Favorite Musicians: Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton is not as flashy as Eddie Van Halen. He isn’t as loud as Kirk Hammett. He isn’t as flamboyant as whoever plays for KISS this week. But if Eric Clapton had never had his brief stint with The Yardbirds or formed Cream, none of these guys would have careers. With The Yardbirds and John Mayall, his innovation is subtle, but it’s earth-shattering just the same. That simple act of note-bending, and the fingering techniques that allow him to play lead, rhythm, and bass at the same time were all tricks he learned in the early 1960’s. They added to the thunder that made Cream as powerful as it was. (More on Cream in a later post.) But Clapton outshines his flashier colleagues for one simple reason:

No one puts more Clapton through the guitar than Clapton.

He spent the 1960’s innovating, like his friends and successors in The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. In the seventies, he got back to his roots. In the eighties, he started to sell out, only to get back to basics in the 1990’s and beyond. He spent the New Millennium playing alongside his idols and his friends: JJ Cale (who wrote “Cocaine”), BB King, and Buddy Guy. Then he really got back to basics, recording an album of songs by blues legend Robert Johnson.

I saw Clapton twice in the 80’s. The first was in 1984, when he toured for Behind the Sun. I never bought that album, but the show was fantastic. Clapton had used many of the musicians who had played with him in the 1980’s. At the time, he seemed skittish to perform anything from before his solo career other than the obligatory “Layla.” I should hope he’d play that. The song is about his then-wife, Patti.

The second was in 1986, and Clapton looked more comfortable on stage and with himself. He played “White Room,” “Badge,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” as well as the Derek and the Dominoes version of “Crossroads.” He had Phil Collins on drums, and the band sounded tight. I prefer the 1986 show. Clapton let himself be Clapton and stopped pretending he sprang into being around 1973.

Eric Clapton is one of those guys who write the soundtrack to your life. For me, those are Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel, Gilmour and Waters from Pink Floyd, and of course, the twin pairs of Jagger/Richards and Lennon/McCartney. Even though the song really doesn’t appeal to me, you can see this at every Clapton concert when he goes into “Wonderful Tonight.” You will see at least three couples get out of their seats and slow dance in the aisles.

I discovered Clapton around age 12 when “I Can’t Stand It” came out. I had no idea Clapton was white when I heard it. To me, it was just a well-constructed song. I think “I Can’t Stand It” was the first song to grab me on a technical level. There’s nothing flashy about it, but everything from the vocals to the lead guitar to the drums were pitch perfect.

But a lot of his music grabbed me after I heard it live. “I Shot the Sheriff,” which almost didn’t make it onto 461 Ocean Boulevard, is very dramatic when he performs it live, especially if he’s using a bigger band. “Let It Rain” also has more power in an arena than it does in the studio. Plus, I think Clapton’s live version of “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love” is better than Cream’s. (Sorry, Ginger Baker, but I’d still pay to see you guys play it live.)

Moreover, Clapton has always portrayed himself as a blues man, but it was only after his album Journeyman that he started honoring that part of his musical heritage. With that album, Clapton had gained enough success that he had no need to give more than token tribute to the gods of pop who’d overtaken his music in the eighties. And since that time, he’s fully immersed himself in it, starting with his album of blues covers, From the Cradle.

But if you want to know what Clapton song has the most meaning for me, I have to go with “Let It Rain,” one of his first solo hits. It’s a song that really helps me see the light at the end of a dark tunnel sometimes.