What can you say or write about Eric Clapton that hasn’t already been voiced? His hailings have always preceded him, and we can visibly see through history it was much to his dismay.
Journalists much more qualified than I have tread and re-tread this path quite ceremoniously in the last 50 years, and most have had the same things to say … over and over again. Soon after “Clapton Is God”, the unsolicited titles bestowed upon him have done so much to distract one away from the music. It’s as if he were an actual Beatle, or some mythological deity summoned to this mortal coil to save the world with his mighty riffs. Of course I type in jest, but this stuff was real. Kids spray-painted these sentiments on their neighborhood buildings, and wrote them in their schoolbooks. Myths galore further alienated him along with tragedy, causing the man quite a deal of pain and anger. And being in the public eye like that? Anyone can surely conclude it is not pleasurable.
Some of his most celebrated works have come from his expressions of that, but not much has been done to highlight the music Clapton made when he was, dare I say it, happy. He sure looked happy on the cover of 461 Ocean Boulevard, and the record as a whole felt the same. To a lesser extent, so did There’s One In Every Crowd the following year. Clapton was infatuated with the island vibe then, and I’ve quietly wondered for years if ‘Slowhand’ had explored reggae further than “I Shot The Sheriff”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Don’t Blame Me”, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (he did record There’s One In Every Crowd in Kingston). The answer to that query, and many more revelations await the curious Claptonite on Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings.
Coming off of his well-publicized heroin hiatus and the Rainbow Theater comeback show, Clapton made his way to Miami, Florida for some needed rejuvenation time. The band assembled for his stay at Criteria Studios soon after would provide a well-spring of groove for these new formulas he wished to explore, somewhat based on his love for The Band and JJ Cale as well as a properly-timed introduction to the music of Bob Marley thanks to guitarist George Terry. Bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker (all three just came off of touring with Bob Seger), and backing vocalist Yvonne Elliman also participate in a stellar ensemble that execute Clapton’s pared down vision sublimely. Basically, he replaced the searing solos of the recent past for a slow-cooked southern-tropical feel, and he was extremely successful for doing so. Vocal ‘guitar god’ fans tend to dismiss this period in his career, pandering to the notion he was just going through the motions. If this box set proves anything, it’s the explosion of song-craft in the midst of this career revival and the humility expressed from within the man himself. Not the guitar god.
461 Ocean Boulevard was originally released in 1974 immediately following his first US number-one hit, “I Shot The Sheriff”. Yes, it was instrumental in the rise of reggae music awareness in the states, but didn’t do much to satiate the fans of the guitar workout a-la Cream. In fact, the whole album alienated many who hoped for the return of the macho soloist more than the discovery of an intimate artist. More respect is deserved, for this album is a moment of comfort never felt in a Clapton disc before. “Let It Grow” is a major breakthrough songwriting-wise, and it’s lush construction sounds as good today as it did on the ‘lite-rock’ FM stations of the ‘70s. “Give Me Strength” gently pulsates thanks to the guest rhythms of Al Jackson Jr. from the MG’s. All tracks from the Criteria sessions are fulfilling in their own way, and the Miami bonus cuts featured in this new boxed set are extraordinary.
Whether you admit it or not, Clapton was quite good at interpreting reggae. The smattering of a few more in this vein throughout the Strength box only drives this point home. If you put all of them together, there are enough tracks with the Carribean vibe here to release a reggae-only compilation (hint, hint). These explorations dominate the sessions for There’s One in Every Crowd, but that’s to be expected since the recording took place in Kingston at the revered Dynamic Sounds. From these tapes comes the additions of “Burial” and “Whatcha Gonna Do”, both penned by Peter Tosh (I swore I heard Tosh vocally participating during the sessions). There more than a handful of bonus goodies from the Dynamic Sound days, and it’s easy to appreciate each one of them.
The happiness heard on 461 Ocean Boulevard isn’t found in the same quantity in the Dynamic Sound sessions. Moments of awesome do await, but there is an overall strain felt throughout the recordings. Over the years, certain writings have alluded to the start of another dark period (in most historical accounts, it was). Clapton’s autobiography cites “problems in Jamaica”, but other than a developing drinking issue during this time period, very little is said. History would soon chronicle a drunken mess of a rant at one of his shows in 1976, thus beginning another chapter to be ‘box-setted’ in the future. I can’t wait to hear that one.
The rest of this snapshot in time chronicled within Give Me Strength finds one knee deep in the blues, especially the live stuff originally released as E.C. Was Here in ‘76. Unreleased performances from the Long Beach Arena show that made up most of the aforementioned live gem are incredible as well, leading me to question why E.C. Was Here wasn’t originally released as a double-live affair. There’s much more that’s been tapped from the vaults for discs three, four, and five … some of which was previously issued on the expanded edition of 461 Ocean Boulevard and others. We also hear the return of Clapton the unholy soloist, unleashing pure fire and blues-brimstone throughout the live tracks and studio workouts with Freddie King. This set also marks the first release of the full 22-minute version of “Gambling Woman Blues” with King. And if that wasn’t enough, quad mixes of both studio albums and the 5.1 mix of 461 Ocean Boulevard are here, too. There’s so much new information to ingest, it makes sense to study Give Me Strength in sections. I did, and I’m still overwhelmed.
As with most period-studying box sets, Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings is aimed right at the completist, or that smartass that writes their fine-arts doctoral final on subjects like Clapton. On the outside, it looks like a bunch of fluff peacocking on glossy stock. Niche marketing at its most diabolical. After the smoke clears, this collection reveals Eric Clapton, the song-crafting human being. Every track paints a new picture on his storyboard, filling in the blanks between the groove on the record and the tales in the headlines. We as listeners are now invited to examine his personal, emotional documents in a roughly two-year period, and I for one feel like I’m intruding a bit. It’s a lot to get through, but it never gets daunting. It gets real. That’s what makes this set so compelling, and worth both the money and time.
After the commercial success of Unplugged, Clapton found the confidence to finally deliver the straight up blues album that die-hard fans had waited 30 years for.
As Clapton himself told writer Marc Roberty: “I was actually trying as hard as I could to try and replicate the original recordings. But it still came out as me which is the beauty of the whole exercise…It’s almost like I’m just leaving John Mayall now and I’m producing my own blues band. And it’s taken me 30 years of meandering the back streets to get there.”
The fact that Clapton himself calls this an “exercise” speaks volumes, but the fact that these performances are so accomplished makes it an exercise that’s well worth hearing.
Clapton’s song selection certainly can’t be faulted, as he gives straight up renderings of many not so obvious choices from admired bluesmen such as Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and Leroy Carr, among others. The man obviously knows his blues.
Clapton also picked excellent sidemen (and long time associates) such as drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Chris Stainton (who shines throughout the album), guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, and harp player Jerry Portnoy (the album’s most prominent sideman along with Stainton), thereby ensuring that all of the performances are typically classy and tasteful.
Of course, this is a minor problem as well, as some of these performances are too restrained, and the focus is occasionally on Clapton’s gruff singing rather than his great guitar playing, always a dubious strategy where Clapton is concerned. Also, do we really need yet another version of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man?” Fortunately, when Clapton lets loose on stellar renditions of songs such as “Blues Before Sunrise,” “Five Long Years,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Someday After A While,” and “Groaning The Blues,” his absolute mastery of the electric guitar simply cannot be doubted.
Man, his guitar playing on these tracks is simply phenomenal, probably his best guitar playing in years maybe going as far back as when he was with the Dominos. On the less rocking front, “Third Degree” and “Sinner’s Prayer” are slow, smouldering blues numbers that would be a perfect fit for a small nightclub, while “How Long Blues” and “Motherless Child” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Unplugged. Like that album, this one is often-terrific but gets somewhat monotonous over its 16 songs that cover 60 minutes.
Still, though From The Cradle sometimes comes across as an “exercise” rather than a truly inspired recreation, the majority of this album is indeed a terrific tribute to some unjustly forgotten bluesman, many of whom were likely rediscovered as a result.
I love biographies, especially of celebrities, having read them all my life. As I have gotten older, though, my attention span wanes, and I read less and less. This book, Clapton:The Autobiography, is an exceptional one, and as a pseudo musician (I can play several instruments, but I certainly wouldn’t say I play any well), the prospect of reading about Eric Clapton, from the source, so-to-speak, was a prospect that excited me. I feel blessed that one can pre-order a book and have it on ones doorstep the day it hits the streets, as was the case with this book and the accompanying CD.
First of all, this is an exceptional book, but unlike some biographies, and fewer autobiographies, it is not one that would be a “page turner” for everyone because it is not full of cute anecdotes that make for sharing stories around the water cooler the next day.
A case in point is the time when Eric first met Jimi Hendrix. Chas Chandler of the Animals was trying to develop a career as a promoter and came across Hendrix in New York. Promising him a chance to meet Eric Clapton, he took Jimi to London. After meeting several musicians (Eric Burton, Andy Summers, et. al.), Chas took Jimi to hear Cream play. Backstage, Chas introduced Jimi, and they asked if Jimi could sit in with them for a few numbers, which seemed kind of ballsey. In Clapton, Eric writes that Jimi played Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” in true Hendrix fashion playing “the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, lying on the floor, doing the splits, the whole business.
It was amazing…..They (the crowd) loved it, and I loved it, too, but I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing.” In other accounts I have read and heard about from others, Eric after seeing and hearing Jimi perform, goes over and sits down, looking rejected. Another musician comes over to ask him, “What’s wrong?” In some accounts it’s Jack Bruce, in other accounts it’s Peter Townsend. Eric replies, “I’m (expletive-deleted). If I’m “God,” who’s he?” Which to me would have been a funny anecdote.
It is still an exceptional book because it is so personal…. Filled with the flaws and mistakes of an exceptionally talented man who carried around for most of his life the baggage of being a “bastard” to some in his own family, for his mother had had an affair with a soldier during WWII and left him as a child to be raised by his grandparents. While learning that his “parents” were actually his grandparents, he writes at length of the insecurities of not having his mom there, and, the heartbreak of finally meeting her, and asking her if he could call her “Mummy now?” Only to be told, “”I think it’s best, after all they’ve done for you, that you go on calling your grandparent Mum and Dad.” Of that moment, he wrote, “In that moment I felt total rejection.”
Growing-up wasn’t all that bad, though. Eric showed some talent in art, and music was something that his Grandmother Rose loved. He wasn’t a diligent student, but in art, and later in the guitar, he worked long and hard at learning and later creating.
This is a very thorough book, almost a true musician’s book because it leaves out nothing of the ups-and-downs that seem to be the norm for all musicians. In the book, he talks of why some tunes were written a certain way, how he evolved in his musical craft, and what he was wanting to achieve in each group he played with. He mentions names on individuals in even the earliest of groups he played in, what they did together, and is very thorough in providing the reader his a written history of their achievements.
One wonders, though, where all this would have led had Eric not had so much alcohol and drugs in his early life, of if in some way, this was the catalyst to help him overcome those insecurities of his youth (Actually, he states this in a roundabout way that it was, but one still wonders just how much of what we have now would there have been with less alcohol and drugs.)
I can’t think of any aspect of Eric’s life that he doesn’t discuss in Eric: The Autobiography: His love life, particularly his infatuation with Patti Boyd, George Harrison’s wife; His relationships with other musicians and what he respected them for; His heartbreaks such as the loss of his son Conor.
I’ve given this book four stars, not because it is not exceptional, but because it isn’t one that will be readable and enjoyable to all. However, if you are a lover of rock and blues music, or one who really wonders just what has gone through the head of someone as influential as Eric Clapton, I would recommend it to you.