocaster on the blues numbers. It sounded too thin and piercing, and not at all like the smooth, roaring humbucking tone of the Les Paul or SG he used in the Cream days.

I was however buying all the Cream albums I could lay my hands on, of which Disraeli Gears was the first and most revelatory, and owned a couple of compilations of John Mayall songs featuring Clapton, and a 'best of' compilation of Yardbirds tracks, with Clapton's utterly astonishing and blistering solo on Ain't Got You.. These were the mother lode. Eric was young, full of blues righteousness and power and he was playing in smaller combos and in a context where his guitar could shine. His technique may well have improved over the years but there is nothing like the gutsiness and energy he displayed with The Yardbirds, John Mayall or Cream. The story is, on hearing the music of The Band and being tired of the super group hype and tensions of Cream and particularly Blind Faith, Clapton wanted to move away from performances based on technical virtuosity and extended jams and get back to playing songs in a group where he would be just one more musician, but to my mind this also meant that he gave up a lot of his power and energy, although these strengths would have waned with time anyway. and went on a musical journey that was mostly just treading water even if his career remained commercially very successful.

The question is: where does the weight of Clapton's best work lie? To my mind it is n his performances, recorded and live, with The Yardbirds, Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, and then much later with the From the Cradle and Me & Mr Johnson and Sessions for Robert J albums where he returned to almost pure blues. If Eric Clapton started out as a purist blues guitarist, it is only fitting at the other end of his career, that he should return to what he probably does best.

Unplugged was the first contemporary Clapton album I ever bought, mostly because of the great acoustic version of Layla, and because I noticed that there was a good deal of blues on it over and above the versions of more recent pop hits. The late Eighties albums where Clapton was aided and abetted by his mate Phil Collins were successful in the market place, with their glossy production values, but really left me cold, as the Seventies stuff, for all their relative shallowness, was still superior in feel and emotional value, given that they were recorded by the alcoholic Clapton, desperate and slightly unfocused, and that the Eighties Eric Clapton was a man more or less free from the demon alcohol, more intent on rebuilding family life, and the good things money brings, than the psychologically down and out character of the previous decade.

The easy, swinging versions of the recent pop tunes, without the elaborate trappings of contemporary production values, enhanced the songs because the tunes were highlighted and Clapton's often rather limited voice does not have to strain. This album has more blues tunes than the standard Clapton album of the time, and they are also taken at a relaxed pace, that brings to mind the string bands of the Thirties such as the Mississippi Sheiks who were from blues roots but also had a strong element of pure entertainment. These are not truly the kind of blues song where the performer has to dig deep into his memory and experience; they are the kind of songs you play at Saturday night fish fries to get the people into a good mood and to encourage them to dance. It is perhaps not surprising that the album sold so well. It not only had all these excellent performances but also a great deal more authenticity than the pop product. This must have been what Clapton had really wanted to sound like back in the late Sixties, after the extravagance of Cream and Blind Faith.

Not long after I finally bought Layla and other love songs, the Derek and the Dominoes classic with which Eric Clapton really made his mark as individual singer and songwriter, albeit then still convincingly a bluesman. This album is the last hurrah, barring the Live at the Fillmore East set, of Clapton as all out virtuoso guitar hero. After this he preferred to be one more guitarist in his own band, eschewed the fierceness of his youth, went down into the heroin depression and decided that laid back was the new way forward. But Layla is astonishing in concept and playing, and it is as a great a testament to Duane Allman, whose contemporary albums with the Allman Brothers are also incredible examples of how white guys can take blues based guitar playing to different levels, as it is a testament to the power and fury that could be Eric Clapton when he had his mojo working.

Chris Prior, the Rock Professor of Radio 5, played quite a few tunes off Layla over the years, and I had heard some of the tracks in other contexts, but I was nevertheless surprised and enthralled by the songs on this album and the intensity of the playing. It was a toss-up whether I liked the electric Layla or the acoustic Layla better; I certainly very much liked the fire power of the Dominoes rhythm section behind the rampant Clapton and Allman.

Circa 2002 I bought the double CD set of Derek and the Dominoes Live at the Fillmore East, an extended version of the earlier double LP release, which features just the basic quartet with Duane Allman nowhere in sight. The set features several very long jams on the songs from Layla and if one cannot get enough of Clapton's guitar playing, it is heaven, though there seems to be a marked contrast between this Clapton and the Clapton who played with Cream, in that the Derek version just seems to jam somewhat aimlessly, and extends the tunes without much point, where the Cream Clapton seemed more focussed in his playing, somehow more concise and playing with some kind of goal in mind. The later version just seems to keep on playing because he does not how to stop (as Stevie Ray Vaughn once explained away his own lengthy excursions) and does not really know how to make his jamming interesting anymore. Too much of a god thing, I guess.

Live at the Fillmore East gets to be too much after a while, and maybe it was better when you were there and were on drugs. I much prefer the far harder rocking live sets of Cream where all three musicians are worth listening to and you do not have to endure just extended guitar solos.

The second contemporary Clapton release I bought was From The Cradle in 1994 where Clapton not only returned to electric guitar but made a hard rocking blues album of some of his favourite tunes, apparently recorded live in the studio, almost the way the way they made them back in the day. There was such a great striving to achieve authenticity that the band tried to reproduce even some vocal asides from the source records, a trick some reviewers thought a bit pretentious and naff coming from a bunch of mostly white guys and some black dudes who were far too young to have come up the blues way. Be that as it may, it was a very loud album, perhaps the loudest blues album I have ever heard, the playing was full of enthusiasm and good humour and the overall result was thorough enjoyment even if some of the songs were a tad over familiar. These performances were the natural successors to Mayall and Cream, as if the intervening 25 odd years had never happened. Apparently From The Cradle also sold incredibly well, making Clapton the most successful white blues man since Stevie Ray Vaughan. Obviously there is a weird irony there.

The next fed studio albums did not interest me. A mate had a copy of Pilgrim, the follow up to From The Cradle, a weird electronics based moody album of severe introspection that was the polar opposite the energised blues performances of the preceding album, and I listened to it a couple of times and decided that it was not for me. The same kind of vibe hung over the next big mainstream project, Reptile, which was one more exercise in Clapton's journey to MOR-mastery and by no means essential.

The best deals were the series of blues albums that started with Riding With The King, a joyous romp of an album with B B King, and the Robert Johnson songbook albums, Me & Mr Johnson and Sessions for Robert J. Clapton has had a long-time admiration of King and they have been friends since the late Sixties, yet never got it together to do this kind of collaboration of equals until very late in King's life. It is still very enjoyable to listen to two past masters doing what they do best in a happy, relaxed mood, playing and singing mostly other people's songs but having fun because they do not have to prove anything in particular. King's singing and Clapton's guitar make excellent companions, though B B is no slouch at the guitar and Clapton's vocals work out quite well too.

Some 10 years later Clapton recorded a similar type of album (The Road To Ensenada) with his mate from Tulsa, J J Cale, who gave Clapton at least two big hits in After Midnight and Cocaine, and was an influence on the laid back Clapton of the Seventies. This team does not do very well, too much laid back, too little fire. Pleasant enough, but also unnecessary. Interesting that Clapton can do this sort of thing only in the twilight of his own career. It might have been a very different thing if the two had combined their talents back when the Tulsa style was still kind of new to the mainstream.

Anyhow, Clapton had always professed a great deal of awe for the music of Robert Johnson, and has been an avid admirer ever since he bought the King of the Delta Blues Singers album, the record that inspired a whole generation of white blues musicians, and he apparently once had a goal of sorts to record at least one Johnson song per album, the blues quota of his recordings. It took Clapton a long time to get around to doing a whole album of Johnson songs, and then did two for good measure.

I bought Me & Mr Johnson the moment I saw it in my local CD store and played it to death, probably far more than From The Cradle, because it is just so excellent. Once again there is an attempt to bring an authenticity to the performances and there is perhaps too much respect for the material , though there is also a much more modern approach to playing Johnson's songs than just a slavish copying. The fact that Clapton has to have band arrangements already make a difference to the way the songs are performed and anyone who is familiar with Robert Johnson's recordings of these songs may feel that Clapton and the guys are bringing too much of a pop sheen to the material and has removed most of the blues power, and there is certainly a lack of the anguish Johnson brings to his own songs, but the strengths of the set are that the band is respectful of their material. They make it their own without messing everything up, or dumbing the blues down.

The Sessions for Robert J album consists of a CD of tracks and a DVD of the same performances, perhaps a tad superfluous, but I guess the DVD is the unique selling proposition of what may well have been a less than commercial product given that it followed on the heels of a very similar offering. The performances are once again excellent and good entertainment, and the visuals do add some understanding of how this kind of band operates in the studio, although the performances would have been rehearsed for the video shoot and are not simply spontaneous acts of creativity.

Then I made a kind of mistake and bought the One More Rider, One More Car double CD of live performances from some world tour, mostly because it was cheap, and partly because I thought it would be fun. Sadly, this was not the case. Clapton plays with is big touring band, not the tight combos of the blues recordings, and the big arrangements and general feel of pandering to MOR tastes, diffuses the effect and power of the music. One must probably laud Clapton for not simply retreading standards and hits, but the weird version of the venerable blues, Going Down Slow, is not interesting enough to make me like it despite the fact that the band messes around with a classic, and Eric does not remotely sound like somehow who is really at the end of his life and reminisces about the good times he's had. He just sounds lethargic and at death's door. I had consciously avoided buying the 24 Nights double set of the annual Albert Hall concerts Clapton put on during the Nineties exactly because I had heard some of the songs, and they sounded bloated, over arranged and lacking in emotional power, and the One More Rider, One More Car set of performances is really just that kind of showbiz sham again. Lots of flesh, little life.

In May 2005 Cream reformed for a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. I happened to be in the UK and Europe at the time, and had I known, I would have made some attempt to see one of the shows, even if tickets did sell out in the space of two hours. It was not exactly the end of my life not to have gone to the reunion shows but I was kind of gutted that I was there at the same time, yet ignorant of this momentous happening. I made up for this lack by buying the double DVD and double CD sets of those gigs. Boy, was I sorry! Never mind all the good, proper reasons for the reunion given by all concerned, I can only see it as one last chance to milk the Cream cash cow, for on the evidence of the music released, there was absolutely no artistic or creative merit behind the idea or execution. Sure, the three guys are virtuosos on their respective instruments, and have been for years, and the music made by the young Cream represents some of the best rock music, studio executed or improvised on stage, ever to be released, but forty years later that spark was gone.

The opening chords of I'm So Glad does send a thrill of anticipatory excitement down the spine and the performance is not bad at all, but once the band goes to the root of the Cream's more rock oriented repertoire it is soon apparent that the guys most certainly do not have the fire or exact ability they had in their heyday, and in truth they sound like just another blues band with middle aged men who have the chops but not the passion. This is one set where I really felt that Eric Clapton did play too many solos, and none of them inspiring, even if technically proficient. Cream did not return undiminished in power; the group returned as a shell of what it once had been, and it was not good. I never thought a Cream live set could be boring, but this one is.

Some years before I bought a DVD of a John Mayall concert celebrating his 70th birthday and featuring musicians he'd played with in the past, including Mick Taylor, but no Peter Green ,and Eric Clapton who is almost a co-headliner. Here Clapton plays blues and plays them well although even this performance is not particularly energetic or energising. He is proficient and gets the job done, and a couple of times his duelling with Mayall's regular guitar player sets the room on fire, but there is still too much of a sense of a musician going through the motions on material he knows too well to be excited about anymore.

Somewhere in the Eighties I bought a little book by John Pidgeon, a relatively simplified biography of Eric Clapton up to the Rainbow "comeback" concerts, and some years after that I bought Ray Coleman's proper biography called Survivor, and last year I bought Clapton's autobiography, and I have also read various other pieces about him. The basic life story is familiar and when I bought the autobiography I thought I would be getting some deeper insight into the musician and the music he created, and not simply the personal stuff about his addictions, Patti Harrison, the death of his son, and the like, but I was somewhat disappointed. Clapton tells us a lot of personal details that other authors may have missed, and is quite frank about his various addictions, but the prose is extremely matter of fact and simple -- almost as if he did in fact write it all himself -- and therefore often boring, and there is far too little about his music, how certain albums were made, and the artistic struggles one faces when writing and recording music. Maybe it all was so easy for him, and he claims that he hardly remembers anything from the Seventies, that none of these things made much of an impact, but still. It is very nice of Eric to share tales of happy domesticity, and even of his affairs, but these are not what interests or intrigues me. I want to know how Cream recorded, what the hell happened with Blind Faith, and so on.

I've recently bought a DVD telling the Cream story, a quick cash in on the heels of the Royal Albert Hall concerts of 2005, and in it one sees a very relaxed Clapton telling a bit of the story, with further snippets of interviews with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who is the least politically correct and funniest of the three in his continual outrage and general pissed off-ness, and Clapton now comes across as a serious senior statesman of rock and blues who has nothing left to prove and can afford to be magnanimous towards everybody, almost in the showbiz manner of loving everyone and not mentioning anything unpleasant. This may be good manner but is rather bland and simply retreads the clich├ęs already so well publicized.

Interesting thing about this history is that it has a number of clips of Cream's televised performances for European television, and one of British TV, and in common with the way Cream's Farewell Concert (1968) was filmed by Tony Palmer, the cameraman seems to avoid Clapton as much as possible, as if direct instructions had been given. Even when Clapton delivers a major solo, one has to look at Jack Bruce or Ginger Baker, which is not uninteresting, though Palmer tends to focus more on Bruce's face than on visuals of his bass playing, and it just seems outrageous that the filmmaker does not have the simple intelligence to realise that one would like to see how the guitarist plays his solo, especially when it is a virtuoso guitarist, and not look at the drummer when the guitarist is taking a solo flight of no mean proportions. Maybe it was meant to be art, but with hindsight it is just disgracefully stupid.

Just as my favourite Dylan albums are fixtures on my iPod, the Cream albums are as important to me and remain favourites and have been such for more than thirty years. If pushed to pick one (and if it cannot be a compilation), it would probably have to be Disraeli Gears because it gives the best overview of the band's strengths and of Clapton's role in the group, and has an excellent collection of songs. From Clapton's solo career, I think the Mr & Mr Johnson album would be the choice because of the relaxed authority with which he and the musicians tackle these blues standards from one of the great blues songbooks.

Eric Clapton does deserve all the accolades he's received over the length of his career. He's made some astonishing guitar records, he opened my eyes to how lyrical a blues based guitar solo can be and how pure, simple emotional power can drive a song into a different stratosphere. Clapton was the stereotypical guitar legend and though there have been many cult guitarists since he broke free of the constraints of white music and blues so many year ago, there have been none who have equalled or surpassed him in respect of his huge impact. Of course one can debate this topic for years on end, and everyone will have their favourites and their motivations, but to me Eric Clapton at his peak is the most godlike of all of them. I defy anyone to listen to the live version of Sleepy Time Time from Live Cream and not believe that this man could make a guitar go places with your heart and soul no-one else can. It is fashionable to compare guitar players with horn players, and if this is the case, I suggest that Eric Clapton channelled Lester Young when he played that solo. I used to sing along to the solo, it was that wonderful and uplifting and melodious. And if you can sing along to a guitar solo and be entranced and happy at the same time , the guitarist must be a deity.













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