No rock & roll musician has deserved deification more and desired it less than Eric Clapton. The white-blues zealots who scrawled Clapton is god in the London subways during his 1965-66 tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers no doubt thought they were paying the twenty-year-old guitarist their highest compliment. Instead, they sentenced him to a lifetime of fanatic, and at times indiscriminatory, hero worship that only aggravated his own self-critical instincts and often obscured the true nature of his genius.
Clapton’s economy of style, clarity of technique and improvisatory firepower are the standard by which nearly all electric guitarists, blues or otherwise, have been judged for over twenty years. But the awesome responsibility of being Him, compounded by repeated identity crises, has led Clapton to some strange deviations in judgment and taste. For every period that his creative engine went into glorious overdrive (his stints with the Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominos), there have been willful retreats into the shadows (his sideman’s role with Delaney and Bonnie), bad-idea bands (the stillborn supergroup Blind Faith) or simple acquiescence to current chart dictums (the cozy pop sound of his ’86 album August).
What better title, then, for this superb seventy-three-track examination (on six LPs or four CDs) of the Clapton oeuvre than Crossroads? Aside from being the title of one of his greatest performances on vinyl (Cream’s in-concert roasting of the Robert Johnson classic on Wheels of Fire), it aptly summarizes the mosaic quality of Clapton’s recorded legacy — the misfires and the master-strokes, the wrong turns and the right stuff. From the minute Clapton plugged in with the Yardbirds a quarter century ago, his career has been nothing but a series of crossroads, emotional and spiritual as well as musical. This deluxe box set, combining the best of his official releases with a feast of rare and previously unissued material, is not only an exhaustive study of rock’s most revered guitarist; it is a vivid road map of his soul.
Crossroads starts, quite rightly, with the very first demos cut by the Yardbirds in late 1963. The band sounds young and tentative, and the arrangements are little more than slavish if earnest imitations of the blues masters. There are definite hints of greatness to be, though, particularly in the frenzied “Honey in Your Hips,” where Clapton’s brittle guitar sound belies the pithy aggression in his fills.
It’s not hard to understand why Clapton bolted after the ’65 hit “For Your Love”; the song’s compact psycho-pop attack left him little room to rage in. Unfortunately, there are no tracks here from Five Live Yardbirds, a live LP recorded in 1964 at London’s Marquee Club (still unreleased in its entirety in the U.S., hint hint) and the best document of the band’s legendary stage muscle. But the urgent rocker “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You,” with its stop-on-a-dime rhythm and Clapton’s tight, stabbing solo, make up a good composite sketch of his evolving chops and the band’s fledgling future-blues power.
Ironically, leaving the Yardbirds created more problems than it solved. Clapton would spend the rest of his life trying to negotiate a working equilibrium between his gut blues instincts and pop’s promise — sometimes broken — of stylistic emancipation. The eighteen tracks of prime Mayall and Cream wax selected by Crossroads producer Bill Levenson capture the essence of that dilemma. Although he made the most of his short stay with the Bluesbreakers by heightening his already sharp melodic ingenuity with knife-edge distortion and metallic belligerence, Clapton soon found Mayall’s diligent purism as restrictive as the Yardbirds’ pop moves. By the same token, Cream was a good idea — the blues articulated with a greater musical vocabulary — whose time quickly came and went, thanks to internal feuding and masturbatory mega-soloing.
Indeed, the killer Cream on Crossroads clocks in at four minutes or less. Along with the namesake track and Clapton’s snarling Morse-code riff in “Sunshine of Your Love,” “I Feel Free” remains among the trio’s finest crystallizations of primordial blues ooze into abbreviated pop form. Clapton’s solo is a model of taut construction and singing feedback. The instrumental “Steppin’ Out,” from a 1968 broadcast on BBC Radio, also shows the group at maximum crank, Clapton confidently exploring the basic theme over the polyrhythmic war between Jack Bruce’s anxious bass runs and Ginger Baker’s defiantly independent drumming.
With Derek and the Dominos, Clapton briefly resolved the nagging contradiction between superstardom and his maturing command of his muse and his instrument. Already tortured by a romantic entanglement with his best friend’s misses (Pattie Boyd Harrison, wife of Beatle George), he was also riding a down escalator into heroin addiction. Yet the very collision of his pain with his music produced in Layla one of the few rock double albums worthy of the extra elbow room. The title track is arguably the apex of Clapton’s career — the pleading of Duane Allman’s slide guitar fueled by the staccato frustration in Clapton’s clenched-fist riff, all that misery and desire dovetailing into the warm caress of the song’s extended moonlight piano-and-guitar sonata.
Sadly, the newly released Dominos material on Crossroads shows how much of the band’s potential was left unrealized. The amphetamine dazzle of Cream’s “Crossroads” is replaced in the live 1970 Dominos take by a slower but tougher assurance, not just in Clapton’s soloing but in the controlled boil of the Dominos themselves. And as he got better at songwriting, Clapton also became more honest as a lyricist. Taking into account his love life and his drug use at the time, there is an icy autobiographical poignancy to “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” one of five tracks from an aborted second Dominos studio LP, as the crybaby whine of his wah-wah guitar mocks the faint glimmer of hope in the chorus — “The sun’s got to shine/On my guitar someday.”
It would, but not until three years later, with Clapton’s hit comeback LP 461 Ocean Boulevard. In fact, it’s easy to see Clapton’s career from 461 on as a kind of penance for the excesses, missteps and guitar-hero vanities of his first pro decade. Clapton’s subsequent solo outings, which take up nearly half of this set, are those of a conscientious blues-rock journeyman absorbing elements of country, R&B, reggae and mellow pop balladry into his sound without straying too far from the middle of his preferred road. Clapton’s best work in recent years has depended a lot on who’s in the backfield — peer guitarists Albert Lee and Ry Cooder egging him on in “The Shape You’re In,” from the ’83 smoker Money and Cigarettes, and Phil Collins fattening up “She’s Waiting” with his trademark Eighties techno-whack.
Yet FM reliables like “Cocaine” and “Lay Down Sally” tell only part of the latter-day Clapton story. Bill Levenson has wisely fleshed out Crossroads with unreleased stage and studio material that shows Clapton constantly returning to his roots for succor and inspiration. There’s a fine outtake of “(When Things Go Wrong) It Hurts Me Too” from the sessions for the otherwise somnambulant There’s One in Every Crowd, and the long live “Further On up the Road,” recorded in 1977, is a welcome antidote to the Slowhand pillow talk of “Wonderful Tonight.” A taste of Clapton gassing up “White Room” or “Sunshine of Your Love” on his 1986-87 tour with Phil Collins would have rounded off the last half of Crossroads quite nicely.
Alas, the set’s final entry is a studio remake of “After Midnight”; what’s annoying is that you’ve already seen and heard Clapton perform it — in TV commercials for Michelob beer. (The album’s credits include “Special thanks to Michelob Beer.”) The cart-before-the-horse argument notwithstanding, its inclusion inadvertently shows how much the business of rock & roll has changed for the worse since Clapton’s maiden recording voyage with the Yardbirds. The days of “livin’ on blues power,” as he once sang, are over.
Given all that comes before it, though, the new “After Midnight” is hardly enough to sour the Crossroads experience. Okay, a few more of those hot BBC Cream sessions would have been welcome, and the set bypasses the bulk of Clapton’s sideman credits, which would probably fill a box on their own. Yet with nearly a third of its tracks culled from the “rare” and “unreleased” files, Crossroads is a piece of primo rock & roll detective work. Producer Levenson has also included detailed session annotation in the accompanying booklet, along with a thoughtful critical essay by Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis. Add to that more hits and top-drawer guitar solos than you could shake a Strat at, and you have a rich, comprehensive portrait of a man blessed with undeniable greatness and cursed with doubt about his ability to carry that weight. If nothing else, Crossroads proves that Eric Clapton worries too much.