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Eric Clapton: Farther On Up The Road

by Barbara Charone

From Sounds Magazine, October 1976.
Copyright © Barbara Charone, 1976, 2006, all rights reserved.

DROUGHT? What drought? The green green grass of Surrey looks so healthy you'd think the local farmers had been secretly pumping chlorophyl injections into the earth all summer long. So much for aesthetic beauty.

There was trouble. We were late. Five days late. Already I'd missed the once in a lifetime opportunity of witnessing the Cranleigh Ploughing Match. Driving past the site of this annual event, well kept fields supplied fertile proof that the competition had been fierce. So much for agricultural gamesmanship.

The roads become increasingly narrow as the car wends it's way towards Hurtwood Edge, a suitably sensitive name for the sprawling country retreat Eric Clapton calls home. Past the local and down the long and winding road, an idyllic atmosphere comfortably permeates the fresh air. So much for the introduction.

Just after two on a pleasant Wednesday afternoon, Eric Clapton sat in his front room practising dobro to background accompaniment supplied by a Don Williams album. Within the last few weeks Clapton had discovered a new hero, digesting a steady diet of the collected Williams vinyl works.

On the surface, this country and western appreciation may seem totally divorced from Clapton's more familiar blues power. But the backbone of country music revolves around the same raw emotions that Clapton exclusively deals with. Pain and anguish hurts plenty in Nashville too.

CLAPTON STUDIOUSLY picks out a tune on a beautiful handmade dobro. Several nights back Don Williams and his two man band had raised hell at Eric's, jamming the night away with pickin' and drinkin' being the most popular pastimes.

But that merry confrontation was two days ago. Now, in sober daylight, Clapton began to revert to his less confident posture. Having agreed to play dobro with Williams during several tunes at a London concert, self-doubt and insecurity began to plague the guitarist. Always more of a musician than a personality, Clapton longed to walk onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon stripped of his illustrious past. Oh to be a sideman stuck behind those anonymous amps once again.

"I spend my time listening to people and being heavily influenced by them," Clapton said quietly, gently putting down the specially crafted dobro. "Then it comes time to record and I go down to the studio, try something new and it comes out as me again."

The battle between what the public demand and what EC really wants to give them has reached a healthy balance. Clapton does not concern himself with filling any preconceived roles. He always wore the adulation awkwardly anyways. While the masses credited first the Yardbirds and later Cream with defining heavy metal electric playing, Clapton tossed off virtuoso riffs with his back to the audience.

"I don't want to be immodest but I like to attract people to my music and not to anything else. If they don't know who it is and they put the record on and like it, then it means I've succeeded," he said seriously, "rather than selling something on the strength of anything else like my name or my legend that built up around me."

Within the last few years, Clapton has tried to gently defuse the legend. Sitting in his front room looking more like one of the lads than a famous rock 'n roller, it was hard to believe that all the gold albums that decorated the corridor walls really belonged to him. Maybe this guy with the warm smile and fancy dobro was really the gardener. Maybe the master of the house was out on tour.

The speakers at one end of the room look more like onstage amplification than the standard at home stereo console. Much of the front room is filled with some sort of musical paraphenalia. Cardboard boxes bursting at the seams are stuffed alphabetically with hundreds of records practically filling one side of the room.

In the corner an impressive antique treasure chest arouses suspicions until its contents are revealed by the proud owner. Inside this pirate chest lay hundreds of albums, now deleted collectors items. EC pulls out an ancient Chuck Berry album with an eye-catching cover of strawberries and giggles. Afterall, he's just another fan.

Some of his favourite guitars enjoy a seat on the couch. "They get insecure if I don't give them enough attention," he said with a grin. Behind the guitars stands a Fender Rhodes piano and next to that a complete drum kit.

"What can I do?" Clapton asked helplessly, still thinking about rolling with Don several nights ago.

"I'm at home here on my own 'cept for the old woman and the dog. It's hard to be influenced, hard to do anything electric. I can't just pick up a guitar and play on my own. So I play acoustic all the time. That's how the songs are written. And it's very difficult to break that mould once you've stepped into it."

THE MOULD Clapton has craftfully constructed is charged with the same emotional intensity that filled each original classically structured solo. Always an extremely sensitive, romantic sentimentalist, this outpouring of emotions was originally most prominent in his guitar playing. Now similarly intense sentiments abound in his songwriting, singing and acoustic guitar playing. Expect no heavy metal cop-out from this guitarist.

"I don't really think they want a heavy metal album. At least I hope they don't cause they're not gonna get it anymore," EC said with the utmost determination to uphold his words.

"I'm past that kind of thing. I don't think it lasts."

Unobtrusively perched atop the bass drum, a cute little teddy bear is less ephemeral than countless current rock stars. The teddy is not a childhood original enjoyed by a boyhood Clapton but a latter day replacement.

"Mine was stabbed and stiched up so many times," Eric laughs genuinely amused. "It was the one thing I could take everything out on."

This new teddy, however, is destined for a long and prosperous life time. These days Eric Clapton doesn't need to unleash pent-up frustrations on defenseless teddy bears. These days Eric Clapton doesn't have to prove himself to a public weaned on great expectations. No longer concerned with being the fastest gun in the west, Clapton does not worry about a misinformed public looking to him for something that just isn't there.

"I don't hate people expecting just one thing of me," Clapton said honestly, lighting a cigarette, "it's just they don't seem to recognise what that one certain thing is. Just cause my exterior changes, fuck," he sighs slightly exasperated, "that doesn't mean my insides have changed."

If anything his insides are more prominent on record and stage than ever before. Low-key acoustic tales of broken hearts contain as much emphatic gut-level emotion as any definitive solo. These days Eric Clapton just wants to be himself. He's certainly earned that privilege.

"If people want that heavy metal thing they can go somewhere else. I'm not in any kind of competition. If they put me onstage with Beck," he says the word with much respect, "who's really fast and tough, I'd just have to play rhythm guitar.

"What I'm trying to do is find another way of doing it so it's distinctively me. And if it has to be softer and even unrecognisable at first then that's alright even if it's not the current trend. There's always gonna be some young kid who can do it twice as good as you," Clapton maturely rationalised. "So you develop something else, try and stay away from the gun shot and out of the line of fire."

Resplendent in faded denims, a short sleeve faded tartan shirt, slippers and a just-beginning-to-wake-up look, Eric Clapton stared a half empty bottle of Carlsberg Special Brew in the face. A package of Rothman's lay within easy reach as did a small blue plastic plectrum which read: THIS IS MY FUCKING PICK E.C.

The owner of this specially made plectrum tossed off one of those inimitable smiles that silently speak of sentiments as warm as those he sings about in 'Hello Old Friend'. No longer content to mechanically churn out past achievements, Eric Clapton still wants success. But he wants it strictly on his own terms. All that's shifted is the perspective.

"All that emotion is in the writing now instead of the guitar playing," he said quietly, confronting the Carlsberg Special Brew with the appreciation of a true connoisseur. "The important thing to preserve is the emotion rather than technique. I'd like to think my voice is actually as good now as my guitar playing because that should make the right balance."

Every time Clapton makes another album he gives away more of himself. While the misguided grope desperately for some rock star to lead them down the path of salvation towards the second coming, Clapton is more concerned with honesty and integrity than some clever hot lick.

THE CLAPTON of the seventies is not very removed from the sixties legend. The connection is emotion, now more apparent than ever. While 'Badge' or 'Born Under A Bad Sign' may have previously conjured up visual images while providing astounding musical moments, 'All Our Past Times' or 'Black Summer Rain' from his newest album No Reason To Cry are equally contagious and satisfying.

Creativity and growth is dependent on change and stimulation. Just a coupla one night stands drive the point home. Clapton has to adopt new styles and progressions to maintain his own sanity. Ten years ago Eric Clapton was a very different person than the one sitting on the couch listening to Don Williams today. Ten years ago we were all different. But the past has been intuitively linked with the present by a consistant emotional thread which runs through the bulk of his work.

"If you listen to anybody who's been at it a long time there's always a thread of similarity that goes through each record. There's a track on each record of mine that's almost identical. You can't change that much whatever you try and do. You just change the musicians and the environment around you."

Critics complain with deep consternation about both the environment and musicians Clapton has chosen, prefering an all-star cast of famous names than a relatively unknown bunch of Tulsa musical freaks. But Clapton is one of the most unorthodox guys around. Maybe someone else needs superstar support to produce magic but Clapton depends on the family atmosphere of love and affection more than technical virtuosity.

"Whenever you go into the studio you do whatever the environment seems to suggest. I can't stick to my guns that hard when I've got all those musicians to bend to my will," he said laconically, taking a hearty swig of the Special Brew. "It's always got to be a collective idea.

"I have to preserve the integrity between all of us," Clapton says sincerely, radiating one of those 'Smiles'. "If I recorded an album with some other people our band trust would be abused."

Clapton enjoys a very special rapport with his band. No longer intimidated by his giant shadow, the band now have the confidence in themselves to step out front with perceptive musical support. This positive sign of encouragement has given Clapton the motivation to tenderly hold the reigns, driving the entire assembly to a Grand Prix finale. No overnight process, it's taken the band three long hard years to grow and get into one cohesive unit.

Last summer Clapton seemed restless and agitated. But previous insecurities no longer dot his conversation. Basically Clapton is very shy and retiring. Only time and patience can permeate the sensitive surface. And the same qualities must be employed when listening to his recent albums, none of which can be simply dismissed as easy listening. Easy? At times the intensity is frightening.

"It's in the writing now instead of the guitar playing so much. If people can't see the similarity that's ok," he said without a trace of hostility or bitterness. "It's not something they need to know. They might subconsciously sense it but it's not necessary for me to make it so obvious that they jump up and recognise it."

He instantly agrees that he is much happier now than last summer.

"Last summer I went through a little period, not of confusion, but indecision. Towards the end of last year there was a lot of friction within the band, several personal vendettas that I found very distracting. I couldn't keep my mind on the direction I was going in because I felt like I had to keep patching things up.

"But that's gone away now," Clapton flashed a contented grin. "It's like a family. Everyone knows what they can't tread on. That's made it easier for me to write, play sing, just everything because now I know I've got total support. Besides they're in debt to me so they can't get away!"

The reasons behind these financial problems are distinctly unusual. The Eric Clapton Band primarily consists of a bunch of Kodak junkies who need to feed their habit especially while on tour. During their recent British tour, Clapton reckons most of the band spent most of their wages on film and film processessing. Several have been known to go through Tri-X withdrawal.

"They're mad," Eric says collapsing with laughter. "All the money they make on tour goes to developing the photos they take on tour! It works for me cause they can't escape. They're in debt to me."

Clapton's recent British tour was another adventure in low profile living. While his contemporaries cruise into the country for the odd date at Earl's Court, Clapton stuck to seaside resorts and acoustically sound halls. He works better in situations where pressure and preconceived expectations are kept at a minimum. That was the whole idea upon which Derek and the Dominoes was built.

"I got very annoyed about that tour with Derek and the Dominoes cause in some towns especially in America we would turn up and it would say DEREK AND THE DOMINOES FEATURING ERIC CLAPTON. I'd call the office and have dreadful rows," he good humoredly recalls. "Still it kept happening. Obviously they wanted to sell the tickets but I didn't want it that way. I just wanted it to be a group for it's own sake.

"The last time I did a tour of England like the one we've just done was with Derek and the Dominoes which was a good while back and we just scraped the road. We did places where you couldn't even put your guitar down," he says totally bemused. "But it was fun."

THIS SUMMER's British touring lark was no exception. Determined to enjoy himself, Clapton purposely avoided the Earl's Court aircraft hangar syndrome, concentrating instead on more intimate halls.

"Well," he leans back and laughs, "I don't think I could fill Earl's Court. It's a pretty big place. I can't imagine a group playing there. I think the only time I've been there was to see the Ideal Home exhibition when I was young. I can't imagine playing a place like that! I'd have to see it as I saw it as a kid with tents, cars and houses."

This summer's British jaunt was not void of headline attention. Just another reminder of Clapton's vulnerable honesty, there was the Enoch Powell escapade. Unlike other artistes of his stature, Clapton can't be bothered to disguise true feelings or adopt phony attitudes.

So one night in Birmingham someone said something that triggered off an unexpected part of Clapton's rowdier personality. Maybe it was the drink. Maybe it was just a bad day. But it was so human and typically Eric. How many times have you gotten a bit drunk and spouted out great truths and philosphies only to later blush the next morning?

"I thought it was quite funny actually. I don't know much about politics. I don't even know if it would be good or bad for him to get in. I don't even know who the Prime Minister is now," he laughs not entirely serious. "I just don't know what came over me that night. It must have been something that happened in the day but it came out in this garbled thing," he laughs at the recollection. "I'm glad you printed the letter though.

"I thought the whole thing was like Monty Python. There's this rock group playing onstage and the singer starts talking about politics. Great," Clapton leans back and laughs.

"It's so stupid. Those people who paid their money sittin' listening to this madman dribbling on and the band meanwhile getting fidgety thinking 'oh dear'."

And you were going to quit rock 'n roll and run for a constituency in Surrey, I remind him as he begins to laugh uncontrollably.

"I don't even know if we've got an MP in Surrey! I guess I should be expecting a letter from Enoch Powell anyday now. Could get a libel suit as well cause I said he was the only politician mad enough to run the country. I didn't use his full name though," Eric says like an innocent schoolboy, "so it could be Enoch anybody. I don't even know what sparked it off."

Probably the Arabs I jestingly offer.

"Oh that's ok," EC muses. "I think they don't know how to spend their money. They're buying things for completely over the top prices without knowing it. I'm sure they're being taken left, right and center. But they're sinking a lot of money into England and we'll probably regain if we're clever enough. Then they'll have to go back and discover more oil."

Before returning to a more musical conversation, EC spins an entertaining vingette about a friend who was staying at the Dorchester. Apparently some rich Arab pointed to Hyde Park and enquired about the asking price.

Owning Hyde Park is not one of Eric Clapton's lifetime ambitions. He is more concerned with grooming his band into a tightly run, spontaneous organisation. After years of disdain about running a band, his newly discovered self-confidence has made him an excellent skipper.

"I'll tell ya something about that. I been watching Stan Kenton's schedule for the last 3-4 years. He's a trumpeter who leads a 30 piece band," EC mumbles in disbelief, finishing off another Special Brew. "He works every night, two weeks off at Christmas. When you look at something like that you've got no reason to cry, no reason to complain about anything when you see someone at that age doing it for the pure love of it."

That remains Clapton's idea of musical Utopia, playing for genuine love and enjoyment. Almost every time EC finds himself in a multi-million dollar super-group, he immediately retreats back into hibernation.

"The problem is you grow to hate the rock business. That's why I always have to keep putting my situations where I can just enjoy it and not think about the business side cause I hate that.

"It's very much the old pals act. That's why I don't go into London much. You go from one office to the next and they're all just bitchin' about each other. Who do you believe?" he asks slightly confused. "I just come back here and get back in the coccoon. Bugger them all. I just live for the art of making good music not filling their pockets."

HIS OBVIOUS disdain for the business side of rock tends means that Clapton depends on his management and record company run by Robert Stigwood.

"The best things always happen by accident," Clapton says sincerely giving away one of his ten commandments. "I trust in that more than deliberate plan. This band I've got was an accident. I'm very lucky I'm with the organisation I am because I get totally free reign.

"I'm never told to do anything. I'm asked or things are suggested but I can say no. I can't imagine working for some conglomerate where they just tell you that you have radio interviews today and Russell Harty tomorrow."

Eric Clapton does not like to be pigoen-holed. He won't arrive back in this country and make outlandish statements about the tax while posing for the story to run in tomorrow's Daily Mail. Eric Clapton is the total antithesis of the music business machine filmed for posterity on BBC2's recent Rod Stewart documentary. The only public place you're likely to find Clapton is down the pub.

"It's the motivation that's important. There's a lot of people I see who make records and won't exploit themselves onstage. There was a group I wanted to take on our British tour but they refused to do it. And I think that was because they didn't want the exposure," Eric says with admiration. "They were songwriters and they didn't want to get boosted to the point where they didn't have the time to write songs anymore. They just wanted to stay where they were."

The group turns out to be Gallagher and Lyle, two songwriters from whom Clapton has the utmost respect. Like the 'Breakaway' duo, Eric Clapton wears his heart on his sleeve.

What he exposes now on record and in conversation is a very healthy and vibrant self portrait. As Eric is quick to admit, the playing is the one constant factor. It's his personality make-up which has gone through a positive about-face.

"With the last album I've put myself back into that situation where a lot of people think I'm playing guitar on every track. I've done another Derek And The Dominoes and haven't listed who's playing what on each track. In actual fact I only play lead guitar on two tracks. The rest is little guests," he fiendishly chuckles. "Now they have to guess which one's me. And I'm not gonna tell."

No longer confined to fullfilling guitar gaps, Clapton has taken advantage of this freedom. The days of every track containing a definitive guitar solo belong to the past. And as Clapton is quick to stress in song 'all our past times must be forgotten'.

"Quite honestly I don't think I could play one of those solos on every track. My lead guitar playing has really slipped because I'm controlling the band, writing songs, everything else. Consequently something has to suffer and the lead guitar has probably suffered most of all."

For the majority of his earlier career, lead guitar was EC's only concern and mainline function.

"That was all I had to worry about then," he recalls signalling to Patti that it's time for another round of Carlsberg. "All I had to do was get up in the morning, go to the gig and play lead guitar."

BEING ONE of the original guitar heroes, most of the staff here curiously wanted to know what EC thought about his modern day counterparts. Like other reliable sixties mainstays, Clapton listens exclusively to old and new influences. Of the new, Don Williams, Gallagher & Lyle and a new artiste Stephen Bishop dominate over the latest effort from Robin Trower.

"I thought Mick Ronson was very good on the telly the other night," Clapton smiles referng to the Whistle Test Dylan special. "It was so obvious he was an English guitarist with the old guitar down here, down to his knees," Clapton laughs. "I don't listen to clever lead guitar playing anymore. I'm more interested in total songs.

"To be quite honest I haven't heard Robin Trower. Blackmore? He probably suffers from the fact that he's had to live up to his own image too. I bet that must bother him a lot," EC reflects, strongly relating to the situation.

"The first time I saw Blackmore I think he was playing with Johnny Kidd. He floored me then. Later I saw him at the Roundhouse with Deep Purple and he'd stepped out of being just a good sideman and into a heavy number. Now he's living with it."

Rather than exploit his previous guitar star stance, Clapton has chosen to live without any nasty crosses that demand attention bearing. Unfortunately his audience is not as eager to step forward. Still progress marches on.

"I think my audience now is probably the same one I've had all along only they're probably very disgruntled because I keep laying new tricks on them and they're really not sure if they want to accept them or not."

The key to the 'new' Clapton revolves, around simplicity stuffed with genuine emotions.

"I was talkin' to Don Williams the other night about being able to write a song where halfway through the listener will know the end and be able to sing along. I don't want people to sit down and listen to my album really hard 20 times to find out what I'm saying," Clapton says adamantly. "I'd like to make it as simple as possible.

"I'm sure there will always be a circuit. There will always be somewhere to play," says this musician bent on a long career. "I'm in the musician's union. I could get a job playin' for the BBC. There's no panic.

"That's what I see in a lot of the groups today, this sort of mad panic; gotta get a number one, then do the TV's. It's like they expect their careers to end in three years," he laughs in disbelief, "Everyone is so busy trying to think of new approaches to catch the eye and it doesn't really matter cause it's all been done before."

And much of what's been done before has been done to perfection by Clapton himself. Understandably, he's a little itchy to start moving in another direction. Not until the flittering presence of Blind Faith did a gentler side of Clapton begin to flourish.

With Delaney & Bonnie, and later with the Dominoes, Clapton began to explore the land of one thousand dobros and acoustic guitar tunings, encouraged and stimulated by Duane Allman.

What really changed Clapton's musical perspective was the discovery of the Band. In a previous interview last summer he admitted that when Big Pink came out, his entire conception of Cream changed drastically. Suddenly Cream seemed more like a con than the authentic music the Band spun.

"The Band had a great effect on me. I'd never really liked country music. I always thought it was oversentimental. This is when I was into being very aggressive and playing just straight blues. Country music was just sloppy," he grins. "But the Band bridged the gap. The Byrds got there quite early. But the Band gave it a bite that country music just didn't seem to have before.

"I wasn't even that big a Dylan fan till 'Like A Rolling Stone'. Wait a minute, I did buy an album The Times They Are A Changin' and sat down and learned it straight away. See the trouble is that people expect electric music from me. If I go to a session I take an electric guitar because it's second nature to me. But lately," he says pleased with recent changes, "the dobro has taken up all my time."

When he isn't playing dobro, EC spends his time listening to Don Williams. That's his passion this week. In between rounds of Special Brew, Eric gets up and puts on a tape Williams recorded at his house the other night. EC reclines into the caverns of the sofa and listens to this euphoric music.

Clapton first saw Don Williams on an American chat show, the Dinah Shore Show. This interview program is so lacking in any perceptions that it serves as a nationwide vehicle for slick PR campaigns. But EC was impressed with this character. After singing a song, Williams joined Dinah and her other guests, refusing to join in with the trivial conversation. Clapton was impressed.

When a British Don Williams tour was announced, EC was among the first to order tickets for the opening night in Croydon. Pleased that they met on even ground, neither artiste was totally familiar with the other. Within several weeks they became good friends. Another example of the Clapton personality: he prefers starting relationships on a firm footing void of past preconceived ideas. For all the assertive point making, Eric Clapton really is a new artist.

Nevertheless, he has retained certain personality traits. Despite total backing and encouragement from the Don Williams Band, Clapton was nervous and hesitant about appearing at the Hammersmith Odeon. Assured that the crowd would belong strictly to Williams, familar insecurities bothered his conscience. "I haven't had to practise in so long," he said looking sheepishly at the dobro.

SUDDENLY CLAPTON jumps up and discovers that he is very hungry. In the kitchen where the refrigerator is decorated with various backstage passes and the walls covered with summer tour posters, Patti is impressively concocting some homemade scotch eggs. "Hurry UP," Eric jests, "I'm STARVING."

Moments later the scotch eggs are ready which calls for another round of Carlsberg. Eric puts on a cassette of the debut album from Stephen Bishop, a songwriter Clapton did some sessions for and surprisingly found himself loving the material.

"He's got the best range I've heard in years," Eric enthused between bites of salad. "Joni Mitchell can't get anywhere near that! Woody's manager asked me to do the session and I thought it was a joke. I called his bluff and it was real!

"What attracted me most was not knowing what you were stepping into and finding that it was very good. I don't get asked to do sessions very often so I thought it was a joke."

Thriving in a pressure-free situation, Clapton enjoyed the sessions as much as he enjoyed his Don Williams encounters. In these two instances he was allowed to escape from his legend. He wasn't (sigh gasp shock) ERIC CLAPTON, he was simply a musician.

"I'm always more comfortable in situations like that," Eric said recalling the low-key atmosphere at his holiday camp gig. "The pressures are off and I feel comfortable because there is no one to prove myself to."

For his most recent album, Clapton surrounded himself with the best. In addition to his own able bodied band, he enjoyed contributions from Bob Dylan, Ron Wood and the Band. The project worked because like everything else EC does, it all happened accidentally.

Using Shangri-La studios, most of the Band were hovering around the sessions as it's their home base. Even before going to LA, Clapton worked out with some relaxation in Nassau.

"Woody came to stay at this house we were renting. He was pushing me around trying to get me to write songs but I couldn't do it in that situation cause it was too idyllic. We finally wrote a couple songs that we didn't use. One was called 'You're Too Good To Die You Should Be Buried Alive'. Can you believe that?" he asks incredulously. "It's all there in the files. All these crazy songs."

Armed with a bunch of songs and not much of an idea about album direction, EC and Woody headed for Shangri-La. Much to Clapton's delightful surprise everything eventually gelled.

"I was in a situation where people were coming to visit me. It wasn't so much 'Ah the BAND' it was just people who came to visit. Some of the jams were amazing because they hadn't played together in ages. There were hundreds of guitars. On my birthday party it was the first time the entire Band played together in a long time.

"Richard Manuel and I are like blood brothers. Every night when the session ended we'd be the only one's left standing. We'd just play all fuckin' night," Clapton enthuses.

"On the first tour we did with EC And The Jordinaires, the Band made me get up and play on 'Chest Fever'. I could, never understand the words and it turned out nor could they. They kept singing different lines. All I had to do was get up there and play guitar and sing the first thing that came into my head," he recalls in amusement. "There was this incredible sound of voices in many tongues saying different things."

Clapton proceeds to relate an entertaining tale about recording 'All Our Past Times' where Rick Danko kept singing his verse differently each take, much to Clapton's amusement and confusion.

"Dylan is another one like that. He can't restrict himself to any one way of doing a song so we did 'Sign Language' three times. I thought fuck it, I'll just go as loose as he is. I'm used to doing a song one way but Dylan throws caution to the wind every time."

That seemed most apparent on the recent TV concert Hard Rain.

"Yeah and it looked like nobody else knew what he was gonna do either. He kept turning round as if to say 'this is what's gonna happen next'. The band must have been ready for anything to happen."

Clapton indulges in similar onstage conduct which consistantly makes for a fresh and spontaneous atmosphere. None too fond of musical claustrophobia, EC detests boredom.

"Sure we do that and it's very confusing for the rest of the band. But you can't play the same thing every night the same way because then you really get to hate it. I think we did 'Layla' one night in 3/4 time," Clapton laughs hysterically. "It sounded great. Just like a good old waltz."

Assuming the main 'Layla' riff immortalised the song forever, many of Clapton's more recent efforts have been built around similarly addicting backbones only the acoustic groove might be too subtle to instantly digest.

"Should I tell you where I got that riff from," Eric says in animation, beginning to enjoy himself. "It's an Albert King riff off an album called Born Under A Bad Sign and there's a song called 'There Is Nothing I Can Do If You Leave Me Here To Cry,'" he sings the line in sleepy time sounding a bit like 'Smile'.

"Duane heard that and just went," Eric starts to hum the main 'Layla' theme. "He just speeded it up. Then we took to doing 'Layla' in the studio and then that particular song afterwards. No one would notice that the riff is exactly the same except slow blues. Really good trick that."

Suddenly EC jumps up again and goes to the albums treasure chest in search of the Albert King record. Pointing to the chest and all the cardboxes on the floor Clapton says in disbelief, "And you ask me my ten favourite songs! Look how many I've got to choose from."

WHAT WITH ALL the Carlberg Special Brews, a visit to the lavatory is necessary. This small room is decorated with an unusual assortment of postcards from round the world. There's one cartoon of two little creatures talking. One says 'Is it true that sex pins your hearing?' While the other replies 'Beg pardon?'. And there's a tacky but charming card of two birds with the loving inscription 'Thanks for the Budgie'.

Back to business. No Reason To Cry, unlike his recent albums, was not produced by Tom Dowd. The reasons behind this were mostly political as RSO had moved distribution in America to Polydor from Atlantic and WEA threw a boycott on Dowd producing Clapton.

This might have been a blessing in disguise. Even during the making of There's One In Every Crowd Clapton disagreed at times with the clinical approach Dowd sometimes favored, prefering a live atmosphere.

After a few beers, Clapton's conversation becomes more animated, honest and relaxed. "The thing that bothered me about There's One In Every Crowd was that we were contriving to make a quality record. Tom kept getting serious about 'Making a record' when we were having a good time. Like 'Pretty Blue Eyes' was done in bits of something like 6 bars here and there which is a frustrating way to record.

"I prefer to work live whenever possible. And No Reason To Cry was pretty live. Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever it turns out to be, we didn't use Tom Dowd again. Robert said I had to make an album as soon as possible. Not being able to use Tom just threw me," EC recalls in panic. "It threw me into a trauma. I thought of Robbie Robertson but he was busy doing Neil Diamond."

With a tendency to be lazy, I wondered if Clapton needed gentle prodding from Robert Stigwood to record.

"Yeah, it is good. After a couple of days recording I was walkin' round the studio saying 'I'm packin' it in, I don't want anymore to do with it'. It was my fault because I said alright to Robert and he came back with a bloody deadline! I called his bluff," Eric laughs, "and he came back with a bloody deadline.

"Usually Robert would say 'if you don't want to do it fine' but it was all to do with that year I spent out of the country. As it happens the album turned out well -- much to the surprise of everyone cause we walked in loathing the idea. If it hadn't been for the outside jollity of the Band we wouldn't have gotten anything done. We were stuck.

"If I go into the studio with my band they're gonna look to me for something to do and I had nothing," Eric winces at the memory. "Richard Manuel came up with 'Beautiful Thing' and from there we just went. It was something to do."

CLAPTON IS exaggerating when he says he had 'nothing'. Still somewhat insecure about his songwriting ability, he will only present the very best to the band for close inspection.

"Worried? God, you don't know what it's like. We took two weeks off to reconsider the whole thing. I just thought 'God, it's all fallen down'. That's how 'Black Summer Rain' came about. Then I thought, 'well that's not a bad song', took it back and it kicked like mad.

"It's one thing to play to an audience you don't know and can't see but it's always been very difficult for me to play a song to someone I know face to face who has good taste in music."

From the album, Clapton is satisfied personally with 'Hello Old Friend', 'All Our Past' Times' and 'Black Summer Rain', three of the album's best moments, all written by EC. His songwriting is rapidly improving and perfecting. The next hit single could well be an honest, gentle representation of EC 1976.

"The songs you write very quickly are always the best. The ones that are written in the space of a day. It's like this new one I just wrote after we came back from that Buddy Holly luncheon. It was just about taking the old woman out and getting too sloshed to drive home. It was perfect," he grins proudly.

Anxious to get the song down on tape as quickly as possible, Clapton plays a demo version recorded with Ronnie Lane at his house mobile. Entitled 'You Look Wonderful Tonight' it's one of the most beautiful love songs I've ever heard. The lyrics are equally sensitive and real, apparently about a conversation Eric and Patti have every time they go out. Just from two listenings, I've been singing the song all week. It also happens to be extremely sexy.

Future plans remain both concrete and tenuous but one thing is certain: Clapton is determined to have a good time. Later this month he leaves for a three week American tour and hopes to record the next album immediately after the tour in Nashville.

"I really wanna get down to Nashville," he said glancing quickly at the dobro. "It's not very far from Tulsa. Can't be more than twenty four hours."

That project belongs to the concrete. An album of pub songs belongs to the tenuous. Those might even be recorded in a pub. And there's a possible musical adventure on the cards between EC and Ronnie Lane. Besides, he could always work for the BBC.

"I'm actually gonna form a group called 'The Hypocrites' with Ronnie Lane," Eric says with much laughter. "Aw, I've given it away. We'll record on our own label called 'Get Away With Murder Records'. The first gig is at the Cranleigh Village Hall."

Visions of ploughing matches dance through my head, I laugh.

"This is true," EC insists. "No lie. The first gig is at the Cranleigh Village Hall."

SOMEWHERE in between the concrete and the tenuous, Clapton wants his next single to be that new love song. Regardless, it's definitely going on the next album and it's definitely one of the best songs he's ever written, sort of the antithesis to 'Layla'.

"It's funny ya know cause I didn't even want 'I Shot The Sheriff' on the album. Didn't even want it out at all. I thought it was a rip-off," he says in animated Carlsberg tones. "I had to live with this till this very day -- Eric goes reggae! Then they follow it up with another bloody reggae song. Oh dear. Branded again."

You lose one cross and gain another. But last summer's self doubt has been replaced by well nourished confidence. Clapton seems to believe in his music now more than ever. Even last summer when he talked of making a rock 'n roll album, he never seemed convinced.

"If you remember that was after There's One In Every Crowd didn't make it so I thought oh well," Eric recalls the point when he was on the brink of making artistic concessions and selling himself short.

"In fact I did put out a rock album more or less with EC Was Here which maybe covered that for a little while, filling up that space I was complaining about. If the album had horns on, it would have been perfect for hard rock. So now," he smiles shyly, "I've got time to be myself again.

"I want to do an album where every song says something that relates to my life. I've got some songs down that are getting that way," he concluded humming a bit of that contagious new love song. "I'd like a hit single but I wouldn't want to make a living that way."

With every album Clapton becomes more comfortable and more confident with himself. It is no accident that the best tracks are always Clapton originals. Wait till you hear 'You Look Wonderful Tonight'. The song is so good EC will give Gallagher & Lyle some heavy competition.

"Oh dear," Eric sighs with a long yawn, reclining into the couch, "I'm exhausted."

And rightfully so. For several hours now he was Eric Clapton again. Little man you've had a busy day.

EC's top ten

  1. 'Drown In My Own Tears' by Ray Charles. He recorded it two ways, live and in the studio. The live one is great. I like it very much.

  2. 'Pretend' by Carl Mann. It's very old. He did a record called 'Mona Lisa' that Conway Twitty had a hit with. But Carl Mann did the original and he did another one called 'Pretend'. (He begins to sing) 'Pretend you're happy when you're blue'. It's sorta like 'Smile' only rocked up with a really nice guitar part.

  3. 'Help Yourselves To Each Other' by Don Williams. That's a new favourite of mine. It's got really nice words and a pleasant melody. No you can't dance to it. It's just mesmerising.

  4. Syreeta -- both albums. Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta and Syreeta. I'm not sure which album is better. Stevie Wonder produced them and they're both good. Then nothing happened. She had one hit off the second album 'Spinning and Spinning'.

  5. 'Chirping Crickets'. That was the first album I ever bought. And it still plays after all these years. I have records I've had for only six months that don't play anymore. 'Chirping Crickets' I've had since I was 16. Buddy Holly's first album. I learned the whole thing straight away. I couldn't believe it. It was the first time I'd seen a Stratocaster as well. He's standing on the cover holding a Stratocaster and I thought 'what is that space vehicle'.

  6. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Stevie Wonder. It's from a live album Live At The Talk Of The Town which I think is only available in this country. You should hear it. He slows it right down. The dynamics are very heavy. It builds up and comes down to almost silence. He used an amazing bass player who ended up playing with Miles Davis.

  7. 'Caress Me Baby' by Jimmy Reed. That was the first time I heard really low, low down r&b. They released it as a single in this country. I probably heard that before I even heard Muddy Waters. It's on the album Rockin' With Reed.

  8. 'Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever' by Stevie Wonder. Well he wrote it. It's a great song. Four Tops did it too. The Band recorded it but never released it. They do it like they do that Marvin Gaye song 'Baby Don't You Do It'. Rick Danko sings a great vocal.

  9. 'Willowy Garden'. It's a traditional song, a Scots melody. I don't really know the words to that except for the first verse. I wrote off to Cecil Sharpe House who've got the words to every song ever written especially folk songs. I got the words and couldn't bloody understand it cause it's written in old English. It's an old pub song. People usually make up their own words for the verse but the chorus is always the same. It goes back centuries.

  10. 'Little Man You've Had A Busy Day'. That's the oldest song I know cause it used to rock me to sleep. Someone like Al Bowlly might have done it. The words go 'Someone stole your marbles I know what I'll do/Dad will buy some new ones/Time to go to sleep now/Little man you've had a busy day'. (He sings in lullaby fashion). It's one of my favourite songs. It used to knock me out. That's why I don't know it well. I'd never get to hear the last verse cause I'd be asleep.
Copyright © Barbara Charone, 1976, 2006, all rights reserved.

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