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Q&A: Eric Clapton

With Derek and the Dominos, the 25-year-old fronts his own band at last

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton performing live onstage, c.1974.

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty

After his return from the Blind Faith tour in the US, Eric Clapton kind of hung out for a while. He sat in with George Harrison, Steve Stills, Howlin’ Wolf and Dr. John sessions and went on the Delaney and Bonnie European tour. He seemed to be treading water.

On the Delaney and Bonnie tour, which Eric sponsored, he had made a point of staying in the background, both on and off stage. While Delaney was bopping around the dressing room of Fairfield Hall in Croydon, and Bonnie was fanning herself, hoarsely wondering where her voice had gone, George Harrison, splendidly turned out in black monkey fur, strode in, casting a cold eye on all interlopers. Eric huddled in a corner as though he were one of those hangers-on.

Then on June 14th, at a London benefit for Dr. Spock and the American Civil Liberties Defense Fund, he appeared for the first time as leader of his own band, Derek and the Dominos. In July, ‘Eric Clapton’ was released, the first album built solely around Clapton and the first in which he took vocal credits.

Clapton may be God to his fans, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s just, at 25, a struggling musician who’d like to be a rock and roll star when he grows up. Although he is still hiding from his own stature in opting against “The Eric Clapton Group,” there is no doubt who the Dominos are backing. Rehearsing with Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon at London’s Revolution Club on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in August, the tentative singing on the album had strengthened and hardened and Eric Clapton was the rocking rolling star. Three days later Derek and the Dominos were to start a month-long tour of British clubs at which Eric insisted the maximum admission could not be more than a pound.

Eric lives in a sort-of Moorish house, deep in the Surrey countryside. There was no answer to repeated doorbell ringing. Entering the house from the terrace on the other side, we halloed. A cat, dozing in the sun, looked annoyed. Down to the swimming pool with its 12-foot-long guitar-in-tiles on the pool floor; no-one there either. Checked the library. A tennis shoe on a table, sunglasses on the couch, a kodacolor of his parents on the end table, gold records on the wall for ‘Disraeli Gears,’ ‘Goodbye,’ ‘Best of Cream,’ the single “Sunshine of Your Love” and both a platinum and gold record for ‘Wheels of Fire.’ Picked one of a large selection of books on the silent screen and settled down in the after-the-bomb stillness. The only interruption was the sudden jangling of the phone. It was Eric’s mother. She wanted to wish him well on the start of his tour. An hour later, Eric came stumbling downstairs in robe and slippers, looking sleepy and abashed. A cup of tea, he changed into his jeans and we went out to the garden to talk.

Why have you started leading your own group after all these years?
Well, because it was the only thing that I could do. It was that or fitting into someone else’s group, or just playing on sessions, and I just felt a great need to get up front and sing, and be what I want to be, instead of being frustrated and playing just lead guitar behind someone else.

I still get a great deal of satisfaction out of playing on someone else’s record, or singing in with someone else’s group. I could still do that if this — if everything—fell through and I suddenly lost faith in my voice, or something, I’d probably still be happy just playing in a group. But so far I’m really very keen to do this thing.

How long do you think this group will stay together?
Two years is a fair period of time … really is quite a long time, you know. But, uh, if everything goes as well as it’s gone, there’s no reason why it should end at all … the only thing that might step in the way is the fact that I’m English and they’re American and they’ve come to my backyard and they might get homesick, and if that’s true then they might want to go home again at some point. But, other than that, musically I think there’s every reason for it to stay together forever.

Why are you singing now?
Ah! I don’t know. Maybe someone else could tell me. I think, just to sort of cut down on the guitar playing, to substitute it with something more natural. You know, I think it’s really more natural to sing with your voice than anything else. I’ve been doing it with my guitar … And now I just want to kind of balance it out a bit.

For the most part, I’ve been very pleased. Up until now I’ve been doing it in the kind of fashion where I play something or write a song or sing a song and then play it back. Like tape it and play it back and check it out, and then do it again, and play it back and check it out just to see … try to be as methodical about it as I can so that I don’t go too far into anything without knowing what I’m doing.

It took you a long time to get into singing. I know people said you were very reluctant to do it. Why was that?
I used to sing – I’ve sung with every group I’ve been with, except Blind Faith. But every group I sang with always had some other singer that was established, or better at it than I was, or that was more keen to get up and do it. I’d always sort of back away. It would just be sort of embarassment or something at the last minute. I suppose it’s just taken me this long to sort of pluck up courage.

What gave you that courage?
Aah! I think it was probably my friendship with Delaney because he inspired me such a great deal, and he gave me the confidence that I needed. He told me that anyone could do it, literally, if they just put their minds to it.

What songs are you happiest with?
I think I like all the songs … my performances are better on some than they are on others. I think the song I’m sort of least pleased with is “Bad Boy.” I like that song but I still, in my mind, haven’t worked out a way to do it, make it more than just ordinary. We’ve tried rehearsing it a hundred different ways and we still come back to the way that it is on the record. I like most of the stuff on there, if I can take it with a pinch of salt you know, and realize that it’s just me having a try. At the time that I did the album I was still very fresh, you know.

It’s really just the same as anything else that you do, you know, it’s practice. If I didn’t sing for a week then I’d be right out where I started. But if it was every day, same as if I played, I’d get better all the time. I would just become stronger.

Why was there such a delay between the finish of the album and its release?
There’s two sides to that coin. First of all we decided to leave the tapes in LA and Delaney would mix them, and Delaney was waiting on me to finish one of the tracks! And I didn’t realize that. I was waiting on him to mix the tracks and send them over. Finally my manager got kind of impatient and told Atlantic to send the tapes to me, and I mixed them – very badly. Atlantic heard them, didn’t like ’em. Then they sent them to Tom Dowd, who mixed them again.

So they were mixed three times in all. Naturally, I never really heard Delaney’s mixes until it was too late, until about two weeks ago, when the record was already out. And they are actually very good. They’re nearest to the original concept of all the songs. But Tom Dowd’s are probably good from another point of view in that he’s coming from an outside point and view and mixed with it all a very objective … kind of attitude.

I understand that you don’t want any singles released from the album?
Not from the album, no. Because now, this is a different group. It’s a group that I’m with now, and just whatever singles should be released should be made by this group.

A year ago you said something to the effect that you’d like to take music back to the pure form of the Fifties.
Well, that’s probably what I’m trying to do. But, then, how can you? I mean, that’s just an idea. When you try and exercise that idea it comes out something different. It’s impossible even for say, a group like the Sha Na Nas to completely recaptivate what was going on in the Fifties. I wasn’t playing anything at the time, so I don’t actually know. I just have a kind of reminiscence of what it was like, a kind of romantic idea. I was influenced by that whole thing – that’s what brought me into music. But if I try and exercise that idea … it’ll still come out with something brand new and fresh, because I’m doing it with four people who have their own ideas. And then the conglomeration of that makes it into something completely new. Should do!

I haven’t been in touch, I haven’t really seen many groups play for a long time now. I don’t know how we’re going to fit in. How what we’re doing is going to fit into the overall picture. Whether it’ll stand out like a sore thumb, or just be part of a huge pile of what everyone else is doing. But I certainly have a lot of faith in it. It seems to me to be a lot stronger than the things I’ve done before except that I have doubts in myself. But I don’t have any doubts in the others of the group at all. They’re all rocks to me – just fantastically strong. They push me along all the time.

What kind of doubts do you have about yourself?
Well … the same doubts as anybody that sticks their neck out and writes a song. Whether or not it’s worth writing in the first place. It’s all been done before. Once you’ve got that in the back of your head, it’s very hard to do anything with conviction.

So many musicians lately, particularly in Britain, have been accused of playing for themselves: I get the feeling that it’s very important to you to be able to communicate with your audience.
Yeah, it’s very important actually, very, very important. But not, not necessarily with words or ideas or slogans. But more just with feeling, I suppose. I have a great respect for music like reggae, which I think is a fantastically high, communicative kind of music, because it’s like simple. So many people do attach themselves to that music, like the skinheads. For them reggae is a complete kind of language. For people who haven’t heard it before, it’s actually quite strange.

Did you think Blind Faith got through to its audiences?
Well, it was … it was very frail. That whole thing we did was very transparent. I mean, it’s almost not there. And in the context of something like Madison Square Garden where you’ve got many thousands of people who’ve seen hundreds of better bands, or, you know, like Hendrixes in the audience. And you’ve got this fantastically kind of fragile thing on stage, and you’re trying to keep it tight and do what you think the audience deserves, and they’re all screaming and shouting. It’s a completely impossible situation.

The minute you get onto the stage in Madison Square Garden, first thing you think is how to get out. You just battle through, get it over with as quickly as possible. I think I’d still feel that now if I was to do that gig today.

Did you do everything you wanted to do with Blind Faith?
I really don’t know, I don’t know what it was capable of. It had a lot of different stages. When we started rehearsing, for instance, it was a different band. It was just me and Steve, and other people that we had around and it was so completely different, almost a jazz thing, and then when we started recording it changed again, and then when we went onto stage it was already over, somehow. The heart, the core of what Blind Faith could have done was all wrapped up in the time before we were actually exposed.

And after that first couple of gigs in America we were just already on our way down. Just a question of getting up on stage every night and trying to find some kind of pattern that you could fit into that would make it secure. And do the same numbers every night in the same order and try and get them polished so that people couldn’t think that we were just a bunch of hypes, like they were saying we were. So that it was already dead, you know.

Was the Blind Faith album recorded live?
Some of it was live, some of it was almost live, with just voice-over dubbed and guitar-over dubbed. We got the songs and everything together to the point where we could probably go into it and put forward two albums in two weeks, or something. But the state the Blind Faith was in when we went into the studios, we didn’t have any songs, except other people’s things that we were doing. So we had to get the whole thing together within two weeks. It was rushed and it was very panicky. And we tried to produce it ourselves to begin with and couldn’t do it because we just sat there at the end of each night. Just sort of wondering what to do, you know. We had to call Jimmy Miller in and he didn’t really know what to do either, because he didn’t know what we wanted to do.

It was all very confused. How would I do it differently? I don’t know. I suppose I’d approach it with more performance. Spend more time putting the group together and becoming part of the group, rather than just a musician who’s playing with the group. Find a better role within the group. Steve’s so good, such a incredible singer. It’s the kind of thing where you say, “He’s so good that I can’t sing with him, but when we get to the night, on stage, I’ll have a go.” And when it does come to the night, on stage … you’re even further away from him. If we had spent more time together it could have been a lot better.

At the end of Blind Faith, you were only writing sporadically and now you’ve become very prolific.
Not very! Take it easy! Stevie Winwood does five songs a day, and I get one finished a week. But it’s getting better all the time. I only wish that I wasn’t so old, that I’d started younger, that I could have discovered all these things earlier. I feel like it’s already too late for me now.

The one question that’s never been answered, what happened to Blind Faith?
It broke up on the tour itself. I think up to a point we were quite happy with what we were doing, like the Madison Square Garden gig was shaky, but we were still quite enthusiastic about the future of the group at the time. Then after that, and being in New York, and everyone else in the group decided they wanted to go home, you see. And I wanted to get into this tour. So I stayed in New York, and as a result I started hanging out with Delaney, because there was no one else there. All our group had gone home. By the time they had come back, I was already one step away from them.

And from that point on I was making very childish comparisons with our group and their group. And there was actually no comparison, but on certain nights I’d get up there and play tambourine with Delaney’s group and enjoy it more than playing with the Blind Faith, because the Blind Faith was already a thing to worry about. And I was worried about it. And by then I kind of got this crusade going for Delaney’s group. I wanted to bring him over to England.

I knew that Steve was kind of disillusioned with the group and I thought, well, when he gets back to England he’s probably going to reform Traffic, and forget the whole thing. So I kind of took that for granted. And as for Ginger and Rick, well, I didn’t count them in my plans at all. I think they were the people that were most disappointed by the break-up, because they expected it to go on and I don’t think they had any kind of awareness of the fact that it was on its last legs.

This group we’ve got here now, you see, I won’t put on any gigs like Madison Square Garden: the nearest we’ll get to that is probably somewhere like Fairfield Hall (Croydon) which we could book sooner or later, but it’s better for us at this point to do clubs under the pseudonym of Derek and the Dominoes so that we can get back into it without too much straining.

The music we’ve got right now deserves to flourish from playing clubs. You know, it’ll get itself together through that medium. Whereas if we took it up on to the concert stage right now, at this point, it would just suffocate. And we’d get panicky and lose touch with what we were trying to do. Whereas in clubs we can get up…. I can sing whatever I fucking feel like singing … sing the blues, or a rock number or just … stick numbers in. We can play as long as we like, or as short as we like and there’s much more … more freedom to it.

Are you financially well off enough to play these clubs at a pound top?
No! Not in the least. My manager’s always telling me that I’ll be all right for the rest of my life, but I can’t see that being true. If I play clubs now for the rest of the year, I’ll probably go bust! But I think actually I could probably exist off record royalties.

You seem so much happier and more extroverted and like know what you’re doing now. Why is that?
I’ve started to find myself, started to face myself, in a way. I mean with Blind Faith it was very easy for me, once again, to tuck myself into a little notch and … and hide. I still hide a lot, but for the most part it’s easier for me to face myself, to listen to my own records now, than it used to be. Or to enjoy someone’s enjoying me, y’know, it’s easier than it ever was before.

Well, what brought about this change?
Making that album really was quite a big step. It was something I’d committed myself to do and I had to go through with it. Right up until the very last second I was scared to death. I was really scared that I wouldn’t live up to other people’s expectations. Probably didn’t, you know, but at least I did it and in a way I faced myself.

There must have been something that got you into the point where you were going to do it anyway?
Well, yeah. You see, meeting Delaney was like, you know, a very freaky thing. Because there was this man who’d been singing all his life, he was like a mountain hillbilly. He’d shout from here and people over there would hear it. And he’d been listening to all the same kinds of music I’d been listening to all my life, and his ideas were the same. He dug the way I played guitar, and I dug the way he played guitar, and if I wanted to…. I wanted to sing and accompany myself I’d do it the same way as he does. And I couldn’t understand why he was so positive about what he was doing and I wasn’t, because we were doing relatively the same thing.

And it was just a question of waking up to the fact that whether other people like what you do, as long as you do it and please yourself then you’re bound to please someone else, which is what Delaney instilled in me. Before, I couldn’t find other people that would like the same songs as I would like, or would really understand why I played the guitar this particular way. And his open enthusiasm for my attempt really put me on the road.

Did you feel that most of the musicians that you played with before were more competitive than he was?
Yeah, that’s very true to a certain extent, except for Steve Winwood. He really is a very fine man. You see, Steve, uh … Steve is very … Steve has a lot of his own problems. And, you know, at the time we were doing Blind Faith — by the time we went on the road — I had more than him and I needed help, but he couldn’t actually come out and help me at any point because he was actually struggling to keep it together himself.

Do you think you’ll play with Delaney and Bonnie again?
I hope so. I’d like to see this whole kind of thing come together again. In a way I’d like to see our band merge with theirs again at some point. When we did that Lyceum gig I sort of, at the end, half expected like they said in the papers: to see Delaney and Bonnie come romping on and to take things to a complete climax. And I still do expect that at some point in time for them to suddenly show up and for the whole thing to become like a united family again.

You played with them, and then their musicians split and they’re playing with you. What’s the feeling between you now?
Ah, it’s like if I had an old lady that I love very much, and if Delaney wanted to take her away from me I couldn’t think of anyone better to have her. I’d rather she went to him than to, say, President Nixon. So it’s the same thing really.

Why have you resisted huge offers to reform Cream?
For the most part because the offers themselves seemed kind of shallow. If there was any reason for the group to come together again, it would do so out of its own momentum. Either I would feel very strongly that it should be brought together and approach the others, or one of them would feel it very strongly and approach me. But when you get a promoter offering sort of a hundred grillion pounds for the Cream to come together again, it’s very easy to turn it down. Because it’s an outside offer. You can see they’re just in it for the bread. If it’s not a natural thing to do, then avoid it.

Have you ever played again, since the break-up?
No! Not as that line-up. Not once … never. I suppose … I suppose we’ve all avoided it in a way. A bit frightened of the fact that we might have been wrong in breaking it up in the first place. At the time I was very convinced that playing with that group was wrong for me, and I had to really reinforce that conviction in order to break it up. I wanted to leave. I had to kind of exaggerate it in a way.

Why did you think it was wrong for you?
Everybody was getting their rocks off too much, somehow, and it was just burning up very quickly. Everyone got into too much of a heavy ego-trip. Virtuosos and all that kind of rubbish. That group started out as one thing and turned into something else when we got to the Fillmore. In California, for the first time the group actually sort of got into another gear. We really thought we were the kings of our instruments. No-one else could come near what we were doing. And it was all through the adulation we were being given. The audience was to blame as much as anyone else. Because they pushed us to those heights. You should never allow yourself to think at any time that you’re the best at what you’re doing – it’s ridiculous. But we definitely did think that – every one of us! I think some of us probably still do.

Do you still see Jack Bruce?
I saw him probably about three months ago. It was nice, you know, it was a great feeling to see him again, and we got very excited and over-expressive towards one another. But I still feel that we’re incompatible in a way. What he’s striving to do is in another direction from me.

And Ginger?
Well, he’s just crazy! He’s totally off his nut. If I joined a band of his now, I’d probably go round the twist. I mean his escapades … man. I love Ginger, I really do love him as a guy, but it’s easier for me to love him when I’m not working with him. Because I don’t have to go through all the heavy side of it. Obviously, when you love somebody you have to love all their faults as well. But it seemed that I always exaggerated the faults, and didn’t enjoy the good parts. Whereas when I’m not with him I can dig his gentleness, and his creativity, more.

And he’s really a leader. I always felt that if I was going to be in his band he’d be the leader and I’d be instructed as to what I should play. I would have to fit into whatever concept he wanted to lay down. It’s a different thing again, because he’s much more of a jazz-based kind of musician. The Cream was really a jazz group, a jazz-rock group – and the jazz part of it was what I didn’t like.

You go to so many sessions, like you’re trying them out for size. Why are you so available?
I’m not really that available. I mean, all the sessions I’ve done in the last two or three months have been for George, for his new album. Either for him or for our group. Or before that, Steve Stills, probably. I love Steve, he’s really a great guy to play with. Most of the time I just do it to escape from whatever else I’m doing. I won’t need to do it from this point on because the Dominos are my escape. When I’m playing with them I’m happy, when I’m not playing with them I’m sort of bored. But most of the reason for doing sessions before was because I was lonely. I wanted to go and play with someone.

I’ve probably seen more of you than anybody else, any other group in London … at Doctor John, with Delaney and Bonnie, at Howlin’ Wolf….
One of my biggest problems is saying no to people. People phone up and lightly ask would I like to do a session in three months’ time. Not thinking of the consequences, I say “Yeah”! When the time comes I’m desperately trying to think of a way to get out of it, but can’t. But I’ve never regretted the sessions that I’ve done. I don’t feel that I’ve prostituted myself in any way, or over-exposed myself. Because I learned something from everyone I play with on the sessions. I learned from Wolf, I learned so much from playing with him. I learned so much from Delaney and Bonnie. I learned so much from George.

Would you have joined Traffic if you’d been invited?
At one stage, I would have done. Because I was literally dying of starvation to play. I went up to see them in Oxford and I got to jam with them. It was just Steve and Jim and Chris. And I liked the sound of it. I didn’t think that they were any better with me playing with them, but I felt that they needed another instrument. I still think they do. A bass, y’know. I was hoping after that gig that I would be asked. If I had been, I would have joined. Just like that. But I wasn’t asked, so it didn’t happen.

Why do you think you weren’t?
I don’t really know. I don’t think Steve needs a guitarist. I’d been thinking that a guitarist would have made the group more versatile. In actual fact it would have given it more of a rigid structure. It would have meant that, being as I can only play guitar, he could only have played organ or piano. Maybe we could have had two guitars. But you see I’m a very un-versatile musician as compared to people like Steve Winwood, because I can only play one instrument, and maybe dabble on the bass. So it wouldn’t have actually been an improvement for this group for me to have joined. Whereas adding a bass will, because it gives Steve more opportunity to jump about.

Do you think you could play with Dave Mason?
Yeah, I think he has a fantastic touch. I love the way he plays guitar. And his songs are great. But as yet we’re two different personalities, and the music that comes out of those personalities at this time is quite different. And he has a lot of things on his plat at the moment that he’s trying to get together. He should go out to America, and do a tour in his own name. Because I don’t want him to join this group and become one of the Dominoes until he’s really got some kind of recognition he deserves as a solo artist.

I heard that Mick Jagger was thinking of joining the Dominoes….
Well, he asked me to play with the Stones last year, before he found Mick Taylor. But I was into the Blind Faith thing … so no. And since then we’ve seen a hell of a lot of one another, and that’s just out of friendship. But he’s never suggested anything. Maybe he doesn’t feel that he wants to be pushy. Or he’s too shy to say it, because he’s as shy as I am. I know that he likes the group and he’d probably like to use us on some sessions. But I think he’s got a good band himself.

What have you been doing with George?
He’s probably cutting a double album. And it’ll be out towards the end of this year, I think, in autumn. And we’ve just been laying down tracks. Most of it is the Dominos. Except for about three or four tracks where he used Ringo and Klaus. Pete Drake played steel guitar on a couple of things.

George writes incredibly beautiful songs. But he needs more confidence in himself. It was at the stage where now he’s got to put all the vocals on, so he’s probably going to go through a lot of self-depreciation, while he’s doing that, which would put him off the album a bit. But I mean he really shouldn’t be, because the songs are so great and the way he sings them is so great. Everyone’s going to dig it. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of the songs he’s got are almost like folk-rock things. Very Dylanesque, but everytime he got us to come and play, they just turned into rock, y’know, whether he liked it or not.

The “London School” sometimes seems to be getting so over-bred, everybody playing together in an Old Boys’ network.
The “London School”? I think we picked that up from America. London used to be a pretty sterile place for musicians; it still is pretty ropey. The first time I ever experienced any swapping of ideas or jamming was when I first went to New York. When I went down to the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and everyone was jamming. Hendrix and a lot of other people. And we all just jammed and went to other people’s lofts and played. And when I came back from America, I’d always rave on to everyone here about how it was like out there. And everyone else that went out there and came back brought it back with them. So it’s really some sort of transplant thing, if anything. Sooner or later, London will benefit from it. It’s still very much a closed shop. But … it could change.

Who would you like to play with?
I’d like to play with everybody that I thought I was worthy. I’m happiest playing with my group, than without a group. Because there’s understanding then. Everytime you break fresh ground you have to go through all the kind of preliminaries, getting over whether or not you’re good enough.

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