Thursday, January 20, 2022

The vexation of Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton in Paris, 2006

Extra-musical reasons have dragged Eric Clapton in the conversation this past year. What conversation? As usual with social media, it's a bit muddled but the two main things that come up are his racism and his anti-vaccination stance. Those are two big, real issues and they needn't be conflated with one's opinion of his singing,  playing, songwriting, performing or what-have-you.

Yet, this is almost always the case with keyboard commenters (myself included): "this guy has said and done some abhorrent stuff, therefore his professional or artistic output are shit". Sometimes it's even worse: "I don't like this person's views, so his platform should be rescinded". This is what the right calls cancel culture, but it actually only exists in the social media ecosystem or at your neighborhood bar. No one has ever been cancelled for their opinions. If Kevin Spacey can't find work, it's because he's assaulted people and no one wants to have him on a film set, not because there's a politically correct cabal trying to silence his oh-so-important voice.

Clapton's case is not as clear-cut. And it's important to note that he can still release music, or play concerts despite his very vocal and very repugnant rhetoric. So again, there is no cancel culture at play here.

The accusation of racism is well-documented: over forty years ago, the guitarist went on a sickening drunken on-stage tirade against immigrants, praising far-right English politician Enoch Powell for his stance on he issue, and using almost every racial slur in the dictionary to illustrate his pathetic point. The recording and transcript of this laïus are easily found online, I will not link to them. To add to the ignominy of his deranged rantings is the notion that as a musician primarily steeped in the blues, a predominantly African-American musical form, he's been plundering the songs and cultural heritage of black people for over six decades.

As for his views on the vaccination campaign currently underway to curb the death and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic which has, as of today, claimed the lives of five million people, they are, at best, ill-informed and looney. In fact, they are tantamount to disinformation and could potentially endanger the lives of people who might feel that the opinions of a few celebrities are more valid than those of virologists, immunologists and scientists the world over.

As a lifelong fan, it is very disappointing to read about the shortcomings of someone whose music you admire. Derek & the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs has long been my favorite album. I discovered it with the 20th Anniversary box-set that included the incredible late-night jams with Duane Allman and a remixed version of the record that contained tracks that hadn't been included in the original mix. Purists be damned, to this day it remains my favorite iteration of this legendary double opus.

But I have also long abandoned the romantic fantasy that the people who create our favorite works of art are infallible, or even good people. My favorite author, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, was a Nazi collaborator. Save for a few unreadable pamphlets, there are thankfully very little of his problematic opinions in his prose. Pablo Picasso was famously physically abusive to the many women that shared his life, and thankfully there is none of that in his production which means I can still appreciate Guernica, which remains one of my favorite paintings. And then rock n'roll is replete with stories of statutory rape, including but not limited to Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler, Ted Nugent...

Clapton's character flaws became evident when I read his autobiography about fifteen years ago. Musicians' autobiographies are usually full of sensationalist anecdotes because it's what the people want. Stories of sex and drugs are what have built the rock music mythology but I was more interested in the music. How it was created, how it was inspired. (That being said, I still think Mötley Crüe's The Dirt is one of the best music books out there, and there was very little music in there, just like there was very little music in Mötley Crüe). The best parts of Keith Richards' book Life were not the drug busts and the sleeping with supermodels but when he talked about his exploration of open tunings or the musical bond he shared onstage with Charlie Watts. And if Bob Dylan's Chronicles were so great (by the way, aren't we overdue for a volume two?) it's because he went deep into his love for American music of all sorts, blues, jazz, country but also musicals and cheesy old crooners.

Clapton's book was revelatory in the sense that he showed what a shallow, self-absorbed man he was. Overly serious, full of himself, and with very little thought given to how his decisions and actions might affect even those closest to him. The drugs, the drinking, the womanizing, the violence, and even the redemption arc when he went sober and started helping others in their own journey always seemed fueled by self-interest. It's interesting that even then he put his sobriety as his main priority, above the well-being of his children. And I think that's because he believes that his main responsibility is to the music more than to his family, friends, bandmates and spouses.

The cause for this deep flaw in his character is probably to be found in his unorthodox upbringing, as well as in the tragedies he has experienced since a rather early age. Those facts does not even begin to excuse any of his shortcomings, but perhaps they can shed a light on how they came to be.

As far as the accusations of racism go, I would like to think, as an admirer of his work, that this is not who he is anymore. It's apparent that the man is a miserable, deeply resentful, angry person and that fact, combined with the substance abuse, has made him lash out in the most inexcusable way. But I do believe he has somewhat redeemed himself when he sanctioned the release of A Life in 12 Bars, the 2017 documentary on his life, and insisted that the repulsive racist statement he made back in 1976 be included in the final cut, as a cautionary tale for drug and alcohol abuse. I would like to believe that this rant was fueled partly by his lifestyle at the time, and that it no longer represents him. I would like to believe that even then he didn't really hold these views, but was merely lost in a haze of whisky and heroin.

This is after all, a man who has made his life's work to be a vessel for the blues. Unlike Led Zeppelin, he never omitted to credit the artists whose song he covered. In fact he praised them any chance he got. For a man who has such an inflated ego and a high esteem of himself, he is surprisingly humble about his playing and songwriting. And he's played and been friends with most of his black heroes, peers and admirers, from BB King to Buddy Guy to Jimi Hendrix to Robert Cray. Somehow this doesn't align with the person that uttered those horrible words 45 years ago.

I understand that people aren't just black or just white (probably a poor choice of words here...) but I don't understand how it would be possible for Clapton to spend his whole career surrounding himself with people like Muddy Waters, Steve Jordan, Nathan East, John Lee Hooker, Ahmet Ertegun, Bob Dylan or Carlos Santana and still despise blacks, jews and hispanics. But then again I'm not a racist.

Regarding his declarations on the vaccine, I think it's important to remember that, to my knowledge, he hasn't said that he is against the vaccine itself (I believe that he himself is vaccinated) but against the mandates enforced by the venues he wants to play at and against the lockdowns that Boris Johnson had imposed in the U.K. While this is something I also vehemently disagree with (in a time of war, war-time measures are needed), this is not the same as saying people absolutely should not take the jab. His own experience with the vaccine was mainly negative (as we know, there are some infinitesimal occurrences of adverse reactions, they remain marginal and should not be used as example as to why not to take the vaccine) but they remain only his own.

However misguided, I cannot bring myself to associate his statements with the music that has brought me so much joy. I often hear the phrase "separating the man from the art" and I don't believe it's really possible, especially when someone's art is deeply personal. And even though he's mostly famous for cover songs and playing an idiom that originated in a time and place far away from when and where he grew up (much like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Clash...), I do think his music is a reflection of himself. Every note, every inflection is infused with so much truth, soul and intent that I don't think it can be faked.

Is there a point to this essay? Not really. I understand if this sounds like I'm trying to find excuses for my hero. I am and I'm not. I'm thinking and typing, not trying to change minds. And again, the man is not my "hero". I admire a lot of people's talents without considering them heroes. But I can't blame people who have decided to never listen to the man's music ever again. It's a shame to throw out the good things he did with the bad things he said, but it's understandable.

What I don't understand is this trope (and it predates all the controversy, it even predates his mostly awful Phil Collins-produced 80's albums) that his music and his playing are bland, boring and devoid of soul. And then that argument is usually followed by the expression "blues for white people", which is a puzzling one. I've certainly never heard BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters or Otis Rush use it... 

Clapton's career spans sixty years. He started at the same time as The Beatles, even played on one of their greatest songs. He's tackled blues, psychedelia, heavy rock, soul, country, jazz, pop and adult contemporary music. The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, Derek & the Dominos, his Tulsa period, his reggae leanings, his Band-inspired albums, his numerous sessions and contributions... Surely not everything that he recorded is rendered worthless because of his stupidity? 

I'm not sure where I stand regarding his past and present declarations. Can we believe that the racist rant is not representative of who he is? Can we ignore the fact that he's made some very stupid choices during the pandemic? I just hope the musical legacy outlives the scandal and the man. He may not deserve it but the music does.


  1. Enjoyed your well-considered musings. Re "It's apparent that the man is a miserable, deeply resentful, angry person and that, combined with the substances made him lash out in the most inexcusable way," there are mixed tenses in this sentence. Did you mean to say that Clapton "is a miserable, deeply resentful, angry person" today?

  2. Thank you. I believe the sentence makes a little more sense now.


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