Eric Clapton went from setting the standard for rock guitar to making ‘full-tilt’ racist rants to becoming an outspoken vaccine skeptic. Did he change? Or was he always like this?
Cambel McLaughlin thought he was being punked. An unapologetic opponent of lockdowns and Covid-19 vaccine skeptic — he is, as he puts it, “pro-medical choice”— the 27-year-old Brit is founder of Jam for Freedom, a group of U.K. musicians that plays for free in public spaces, spreading the anti-lockdown word and sometimes singing songs with lyrics like “You can stick your poison vaccine up your arse.” For their efforts, Jam for Freedom are often hassled by police, and McLaughlin himself says he was arrested for what he calls “breach of Covid regulations” during one show.
This past spring, the car the group used to transport its gear was rendered nearly unusable after an accident, so McLaughlin started a GoFundMe page to help pay for transportation, gas, and legal fees. And one day this past spring, he was shocked to see a £1,000 donation on the site from Eric Clapton.
“I’m, like, this could be fake,” McLaughlin recalls. But when McLaughlin emailed the account listed with the donation, he received a text from the 76-year-old British guitar hero himself. “It was something complimentary, along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’s Eric — great work you’re doing,’ ” McLaughlin says. The two later talked by phone, and before McLaughlin knew it, Clapton offered his family’s white, six-person VW Transporter van as a temporary replacement for Jam for Freedom’s wheels. He also gave them a chunk of money (McLaughlin declines to say how much) to buy a new van — and said he might even sit in with the group at some point. Thanks to Clapton’s assistance, Jam for Freedom are now free to spread their message all over the U.K.
In the past, Clapton has been reluctant to voice his political views. As he told Rolling Stone in 1968, “What I’m doing now is just my way of thinking, but if it gets into a paper somewhere, people will say that what I’m saying is the way they ought to think. Which is wrong, because I’m only a musician. If they dig my music, that’s great, but they don’t have to know what’s going on in my head.”
But in recent months Clapton has himself become a leading vaccine skeptic, part of a community that Dr. Anthony Fauci has said is “part of the problem — because you’re allowing yourself to be a vehicle for the virus to be spreading to someone else.” And while never explicitly condemning the lockdown, he’s said “live music might never recover” and joined Van Morrison for three songs that amount to lockdown protest anthems. By way of a friend’s social media account, he’s also detailed what he called his “disastrous” experience after receiving two AstraZeneca shots (“propaganda said the vaccine was safe for everyone,” he wrote).
Clapton recently embarked on a U.S. tour booked in red states despite surging transmission numbers and death rates — and at venues that largely don’t require proof of vaccination. In the process, this Sixties icon, who embraced the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle as much as anyone in his generation, has drawn praise from conservative pundits. In Austin, he posed for backstage photos with Texas’ anti-vax-mandate Gov. Greg Abbott, known for his attacks on abortion and voting rights. The sight of Clapton in backstage photos with the notorious governor amounted to a deal killer for some: “I just deleted all my Clapton songs,” went one comment on Abbott’s Twitter feed, along with, “A Kid Rock type with better guitar skills. Done with him.”
In what may be among the final acts of his career, Clapton risked his reputation and part of his devoted fan base when he doubled down on his views. “If he had a bad reaction, that’s bad,” says Bill Oakes, who ran RSO, Clapton’s label, in the 1970s. “Obviously most people haven’t. It’s a shame that this is the way that a lot of young Rolling Stone readers are going to read about him for the first time. He is one of the greats, and this is how he makes the headlines in his dotage.” (Through a representative, Clapton declined to comment for this article.)
Even people who haven’t thought much about Clapton lately are now wondering: What is he thinking? His fellow musicians don’t know what to make of it all: Queen’s Brian May referred to vaccine skeptics like Clapton as “fruitcakes.” Longtime Clapton collaborators and friends in the music business declined to comment about his current beliefs to Rolling Stone. As the manager of one prominent peer put it, “I wouldn’t want him to touch this.”
For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?
What changed — or did anything?
In the summer of 1976, Dave Wakeling thought he knew Clapton, too. Wakeling, who’d go on to found the English Beat, one of the U.K.’s pioneering ska bands, was 20 that year, and such a big Clapton fan that he’d once hitchhiked from his Birmingham home to London to see Clapton’s band Blind Faith in Hyde Park.
But when he saw Clapton at the Odeon theater in Birmingham in August 1976, Wakeling was gob-smacked. A clearly inebriated Clapton, who unlike most of his rock brethren hadn’t weighed in on topics like the Vietnam War, began grousing about immigration. The concert was neither filmed nor recorded, but based on published accounts at the time (and Wakeling’s recollection), Clapton began making vile, racist comments from the stage. In remarks he has never denied, he talked about how the influx of immigrants in the U.K. would result in the country “being a colony within 10 years.” He also went on an extended jag about how “foreigners” should leave Great Britain: “Get the wogs out . . . get the coons out.” (Wog, shorthand for golliwog, was a slur against dark-skinned nonwhites.)
“As it went on, it was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Wakeling recalls. “And then it became obvious that it wasn’t. . . . It started to form a sort of murmur throughout the crowd. He kept talking, and the murmurings started to get louder: ‘What did he fucking say again?’ . . . We all got into the foyer after the concert, and it was as loud as the concert: ‘What is he fucking doing? What a cunt!’ ”
When Clapton voiced support onstage for the conservative British flamethrower and fascist Enoch Powell, a prominent anti-immigration politician who had given his polarizing “rivers of blood” speech on the topic in Birmingham in 1968, Wakeling was particularly offended. Thanks to white and black workers toiling together in its factories, Wakeling had sensed that Birmingham had become more integrated in recent years.
Also in the crowd was author Caryl Phillips, then a high school student and admirer of Clapton’s work, especially his immersion in reggae and blues. “Clapton was to me somebody who represented the kind of crossover figure who was kind of like me in the other direction – me being a Black kid who actually liked white music, and he a white guy who actually liked Black music,” Phillips says. But like so many at the Odeon, Phillips was taken aback at Clapton’s tirades. “He said a few things about they should go back to where they came from and so on, then he’d play a couple of songs,” he recalls. “He was like a drunk who would remember that he’d been talking about something and then pick it up again a couple of songs later. He was one of the last people you expected to stand up there and speak in this way. It hung like a toxic cloud over the whole evening.” As one of the few Black people in the crowd, Phillips says he also felt “all eyes were kind of upon me, and then swiveled way from me.”
Clapton’s comments shocked his bandmates, too. “What Eric said was a total surprise,” recalls George Terry, a member of Clapton’s band at the time, “as he never mentioned he would be saying something at the concert to me or other members of the band that I knew of.”
Until then, Clapton’s association with the blues — and Black culture — had largely been seen as positive. Growing up in Surrey, raised by a grandmother, he’d begun practicing blues licks on a guitar as a teenager. With the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Cream, his playing reflected lessons picked up from listening to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and other blues guitar masters. Unlike some of his other peers, Clapton gave proper credit to the music’s founding fathers. A Clapton cover of a song by Waters (or Bob Marley) would pad their bank accounts as well as his own. “The man can play,” says Buddy Guy, the Chicago blues legend who first met Clapton in the Sixties and has jammed with him numerous times since. “If somebody’s good, I don’t call you big, fat, or tall. He just bent those strings, and I guess he bent them right on time. The British exploded the blues and put it in places we didn’t put it. I wish I could have had the popularity he got. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so damn hard.”
Clapton was also in awe of Jimi Hendrix’s skills and is said to have been devastated when Hendrix died. But in an 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Clapton referred to Hendrix with a derogatory term that was also hipster slang at the time. But maybe even more troubling was how he displayed a predilection for some racial stereotypes: “When he first came to England, you know English people have a very big thing towards a spade. They really love that magic thing, the sexual thing. They all fall for that sort of thing. Everybody and his brother in England still sort of think that spades have big dicks. And Jimi came over and exploited that to the limit, the fucking T. Everybody fell for it. I fell for it. Shit.”
Clapton’s epic struggles, from his comeback from heroin and alcohol addiction to his opening a treatment center in Antigua to the loss of his son in 1991, have made him a largely sympathetic figure in the press, including Rolling Stone. The magazine has put Clapton on its cover eight times since 1968; as recently as 2015, he was ranked second on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 greatest guitarists. Of the Powell-Birmingham incident, one British writer at the time called it “just another reminder of Clapton’s vulnerable honesty.”
But those who heard of his Birmingham comments had a much different view of Clapton. “I was completely shocked,” says agitprop writer and performer Red Saunders, who was shown a copy of a published report of Clapton’s comments shortly after the concert. “You’ve got to understand the kind of totem-head figure that Enoch Powell is in this country. He’s on the same level as Governor Wallace of Alabama — a high-level conservative, real old tub-thumping British imperialist of the old order.” Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech had spawned a white nationalist movement. Clapton’s embrace of Powell’s rhetoric prompted Saunders to write a letter to New Musical Express: “What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. . . . Own up, half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B?”
Saunders’ letter led to the founding of Rock Against Racism, which for about five years put on concerts in Europe and the U.S. in reaction to comments like Clapton’s. “He actually changed the world in the opposite direction, which was very decent of him, really,” says Wakeling (the English Beat played at one of the RAR shows as well). Saunders recalls that Pete Townshend said he might bring Clapton along when he played one of the Rock Against Racism shows in the summer of 1979. But Saunders says he insisted Clapton apologize first. For reasons that were never specified to Saunders, Clapton never showed up.
Some who knew and worked with Clapton at the time (and haven’t seen him much since) argue his Birmingham rant didn’t reflect his true feelings. “The idea that he was sort of somehow speaking his true mind there is misplaced,” Oakes says. “It was the booze. He was in a truculent mode then, and I don’t think he realized at all the effect of what he was saying. I don’t think it was one of those things where people say, ‘Well, if you’re drunk, it doesn’t matter — if you said it, you meant it.’ I don’t think he meant it.” Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2017, “I just have to face the guy that I became when I was fueled on drugs and alcohol,” Clapton said. “It’s incomprehensible to me, in a way, that I got so far out. And there was no one to challenge me.” He may have had a point about the latter: As a privileged member of rock’s ruling class, he has long shown a tendency to do what he wants when he wants to do it, with seemingly little regard for consequences.
What remains galling for people like Wakeling and Saunders is not only the racist remarks, but the way Clapton handled his response to them. After his onstage tirade was reported in the U.K. press, Clapton sent a handwritten letter to the British music newspaper Sounds, apologizing “to all the foreigners in Birm. . . . It’s just that (as usual) I’d had a few before I went on and one foreigner had pinched my missuss’ bum and I proceeded to lose my bottle.” (He claimed, in part, that a rich Saudi had leered at his then-partner Pattie Boyd.) But he also added, in what seemed like an endorsement of a white supremacist, “I think that Enoch is the only politician mad enough to run this country.” In an interview with that same publication, he downplayed the Birmingham rant yet again: “I thought it was quite funny actually,” comparing the incident to a Monty Python skit. (Phillips disagrees: “This wasn’t some stumbling buffoon in the tradition of Monty Python. This was incendiary stuff he was saying.”)
In his 2007 memoir, Clapton addressed the controversy anew, writing that his onstage comments in Birmingham were “never meant to be a racial statement. It was more of an attack against the then-government policies on cheap labor, and the cultural confusion and overcrowding that resulted from what was clearly a greed-based policy.” To Saunders and others in the Rock Against Racism community, the explanation was “ridiculous,” and indeed, derogatory comments about “wogs” didn’t exactly leave much room for interpretation.
The Birmingham incident, which went largely unreported in the U.S. at the time, also resurfaced in Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, a 2017 authorized Clapton documentary that, with his eventual approval, recounted that career low point. In the film and in interviews to promote it, Clapton again denied racist insensitivity, citing friendships with Black people, and again blamed the moment on his massive alcohol intake of the time. “I did really offensive things,” he told one outlet. “I was a nasty person,” adding, in a striking admission, that his Birmingham rant was “full-tilt” racist. “I’m not excusing myself. It was an awful thing to do,” he said, again, adding, “I think it’s funny, actually.”
“I didn’t pay attention to what people were saying back then,” says Guy, who claims he hadn’t heard about the incident until recently. “You had white people saying this, Black people saying that. Whatever somebody wants to say or feel, that’s OK with me.”
But then as now, Clapton’s explanations ring hollow for those who were in Birmingham that night or who heard accounts of it at the time. Wakeling says that with the exception of two Cream songs he loves (“Badge” and “White Room”), he hasn’t listened to Clapton’s music since; Phillips likewise has not returned to his old Clapton LPs. “We know that the drink doesn’t make you make up sophisticated lies,” Wakeling says. “It just makes you tell the truth too loud at the wrong time to the wrong people.”
For anyone who’s read Clapton’s memoir closely, his recent turn may not be all that jarring. He wrote that “it was my normal thing when I was angry to contest authority” and admitted to a tendency toward “conspiracy phobia in all things of this nature, including politics.”
Clapton does appear to have a credulous side: In the book, he detailed the bizarre incident in the Eighties when “a lady with a strong European accent” called him at home, told him she knew all about his difficulties with Pattie Boyd (his wife by then), and persuaded him to try all sorts of odd rituals — like “cut my finger to draw blood, smear it onto a cross with Pattie’s and my name written on it, and read weird incantations at night.” (At her suggestion, he also flew to New York and slept with her before realizing that none of that madness would bring Boyd back.)
Clapton’s current public views are a hot mess of those tendencies churned up by a global pandemic, fake news, and his own health issues. In the past few years, Clapton’s health — his hands in particular — have made more headlines than his most recent albums. In 2016, he confessed to Rolling Stone that he was having “a neurological thing that is tricky, that affects my hands.” The following year, he told the magazine he was having “eczema from head to foot. The palms of my hand were coming off.” He also was dealing with peripheral neuropathy — damage to a person’s peripheral nerves, leading to burning or aching pain in the arms and legs.
Last year, Clapton began watching videos by Ivor Cummins, a chemical engineer and author who has questioned the British government’s handling of the pandemic. “I was trying to keep my mouth shut, but I was following the channel avidly,” Clapton confessed. Clapton made his own feelings first known by joining with Morrison for “Stand and Deliver,” a single that connected the lockdown to individual freedom: “Do you want to be a free man/Or do you want to be a slave?” Clapton issued a statement about the collaboration, “We must stand up and be counted because we need to find a way out of this mess. The alternative is not worth thinking about.” (In a strange coincidence, Morrison was a special guest star at Clapton’s Birmingham show in 1976.)
When he began receiving flak for his comments, Clapton doubled down. He posted comments by way of the social media account of his friend, architect and fellow vaccine skeptic Robin Monotti. He told Oracle Films — a website that claims to “fight for open debate and freedom of information in the face of global government encroachment and big-tech censorship” — that after a second dose, his hands “didn’t really work,” and that it accelerated his condition. “I expected it to be something that would gradually grow worse as I got older, into my eighties or whatever,” he said. “This . . . ramped up, on a scale of 10, from three to eight or nine: agony, chronic pain. . . . It took my immune system and shook it around again.” Clapton said he lost the use of his hands for three weeks. To Oracle Films, Clapton remarked that he could “feel the alienation” from his peers and even family members over the past year.
According to Dr. Matthew Fink, chairman of the Department of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, such a reaction is plausible with patients dealing with Clapton’s neurological condition. “As long as there have been vaccines around, there have always been some cases of what we call post-vaccine or post-infectious inflammatory disorders that can affect the peripheral nerves,” says Fink, adding that the AstraZeneca vaccine in particular has been linked to rare cases of neurological disorder. “It can affect your hands and feet quite severely, so I can understand as a guitarist, it could really affect him.”
And yet Fink, who says he loves Clapton’s work with Cream, is concerned about the message as much as the messenger. “You’re not going to condemn all vaccines because of that, because the reality is that the vaccines are such lifesaving treatments for the vast majority of people that get them,” he says. “The benefits so far outweigh any of the risks. I would never tell someone we should stop giving vaccines.” Thanks in part to vaccine skeptics, only 56 percent of the U.S. population is currently fully vaccinated.
After Clapton offered to lend Jam for Freedom his family van, McLaughlin met with Clapton, casually dressed in a blue sweater and moccasins, at his recording studio in London. McLaughlin is wary of Covid vaccines. “Well, it’s not a vaccine, but I haven’t had it,” he says. “Unless I was getting paid a lot of money, I wouldn’t put myself on the trial for a new technology. We’re just saying, ‘let people choose what they want to put in their bodies. Don’t force them.’ It’s kind of suspicious when you have so many people shouting at you to do something. It just rings alarm bells for a lot of people.”
McLaughlin says Clapton was still feeling the aftereffects of his shots, telling McLaughlin he hadn’t been able to play guitar for months. “We did want to have a jam, but because of his condition at the time, it was tough for him to play — and to play outside when his fingers are cold because of the side effects,” says McLaughlin. “You can imagine that that would stress him out.” Clapton posed for a photo next to the van with McLaughlin, which the group later shared on its social media channels.
But as with his fumbled responses to his 1976 rant, Clapton couldn’t seem to leave well enough alone. He declared in a statement that he wouldn’t play for “discriminated audiences,” meaning he would only play venues that did not require proof of vaccination.
Shortly before the first show on his American tour in September, he rolled out a new song, “This Has Gotta Stop,” seemingly a protest against his own vaccination: “I knew that something was going on wrong/When you started laying down the law/I can’t move my hands, I break out in sweat/I wanna cry, can’t take it anymore.” To further his point, the video’s animation depicted citizens as manipulated puppets. (Weeks later, he unveiled a new version of that song — complete with a sax solo and new verse by, you guessed it, Morrison.)
“It sounds like he’s having another Enoch Powell moment,” says Oakes. “That’s the last time I can think of when he actually confronted any world issues, because he’s basically someone who’s kept to himself quite well. That was obviously a long time ago and triggered by massive amounts of alcohol. He hasn’t got the excuse this time.”
In his interview with Oracle Films, Clapton complained that after he expressed his views, “I was labeled as a Trump supporter.” But his old-world streak reaches back to at least 2007, when Clapton — along with Bryan Ferry and Steve Winwood — played a benefit at a castle in Berkshire, England, for the Countryside Alliance, a U.K. group devoted to promoting “food, farming, and country sports.” Those sports include the barbaric tradition of fox hunting — unleashing hunting hounds on foxes, which the British government had banned due to both the animal cruelty as well as the class disparities it represents.
At the time, a Clapton representative confirmed that he supported the Alliance but didn’t “hunt himself.” That association still rankles some of his peers. “I love Eric Clapton, he’s my hero, but he has very different views from me in many ways,” Brian May told The Independent. “He’s a person who thinks it’s OK to shoot animals for fun, so we have our disagreements.” But Clapton’s stance — based around his support for what a spokesperson called “people’s private pursuits” — got another group on his side: Thanks to that concert, the National Rifle Association trumpeted “Eric Clapton Supports Fox Hunting” on its site.
For vaccine skeptics, the idea of playing red states, and indoor arenas at that, felt like an act of defiance. Conservative young-gun pundit Michael Knowles — who once filled in for Rush Limbaugh and “wrote” Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide, a bestselling novelty book that consisted entirely of blank pages — tweeted, “Eric Clapton is a much more credible person than Dr. Fauci.” Speaking to RS, Knowles stands by that assessment. “Clapton isn’t pontificating about matters of science or health — he’s discussing his own experience with this vaccine,” he says. “I think in many ways Eric Clapton does have more credibility on this question and many others than Dr. Fauci does.”
At 31, Knowles is younger than most Clapton fans and thinks the guitarist’s stance against the medical establishment is staying true to his rock roots. “It’s terrific,” Knowles says. “There’s something really authentic about a rock star speaking up against authority. That is what rock & roll used to represent. And as it aged, it simply came into conformity with the prevailing established opinions of society. . . . Eric Clapton trusts his audience to make their own medical decisions. And we used to do that more generally in this country. We don’t seem to do that very much anymore.”
Jam for Freedom’s McLaughlin sees the situation in much the same way, and his chat with Clapton confirmed it. “He said we’re essentially doing what he and his contemporaries in the Sixties did, which was embracing freedom, getting out of government control and societal control,” McLaughlin says. “He’s told us repeatedly, ‘This is like what we did.’ ”
All of this has left fans grappling with the legacy of a musician who is potentially putting people’s lives at risk. “I don’t get it — I always thought he was a liberal,” says one music-industry veteran who has worked with Clapton over the years. “I’ve met him a number of times, and he’s quite the gentleman, mature and well-spoken and measured. So I’m shocked by it. Most of his audience is shocked by it. I won’t see him [in concert] anymore. That’s it. How could anyone care about your fans and be an anti-vaxxer? He’s in the live-entertainment business.”
How do we reconcile some of his views with his music? Is it still possible to enjoy his lasting achievements — the desperate passion of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the relaxed grooves of 461 Ocean Boulevard, the dramatic makeover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” with Cream — without thinking twice? At WPLR, a leading classic-rock station in Connecticut, Chaz, a morning-show DJ who declines to use his real name, says Clapton is “a Mount Rushmore figure.” But the DJ is wrestling with a former hero’s disorienting statements. “He’s brought a lot of happiness into the world with his music,” says Chaz. “If I’m at a family dinner and Grandpa is saying something I completely disagree with, I’ll ignore it and say ‘Pass the mash potatoes.’ That’s the way I’m feeling this.”
Of the 12,000 or so people who began streaming into the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 13th, the first date of Clapton’s fall American tour, it was that kind of meal. “You’re getting political, and that’s not a question I feel comfortable with answering,” snapped one concertgoer when asked about Clapton’s views. At the time, Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, had the second-highest tally of Covid cases in Texas since the start of the pandemic — 307,000 in a state with 3 million cases. But at the venue, masks were only “strongly recommended,” and few wore them inside. The Clapton fans there were in support of him or didn’t want to discuss it. “I don’t think he’s really making a political stance,” says David Hayner of Granbury, Texas, attending his first Clapton concert. “He’s speaking out about health and safety, and he’s using the platform he’s been given. It doesn’t bother me at all.” (Says Fink, “It’s a dangerous thing for all those people. And I feel bad for all the people who are going to get sick.” As of this writing, no illnesses connected to the tour have been reported.)
“Somebody said, ‘Have you seen what Eric said?’ ” says Guy. “When somebody’s as famous as he is, and when they speak, people listen. Whatever you or me might think is wrong, the rest of those people who’ve been supporting him all these years may think he’s right.”
Throughout the two-week tour, Clapton never performed his anti-lockdown songs. He stuck with the classics — “I Shot the Sheriff,” the unplugged “Layla,” “Tears in Heaven” — and a handful of blues covers. He rarely addressed the crowd or spoke about vaccines or politics. But guitar in hand, he stood — and for now remains — at the crossroads of a cultural civil war.
Additional reporting in Texas by Kelly Dearmore
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