Favorite Bands: Cream

Until the mid-1960’s, rock bands tended to be four- and five-piece combos. The Beatles were four vocalists who happened to be four musicians. The Stones were a five-piece, as were the Yardbirds. And yet when former Yardbird Eric Clapton fell in with a jazz drummer named Ginger Baker, the result was Cream.

They needed a bass player. Clapton, to Baker’s horror, recruited Jack Bruce. What Clapton didn’t realize was that Baker and Bruce didn’t like each other. Does anyone wonder why the band only lasted two years?

Still, when Fresh Cream debuted in 1966, rock became intimately acquainted with its most prevalent configuration: The power trio. One guitar, one bass, and a drummer, with one of the band doing vocals. Their arrangements of blues classics such as “Spoonful” and “I’m So Glad.” “Toad,” an original song, established a time-honored trope of the hard rock era: The extended drum solo.

Cream combined the wild abandon of jazz’s bebop era with the raw power of the blues. The result would evolve into heavy metal, hard rock, and even bleed over into punk.

Two songs have always grabbed me. The first is “White Room,” which is the first Cream song I become familiar with. The plaintive wail of Clapton’s guitar and the odd lyrics combined to make a really dark vignette from the psychedelic era. The other was “Badge,” written by Clapton’s friend George Harrison. I first heard it was I was 20, and it really appealed to a wistful, love-starved young man. It’s one of the earliest songs where the bass was more than just extra time-keeping.

Cream couldn’t last, however. Clapton had his own rigid ideas about music, and the Baker-Bruce rift could not be bridged for extended periods. Nonetheless, Baker and Clapton would try again with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith. Blind Faith’s only album was interesting, but by then, Clapton had lost interest in the idea of being in a supergroup. By the end of Blind Faith’s tour, Clapton was essentially gone, spending most of his time with opening act Delaney & Bonnie.

They regrouped again a few years ago. Instead of trying to be the 20-somethings high on speed and too cocky to die that they were originally, they played to their age. Because Cream’s music is so ingrained with Chicago blues, Bruce’s voice actually sounded better at the Madison Square Garden reunion than he did in the sixties. Baker can still drum. And Clapton?

He’d already gone on to become Eric Clapton. But that would not have happened without Cream.

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.

Thursday Reviews: Clapton, The Talisman


Eric Clapton

“Clapton is God!” one enthusiastic blues fan scrawled on the wall of a London subway during Clapton’s days with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. It’s a moniker Eric Clapton was never comfortable with, and in fact, Clapton is brutally frank about himself and his shortcomings in this fascinating autobiography.

Clapton was the illegitimate son of a girl from Ripley, a country town near London. Raised by his grandparents, he thought his grandparents were his parents until his was almost 10. This threw Clapton’s identity into a tailspin, and he found solace in a guitar he talked his grandparents into buying for him. As he grew older, he began to find the guitar as his “path to God,” so to speak. Moreover, he discovered American blues, as a great many English teens did in the late fifties and early sixties. Soon, he was playing clubs and recruited into a band called the Yardbirds. Their manager viewed them as a replacement for his previous client, the Rolling Stones.

Clapton’s success grew, but so did his insecurity. After leaving Cream, he soon drifted into heroin. In an age before modern rehab, he got clean only to replace smack with alcohol. While Clapton’s post-Cream music has been truer to his soul than earlier acts, alcohol interfered with his playing and his relationships, poisoning his marriage to Patti Boyd.

But Clapton got sober. And his music became purer blues. Eventually, in his mid-fifties, Eric Clapton became something no one would ever expect: A family man.

The Talisman

Stephen King & Peter Straub

This collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub is less a horror novel than it is a fantasy epic. It concerns Jack Sawyer, a twelve-year-old boy who, with his mother, is running away from Morgan Sloat, Jack’s late father’s partner in a Hollywood talent agency. Sloat is your basic greedy bastard, and Jack’s mom, former B movie actress Lily Cavanagh, flees to a remote New Hampshire resort to get away from his pestering. She wants to die in peace.

Jack wants desperately to save his mother, and when he meets amusement park custodian Speedy Parker, he discovers his mother is not just Lily Cavanagh, Queen of the B Movies. In another world, she is Queen Laura, ruler of The Territories. Speedy shows Jack how to flip between worlds. The Territories are smaller than our world. A hundred feet there will put you half a mile from where you were originally in our world. That’s good. Because the resort where Jack is staying overlaps the Queen’s castle in The Territories. And Jack needs to get to California to a resort on the opposite coast, because that place is also where the Talisman is kept. It is the Talisman that can save Lily from cancer. Save Lily, save the dying Queen.

But he’ll have to fight his away across both countries, flipping back and forth between our world and The Territories. Along the way, he meets some very real – very human – monsters on both sides, but he also picks up some unlikely allies, such as Wolf, a sort of werewolf who adopts Jack as his “herd.” Wolfs must not eat the herd when the moon is full, he tells Jack.

The journey across the country is harrowing in both worlds. And actions in one world impact the other. World War II in The Territories was a two-week skirmish. The trek is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, though this book, 769 pages in the version I read, is a pamphlet compared to Tolkien’s epic. It also foreshadows many aspects of The Dark Tower series. (Some elements of The Dark Tower series appear in the book’s sequel, The Black House).

One thing it has in common, though, with Lord of the Rings is the interminable ending. The climactic battle takes a hundred pages, and it takes another fifty to wind down. Granted, a prolonged battle with Sloat and his otherworldly counterpart is somewhat satisfying in longer form, but there were points I just said, “Somebody kill the other guy already!”