Is there a common thread linking Slowhand’s most recent compositions to his earliest songs? In this article, which will be followed by others, Alessandro Vailati takes us on an exciting journey through Clapton’s output, showing us how his songwriting basically always draws on the same ‘heart’ and expressive needs. It is an often overlooked side of Eric that, together with the guitarist and performer, makes him an artist from whom one never ceases to draw inspiration.
The Heart of Eric Clapton (1970-1985)
“I want to express my pain in music, I don’t want to block it out, I want to talk to others who are hurting, so that they know they are not alone.” Eric Clapton, from his diary, October 1984. Taken from autobiography, 2007
“1991 was a horrible year, but some important seeds were sown. The music had also found a new energy. I felt the need to play the songs I had written for my son, and I truly believed they could help not only me, but anyone who had experienced a similar loss. Excerpt from autobiography, 2007
“The pain you’re feeling cuts me to the bone. I am right there with you, boy, you’ll never be alone.” Eric Clapton, Heart of a Child, single released late December 2021.
Music as comfort. Music that doesn’t create division, rather unites people and tears down the barrier of misunderstanding. Because when we share, we love others, we make ourselves humble in their eyes. For Eric Clapton, this philosophy in conceiving music progressed over time and matured especially when, alongside the parallel world in which he ventured as a performer, he composed songs in the first person, bringing out also his sufferings, recounting the pains of living with extreme sincerity. However, there has always been a strong contrast inherent in him, and this has perhaps become his particularity, between a role in the foreground from a personal point of view, and a somewhat complementary, equally fascinating and compelling one, which finally became prevalent, of an ambassador, a kind of spokesman for a genre.
“I am simply a messenger. I always felt that was my job, to interpret other people’s things, or at least try to. So people listening to me might get curious about the history of these songs, find out where they came from…”
Clapton has never abandoned his roots. Not even in the more pop moments of the eighties, or when country surfaced and mixed with rock in the seventies. The blues and the desire to convey its roots always emerged and accompanied him at the top moments of his career. For these reasons, critics, audiences and he himself, as can be seen from these statements from the time of the publication of the J.J.Cale tribute (2014), have never fully dwelt on his songwriting skills, except for a few famous tracks such as Layla, Hello Old Friend, Wonderful Tonight, Holy Mother, Old Love, Tears in Heaven and My Father’s Eyes.
We could call this the other side of Clapton, and in this sense I would like to analyze some forgotten, little-considered gems that he has dispensed throughout his career, highlighting the reasons why he came up with them, emphasizing the fact that in order to conceive them, he always needed important episodes to stir his sad and restless soul.
After group experiences with Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith, in which Slowhand‘s songwriting talent rarely emerges – the wonderful Presence of the Lord being the first successful attempt – the first hints of an acquired lyrical sensibility are already apparent in the eponymous debut, with the sweet Easy Now and the daring Let It Rain. A new aesthetic and a personal style of marked autobiographical inspiration, with use of metaphors, would result in Derek and the Dominos, in that masterpiece of passion and unrequited love entitled Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
From that moment on, tracing Clapton‘s discography, autograph pearls will appear for a long time, on practically every album, moved by the ups and downs of life, by the blues that is inside each one of us, which an artist like him is able to express, expressing the motions of the human soul with a song.
461 Ocean Boulevard, in addition to the heartfelt entreaty Give Me Strength, gives us a song much loved by fans, unfortunately, at the time, only played live between ’74 and ’75, to promote the release of that LP. It is a ballad with country reminiscences, the sweet and troubled Let It Grow, whose lyrics open emblematically: ‘Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs, to tell me which way I should go to find the answer…‘. Indeed, Eric is in search of musical and life direction and this torment reappears in Better Make It Through Today, from the subsequent There’s One In Every Crowd. With his addiction to drugs over, the guitarist’s return to the studio and to stages all over the world coincides with excessive doses of alcohol and a marked difficulty, already present since childhood, in relating to others. The solo in this song is heart-breakingly dramatic.
The reunion with his beloved Patty Boyd, which took place at that time, dampens the restlessness, which nevertheless resurfaces on subsequent records. Black Summer Rain, from No Reason to Cry, probably represents one of the peaks of his creative expression in the seventies. Inspired by The Band‘s It Makes No Difference, it was written during a long stay on Paradise Island in the Bahamas and emphasizes the artist’s underlying unhappiness, even at a fortunate juncture where success and affection should have channelled him towards a serenity that was not merely illusory.
“I couldn’t understand how he could have come up with such a dark, gloomy and sad title in such an idyllic place.” Patty Boyd
The first lines, “Where is the sun, the sun that used to shine on me, where has it gone, or is it just a memory?” are enough to highlight, alongside a candid and persuasive melody, the malaise. The sadness, the melancholy surface throughout the ballad, made poignant by a piercing guitar and a sincere, passionate singing. “How can I escape this gloom that is swallowing me?”, are words that exude blues, a profound nostalgia; they emphasize regret and restlessness, they certify a pain even when it should not show itself apparently, on the outside, but deep in the heart it does not, existential anguish is deposited there. Although the song is not typically 12 bars, it draws from that tradition, to flow on country-rock tracks.
Black Summer Rain
The following Slowhand gives us, in addition to the extraordinary hits included, the playful Next Time You See Her and the robust – much loved by hardcore fans – The Core, composed in partnership with Marcy Levy, while in Backless, in addition to the lively and amusing – actually in contrast to the cynicism and sad realism of the lyrics – Watch Out for Lucy, there is Golden Ring, one of the few compositions cited as successful by the author himself, normally shy in analyzing his songwriting. The track is a profound and at times enigmatic reflection on the ‘threesome’ between him, Patty and George Harrison, fuelled by the fresh news of the latter’s remarriage. And that the motive was indeed valid is also demonstrated by J.J. Cale‘s decision to include it – admittedly in a rather insipid version – in the ‘rarities’ collection Rewind. Another melancholic ballad, marvelously embraced by a dobro and then ploughed by a tearful guitar solo, To Make Somebody Happy, which throws a faint hope, regarding a less tormented future, into the finale, was made in this era, although it only saw the light in ’96 thanks to the Crossroads 2 box set: “This river’s hard enough for me to swim, but there’s nowhere left to hide, I ain’t no swimmer, but I won’t give in, till I reach the other side. “
The beginning of the eighties is affected by Eric‘s serious health problems, which don’t allow him to best promote one of his best works, the underrated Another Ticket, filled with interesting signature pieces. I Can’t Stand It, superbly sung blues rock, is probably the most famous, but the intensity of the title track, perfectly balanced between introspective lyrics and a sweet, enveloping melody, also strikes the heart. The keyboards of the late Gary Brooker and the legendary Chris Stainton draw orchestral atmospheres, while the guitarist presents on a relaxed riff a bitter sweet reflection on the inexorable passing of time, often the bearer of illusions and disappointments; there remains, however, always a glimmer, “another ticket” to take another ride, to have another chance in life: “Why can’t it stay like this forever? Why does it always have to change?…Every time you think you’ve run the course seems you’ve got to ride another horse, every time you think you’re near the end, you turn around and find another ticket. Oh my Love, time is running out…’. And to think that such profundity seems to have been inspired by a hint of playfulness, to mock a friend constantly looking for ‘another ticket’ to his concerts!
Money and Cigarettes is the album of revival, after the period in rehab. Clapton still feels defrauded by the fact that he can no longer drink and ironically titles the work by mentioning the only things left in his possession. The Shape You’re In is a powerful rocker -embellished by the final guitar duet with Albert Lee-, which mentions Patty’s now-overgrown alcoholic problems, while Pretty Girl is a passionate ode to her, the real Wonderful Tonight from a sentimental point of view, “My love will always guide me home, my pretty girl.”
“I’ve got to step outside myself, I’ve still got something left to say. ‘Cause I ain’t going down anymore. No, I ain’t going down anymore.” Ain’t Going Down, 1983
It is, however, the words and the assaultive music of Ain’t Going Down that break through. With his usual sincerity and without mincing words, Eric gets back on track and, despite the post-punk difficulties of the middle eighties, also agrees to reinvent himself, with some compromises.
The renewal of the sound is evident with Behind the Sun, thanks to Phil Collins‘ production and the acceptance of some of the more commercial material proposed by the record company. The most touching tracks, linked to the crisis in his relationship with his wife, are still those that came out of his pen: it starts off strong with the sparkling opener She’s Waiting, pierces the soul with the thundering modern blues of Same Old Blues, and leaves one breathless with the touching final rendition of the title song. Never Make You Cry amazes with its delicate harmonies and use of guitar through a synth. Two undisputed and often overlooked gems remain: the sweet ballad It All Depends, enhanced by a catchy riff and Ray Cooper’s bongos, and one of Slowhand‘s absolute masterpieces of pathos and guitar solos, the bloody Just Like a Prisoner, powerful and stabbing like a blade that plunges its blow straight through the heart. If with It All Depends and Never Make You Cry passion and love still emerge, now comes a different way to exorcise the marital crisis, it is the moment of venting and for Eric music becomes redemption and salvation. “Just like a prisoner, he don’t know right from wrong…And that’s why so many tears must fall…Yes, that’s why you’ll never know how I feel”, he sings in an agonizing acceptance of being at the end of it all. And it was no joke, since it was precisely at that time that the excesses of alcohol and drugs -cocaine- pushed him further and further into the abyss of addiction, inciting him to suicide. If Pete Townshend was central in bringing him back from the brink of the precipice in ’73, it was now the turn of his friend Roger Waters who, with a series of phone calls, comforted him and got him out of trouble. Fate…
Just Like a Prisoner
Here ends the first episode of this analysis. Sometimes, what fate grants it then wants back with interest. In the following years Eric will lose the only real reason for living, but, once again thanks to music, he will make a journey to discover his deepest self, that of someone who has embraced pain, accepted it, shaped it. And transformed it into beauty. This process, begun in solitude, will become the heritage of all, thanks to a handful of wonderful songs. The sharing of pain, a universal embrace. Here those words gently resonate again.
“I want to express my pain in music, I don’t want to block it out, I want to speak to others who are hurting, so that they know they are not alone.”
To the next episode!
Italian version: Il cuore di Eric Clapton #1