I don’t like Eric Clapton. I didn’t live through the late sixties, when his fast-fretted work with Cream got people tagging “Clapton is God” on the walls of the London Underground, and I wasn’t around in 1970 for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. I’d like to say that some things are best experienced in their time and place, but that’s really not true; the bulk of my Springsteen collection suggests otherwise, as does Clapton’s continued popularity with people my age and younger.
This wasn’t always the case. As a kid just learning how to play the guitar, I idolized Clapton. Along with some family friends, my parents and I saw him play the Superdome in New Orleans in 1997, and I waxed rhapsodic about the twenty-minute jam on “Sunshine of Your Love.” It’s been ages since I’ve actually sat down and listened to Eric Clapton play the guitar, and ages still since I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard. Years after that 1997 concert, I formulated some kind of critique along the argument that Clapton had been playing “the blues” on a tour sponsored by Lexus. Had I known my New Orleans geography a bit better, I might have also added that he was doing so a few blocks from the Calliope projects, the Bienville projects, and the former site of Storyville. Though I’ve never had any kind of special devotion to–or, truth be told, appreciation of–the blues, it was easy in the extreme to write Clapton off as a hypocrite or an opportunist or a cultural imperialist.
Those might be legitimate arguments, but they were never really at the seat of my problem with Clapton. In fact, my reasons for disliking him are mostly out of his control, and are the result of roles assigned to him from the outside. Simply put, it seems to me that Clapton is afforded a certain level of nobility because he plays the blues (or, sure, “blooze”). In the minds of most casual music fans, to play the blues is to exhibit a certain amount of soul or emotional nakedness. The sound functions as a kind of shorthand for authenticity, and when someone like Clapton lurches into a prolonged solo, his timbre convinces us that he’s revealing something of himself to us. Which is no more true than saying that all rap music is about guns and girls. Clapton is a prodigiously talented guitarist, to be sure, and his technical fretwork is something to behold. And while I can’t presume to know the contents of his heart (much less what percentage of it might be found coming through his amps), it seems to me that talent of any sort is easy to hide behind. This perception is compounded by writers and fans who cling to the admittedly great work he did fifty years ago with Cream, people who understanding of what music can be was genuinely changed by the rocketfire speed of Clapton’s frethand, but who, for whatever reason, have trouble believing that music might have progressed even further. Clapton’s late style–what we might call “Significant Blues”–seems to be viewed as the logical end of the guitar. Tom Verlaine might argue otherwise.
So it’s fair to say that there are a few stumbling blocks on the path that connects me to any kind of admiration of Eric Clapton. Which is silly, because pretending as though Clapton is anything but a massively important figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll is silly. But–and this is where I catch my foot–he’s not the only massively important figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, nor are he and his style the only important occurrences in the history of the electric guitar. Clapton is at the center of such polarizing forces that forming any kind of nuanced opinion on him is exceedingly difficult. So, with such a crowded buffet at my feet, why bother sampling?
Because one of my best friends came to visit me in Grand Rapids, bought a copy of Blind Faith at Vertigo, and left it at my house. Four years later, here we are.
Blind Faith–which consisted of Clapton, Cream’s Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and Rick Grech–formed weeks after the dissolution of Clapton and Baker’s former group. They put together one six-song album, toured Northern Europe and the U.S., made millions of dollars, and fell apart under immense artistic and commercial pressure. To my ears, it’s the best thing that Clapton’s ever done.
Robert Christgau suggests that Winwood curtails Clapton’s excesses here–or, rather, that his own wonkery eclipses his bandmate’s. But with the exception of “Sea of Joy”’s melodramatic chorus and the proggy jaunts in “Do What You Like,” I found Blind Faith to be a fairly tasteful affair. Opener “Had to Cry Today” is built on a primitive groove, with the group sounding like early Black Sabbath with just a bit of pep. They largely avoid the freaky wig-outs you might expect from a late-sixties supergroup, and instead jam on a few loose numbers, cruising with twin guitars that at times predict Thin Lizzy. Clapton frequently puts his electric guitar aside in favor of webby acoustic picking. They do it best on Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord,” where, with the song’s high spiritual tendencies and Winwood’s high wail approximating Richard Manuel, Blind Faith sound more like The Band than they do Cream or Traffic. Even Grech’s knotty bass solo–and Baker’s unending answer–in “Do What You Like” skip past virtuosity on their way to taste, with the group phasing in and out of the mix, chanting the title phrase.
But what’s most incredible about Blind Faith, and about the careers of its two principles, is that Clapton was twenty-three when it was recorded, and Winwood only twenty. Both had already been superstars for years, with Winwood no younger than his youngest fans. You had to have imagined that that could have been you up on the stage, watching them play as you felt yourself being tugged into adulthood. You had to have figured that what was happening on that stage was as good as it could be.