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The Rolling Stone Interview: Eric Clapton

Hanging with a master at the ‘Crossroads’

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton performing live onstage, playing Fender Stratocaster guitar, 1988.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

Eric Clapton was strolling down a New York city street one day when a guy walked up to him and said, “You’re Eric Clapton, right?” Clapton said, yes, he was. To which the guy replied excitedly, “You’re history!”

“He meant it in the nicest possible way,” Clapton says with a bemused grin in his manager’s London office, “but he didn’t realize what he was saying. Can you imagine how it feels to be referred to as a legend while you’re still alive?”

Such are the perils of being one of rock’s most enduring superstars. Clapton’s reinvention of the electric guitar with his blues-obsessive image in the Sixties was equaled only by that of his good friend and soul mate Jimi Hendrix. With Cream, Clapton set new standards in rock for free improvisational daring and electric blues thunder. With Derek and the Dominos, he combined stunning instrumental technique, rich melodic invention and striking lyric portraits of romantic bliss and trauma to create one of rock’s great in-and-out-of-love song cycles, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. While his subsequent solo outings have been comparatively low-key explorations of rootsy Americana and pop craftsmanship, Clapton has a continuing stream of good-groove hits to his credit (his inspired make-over of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Lay Down Sally,” the recent “Forever Man”), and in concert he is still quite capable of setting his six strings afire.

Any remaining doubt that Eric Patrick Clapton, 43, has a right to walk through the Portals of Immortals has been erased by Crossroads, the Biograph-style boxed set released this spring, which chronicles his first quarter century in rock in exhaustive detail, beginning with his first demo recordings with the Yardbirds. But Crossroads–thanks to producer Bill Levenson’s scholarly diligence and musical good taste–doesn’t mummify Clapton’s legacy. It is the vivid portrait of a man searching for identity, physical release and a little peace through music. It’s all here–his ambitions, his weaknesses, his phobias–fleshed out with a wealth of previously unissued live recordings and studio outtakes that highlight particularly enigmatic chapters in Clapton’s life, like Derek and the Dominos’ descent into drug oblivion, unwittingly captured in the five unfinished tracks from the band’s starcrossed second LP.

Clapton got the chills when he listened to that material recently. It was the first time he had done so in over fifteen years. “It got too much for me,” he says. “Old memories started coming back; old issues raised their head. I think of the people in that band and what happened to them. It is strange to know that I was part of that band.”

Clapton had no part in the track selection for Crossroads. Nor did he want any. “It would have been an egotistical thing for me to do. I find it difficult to see it in perspective, but it’s nice that someone feels that way about my work.”

During the two extensive sessions that took place for this interview, though, Clapton–modestly dressed in a black shirt and black trousers, often stroking his beard absentmindedly as he tried to recall a certain anecdote–amiably walked down Memory Lane using Crossroads as his map, talking with clarity and candor about every stage of his career. Between cigarette puffs and sips of hot tea, he discussed his blues apprenticeships with the Yardbirds and with John Mayall, relived the glory days of Cream, crawled through the wreckage of Blind Faith, rued his reoccurring drug and alcohol lapses of the Seventies, divulged his secret preference for romantic ballads over smoking guitar solos and admitted that being called God in the Sixties really wasn’t such a big deal.

“It was just graffiti,” he says, dismissing the mythic anxiety that supposedly dogged him after the phrase “Clapton is God” started appearing in London subways during his tenure with Mayall. “It didn’t have any deep meaning. It was just a kind of accolade. They could have said anything. ‘Clapton is fantastic It was nice, and I didn’t argue with it. I have never yet understood what the fuss was about.”

To Clapton, Crossroads is not the entire book of his life, just an overview of some of the most significant chapters. The day before the first session for this interview, he completed a new soundtrack for the upcoming film Homeboy, starring Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken. In June, Clapton temporarily joined Dire Straits for a string of reunion shows, capped by a top-o’-the-bill set at the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler is returning the favor by joining Clapton’s band for a U.S. concert trek, opening September 1st in Dallas. Add to that the usual load of guest session work and a new album projected for 1989. “God” and his guitar aren’t exactly lying around gathering dust.

“Why can’t I have another box in another twenty-five years’ time?” he asks, only half-kidding. “It’s a long time, but maybe I’ll make it. Of course, it would be a pretty thin box.”

You’ve spent much of your career trying to reconcile musical ambition with superstardom. Doesn’t ‘Crossroads’ actually aggravate the problem? It is certainly the ultimate compliment–you’re a certified living legend–but the set’s emphasis on your past implies that your best work is behind you.
The most difficult part for me to accept is to still be coming out with product, up-to-date material, and it won’t be treated with the same kind of respect as the stuff that is in that compilation. It’s almost as if it’s two different people living with my name. I run into people who say, “Aw, yeah, you were in Cream. What a great band.” And it’s like nothing has happened since. I don’t worry about it that much anymore.

I’m probably better off making records for people who haven’t heard me before, because they’ll hear it with fresh ears, than I am making records for people who’ve heard me over all those years, constantly comparing me to the past. You can sometimes improve on the past, but you can’t recapture it. And there are always going to be people saying I was better then.

Was there a time when that kind of criticism really hurt you?
It caused me to lay off a lot in the Seventies. People were really infatuated with Cream, and that, for me, was just a passing stage. That’s why I didn’t play as much lead guitar on those albums in the Seventies. I was very, very nervous that I’d said it all.

The chronological sequencing of ‘Crossroads’ highlights the contrast between your blues obsessions in the Sixties and your later emphasis on song and studio craftsmanship, which isn’t nearly as adventurous.
That’s quite correct. But it’s not as black-and-white as that for me. I’m still really concerned with pushing forward, but a lot slower and a lot more gradually than I used to. And I don’t see myself tied to any particular music form anymore. I enjoy things on a far broader spectrum. I was an intensely dedicated musician in my early twenties. It was something I wouldn’t care to live through again, because I missed so much of the rest of my life. And I’m enjoying that now. Music can become an obsessive thing with me, really obsessive. A lot of that has since dropped away. Whether my music has suffered or not is not the point. My life is a lot better for it.

‘Crossroads’ starts at a very appropriate place, your first demo recordings with the Yardbirds in late 1963. Do you remember anything about the sessions?
It was the first time I ever heard myself played back, and that was a shock. You realize how clumsy you sound. What feels so sophisticated and smooth as you’re doing it sounds so rough on playback. We were very, very nervous. I remember time passing and doing some more sessions. I remember doing “I Ain’t Got You” and thinking, “Well, this is just like falling off a log.” In the short amount of time that passed between those sessions, we really got polished very quick.

What ambitions did you have as a guitarist at the time?
I don’t think my ambition had formed itself then. I was in that state of mind where I didn’t know what I liked, but I knew what I didn’t like. I was shy of all pop music. I was becoming a blues purist, and I was really working with the Yardbirds to work on my craft, to find a way of making money through music. But I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do. Leaving the Yardbirds was a perfect example. I didn’t want to be part of a group that was going to be on TV doing Tin Pan Alley songs. So when I walked out of the band, I was suddenly slapped in the face by myself. I walked straight out of the band into nothing. It was about then that I started to get an idea of what I really wanted.

What was that?
It was preempted. Before I’d even made up my mind, I got the call from John Mayall. I had a fantasy about a blues trio, which was what Cream was gonna be. And I started to think of myself as being the leader of that band. I had no qualifications whatsoever. That proved itself when Cream was formed. The more powerful personality of Jack [Bruce] got to the forefront.

Did you actually play on the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love”?
There’s a middle eight in there that has a little riff in it, a little blues riff in it, which is me. That was my concession to being in the band. It was the day after that session that I left.

Were you aware of any gathering acclaim for you as a guitarist during your Yardbirds days?
You can count on one hand how many white guitar players were playing the blues at the time. I’m not going to say Keith Richards and Brian Jones weren’t doing it, but they were more into Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. I wanted to be more like Freddy King and B.B. King. So I had no competition.

You were number one in a field of one.
Exactly.

Yet by the time you cut the ‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ LP, John Mayall was giving you star billing, which he never gave later guitarists like Peter Green and Mick Taylor. Didn’t you have any sense of impending fame?
Very much so, and I used it to my advantage a lot. The reason John acquiesced so much was the pressure I put on him, in terms of what material we could do. I’m not saying it was an aggressive thing on my part. Being a bandleader for so long and making all those decisions, it was refreshing for him to hand it over to someone he could trust musically to come up with something new.

Did the musical and emotional impact of blues icons like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters represent an attainable goal for you as an aspiring bluesman?
They were the real thing, and I was the imitator That’s fine as long as you keep it like that. But as soon as you start to do the real things yourself and try to compare it, you see how far behind you are That is the difficult part. That is what made me give up trying to be the 100 percent bluesman. Because I realized I would always be that far behind my ideal.

Was that a contributing factor in your decision to leave Mayall?
Don’t forget that at that point I was only turning twenty-one. You had this dichotomy of a guy who was a serious blues musician and was also a very wild young man. There was this adolescent side of me that wanted to get out and see the world. So I was split down the middle. If it hadn’t been for that, if I’d been totally dedicated to the band, I might very well still be with him. As it was, I was feeding on a lot of other directions, and I started to look at the whole Mayall thing as a dead-end street. And that’s when Cream started to be an appealing idea. It was the complete freedom of starting something that had no bounds.

Given that you quit the Yardbirds over “For Your Love,” it seems a little contradictory that Cream’s first single in 1966 was “Wrapping Paper,” a piece of Jack Bruce-Pete Brown pop fluff that showed none of the group’s blues or jazz prowess.
You get a recording studio, put a group in it, and you’ll never fail to be surprised by what comes out of it. The way Jack kind of introduced it to us was as very avant-garde, because it was so opposite to what we would be expected to do – “No one’s going to get this.” And that was part of our attitude, that we would cock a snoot at the world. They were expecting heavy rock, well, we won’t give ’em that. We’ll give ’em a nice little sophisticated dance-band tune. Sure enough, it flopped. But it shocked everybody. It was the last thing they wanted to hear. But if they came to see us at a gig, they got what they wanted.

How much did the emerging San Francisco rock aesthetic affect the jamming aspect of Cream? Jack Bruce has said that playing at the Fillmore for the first time in 1967 was a revelatory experience, because here was an audience that just said, “Hey, play anything!”
With Cream, any one of us could have played unaccompanied for a good length of time. So you put the three of us together in front of an audience willing to dig it limitlessly, we could have gone anywhere. And we did. May be we should not have been allowed that much luxury. We probably started burning out at that point. We were just going for the moon every time we played, instead of confining it and economizing.

The acclaimed live version of “Crossroads” on ‘Wheels of Fire’ was edited by engineer Tom Dowd from a much longer performance. How much longer was the original?
It may have been eleven minutes long. God knows. And I don’t understand that either. There’s a couple of big myths about me. This thing about God and this thing about “Crossroads.” I think that’s a terrible solo. I saw a thing with Joe Walsh the other day, talking about that solo. I really appreciate that respect for it, but I can’t figure out what the hell they’re talking about.

What’s so terrible about it?
It’s messy! I admit it’s got tons of energy, but that alone doesn’t make it. I don’t like it. Isn’t that funny?

How was “Sunshine of Your Love” written?
We’d been to see Hendrix about two nights before at the Saville Theatre, in London. He’d been here for about six months, and he played this gig that was just blinding. I don’t think Jack had really taken him in before; I knew what the guy was capable of from the minute I met him. It was the complete embodiment of the different aspects of rock & roll guitar rolled up into one. I could sense in coming off the guy. Jack took a little longer to realize what was happening. And when he did see it that night after the gig he went home and came up with the riff. It was strictly a dedication to Jimi. And then we wrote a song on top of it.

That riff was Jack’s? Everyone identifies it with you.
No, I don’t take the credit for that.

What part of the song did you write?
The turnaround in the chorus. And some of the lyrics too.

You said you originally envisioned yourself as the leader ofa blues trio. Do you think Cream might have survived its personality problems if you had asserted yourself more?
It was not possible to do. I did not have, nor do I have now, the amount of personal power or aggression to keep the other two guys in place. And I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t have been right to try and exercise authority over them. Jack is a far superior musical brain than I am, and he could argue his way out of anything I could insist on. Ginger [Baker] would simply not accept it. It would be too much of a battle for me to take it on.

Cream was a shambling circus of diverse personalities who happened to find that catalyst together. And when it burned out, it burned out. We couldn’t save it. And probably didn’t want to, until later. We all had regrets over the years. I miss those good times, the companionship. I have never been, since then, with two other guys that I felt so completely akin with. I also got hurt quite a lot in that band, really badly hurt. And ever since then, I have managed to keep a certain amount of distance between myself and the other musicians I’ve worked with. I don’t let anyone get that close to me anymore.

Your next band, Blind Faith, was probably the most aptly named combo in rock history. Were you or the others – Baker, Steve Winwood – prepared for the overexpectations that greeted you?
I think Steve felt more unprepared than I did. I wasn’t that far out of Cream when we started Blind Faith. It wasn’t a big deal for me to go and play for those kinds of audiences. And I remember being concerned about Steve’s anxiety. When we started touring, what was wrong was that we weren’t ready. We weren’t committed enough to each other to survive it.

What do you think of the ‘Blind Faith’ album in retrospect?                                                             I think it’s a lovely album. I like its looseness. It’s like a supersession record, except it’s got a little something more than that. You can feel there’s a lot of longing in the band.

“Presence of the Lord” was your first serious stab at songwriting. Why didn’t you sing it on the ‘Blind Faith’ LP instead of Winwood?
I couldn’t make that key. I wrote it in C, which is pretty high for me. Also, I was very overwhelmed by Steve’s presence as a singer. I don’t think I could have stool out in the studio and sung it while he was there. I was totally without confidence at the time as a singer.

Were you feeling particularly religious when you wrote it?
It was a true statement of what was happening in my life at the time. I had somewhere to live. I was actually having a good time after leaving Cream, feeling very secure. I was in a great frame of mind. That was just a song of gratitude. I’m not a religious person, never have been. But I’ve always found it very easy to say thank you to God, or whatever you choose to call him, for whatever happens, which is nice to me. It’s no problem for me to be grateful.

How much say did you really have in the making of ‘Eric Clapton,’ your first solo album? It’s got your name on it, but it’s more like a Delaney and Bonnie record in terms of sound and style.
Absolutely. In a way, it was a vehicle for Delaney’s frustrations with himself. He may have been projecting himself on me a lot. And that comes across a lot on the record. I don’t mind it at all. I enjoyed it and learned a lot in the process. He was prepared to be my coach, and no one had ever offered that to me before. He was the first person to instill in me a sense of purpose. And he was very serious about it. He was a very religious person, saying things like “You’ve got a gift. If you don’t use it, God will take it away.” It was quite frightening when I looked at it that way.  

The hit single “After Midnight” marked the beginning of your J.J. Cale fixation. How did you first hear about him?
Through Delaney. He was an old friend of J.J.’s. He played me the original version of “After Midnight,” which isn’t dissimilar from the one on the Eric Clapton record. But it wasn’t until later on that I really became an appreciator of J.J.

Did you consciously try to sing like him?
I never thought I did. His style is so difficult. It’s actually harder to sing quietly, almost whispery, like he does and get it right. You can make a lot of blunders. So I tried to get somewhere in the middle. But I was definitely trying to get something out of myself that was similar to J.J.

Your first record with Derek and the Dominos, the original single of “Tell the Truth,” produced by Phil Spector, was killer stuff, full of screaming guitars and wild vocal harmonies. Why was it recalled so soon after its release?
I don’t remember. I remember it didn’t do well.

It wasn’t out long enough to do well!
Perhaps. I’ve never had a handle on the business. I just do not understand it all Don’t forget that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs died the first time out. I don’t understand that either. I don’t even know what made it sell later. Did it sell on merit? Or because they found out it was me? I have no idea. I’d rather not know.

Looking back now at the power and musical clarity of ‘Layla,’ it’s hard to believe it was recorded amid such heavy drug consumption. Didn’t your habit get in the way?
We were very fit. We would have saunas, go sunbathing and swimming during the day and then go to the studio and get loaded. It didn’t affect the playing or the sessions. But as is the way with drugs, it would catch up later.

Did touring aggravate the Dominos’ drug problem?
Yes. We scored a massive amount of coke and H [heroin] before we left Florida and took it on tour. I don’t know how we got through it with the amount we were taking. I couldn’t do it; I would die now. Even the idea of it frightens me. But it definitely wore the band down and introduced a lot of hostility that wasn’t naturally there. It drove a wedge between each one of us.  

By the time of the Dominos’ 1971 sessions for the aborted second album, were you past the point of no return?
Money and dope and women were getting so far involved with our nucleus that we couldn’t communicate anymore. I remember it came to a crunch when one day Jim [Gordon] was playing the drums, and he heard that I’d made some remark about a drummer in another band. I don’t remember making the remark, but he got up from behind his kit and said, “Why don’t you get so-and-so in here? He could play it better than I could!” and walked out. Or maybe I walked out. Somebody walked out. And we never went back into the studio again. It was that dramatic.

There is something very dark and haunting about those unfinished tracks on ‘Crossroads’, of something falling apart, poisoned beyond repair.
There was a feeling of real sadness there, of futility. The tapes stayed in the studio. I never went back. Nor did the others. The fact that the tracks are out now is fine. But it was a closed book. There was no going back. It was time to move on. Or time to just go and hide and rest.

How does it feel playing “Layla” now, almost twenty years later?
I’m incredibly proud of that song. To have ownership of something that powerful is something I’ll never be able to get used to. It still knocks me out when I play it.

It’s one of the few rock songs that can truly be described as “majestic.”
You know what? That riff is a direct lift from an Albert King song. And I don’t have to pay royalties because … [He hums the riff.] Hmmm, maybe I do [laughs]. It’s a song off the Born Under a Bad Sign album [“As the Years Go Passing By”]. It goes, “There is nothing I can do/If you leave me here to cry.” It’s a slow blues. We took that line and speeded it up. I’ve tried to re-create the sense of that again and again when I’ve done albums. And it cannot be done. It pales in significance. I’ve realized it’s pointless. Just leave it be.

Did you fall out of love with the guitar in the Seventies? The emphasis on LPs like ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and ‘Slowhand’ was more on laid-back grooves than torrid solos.
For most of the Seventies, I was content to lay back and do what I had to do with the least amount of effort. I was very grateful to be alive. I didn’t want to push it. I was also tired of gymnastic guitar playing. And not only was I tired of it in myself, it seemed the advent of Cream and Led Zeppelin had woken up a whole specter of guitar players who just wanted to burn themselves into infinity. The more I heard about that, the more I wanted to back off. I started to identify with like-minded people like J.J. Cale. When I listened to J.J. Cale records, I was impressed by the subtlety, by what wasn’t being played.                                         

You also showed a heretofore unknown taste for romantic ballads — “Let It Grow,” “Wonderful Tonight.” Was this a secret passion of yours?
I think it’s a big challenge to write a love song that isn’t all soppy. “Wonderful Tonight” has a little bit of irony in it. I didn’t write it in a particularly good mood. I wrote it because my wife was late getting ready to go out. I was in a foul temper about it. But there was an album I had very early on by Chuck Berry, One Dozen Berrys, and there were a couple of songs in there that were ballads, which almost knocked me out more than the rock & roll stuff. Because they seemed to represent him more, when his guard was down. I think it’s the same for a lot of musicians. When you see them relax and they pick up a guitar, the first thing that comes out is a really nice ballad, the softer side, because they’re so fed up with putting on this big façade.

What do you think of those Seventies and early-Eighties solo albums today?
I can’t look at them in a non-relative way. If it was me now, in a fit, clear state of mind, I would have to say that I could make them better, without a doubt. But when I look back and see the state I was in – emotionally, physically, the amount of substances I was consuming – I can’t see how they could be any better. I know people who even now go into a studio and don’t get that much done and don’t consume half of what we were consuming. So we did pretty well [laughs]. Every one of those records has an ingredient of some kind that can move me. And the tracks that embarrass me I don’t play.

On your stronger efforts, the ratio of your musical success seems directly related to the quality of the players pushing you from behind, like the Albert Lee-Ry Cooder band on ‘Money and Cigarettes’ and Phil Collins on ‘Behind the Sun.’ What do you look for in collaborators?
I’m a very passive reactor. If there is a forceful character in the mix, I will let it come out rather than try to alter the direction of things so I’m in the front. I don’t like to compete musically. If you put me onstage with another guitar player and he starts showing off, I won’t compete. I’ll let him go. When it’s my turn, I’ll play what I’m going to play anyway. That’s how it is in the studio. At the end of the day, people will say that Behind the Sun and August are really Phil Collins records. Fine, if that’s all they can hear, they’re not listening properly. I’m in there with as much as I got, but not in a competitive way. If I did, it would be a mess. It works pretty good for me to allow people to be themselves rather than trying to lay down the law.

 How did it feel touring with Robert Cray last year? Not only is he a genuine rarity – a young black blues guitarist — but he takes as much inspiration from your early work as he does from that of the great black players like Albert and B.B. King.
The hardest thing for me to come to terms with was that Robert Cray was an intelligent young black man who wasn’t interested in making contemporary black music. He was more interested in preserving the blues form and enlarging on it. Once I accepted that, it was pretty easy for me to accept the rest. And it was fantastic to find out that he did know about my work and liked it as well as Hendrix and the Kings. The sides to that guy are phenomenal. You should hear his Howlin’ Wolf impersonation; he can make your hair stand on end. I’ve heard people say he sounds just like Albert King or so-and-so. Well, if you really heard him do those people, he really does sound like them. If he wants to impersonate someone, he’s got it down. But when he gets onstage, that’s Robert Cray.

What’s left for you to learn as a blues guitarist?
Simplicity. Roughing it up, cruding it up. That’s why I like to go without playing for a while. If you’re actually physically incapacitated a bit, it can make it sound nice and rough. Or you go for the more obvious things. And if you play a lot, you tend to avoid the obvious, and that’s when sophistication creeps in. The last thing I want to be is sophisticated.

What role does the guitar play in your current sound? It’s not the primary vehicle now as it was with Cream or the Dominos.
It’s still my voice. When I hear a piece of music in my head, I don’t hear a song. I hear the guitar part. So I write words to that and sing it. The guitar is first and foremost in my head. Once it’s done that in my head, I use the guitar to embellish the voice. It’ll always be there. I’ll always try to play with the most amount of soul through the guitar. I can’t do that through my voice, because I don’t have that ability as a singer. I have to shift that emphasis at some point to the guitar.

The one jarring thing about ‘Crossroads’ is that it ends with the remake of “After Midnight,” which you did for a Michelobbeer commercial. Didn’t you see anything contradictory in a former alcoholic doing a beer ad?
You can say that again. Listen, man, I was a practicing alcoholic when I made that commercial. By the time it came out, I was in treatment This was December of ’87. I was actually in treatment in Minnesota when that came on the TV. I was in a room full of recovering alcoholics, myself being one of them, and everybody went, “Is that you?” I said, “Yep.” What was I going to say? It was me when I was drinking.

I don’t know if it was offered to me now whether I would do it. But then again, I’m not a preacher. I’m not one to say whether people should be drinking or not. Otherwise, I’d have to come down on all my mates, like Phil, who does it as well. I can only speak for myself. I don’t drink anymore, and I’d rather not drink ever again.  

‘Crossroads’ is an exhaustive summary of your entire career, the valleys as well as the peaks. What have you ultimately learned about yourself from it?
The biggest thing I’ve found is I’ve gotten near to what I wanted a lot of times, but I’ve never done it. That isn’t necessarily a good advert for the record [laughs]. I know what I’m capable of, but I don’t think I’ve ever done it. I was reading an interview with Chet Atkins, and he said that he’d been trying all his life to get the sound right and he hadn’t yet. That blew my mind. And I found it very encouraging that someone that proficient was still discontent with the way he sounded. For me, it’s the same thing with this boxed set. If I go through and listen to each track, I still would find some way to say, “Well, it could have been better.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Eric Clapton

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