Third and final article on Clapton’s incredible output as a songwriter. Alessandro Vailati takes us through the last twenty years of Slowhand’s career, showing us how the guitarist from Ripley has never stopped meeting and letting music find him, even and especially in the most difficult situations, and how from this meeting something authentic and saving has been born every time.
The Heart of Eric Clapton (2000-2022)
The transcendent power of music
“At that point (mid-1990s, ed.) I asked myself some very serious questions […] The answer was always the same. To keep what I had, I had to give it to others […] This is still the fundamental principle that governs my life.” <<Excerpt from autobiography, 2007>>
“What do I think about my voice? It’s always a bit of a shock when I listen to something I’ve done, especially if I haven’t heard myself for a long time. I have to do a kind of five-step process: deny it, get angry, then accept it, then want to do it and then think it’s OK. What I can easily accept about my singing is that I know it comes from the heart and I don’t find it difficult to get in touch with any emotion. I can sing with my feelings with ease and perhaps I learnt this from playing the guitar. I am not a guitar or vocalist, but what I have always been able to do is express what I feel deep inside me.” <<<Excerpt from an interview with David White, Guitarworld.com, 2003>>
“You don’t know how much it means to have this music in me, I just keep playing my song, hoping that I get along.” <<<<From Spiral, track 4of I Still Do, 2016>>>
The beginning of the new century delineates a reached integrity and maturity for Eric Clapton. Music is still his vital reference, but love for others becomes crucial; This drives him to reconnect with the ‘extended’ family he grew up with, after the recent deaths of his beloved grandmother Rose and his mother Pat – he always had a love/hate relationship with her until the last moments before her death, a very conflictual situation -, to wish to rejoin artistically with some colleagues and friends from the past and, above all, to believe that finally something sincere and authentic, after so many sentimental ups and downs not always characterized by real interest, could happen to him in the emotional sphere.
The extraordinary Riding with the King (2000) is the first result of the ‘new’ Clapton: some historical blues classics with the King, nomen omen, B.B. King are revisited and, to add freshness, it is decided to include some previously unreleased tracks. A record that stands the test of time, the antechamber to a much more personal project, a kind of concept album, which saw the light the following year and once again highlighted Slowhand‘s underrated creative talent. Reptile draws its inspiration from another mournful event, the departure of his dear uncle Adrian. After the funeral Eric, now in the sweet company of Melia, whom he met at a party organized by Giorgio Armani, is assailed by memories. He remembers with emotion the films and music he listened to as a young man with his beloved relative, believed to be his brother for several years, and is overcome with nostalgia, but also remorse for not having been there for him when he needed it.
Thus was born a series of songs dedicated to his family, and the cover is emblematic, depicting a photo of him at around the age of ten, an evident intention to take a leap into the past and celebrate him with the eyes of now. Beautiful and full of pathos are the two instrumentals cleverly placed at the beginning and end of the disc. The title track, taken from Adrian‘s nickname, sparkles with a Latin atmosphere, very close to the mood of Joao Gilberto, while Son & Sylvia – Son was Adrian‘s other nickname and Sylvia his beloved wife – is a poignant ballad and enjoys the harmonica of Billy Preston, a very special guest who, together with The Impressions, raises the quality of an already unforgettable work. It is two more Clapton compositions that attract attention for their intensity and introspection. Find Myself takes up the affectionate discourse towards his uncle with melancholy, while Believe in Life builds a bridge between his memories of the past and the actuality of his love for Melia, now representing his present-day family. “When the world has seen the light at the beginning of the day, you will let me call your name, cause I love you more than light, and it will always be this way, as long as I believe in life”, whispers Eric, manifesting a new state of mind, overcoming Pilgrim‘s pain and suffering to throw himself hopefully into an evocative slice of life never before experienced, with sobriety and true feeling in the foreground.
Believe in Life emphasizes the compositional continuity of an artist still at the peak of his inspiration, pleasantly enraptured by the rhythms of Brazilian music, combined with the blues rock style that has characterized him since his first solo works. The piece is defined by the author himself as difficult to perform live and among the most beautiful and intense ever written, but, although it ends up in the soundchecks of subsequent tours, it will only be performed live in 2021, for the project The Lady in the Balcony, which will see Melia herself, the only person present apart from the musicians and support staff, applauding the excellent performance with conviction.
Believe in Life
A phenomenal world tour, defined as the last – the announcement of a possible retirement from the scene has occurred several times to this day and fortunately in fact has always turned out to be a bluff -, a double CD and a DVD entitled One More Car, One More Rider crown an album which marks the end of an era, that of a Clapton in search of maturity, stability and serenity.
“No use looking for no one else, ‘cause I’ll be lonely till I find myself.” From Find Myself, track 7of Reptile.
Now, finally, he has a family, and, between 2001 and 2005, his beautiful three daughters are born, who, in addition to Ruth, from a previous relationship in 1985, completely change the guitarist’s hitherto disordered and lonely life. Music, however, remained at the centre: this period saw the wonderful Concert for George (2002), a poignant homage to his partner in a thousand adventures, George Harrison, the organization of the first Crossroads Guitar Festival – four more would follow, all of them exciting and acclaimed, and there are rumours of another in 2023 – and the release of Me and Mr. Johnson (2004), a tribute to the bluesman who influenced him most of all, Robert Johnson. The concert season also starts again, with some really powerful and exciting shows, and a setlist full of gems not played for decades, such as Got to Get Better in a Little While and Walk Out in the Rain.
And here comes a particular speech, which brings us back to the last lines of the previous article. Can a man who has found the strength to write his songs from terrible events, who has experienced the blues and seen death in the face, remain inspired and focused now that he is happy?
At first glance, Back Home (2005) retains the ingredients of Reptile. It includes a few conceptually related autograph songs and a handful of covers chosen with the usual taste and care. However, the topics change substantially and, consequently, the structure of the songs conceived. A good part of the fans and critics coldly welcome the nice rock blues of So Tired and the somewhat light reggae of Say What You Will and Revolution; within them, they speak of tiredness caused by crying children and nappies to be changed, of the beauty of having finally found, referring to Melia, a friend and a lover, two compatible sides of a coin at last, and of the bizarre behavior of a person who seeks a revolution in every attitude he puts himself into, themes that are hardly appropriate for the guitarist known to all as God.
In reality, these are good compositions, cowritten with now trusted collaborator Simon Climie. Even One Track Mind, an enthusiastic declaration of how powerful devotion to a child can be, is catchy, yet something has changed. First of all, happiness, a state of mind so subjective and difficult to achieve and maintain, is probably less empathetic subject matter than the evocation of suffering and pain, which creates an immediate listener identification. Moreover, the fact that, as Clapton himself admits, the gestation of Back Home was long, testifies to a difficulty of concentration and inspiration, and even the overproduction seems to make one lose that instantaneousness, that winning concept of ‘less is more’ present in Pilgrim. The realization that something is missing from the songs analyzed above is demonstrated by the collection’s best track, the acoustic title track, which instead comes close, in its never banal simplicity, to previous works, while introducing, in this case with depth, what is now closest to Eric’s heart, “All I know is I will die if I don’t get back home”. Melody and interpretation are spine-tingling and showcase what could have been an interesting operation: stripping the songs even more bare of instruments and performing them in theatres in an ‘Acoustic Solo Show’, perhaps coupled with an LP so conceived.
Run Home to Me is the track that best illustrates how pacified the author is. It is a gospel-tinged ballad dedicated to a trip to the beach with his wife and daughters, and is the only one to feature horns and strings in the arrangement at the same time, as if to celebrate with majesty a wonderful personal moment, the culmination of joy. Perhaps it reveals the beginning of contentment, it is not particularly original as a melody, but it perfectly embodies Slowhand‘s new reality. Is it then a sin for an artist to be happy? Any answer would be open to criticism, what is certain is that the solo in this piece is emotional and brings tears to one’s eyes, not only Melia‘s, in this case as told in an interview by her husband.
Thus, the dilemma remains as to whether the beginning of an idyll should be juxtaposed with an artistic slumber. In fact, analyzing the period immediately afterwards, it might seem so, but the flame, though at the mercy of the wind, will not hint at extinguishing completely, as we will soon see.
After Back Home, in fact, autographed songs practically disappeared for years, with rare exceptions, in favour of records that privileged the role that had now become Clapton‘s preferred in music: that of messenger.
There is no shortage, however, of momentous events. From the legendary reunion with Cream (2005), to a world tour that saw him in a state of grace in the company of Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II.
“We started in Europe, with as many songs as possible from Back Home, but over the course of the year the set list changed to the point where it was made up of most of the songs from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” <<Excerpt from autobiography, 2007>>
The urge to recreate without nostalgia, but with affection, devotion, vigour and a hint of modernity the magic of times gone by is not only reflected in this flashback to the Derek and the Dominos period. The Road to Escondido with J.J. Cale (2007), the concerts with Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck and the participation on several takes in Robbie Robertson‘s How to Become Clarvoyant (2011), a project that could have involved him more at another juncture of his life, less focused on family commitments, in addition to the aforementioned ‘reunion’ with Baker and Bruce, specify Eric‘s desire to reconnect with the people who were important to him on the long journey. An opportunity not to be missed, since they were all still alive!
The Road to Escondido confirms the British guitarist’s ‘lazy’ moment. Fourteen tracks, of which no less than 11 were written by Cale, one cover and only two composed by him. Three Little Girls is nonetheless a gem, an acoustic ode to his daughters that was also played a couple of times at the Royal Albert Hall in their presence in 2009, and Hard to Thrill, a hypnotic rock blues in the writing of which John Mayer took part, is also intriguing. ‘Hard to Thrill, nothin’ really moves me anymore, there is nothing you can show me that I haven’t seen before’, Slowhand sings with transport, and it would have been really interesting if the two had taken advantage of their days together to come up with more creations of this level. Instead, Clapton (2010) and Old Sock (2013), with the exception of the sanguine country blues Run Back to Your Side -curiously enough, it became the theme song, in an instrumental version, of a RAI programme on Saturday afternoons -, zero in on autographed tracks in favour of a reinterpretation, melancholic and very classy to be sure, of some jazz, blues and pop standards from the last century. Added to this material are pieces by J.J. Cale and a touching tribute to Gary Moore, among others.
“When I recorded Clapton, I was thinking a lot about my grandmother, my mother and my uncle. Those are the three people who influenced me the most in life and who I sang for, really.” <<Excerpt from a 2010 interview>>
So here is the Clapton crooner, a masterful interpreter of classics such as How Deep is the Ocean – in which he hosts Wynton Marsalis, the first hint of a future full-bodied collaboration with him that leads to the beautiful live Play the Blues – and Autumn Leaves, and who nonetheless organizes another world tour in 2013 full of goodies such as Blues Power and Hello Old Friend. A Clapton who feels increasingly like a messenger, with the tribute to the late J.J.Cale in 2014.
The urge to put himself out there himself seems to increasingly waver, but it doesn’t die down. Then came the soundtrack for Three Days in Auschwitz, a touching historical documentary made by an old acquaintance of his, Philippe Mora, with some interesting instrumentals and, somewhat surprisingly, at a time of health difficulties that forced him to use the slide a lot, I Still Do (2016) was released, where the guitarist closed another circle of his existence by returning to work with producer Glyn Johns and resumed his relationship with writing in some successful episodes. Spiral is the landmark track, with a melody reminiscent of Old Love and a declaration of everlasting love for music. Catch the Blues, a favourite of Johns, who praises Eric‘s never-ending ability to weave pleasing melodies, is nothing revolutionary, but is nonetheless intense and lived-in. The artist succeeds, in a laid-back atmosphere warmed by a slide-created wah wah, in telling the stories of the hard times he has faced with the fluency that a man of his experience has: ‘I’ve been living in a world of pain without you making the difference. Oh, I’ve been going insane, but I can’t go on without calling out your name…’. The acoustic Freight Train and the unbridled Lonesome, unfortunately only available on the limited edition of I Still Do, are decent; confirming, moreover, that, paraphrasing the title of the work, Eric Clapton ‘Still Does’ (composing songs).
2018 is rocked by a pleasant concert in Hyde Park in July, in front of about 70,000 people, a chance to reunite with long-time partner Marcy Levy aka Marcella Detroit for The Core and Lay Down Sally, and close with an encore with dear friend Carlos Santana. The surprises are not over, as Happy Xmas is released in October. Eric can’t resist the temptation to make a Christmas album and builds it his way, with classics, a handful of convincing blues and a few surprises. Certainly appreciable in the midst of such offerings is For Love on Christmas Day, a melancholic ballad with the mood of Curtis Mayfield conceived together with the usual Climie and songwriter Dennis Morgan.
A new European tour, which after so many years would finally also touch down in Italy, is the breaking news at the end of 2019 and there are also constant rumours of a new work, probably a continuation of what has been recorded so far – and still unreleased – for J.J. Cale. It seems difficult, despite the recent tailspin given by the aforementioned tracks, to assume a new and lasting compositional season for EC.
However, no one could have predicted the beginning of a period that will change human expectations forever. From February 2020 onwards, the world is no longer the same, amid lockdowns, ad hoc laws, deprivations of freedom and, of course, the cancellation of concerts and shows to prevent the risks of infection caused by the pandemic. Clapton suffers greatly from this inactivity and finds inspiration from this truly difficult juncture to create The Lady in the Balcony: Lockdown Sessions (2021), which is moving if only for the courage to reprise some of his beautiful but forgotten songs, that he had left behind in the first place. Thus Golden Ring, River of Tears and Believe in Life see new light, but the whole setlist is packed with unusual covers or unexpected reprisals. Also shining in terms of intensity is Kerry, an unreleased autographed ‘sketch’ that continues the tradition of dedicating a small acoustic interlude to dear departed persons: the poignant phrasing for J.J. Cale, Jack Bruce, Pino Daniele, John Wetton, Auntie Audrey and, indeed, the much-loved and lamented monitor engineer Kerry Lewis immediately come to mind.
The flame is less tenuous, undeniably it is beginning to gain strength and spread more warmly, although, unfortunately, the evil wind of Covid has served. Once again, a misfortune replenishes the reservoir of inspiration for the Ripley artist; in comes the polemical blues rock of This Has Gotta Stop, the delicacy of Heart of a Child and the irony of Pompous Fool, which nails the arrogance of those who want to negatively influence the weaker people.
But it is on the quality and, we will see in a moment, tenderness, of the second song that we must dwell. Heart of a Child brings the artist back to high levels from a compositional point of view, further proof of his never-ending need for stimulation to elevate himself. Moreover, Eric Clapton – and here we touch on the intimate and profound profile of the person – as he also recounted in a recent interview, extends his hand to those who, like him, have suffered endlessly at this terrible juncture, even thinking, as an extreme measure, of ending it all: ‘Put that gun down, boy, don’t blow your life away.We’re gonna need you, make it through the day…But don’t break your heart of your child, don’t let the fear drive you wild’. Here we are at Eric Clapton‘s heart, at that line already quoted at the beginning of the first article, ‘The pain you’re feeling cuts me to the bone. I’m right there with you, boy, you’ll never be alone’, a symbol of affection and selflessness. Seven poignant minutes, augmented by the touch of two young masters of the six-string, Daniel Santiago and Pedro Martins, as if to prove that the future of music and in particular the guitar is in good hands.
Heart of a Child
A touching ballad, with an intense melody and infectious refrain, which will be successfully presented during the acoustic set at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2022, with special guest Andy Fairweather Low on mandolin. A hopeful track for an artist who long ago sang ‘I still have something to say’ in Ain’t Going Down, and who never stopped giving us beauty, as in the unforgettable Italian shows of October 2022. A man who, in a very humble way, has always attended and thought of charity events, such as the New Year’s Eve shows in Woking, Surrey, so as not to forget those who, like him, have been enslaved by alcohol and drugs. This year, the guitarist will continue the tradition with a concert on 31 December at that venue, in memory of Gary Brooker, his great friend and legendary musician. Also in the name of healing and rehabilitation, Turn Up for Recovery was recently founded, an inclusive community of artists, music lovers and addicts headed by his wife Melia: having fun, talking about recovery and raising funds to help others get the help they need is the group’s mission.
One thing is certain: if the times we are living in, ravaged by pandemics and wars, are indeed terrible, there are still some brave and sensitive people ready to embrace us and take us by the hand with their sincere and heartfelt music. With his heart and unfailing guitar, Eric Clapton is one of them, and 2023 is shaping up solemnly, with a new album that should highlight a newfound and more continuous compositional inspiration, a tour in Japan to celebrate sixty years of his career, and other significant novelties and collaborations that, as happened recently with Dion and Ozzy Osbourne, for example, have surprised and delighted.
“Music will always find its way to us, with or without business, politics, religion or any other bullshit. It has always found me and… it will always find me.” <<<Excerpt from autobiography, 2007>>
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