With the inauguration of President Trump, protests in the streets, criticisms of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and whether they should have attended a service in honor of their father (in-law) at the National Cathedral on Shabbat, former social-justice-warrior President Obama jetting off to Rancho Mirage, CA to play Porcupine Creek, the private golf course owned by billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle, I thought one small hiatus was in order from the impending political chaos that is bound to begin anew on Monday morning.
My apologies in advance for the length of the post. There’s just no getting around it.
My Bona Fides
As a kid, my exceedingly hip mother and father took me to a gymnasium at Rutgers in New Jersey to see Bob Dylan and Joan Baez perform acoustically. In high school, two exceedingly hip teachers took me to a gymnasium at Princeton to see the Grateful Dead.
In the days before cell phones and constant danger on the streets, my parents would allow me to take periodic trips into New York City to the seedy Fillmore East for about $10 to see shows like The Band and Cat Mother and the All Night News Boys (big gap in your musical catechism if you have no exposure to the latter) or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for the one masterful tour they managed to stage before self-destructing. I saw Santana with the James Gang, and the Grateful Dead with Jeff Beck. My musical hero, Gram Parsons, played there once as part of the Flying Burrito Brothers, but I hadn’t acknowledged his genius yet. I couldn’t stand Led Zeppelin at the time and missed the famous night they opened for Iron Butterfly. But perhaps worst of all was missing Derek and the Dominoes, although Duane Allman did not appear with them that night and was known to have only made two live performances with the band.
Which is a nice segue to the topic of this post. Each in our own way talks about music having died with the demise of an artist with whom we have a particular affinity. For me, it was Jerry Garcia for reasons too complex to tackle here. But I know other people whose lives have been impacted tremendously by musicians who haven’t touched me in any meaningful way. The long and short of it, though, is that these artists invariably leave this material world far too early, leave us wondering what other material they might have produced, leave a bit of hole in us because the area of our lives they occupied is irreplaceable.
That’s why I have to mark the announcement and upcoming farewell concerts of Eric Clapton with a confusing mixture of elation and sadness. After all the trials and tribulations of that man’s personal life (though he has lived a rich one, too), I guess if he’s ready to hang up that Fender, who are we to argue? He gets to do it on his terms. A kid from the south of England, he is largely responsible for reintroducing American blues music to popular culture, often citing Robert Johnson as his greatest influence.
The Yardbirds and Cream
Think about this: he joined the Yardbirds in 1963. When they had their first pop hit, “For Your Love”, he quit because he thought they were going to remain a blues band. He recommended his friend, Jimmy Page, to replace him, who refused out of loyalty to Clapton. Their mutual friend, Jeff Beck, took the gig. He joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in 1965 and left in 1966, having been invited by his friend, drummer Ginger Baker to join bassist Jack Bruce in a band called Cream. Clapton was unknown in the US at that time and toured America for the first time in 1967 to support a record called Disraeli Gears — the same year of Sgt. Pepper, Pink Floyd’s debut album, the Doors’ first album, Axis: Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix, Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones. But a song from that Cream album — “Sunshine of Your Love” — somehow managed to stand out from that ridiculous crowd and became immortal.
Think about this: Cream was a functioning rock band from 1966 until they played their final gig at The Forum in LA in 1968. The three original members of Cream reunited in 2005 and played 4 shows at Royal Albert Hall and 3 at Madison Square Garden. There are no backup singers, no backup musicians. The performances are astoundingly good, the music sounds as timeless as ever: Robert Johnson wrote “Crossroads” in 1937 and recorded it at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Eric Clapton turns it into a timeless rock and roller, just as Jack Bruce’s vocal on “Spoonful” written by Howlin’ Wolf is unique, familiar and lyrically dangerous. Do yourself a favor and watch one of those Royal Albert Hall shows. They can’t be repeated because Jack Bruce passed in 2014.
Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes
So, Cream blows up and Clapton finds himself in The World’s First Super Group: Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. In 1969, they play their first concert in front of 100,000 fans in Hyde Park (There is a video of this performance on YouTube. It is hysterically funny in the context of today’s concert scene. The group is set up on a very small platform in the park. There is a very modest bank of amps and electronics into which they are plugged. I have no idea how this sound could have been projected beyond a small distance into the park. There is no security around the platform — no fencing, no personnel, no nothing. There is no hint of any rock n’ roll celebrity. Clapton stands behind Winwood the entire concert, sheepishly taking an occasional solo.) The band stays together for seven months, but it’s easy to forget in the flash they were together how great some of the original compositions were, “In the Presence of the Lord”, “Can’t Find My Way Home”.
Clapton’s had it with the stardom thing for a bit. He comes to America and becomes a supporting member of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends who had opened for Blind Faith, but was a pretty obscure band. He played with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, recorded “After Midnight” by JJ Cale, a modest Oklahoma singer/songwriter, with whom he would develop a life-long friendship, and helped George Harrison with “All Things Must Pass” which completely changed the perception of him as a songwriter.
He was heavily influenced at this time The Band’s Music From Big Pink. Not the material itself, but the notion of a band a true ensemble where there was no dominant “star” and every musician had the opportunity to be featured. He assembled a new band called Del and the Dynamos, Del being an affectionate nickname given Eric by a fellow musician. Del and Eric were combined into Derek, and Derek and the Dominoes was born. Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, three pretty obscure players, were included.
Duane Allman was added to the band as an afterthought. Tom Dowd, who had produced Disraeli Gears and was producing this record, took Clapton to an Allman Bros. concert and the two jammed into the night. Derek and the Dominoes seemed star-crossed, lovesick and way too attracted to heroin. Eight days after recording “Little Wing” as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Clapton found out he had died. Clapton also had become infatuated with Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend, George Harrison. He wrote her, perhaps, the quintessential “unrequited love” song in rock, “Layla”, the title coming from a Persian poem. Allman left when the record was finished and planned to return when a second album was ready. But he died in a motorcycle accident in 1971 at 24 years of age.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, despite the insanity associated with its recording, was a two album set when it was released and is generally considered a chaotic, drug-fueled masterpiece, summarized by the lyric wailed in “Bell Bottom Blues”: “Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?/Do you want to see me beg you to take me back?”
He disappears from the scene after Layla, devastated no doubt by the untimely deaths of Hendrix and Allman. He does win over Patti Boyd and busts up his best friend’s marriage. 461 Ocean Blvd. shows up in 1974 and Clapton does it again. He releases a song called “I Shot the Sheriff”, it becomes his first #1 hit and introduces the world outside Jamaica to reggae and a songwriter named Bob Marley. Of course, Marley’s life was never the same. In 1976, he released a second composition by JJ Cale, “Cocaine”, and music aficionados started exploring the Cale catalog to see what Clapton sees.
Adjusting to MTV
For me, The 80’s are a mess. He’s playing with Phil Collins and Roger Waters, licenses “After Midnight” to Michelob Beer, appears with Tina Turner and Chaka Kahn. He’s just trying way too hard to be relevant to this new thing called MTV, seems to be abandoning his authenticity and wants to be a “rock star” again.
But then the pain of life that always made Clapton the best and most authentic white bluesman hits him in waves. In 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughn who whom Clapton was touring is killed in a chopper accident. The following year, his four-year-old son, Conor, falls from a Manhattan apartment window and Eric takes him home to Surrey for his funeral. He writes the song “Tears in Heaven” with Will Jennings, the writing partner of his life-long friend, Steve Winwood, and it seems to recalibrate the arc of his career. He receives 6 Grammy awards for the song and embarks on a series of tribute and benefit performances.
He held five festivals to benefit the Crossroads Centre, a drug treatment center in Antigua, he founded. He organized the Concert for George, a beautiful celebration of the life of his friend, George Harrison, held at Royal Albert Hall.
In 2014, Clapton confirmed that he was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy which causes stabbing, burning and tingling pain in the nerves of the arms and legs, and he would have to retire from active touring.
More recently, he played two nights at Madison Square Garden to celebrate his 70th birthday, followed by seven nights’ residency at Royal Albert Hall. He has played more shows at The Garden than any other venue in the US: 45 concerts. Undoubtedly, Royal Albert Hall must be considered his home venue: in 1990/1991 alone, he played 42 concerts in that beautiful hall. Though not having quite the attachment with The Forum in Los Angeles, it was the site of the final concert by Cream in 1968 and marked (he said without the slightest bit of local pride) several performances that cemented Clapton’s late-blooming musical relationship with contemporary blues in Austin. He toured with Stevie Ray Vaughn and featured Doyle Bramhall in his own band. He was often seen in town, mostly in the company of Jimmie, Stevie Ray’s brother, from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
He has announced an exceedingly brief retirement tour: two nights at Madison Square Garden on March 19 and 20; two nights at The Forum on March 25 and 26; and three nights at Royal Albert Hall in May. His special guests will be Jimmie Vaughn and Gary Clark, Jr., two of Austin’s best blues guitarists. If you find yourself in America or London, this is something not to be missed.
Clapton led the way in bringing back the blues and delivering some measure of fame and recognition to a generation of African American pioneers who couldn’t get their music played; he helped birth the form of psychedelic rock; he introduced us to an ordinary guy from Oklahoma who captured an uncomplicated, twangy country-rock sound; many of us heard reggae and Bob Marley for the first time thanks to him; and he was unafraid to promote players like Jimi, Stevie Ray and Gary Clark who he knew loved the blues as much as he did and maybe, on a very unusual night, could outplay him, too.
This is truly the generational end of an era and ought to be marked as such. We can always talk politics.