Ear to the sound

Clapton Q&A by mcmentalninja
June 4, 2008, 3:21 pm
Filed under: Music, Rock | Tags: , , , ,

In 2001, Eric Clapton announced his retirement from touring. It wasn’t the first time he had turned away from the spotlight. After he quit the Yardbirds, in 1965, he did construction work for a while. In 1968, he disbanded Cream at the height of their popularity, did a stint in Blind Faith and scrapped that to tour as a sideman with Delaney and Bonnie. During each of these self-imposed exiles, Clapton found salvation, and rediscovered his purpose as a musician, by listening to the blues. “It became my comfort zone,” he says. “I wasn’t that happy at times in my childhood, but that made me happy. I figured out, on a very basic level, that music is a healing agent.”

At age fifteen, Clapton discovered Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers. His first recorded lead vocal was a 1966 cover of Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at age twenty-one. “I’ve listened to these songs my whole life,” says Clapton, who will release an album of fourteen Johnson covers in classic Chicago-blues style, Me and Mr. Johnson, on March 30th. “It’s the most enjoyable music I’ve ever listened to.” Clapton, 58, has spent the last few years — since the release of Reptile, in 2001 — playing occasional dates and raising a family. He married Melia McEnery in a surprise ceremony after the baptism of their daughter Julie. Another daughter, Ella, followed. “I’m a quiet, close-mouthed guy, and I try to be a devoted father,” says Clapton, looking relaxed in bluejeans and a black T-shirt in a midtown Manhattan studio. “My everyday life is deliberately ordinary.”

In support of Me and Mr. Johnson, Clapton will hit the road for a summer tour of the U.S. And in support of the Crossroads Centre, the addiction-rehabilitation facility he founded on the Caribbean island of Antigua in 1998, Clapton will stage the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas during the first weekend in June. “There will be guitar players that in my opinion, or in my experience, have made a difference to the world of music,” he says, throwing in names such as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Sonny Landreth, Brian May, Otis Rush and Robert Randolph. Hosting a festival like this has been Clapton’s dream ever since he first saw Chuck Berry in the 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, and he has reserved the right to sit in with whomever he pleases.

There’s the famous myth about Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads to play the blues. I feel like you may have had a similar experience.

There was a period of time where the only thing I did, the only thing that I was interested in and the only thing that motivated me was listening to and learning the blues. It was a short and intense period, around the time I joined John Mayall. Up until then I thought I was going to be an art student, then get a job or become a painter. I never thought of music as my vocation. The catalytic thing was getting thrown out of art school. It was a humiliating experience, and I was shocked into waking up, but I had nowhere to go and no idea what to do. I needed a call, and blues became it. John provided me with the perfect platform. I went to live with him for about two years, and I just studied his collection — mostly Chicago blues, but he had everything. All I did all day long was listen and learn and play. So that was my crossroads.

Did listening to the blues contribute to your academic slide? You were ditching school and getting drunk, right?

I was convinced that drinking and drugs were part of that lifestyle — that it was a necessary component to feel. The trouble with all that, as any recovering alcoholic can tell you, is that those things smother all of your feelings anyway. A lot of my growth was stunted by self-abuse, unfortunately.

What did you learn about the blues from performing with Muddy Waters?

How to have authority, and how to be a singer. There’s something about a group of musicians playing — when someone opens their mouth and starts to sing, the whole dynamic changes. Muddy was a leader because of the way he sang, and it has a lot to do with confidence and conviction. I thought that Muddy must have been a tribal chief in another life, like he descended from a king. He would walk in the room and command respect. When I’m on the floor with guys in my band and I have to sing, I have to be convinced about what I’m doing so that it commands respect.

I’ve heard Muddy was pretty hard on his band. Why was he so kind to you?

The only time I saw Muddy reprimand anybody when I was touring with him was one night when I was playing cards with some of the guys in the band. I was drinking a lot and not in full control of my senses, and he came in the room — I think he suspected that they were cheating me, and he shouted at one of them. He was really upset that they were taking advantage of me, and I felt quite moved that he had me under his wing.

How much money did you lose that night?

Quite a lot [laughs].

After George Harrison died, you expressed regret that he hadn’t played live more in his later years. Aren’t you setting yourself up for something similar?

How so?

By announcing your retirement from the road.

I’ve been retiring my whole life.

Right, but why do you set these limits on yourself?

Because I need to feel like there’s a road home. I don’t like the idea of being out there the rest of my life. I need to be able to set my goal: “OK, at the end of this tour I’m going home, shut the door and stay there.” I need something to look forward to. If I thought, “I’m gonna do this till I drop,” then I’d get so depressed. All my life I’ve been saying things like, “I’m quitting because everything is so commercial. The scene is corrupt.” It’s a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Now I have more fundamental reasons. I want to be at home with my wife and kids. That’s the only grounding thing I’ve ever had. By the end of next year I’m sure I’ll be looking forward to the next tour. Either that, or announcing my retirement [laughs]. I think George suffered from a lack of live experiences. You get in touch with some really bonding experiences onstage with other great players. I think he deprived himself of that.

Recently you’ve been playing a crazy-looking guitar. Some of it was yellow, white with squiggly lines, and a circle intersected the fingerboard. Did you design that?

That was a signature Fender Strat of mine, painted by a graffiti writer named Crash, from the Bronx. He painted it with a spray can, and Fender treated and coated it.

So you collect graffiti?

About twelve or thirteen years ago I came to New York with a movie camera. I wanted to go around and film all of the beautiful graffiti sites. Someone introduced me to Crash — he’s one of the key figures in the original movement, with Churl, Lee, Haze and Daze. It’s impossible to paint trains anymore. In order to survive and support their families, they’ve moved to canvas. I have a fairly good collection of American and English graffiti.

What’s your day like? When you wake up, do you put on music?

No. I don’t listen to music in the house, because . . . it’s funny, my kids don’t like it. My two-year-old is just now allowing me to play guitar. She puts on her ballet outfit and dances when I play. It’s beautiful. But she was against me playing guitar because I think she sensed that it was demanding more attention than she was.

After Cream’s final U.S. tour, in 1968, you went to Woodstock to visit the Band and Bob Dylan. What happened on that trip?

It was a funny feeling. I was so disenchanted with Cream and my role in it and my view of English music. Do you know that term “giving away your power”? It’s like self-help or recovery-speak, giving away your power. It’s a good term. I wanted to give my power to the Band — I went and knocked on their door, and I was ready to be a groupie. I was drooling about what they had going on: They were all equal, they all took turns and, to me, it looked like integrity. There was no hierarchy. They were all doing it from the heart. So I was completely in awe. On the same visit I went to see Bob, and he was wearing Timberlands, a checked shirt, and he was chopping wood. And I’m a drug-crazed psychedelic. The sad part was that it made me feel like what I was doing was worthless. I was ready to give up and become their road manager.

Did you get to jam at Big Pink?

No! I said, “It’d be great to play,” and you know what Robbie [Robertson] said? “We don’t jam.” It was like he was telling me off, or he was saying they were above that. God bless him. That’s the way it was. Big Pink was their clubhouse, and they worked there — they wrote. So for a guy to come over with pink trousers and a perm and say, “Let’s jam!” — they weren’t into that. Not at all.

Have you ever met a genius?

I met the genius of that outfit, who was Richard Manuel. He was a drunk like me — a real practicing alcoholic, and he’d slunk off with me. He was as close to genius as I’ve ever met in a white guy — all the other geniuses I’ve met have been black blues players, like B.B. and Buddy Guy. The reason I say they’re geniuses is that they do what they do effortlessly with a gift that is so powerful that they don’t need to engage in any kind of thinking to pursue it.

When you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo performer in 2000, you said, “I’m the messenger, and I carry the message.” That could imply that you are a conduit, putting yourself in the company of the geniuses you just mentioned.

Well . . . [long pause] Have you seen the film The Natural?


It’s a great movie. In the beginning there’s a scene where his dad is telling him how to throw the ball. The kid is obviously a gifted pitcher, but his dad says that it’s not enough to have a gift, you need to develop it. That says it all. Maybe the definition of genius is someone who recognizes he has a gift and works hard to develop it. I don’t know how I feel about that word, genius. For myself, I don’t see it. I have to work bloody hard, and my ability hasn’t taken off in a way that others have.

Is there a musical interlude of your life that you miss the most?

I have about ten or fifteen — there was a blackout. I’m trying to convince myself that regret is useless and pointless, but it’s unavoidable. My biggest regret is that good portions of my professional and private life are gone. I have no recollection. There is film footage that I do see from time to time, which I find very embarrassing. But it’s real, it’s factual, and I have to live in acceptance of it.

How do you explain the fact that you’ve cheated death so many times?

I don’t know. I’m often very confused about why I was spared, when there’s a lot of people who seem to be more deserving. When each one of those guys would go down — like Jimi, or Freddie King — I would think, “I wish it was me.” I was really annoyed and angry. And that’s a very selfish point of view. Like, “How could they do this to me?” It’s a childish way of looking at life. I honestly believe that there is a plan somewhere, and therefore I need to be respectful of what I’m doing and to enjoy being responsible for my life.

After you’re long gone, how do you think people will remember you?

I’d like to believe that I may have opened the door — like you said, about being a messenger or a conduit. I hope that I was able to let people know what had gone on before, that I was able to bring great music to the attention of people who otherwise might not know about it.

Rolling Stone


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