Eric Clapton: Living On Blues Power

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Whatever the source of his blues savvy, Clapton stretched it to the limit with his next band, Cream, the definitive power trio. Vocalist-bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker were experienced players with a modern-jazz orientation, and they pushed Clapton into epic improvisations like nothing heard before in blues or rock. Clapton's grounding in blues and his acute, internalized sense of structure often provided the glue that held the music together, while Bruce and Baker spun elastic variations in meter and tempo. Playing through stacks of Marshall amps at staggering volume levels, the guitarist did pioneering work. Cream set new standards for freedom of expression in electric music, risking chaos and sometimes succumbing to it.

On records the music was more structured and, if anything, even more resourceful. Cream's studio recordings of Delta blues from the song books of Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Joe Reynolds and others were the first ensemble reworkings of this sort of material to do justice to its polyrhythmic subtleties. The "heavy'' guitar riffs that anchored songs like "Sunshine of Your Love'' and "White Room'' provided blueprints for the development of heavy metal. And "I Feel Free'' flirted with polytonality. Clapton has expressed reservations about Cream, especially in its later stages, and there were times when the three musicians seemed to all be soloing at once, with cohesion going by the boards. But the band did such innovative work in so many musical areas, taking so many chances along the way, that the reverence with which die-hard fans remember it seems entirely justified.

Cream made Clapton a star in America. Formed in 1966, the band burned so brightly that by the end of 1968 its flame had guttered out. Clapton and Baker then joined forces with Steve Winwood and Rick Grech in Blind Faith, which collapsed in 1969 after one LP and one tour from the ill effects of stardom and hype. In retrospect, Blind Faith holds up very well indeed, but Clapton felt the need for a less pressured performing situation and proceeded to tour as a guest soloist with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, who had been the opening act on the Blind Faith tour. By mid-1970, Clapton had picked up Delaney and Bonnie's rhythm section and formed a new unit, Derek and the Dominos.

But the road was taking its toll. Having fallen headlong into the late-Sixties LSD subculture, Clapton increasingly felt the need to dull the sharp edges with cocaine and heroin. At the same time, he was suffering a guilty conscience from having fallen in love with Beatle George Harrison's wife, Patti (George had drawn him into the Beatles' orbit to play on the White Album's ``While My Guitar Gently Weeps''). The unstable, highly charged situation promised nothing but trouble, but in the short run, it goaded Clapton into making the album many fans consider his masterpiece, Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The Dominos lineup expanded for the sessions to include Duane Allman, a brilliant guitarist who was in every way Clapton's equal. Pushing each other to new heights of intensity and invention, the two guitarslingers made music for the angels – and for the ages.

After popping up all over the place in 1970, Clapton spent much of 1971-73 in seclusion, grappling with his drug addiction. The deaths of his friends Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman didn't exactly lighten his mood. "I felt like I'd been left behind,'' he later admitted. "And I went on my journey through the dark to find out what it's like in there. I had no care for consequences, the idea of dying didn't bother me. But as I grow older, as I live more, death becomes more of a reality, something that I don't choose to step toward too soon.''

When he finally emerged from his hermitlike retreat in 1974, Clapton had kicked both his habit and his taste for guitar godhood. His albums of the middle and late Seventies, beginning with 1974's 461 Ocean Boulevard, found him assuming the more laid-back posture of a team player, deliberately avoiding the marathon soloing and high-energy ambience of his work with Mayall, Cream and the Dominos. Always a consummate musician, he now became a pop craftsman, equally at home with love songs, reggae covers (like his '74 hit "I Shot the Sheriff'') and the loping country-rock twang of J.J. Cale and Don Williams. Still, he never abandoned his loyalty to the blues, and his most outstanding performances during this period were almost invariably blues based. Just One Night, a double album recorded in concert and concentrating on his bluesier material, was one of the decade's highlights.

As the Eighties began, it became apparent that the "relaxed,'' low-energy approach Clapton's longtime fans had found so frustrating was in fact an alcoholic daze. In 1981, just eight days into an American tour, he collapsed with a penetrating ulcer and had to cancel the remainder of the tour. The condition forced him to cut out his boozing, and he reemerged with at least a semblance of his old fire and flair. Teaming up with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, who had succeeded him in the Yardbirds, Clapton played spectacularly at a series of concerts benefiting ARMS (Action Research in Multiple Sclerosis), organized to help Ronnie Lane, his old friend from the Small Faces. And while his own albums continued to be somewhat compromised by commercial considerations, the best ones – Money and Cigarettes, Behind the Sun – rekindled much of the emotional intensity of his earlier work. This time around, he was able to handle Edge City with a more evenhanded maturity. And while the tragedies of 1988-91 slowed him down, they couldn't derail him. He bounced back with a series of performances at the Royal Albert Hall, which included collaborations with blues guitarists such as Buddy Guy and Robert Cray and a concerto for electric guitar and symphony orchestra, as well as appearances fronting his regular band. Highlights of these shows constitute the album 24 Nights. Clapton also broadened his scope with a series of film-scoring assignments; he now appeared to thrive on playing in as many different contexts as possible. His next project was Unplugged.

Clapton's music was never a case of youthful hormones running wild. It's always been an adult sort of music, and as a result he's been able to age more gracefully than many of his contemporaries. As he approaches fifty, he continues to strive for the emotional honesty that has always been the core of the blues. And the blues, in art as in life, is still very much what he's about.

This story is from the April 29th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

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