Rolling Stone #200: Eric Clapton

E.C.’s Here Again: ‘There’s Always Someone Faster’

Eric Clapton is spending a quiet evening in a moderately priced Washington D.C. hotel suite, playing backgammon with Pattie Harrison, his companion of several years.

Taking time out from listening to a cassette of the previous night’s show, he asks Pattie if she’s hungry.

She shuffles a few pieces across the board. “A little.”

“Room service is so fucking expensive,” Clapton groans. “Let’s call out for some pizza.”

So goes another typical moment  on this, Eric Clapton’s acclaimed second American tour. “Somehow we got a little mixed up,” second guitarist George Terry explains later. “We cut ‘461 Ocean Boulevard,’ then went right on a tour of the biggest arenas and stadiums we could find. Eric was nervous and rusty onstage. Here was the greatest rock guitarist, right, and he wasn’t playing any solos.

“Now we’re playing smaller halls and he’s playing the best guitar he’s ever played.”

The proud grin on Clapton’s face as he listens to his own performance does little to contradict Terry’s boasts. With ‘461 Ocean Boulevard,’ ‘There’s One in Every Crowd’ and ‘E.C. Was Here’ behind him, Clapton has finally managed to make up the ground he lost during a three year (1971-74) heroin addiction, when he picked up his guitar only “once or twice.”

Instead of the lethargy of a former junkie, the last few months have seen Clapton jamming with the Stones (June) and Bob Dylan (August), starting his own tour (June) and releasing ‘E.C. Was Here’ (September). No wonder his usually demure disposition is a bit more open these days.

In Washington, the 30-year-old guitarist was surprisingly talkative. Most of the time, he kept a drink in hand and a foot tapping to Joe Tex’s ‘I Gotcha’ album. After listening to side one four times, he switched on ‘Soul Train.’ “Don’t worry,” he assured. “I can talk and watch at the same time.”

The obvious question is: Why have you been holding back on guitar until now?

It takes a long time to get your chops, you know. It really does. And the band was still trying to get to know one another, so I was underplaying a lot. I mean I’m still not keen to project myself as a guitarist, ’cause there’s too many others around who can top me. There’s always someone faster, isn’t there? It’s best to just try and play… well. Not necessarily brilliantly.

Who do you think can top you?

Well, from playing with him on this tour, I know that Carlos Santana is a very, very strong player. He really kept me on my toes. Basically, though, I don’t like to give a specific opinion on someone else’s playing. Not only is it unfair to another musician, but I just don’t keep track anymore. I’m not a competitive guitarist. I’ve settled into my own pace. If I have to change my ways in order to top a poll somewhere, I’d rather not play.

Do you look at ‘E.C. Was Here,’ being primarily blues, as a return to your basics?

Sure. Starting over. You can’t be successful forever, obviously, so when I get to a point where it’s getting too comfortable, I always start thinking maybe it’s time to go back and begin again. Layla was a return and I will probably go on like that. It’s the pattern of life that I’ve pretty well formed now. I’d like this band I’ve got now to last forever, but the reality is that it’s impossible. So it will probably go in a cycle just the same as every other band I’ve been in.

Why was it time to do a live album?

I didn’t really want to put it out now, but the record company [RSO] was worried about the sales of There’s One in Every Crowd. They thought if they put out a live record to coincide with the tour, that it wouldn’t sell. I don’t really understand their thinking, but I went along with them. I picked out the best tracks we had around. If there’s any concept, it’s an accident.

Did you find it difficult relating to the studio when you cut ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and ‘There’s One in Every Crowd’?

Well, I really had no ideas for 461 before I went into the studio in Miami. I just jammed and put it together as I went along. I played everything I could think of. I must have gone through a hundred songs. But I was frightened to expose myself to too much by bringing out the stuff I had written on my own during the three years before. I didn’t really know anyone in the band. So we all just wrote there, or made things up. I left the tapes with Tom Down [Clapton’s producer on most of his albums since Cream] and said, “Pick out what you think is best and put it on the album.” Then I went home.

There’s One in Every Crowd was different, completely different. Some of it, the parts we cut in Kingston, Jamaica, went easy. No matter where you go, the music’s in the air. Everyone is singing all the time, even the maids at the hotel, and it really gets into your blood. But that album took a lot of work, and I think it sounds like it too. I wasn’t surprised the album didn’t do too well. I like the studio but I just don’t play the same way as I would onstage.

What do you think your next album will be like?

I don’t think it will follow that laid-back vein. I suppose it’s got to be harder, and it will be definitely be better. But I’m still fishing at the moment.

How did your current band come about?

The band had a predestined aura about it. Carl [bassist Carl Radle] brought Dick [keyboardist Dick Sims] and Jamie [vocalist/drummer Jamie Oldaker], two guys he’d been playing with, down to the 461 sessions in Miami. They brought Marcy [vocalist Marcy Levy] in for There’s One in Every Crowd. George Terry was the staff session guitarist at Criteria for 461, and he just sort of fell in with us. Yvonne [singer Yvonne Elliman] was at the sessions with her old man, Bill Oakes, who runs RSO. I asked her to sing one day and never let her go.

What’s been your experience working with women musicians?

I’ve never had that texture in my music before. Plus Yvonne and Marcy don’t let me lose my place on the vocals.

What attracted you to George Terry?

I think it was the fact that he was a pusher, a hustler. He’s very good for me that way ’cause I’m very lazy. I need the help. Given the choice between accomplishing something for just lying around, I’d rather lie around. No contest.

What does motivate you at this point?

I suppose ego more than anything. If I’ve got to do an album or perform a schedule of concerts, my ego tells me it’s dishonorable to let the people down. I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I’ve hardly ever missed a gig. Then, it’s a question of keeping the people happy as best I can, and, at the same time, pleasing myself and the band.

Do you look at still playing “Sunshine of Your Love” as a compromise?

Well, we only did that a couple of times. I feel like I’m compromising myself doing “Layla” every night. I felt that way since we started doing it. You can’t progress much with the format of that song. It’s locked in there and you have to do it almost the same every night. It’s sort of … disheartening in a way. As soon as we get that out of the way, we try and change everything around as much as we can. I still believe firmly in it, but you can only sing a song like that so many times before you run out of passion for it.

Is there any unreleased Derek and the Dominos material left?

Oh, yeah. I checked it when we were doing 461. But the strange thing is, no one knows where the masters are. They’ve been shifted around so much no one knows where they’ve gone. It’s probably just as well; the last stuff we recorded was really overproduced. We were in a bind for material and the band broke up halfway through the sessions. It was the nervous strain of doing it that just exploded in one day and we all went home and never saw one another again. We left behind about five tracks, only two of which had vocals on them.

If “Layla” had become a hit immediately after the album came out, as opposed to two years later, do you think the Dominos might still be together?

Listen, I considered re-forming that band before this band got together. I was saying, ‘Who am I going to play with? I don’t want to look in the musicians union book and look up the most famous names.” I considered calling them all up but it never reached the stage where I picked up the phone. I just sat and brooded on it. And actually what happened was, Carl sent me a telegram and said he had a band for me and did I want to play with them? So I brooded on that for a while and finally fell into it.

Were you disappointed with the initial reception to ‘Layla’?

No, I didn’t give a fuck about that. If they [the critics] didn’t like it, stuff ’em. I knew it was good. I mean you always know when you’ve done well. It’s only when you’re in doubt that a bad review can throw you in a terrible state because you suspect that they could be right. They can make you want to give up sometimes. A bad review in Rolling Stone was what broke the Cream up.

There were some rumors recently that you’d signed papers for a Cream reunion.

Not true. Robert Stigwood wanted it to happen for a long time. During those three years that I was addicted, Ginger Baker left Stigwood. They had a big bust-up. It would have actually been impossible. We weren’t all under the same management anymore. It would have taken a new deal to get Ginger back. I think Ginger probably would have gone for it though. I don’t know about Jack. He’s still trying to pursue his own ideas. And I don’t think I would have gone for it. I don’t want to go back there. It dragged on for so long. I mean, Cream died a very slow death. It was painful. If there was a way that we could have gotten back together again and enjoyed it, I would have signed the papers. But I didn’t see any enjoyable prospect in it.

It’s odd, actually – you reminded me of something. During the addiction, Ginger would come down to my house. I had the doors locked and everything, and Ginger wanted to kidnap me and take me off to the Sahara. His way of curing it is to get in his Land Rover and drive across the Sahara. You can’t score anything in the desert [laughs].

What made you decide to publicly explain that you’d been a junkie for those three years?

Well, what happens after you go through that addiction is that when you do get off, you get this incredible confession that comes on. A really powerful urge to confess. But at the same time I wasn’t too sure, because I’d seen other people do interviews or say things in magazines about their period of addiction and I just thought to myself, “Don’t talk about that, it’s not important.” So I wasn’t really sure. I’m not sure to this very day that it was a good idea to talk about it. It’s not really relevant to the way I make my music. But I suppose I couldn’t have thought of a better excuse for those lost years.

Do you feel you owe a lot to Pete Townshend for his spiritual support during that time?

Yeah. Very much, yeah. I don’t know how to repay him. He was always there to give me faith in myself. It’s a very intangible sort of debt I owe him. I did the Tommy movie for him, I must admit. I didn’t want to do that at all. Me playing the preacher in Tommy was very, very paradoxical. Especially while I was doing it, ’cause I was loaded at the time. Everything just . . . it just . . . wooooooo. I thought that was the least I could do for starters though. I don’t know what’s next. I’m still in debt to him, right up to the hilt.

There was some criticism that you were often very, shall we say, inebriated onstage during the comeback tour after ‘461 Ocean Boulevard.’

Oh, yeah. Yeah. I still am quite a bit. There’s no harm in it really. I’ve always been a heavy drinker. As long as I can remember being allowed in a bar. It’s something I like to do. I’s also good for my personality. I’m too shy when I’m sober, but when I drink I become aggressive and outward. I’m quite happy with that situation.

There was talk, after Duane Allman’s death, of you joining the Allman Brothers Band . . .

Really? I never heard about that. If I’d been approached, I probably would have done it. That’s a strange prospect. I’d probably be in the band right now. I only knew Duane though. I didn’t know Gregg at all. I’ve only met him once and that was when they came to the studio after a gig. And he was very, very shy then. He was really Duane’s younger brother. So Duane did all the talking. Duane was the man. Interesting . . me in the Allman Brothers.

How ’bout the Stones? Have you ever been close to joining them?

A couple of times, yeah.

Lately?

Yeah, it’s a funny situation ’cause I saw Mick just before this tour started, but he . . . he never really gets around to asking me. It’s a very strange sort of situation because he probably thinks that I’ll say no and doesn’t get around to it.

When Brian died, I was in the studio with him, doing something or other, mucking about . . . and then he almost got around to asking me. But I never could really ascertain whether he was asking me or whether I should volunteer or what. I don’t think I could do it really. Actually I don’t think they really need a lead guitarist. I mean, if I was going to play with them, I would play much more than they would require. Keith supplies all the guitar that that band needs, I should think. TO have somebody playing lead on top of that is not really necessary.

You did some recording with Dylan in New York, didn’t you?

Yeah. That was amazing. He was trying to find a situation you see, where he could make music with new people. He was just driving around, picking musicians up and bringing them back to the sessions. It ended up with something like 24 musicians in the studio, all playing these incredibly incongruous instruments. Accordion, violin – and it didn’t really work. He was after a large sound but the songs were so personal that he wasn’t comfortable with all the people around. But anyway, we did takes on about 12 songs. He even wrote one on the spot. All in one night.

It was very hard to keep up with him. He wasn’t sure what he wanted. He was really looking, racing from song to song. I had to get out in the fresh air ’cause it was just madness in there. The topper is that the next day, he cut all the songs again with just a bass player and a drummer. He told me on the phone later that those are the ones he wants to use. But the songs were amazing. It was very difficult to play and not listen to what he was saying at the same time.

Are you close to him?

I don’t know him very well. I seem to see him twice a year, that’s been going on for a long time. But it’s never for very long. It’s always a ten-minute conversation. But it feels like I’ve known him a long time.

Have you ever spoken about writing?

Not really, no. He played me a song in New York called “Sign Language.” He said he’d woken up that same day and just written down the whole thing. And he didn’t understand why or what it meant. And as I listened to it, I realized it didn’t have any kind of story line to it, it was just a series of images and powerful words put together. It was very stirring

What’s the story behind you recording “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”? There is another version by Arthur Louis, the Jamaican reggae singer, that’s almost identical.

That’s a funny story. I played guitar on his version and that’s how it all started. His version was a demo at the time. I thought it was such a good idea to do a reggae version of the song – and he hadn’t signed up with anybody – that I put it out myself. I figured it could only help him out. I even put one of his songs on the B side. Then he suddenly said, “No, you can’t put that out.” Eventually we worked out a deal .Then suddenly Chris Blackwell [owner and founder of Island Records] susses what is going on, signs him up and puts out the original song. It’s like – all this rivalry, I can’t believe it. The buggers.

Does your reputation or your success scare you?

It’s either success . . . or failure, one of the two, that scares me. I don’t know which. Failure would probably make me decide real quick [laughs]. The only thing about my reputation that bothers me is that I’m constantly expected to articulate upon it. Part of being a musician is trying to say as much as you can and what you feel through your playing. I don’t know any musicians who are as eloquent in words as they are in music.

Do you still get stage fright?

Every time. Yeah.

No wonder you never talk to the audience.

I really won’t.

Terrible, isn’t it?

I would like to have some kind of rap going but I don’t what to say. I have no idea. Maybe the answer is jokes. That’s it – one-liners! “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Great to be here. I’m Eric Clapton. I just flew in from Chicago and boy are my arms tired . . .”

Did you see George Harrison’s tour at all?

No, I just heard the tapes that he made himself. The ones I heard were obviously after he’d gotten his voice back. So it must have been near the end of the tour or something. It was fascinating. There was a whole lot going on – perhaps too much. I don’t know. I think he came up against a brick wall with the audiences because of the Indian thing. A lot of people are really sick of that side of him now. I mean, he tends to get ridiculed in the press a lot for it, which I think is unfair. But it’s to be expected, I suppose.

Were you and Pattie [Harrison] actually on ‘Dark Horse’? You’re listed in the liner notes.

That one? No. He just put our two names on the credits for “Bye, Bye, Love.” I can’t remember what he said, but everyone took it to mean we were playing on it. In actual fact, he did the whole thing on his own. He sent me the tapes just after he’d done it. He played everything on it.

At least he has a good sense of humor.

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

What about the quote from his last press conference, “Better Pattie with him than some dope”?

I think I remember that. I believe the quote was, “Better she’s with some drunken Yardbird than some old dope,” or something like that. Yeah, we get along all right. Still, we have little bickers now and then. But I’ve known hi too long not to still love him. I’ve known George since we were kids . . . and we both had that fire that we’ll try the rest of our lives to preserve.

Are you getting a little melancholy there?

Naw. I think I’ve had a very lucky life. As a musician I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. Really. Everything seems to have gone according to someone else’s plan, not mine. I can’t make plans because they always go wrong. Someone’s been looking after me. Putting me in the right place at the right time. It’s really been . . . fascinating.

Courtesy of Rolling Stone #200 – Cameron Crowe – November 20, 1975