Eric Clapton – L.A. Times

E.C.’s Been Here, There and Everywhere

Eric Clapton is a shy man, not at all the fiery personality one might expect from rock’s celebrated king of the electric guitar. While it may be that very demureness that accounts for his impassioned musicianship, it has also proved a constant, nemesis throughout Clapton’s 15-year career. “I guess I’ve always backed down from incredible superstardom,” he admitted during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “Only I don’t know which one I’m scare of – success or failure. Probably both.”

Now a youthful-looking 30, Clapton is still stricken by stage fright before his concerts. Once on stage, his only spoken words are mumbled thank you’s. Even his infrequent interviews are almost always plagued by one-or two-sentence answers.

“It’s not that I don’t like talking,” he insists in a gruff, resonant tone. “I don’t mind that part at all. I’m just not gonna slag off bands or make judgements on other guitar players. Most of the time that’s all that interviewers want to hear. I hope it isn’t a cliche thing to say . . .” He shrugs. “But the only thing that really matters is the music. Everything else tends to get in the way.”

Save for one extended absence of nearly three years, the music has been Eric Clapton’s top priority since he was booted out of the Kingston School of Art at 15. “My parents always wanted me to be a commercial artist,” he recalls, “so of the two departments available – fine arts and graphic art – I was sent to the latter. All we did was take exams. Every bloody day. Then I’d go to the canteen for a cup of tea and see all these happy people walking about, covered in paint. It broke my heart. After that, I’d go to class for half an hour and then sort of creep off. It didn’t take long for them to kick me out, which was the whole idea.”

Not until he heard and felt enchanted with a Leadbelly record a short time later was Clapton’s course set. He persuaded his parents to buy him an acoustic guitar and worked alongside his bricklayer father until he was proficient enough to join a band. Clapton’s first two bands, the Roosters and Casey Jones and the Engineers quickly became too pop and foppish for his blues conscience. In 1964, he joined a more progressive outfit – the Yardbirds.

The Yardbirds, noteworthy for establishing the twin lead-guitar format and launching the careers of Jimmy Page and (after Clapton) Jeff Beck, were responsible for his initial reputation as well. After a year and a half, though, Clapton rebelled once again and left the group. The authorized explanation for his departure, that the Yardbirds had take too sharp a commercial turn, Clapton now dismisses as a “half-truth.” “That’s what I’ve always told everyone, that they were getting too top fortyish. It was a tantrum actually. Definitely a tantrum on my part. It was sort of . . . spite. I won’t go into why, it’s very personal,” Clapton bellows in mock anger: “BUT I STILL HATE ALL OF ‘EM!”

Nevertheless, Clapton resurfaced in his most underground configuration yet – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. It wasn’t long before Mayall found himself performing before clubfuls of Clapton fanatics. The now infamous cult slogan “Clapton Is God” began cropping up on graffiti-filled walls throughout England. After two years with Mayall, Clapton was finally ready to make his big move from the dues-paying club circuit. He joined two well-known British musicians, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, in the now legendary power trio, Cream. Their first major debut, at the 1968 Windsor Festival, was a tumultuous success. Suddenly it was official. Eric Clapton was a superstar.

Such resulting albums as “Fresh Cream,” “Disraeli Gears” and “Wheels of Fire” are still regarded as three of rock’s most important albums. Onstage, Cream was an equally electrifying force. One of the first bands to improvise on stage, its open-ended material often stretched into all-night jams. Clapton gained another nickname, “Slowhand,” for the baffling effortlessness of his guitar technique. Yet that band, too, crumbled in the inimitable Clapton tradition.

“We ran out of ideas and creative impulse,” he says. “The last year we were like zombies. Just going through the motions. And that was very, very painful. We actually traveled in separate limousines and everything, so we didn’t have to speak to each other. We didn’t even have to see one another at all until we got onstage. It was something I couldn’t find a way out of. I don’t know, I was powerless. And when you’re exhausted from touring and dealing with the situation, you really haven’t got the mental energy to summon up the courage to say ‘Listen, I’m splitting.'”

Clapton finally did bow out in late ’68 and retired to his Surrey home to contemplate his most daring, if ultimately catastrophic, project. “I wanted to recapture the magic that Cream had in the beginning and thought that these were the musicians who could do it. On paper, there was no way we could miss.” Blind Faith, which included bassist Rick Grech and then ex-Traffic pianist-guitarist-vocalist Stevie Winwood, beside Cream-mates Ginger Baker and Clapton, recorded one successful album and proceeded to play a disastrous untogether American tour before promptly disintegrating.

“I really enjoyed working with Stevie,” Clapton stresses. “That’s how Blind Faith started. That was the ambition behind it, the two of us playing together. Then pressure started coming at us from every direction before we had even developed a rapport of any kind. We were forced to do an album and rushed onto the road. That’s the last thing you can do to a very, very shy person like Stevie. Some people excel when they’re forced up against the wall. Other people completely shut off. And that’s what happened with Stevie . . . and me. We were both very unhappy over the whole thing. It’s a shame, too, because I heard the other day that Stevie just completely quit playing. He’s a farmer now.”

Clapton cheered himself out of depression by “hiding and hanging out” with Delaney and Bonnie, the Southern blues-rock band which had toured with Blind Faith. He recorded a live album with the band, then returned to Los Angeles with the same musicians to make his first solo album, “Eric Clapton.” Even though he admits it’s “not a true solo album,” the album is still an effort, he’s especially proud of. “I don’t think I was being myself, truly, as much as still living under the influence of Delaney (Bramlett, who produced the LP). I was trying to please him more than anyone else. More than myself.”

The same year, 1970, Clapton launched himself for the first time as a group leader with ex-Delaney and Bonnie sidemen Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle. Just before taking the stage for their first concert, a Dr. Spock Civil Liberties benefit, they came up with a name – Derek and the Dominoes. While their first album, “Layla,” sold well, it was dismissed by reviewers at first. Not until a year later, with the success of the title track single, did they take another listen. The present consensus is that “Layla” is Eric Clapton’s masterpiece.

“I didn’t give a damn about whether the critics liked it,” he declares. “I knew it was good. You always know when you’ve done well. And if the press doesn’t care for it – stuff ’em. It’s only when you’re in doubt about what you’ve done that a bad review throws you. They can make you want to give up sometimes.”

Which is basically what Clapton did after “Layla,” confident or not. His home in Surrey, once a sunny place where musicians like Stephen Stills could drop by, talk, jam and learn from Clapton, was all boarded up. Over the next three years, Clapton left it only rarely. Once to perform at the Bangladesh benefit, another time – at the insistence of the Who’s Pete Townshend – for a single concert at London’s Rainbow Theater and later to appear in Ken Russell’s “Tommy” film. The reason, Clapton now explains easily, was heroin addiction.

With acupuncture treatments, electronic gadgetry and the will to kick working for him, Clapton removed himself from the temptations of London and traveled to a friend’s farm in Wales. After a month of baling hay, driving a tractor and “working myself silly,” he picked up the guitar and started reteaching himself. “I decided then, OK, I’ve had enough of here. I’ve had enough country air. I feel fit. I’m going back to London.”

Upon his return to London, Clapton made arrangements to record “461 Ocean Boulevard,” his first album since “Layla.” While the album was generally well received (a single from it, Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” became his first No. 1 record), some argued that Clapton wasn’t playing enough guitar. He agrees.

“It’s not easy to get your chops back,” he laments. “Plus I was still trying to get the band (Carl Radle, bass; Dick Sims, keyboards; Jamie Oldaker, drums; George Terry, guitar; Yvonne Elliman, vocals, and now singer Marcy Levy) together. So I was underplaying a lot. I mean, I’m still not keen to project myself as a guitar star. If you really want to do that sort of fast-draw bit, there’s too many others who can top you. There’s always someone faster. It’s best to just try and play . . . well. Not necessarily brilliantly.”

Lately, Clapton is anxious to counteract the laid-back image he’s acquired from his last studio album, the low-key “There’s One in Every Crowd.” The recently released “E.C. Was Here,” a fiery album culled from recent live performances should do plenty to help out.

“The next album will be harder,” Clapton promises. “I’ve got all kinds of songs. But I don’t want to start formulating anything yet. I hate going into the studio with everything too well planned. It just trips you up, trying to live up to your own plans. It’s best to just let everything happen.

“I never want to act according to anybody’s expectations or repeat myself too much. I’ve seen some artists play the exact same thing every night. I’ve done that. I would find doing that now very boring. You can’t be successful forever. I’d like to be, obviously, but when I get to the point where it’s just getting too easy, it’s time to start over again. It’s best to keep everybody on their toes like that. Especially me.”

Still, for a moment, it’s not hard to picture Eric Clapton at 70. Content, wearing the same “don’t worry, be happy” smile . . . still dazzling audiences with his guitar. And, of course, still mumbling his thank you’s.

Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – November 16, 1975