The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist

Eric Clapton. Photo (cc) 2009 by Andrea Young.

Eric Clapton was one of my first musical heroes. As an aspiring blues guitarist of soaring ambitions and slight talent, I played his greatest album — Derek and Dominos’ “Layla” (No. 6 on my all-time list, by the way) — over and over again, trying to figure out what he was doing on songs like “Key to the Highway” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” I saw him at the Boston Garden in 1974, one of my first rock concerts. A full-page ad for that show from one of the alt-weeklies (probably The Real Paper) was on my bedroom wall. Clapton was and is a great guitarist, and by all appearances seemed to be a humble, generous ambassador for the Black music that he championed.

But appearances can be deceiving. Throughout this year, bits and pieces of Clapton’s dark side have been emerging. He came out as an anti-vaxxer along with Van Morrison (at least we already knew he was a jerk). Old racist comments surfaced, along with his cringe-inducing I-apologize-but-not-really reactions.

Now Rolling Stone has pulled it all together (sub. req.) and added some details. A 5,000-word-plus story by David Browne reports on Clapton’s racist outbursts, focusing especially on a drunken rant he delivered at a Birmingham concert in 1976 during which he offered up some vile racial slurs and spoke favorably of a British politician named Enoch Powell, described in the article as the George Wallace of the U.K. Over the years Clapton has repeatedly apologized and blamed it on the booze; he has also repeatedly said it was no big deal and that he continues to think it was “funny.”

His current anti-vax crusade extends to sending money to a down-on-their-luck anti-vax band and playing shows in the U.S. before maskless audiences in the Deep Red South. As Browne writes:

For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?

Although it wasn’t in the Rolling Stone article, Twitter reminded me this week that Clapton admitted to raping his wife in the 1970s, back when he had serious alcohol and heroin addictions. That’s not an excuse — it’s just evidence of how low he had sunk.

Here we get to the age-old dilemma about separating the art from the artist. Clapton is a great artist. He’s also a racist anti-vaxxer who’s also admitted to sexual assault. That said, John Lennon, Miles Davis and any number of other great musicians could be pretty terrible people as well. Do we still want to listen to Clapton’s music? Is it possible to do so without thinking about Clapton the person?

Clapton has had an odd career, as he’s remained at least somewhat in the spotlight even though his last good album, “461 Ocean Boulevard,” was released nearly 50 years ago. He’s done it on the strength of a few hit singles here and there, especially the aforementioned “Tears in Heaven”; an overpraised blues album, 1994’s “From the Cradle,” that’s derivative and flat compared to “Layla”; and his live performances, which have included multiple televised benefit concerts on which his guitar wizardry has stolen the show.

Now, at 76, wealthy and successful, he’s tearing down his legacy. Maybe we can let Buddy Guy remind Clapton of how lucky he’s been. “The man can play,” he told Rolling Stone. “If somebody’s good, I don’t call you big, fat, or tall. He just bent those strings, and I guess he bent them right on time. The British exploded the blues and put it in places we didn’t put it. I wish I could have had the popularity he got. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so damn hard.”

More: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes a look at Rolling Stone under new editor Noah Shachtman and what the Clapton story says about his plans to toughen up the magazine’s coverage.

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5 thoughts on “The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist

  1. Andrew Langmead

    For your mention of televised benefit concerts. has me thinking of when my opinion of Clapton as a musician started to shift. The move The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball has a song done with him and Jeff Beck trading licks back and forth. It winds up giving a good A/B comparison of technique of both.
    My opinion of him as a person started to change when I looked at the album Layla differently. As a teen I was caught up in the emotion of the songs expressing sadness, longing, and resentment for a relationship ending. (and knowing the real life events of he and Patti Boyd that they echo) But after years it started to occur to me if I was the woman in that relationship, would I really want to get involved in that mass of a human being? And should she have the right to consider herself the aggrieved party under the circumstances?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Andrew, are you saying that the Beck-Clapton duel convinced you that Beck was better? Beck could always play faster and with more flash than anyone, but there wasn’t much substance there. He was the Buddy Rich of white British blues guitarists. l’d take Clapton over him any day. And of course there were any number of blues guitarists who were and are better than Clapton, including Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

      1. Andrew Langmead

        Maybe this is an example of why non-blinded back to back comparative testing isn’t a fair method of testing quality. It can give focus to superficial aspects.

        For the comparisons you gave: I probably think of Guy, Clapton, and Vaughn as three different eras. Each learning from what came before them. (But it also might be where it fits in my life experiences. Buddy Guy’s Chess albums were mostly from before I was born and I only heard as history. 461 Ocean Boulevard came out when I was 7 or 8. Texas Flood came out the summer before I started college.

  2. My musical taste is eclectic and it has included some of Clapton’s music, especially the Layla album. Can any lover of music not be moved by this unlikely grouping?

    ‘https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9uYu4R2nk8

    Is Clapton flawed? Oh please…in the link above everyone on that stage and in the audience, black and white, young and old, to some extent is flawed.

    On the vax question, I can only say that there are those I love deeply who are deeply wrong on that issue (and I’ve had three shots).

    Is there evidence that it is in Clapton’s nature to be intentionally cruel and dangerous? I hope not.

  3. Tom Connors

    Eric clapton is a brave man telling his truth.

    Perhaps you could do a story about how the media is being paid to support vaccines?

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