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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Album #6: Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’

There are three albums on my list that are what you might call black-swan events — they are so much better than anything else the performer recorded that all you can do is gape in awe. One of them is Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (No. 12). Another is yet to come.

Today’s entry is Eric Clapton’s greatest moment as a recording artist. “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” is better than what he did with Cream and, sadly, far better than anything from his long, mostly disappointing solo career. Released in 1970, “Layla” is perhaps the ultimate guitar album. Clapton has never sounded better, pushed to unequaled heights by guest guitarist Duane Allman, who contributes stinging slide guitar. Solos are double- and triple-tracked; it can be hard to tell who’s playing what.

Clapton has always been obsessed with the blues, and he is at his best on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Key to the Highway” and especially “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” — all of which are grounded in an authenticity that’s utterly lacking from his derivative 1994 all-blues album, “From the Cradle.”

The title song, with its famous piano coda by drummer Jim Gordon (or perhaps, as I learned in researching this post, Rita Coolidge), is considered by most observers to be the best on the album. But it’s suffered from overexposure during the past 50 years, and I actually prefer some of the rave-ups co-written by Clapton and organist Bobby Whitlock. Songs like “Anyday,” “Keep on Growing,” “Tell the Truth” and “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” are so drenched in guitar heroics by Clapton and Allman that you feel spent just listening to them.

The vocals, by Clapton and Whitlock, are on one level some of the worst ever committed to tape; on another level, though, they add to the feeling of over-the-top chaos that pervades the entire album and makes it so exciting to listen to. Unfortunately, though the original vinyl struck me as bright and well-produced (by Tom Dowd), the CD I later bought and now the Spotify version sound muddy, even though it’s supposedly been remastered. The crystalline sound I remember from my teen years doesn’t quite come through.

“Layla” ranks a little lower here than it did on my Facebook list because the idea on Facebook was to list the albums that most influenced your music tastes. Here I am simply ranking my favorites — and as outstanding as “Layla” is, I’ve got five I like more.

Derek and Dominos only recorded one album and came to a bad end. Whitlock, like Clapton, is still with us and continues to work. But Allman died in a motorcycle accident. Bassist Carl Radle died from alcohol and drug abuse. Gordon, a terrific drummer, murdered his mother during a psychotic episode and was sentenced to life in prison.

For one brief moment, though, they made magic together.

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