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On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb

25th June 2008

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Anyone who’s lived enough knows that hindsight’s got a bad habit of separating the bullshit from the real thing. Few things illustrate this truth more clearly than revisiting Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson four years later. It will be apparent to most who’ve given the album a second chance since its release in march of 2004 that listening to it is about as riveting an experience as listening to a second coat of paint dry on your mother’s bathroom wall. It exudes about as much passion for its material as the corporate executives who’ve been cashing in on Clapton’s deplorable laurel-resting for decades. And though Clapton’s role in defining rock ‘n roll and introducing the work of many blues legends to the larger audiences they so richly deserved cannot be denied, it’s about time to call the old buzzard’s bluff: this ain’t no blues man.

This is “blues” for people who thought Blink 182 was “punk.” That’s probably the reason why, working in the music department at a Barnes & Noble when this drivel hit stores, I watched a succession of soccer moms and burned-out Floyd fans cough up their kids’ gas money to hear Eric Clapton’s ridiculously over-hyped disaster of a “blues” album. “One thing the blues ain’t,” Stephen Stills admonished a fan in the audience on the classic live album Four Way Street, “is funny.” The way he said it, it sounded as if Stills was perfectly prepared to slit the poor bastard’s throat with his pick if he dared utter another sound; coming from the guy who jumped Elvis Costello in an Ohio bar amid a fit of rage after Costello called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger,” the threat of physical violence was entirely real.

(In defense of Costello’s remark, for which he scheduled a press conference to apologize, Salon writes that “There’s no evidence that Costello was a racist — he’d been active in Rock Against Racism before it was fashionable and was too smart in any event to let it show if he was — but he was being as stupid, reckless and out of control as any of the broken-down ’60s stars his energy, brains and invective were supposed to be an antidote for.”)

Another thing the blues “ain’t,” though, is comforting–or at least that’s the way the genre’s founding fathers intended it to be. That’s why it’s the very last genre you should be able to listen to on your way to soccer practice with a legion of snot-nosed kids packed in the back of your SUV. Not because it is explicit–for that is merely controversial–but because real blues is the musical equivalent of a razor to the wrist. A well-delivered blues track, such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail,” should leave you no more settled than a track from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. And if you’ve listened to either Johnson’s song or Cohen’s album, you know what exactly what I mean. Clapton’s album, by contrast, plays like the soundtrack of a walk through the sandbox on Sunday afternoon with a fistful of birthday balloons and clown paint cracking on your chin in the sun. It is, to put it simply, much too polite a record for the blues.

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Robert Johnson

 

It is nothing less than a travesty that Clapton is continually allowed to pass himself off as a blues man when his days as an edgy and innovative guitarist hell-bent on making the blues cool again are so far behind him now as to be the stuff of urban legend. It has been a long time since Clapton was a no-name strapping on his guitar for another session with the Yardbirds, and his recent recordings prove that he has forgotten what it was that brought him to pick up a guitar as a kid. He fails to understand that mere competence does not constitute “Blues” music. Blues comes from within, from a depth in the gut that’s been hollowed out by the kind of real-life suffering that brought the original blues masters — whose genius was not rewarded by millions of dollars in royalties, but by an occasional burst of applause by the roadside — to their chosen craft.

Take Robert Johnson, for example: he grew up in squalid poverty and worked as a sharecropper as a boy, his first child was stillborn and his first wife died during labor, his next wife suffered a breakdown and also died young, he himself was a victim of near-blindness and, finally, he was poisoned to death at the age of 27. Maybe that’s the kind of shit that Robert was fixing for the night he sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to live with. Or take Muddy Waters, who never sold his soul to the devil, but grew up under the care of his grandmother because his mother died when he was five years-old (the age at which he began to teach himself harmonica, beating on a can of kerosene to get a feel for rhythm.) He worked as a sharecropper at the Stoval Plantation and lived in a shoddy wooden cabin about the size of a matchbox, somehow scrounging together enough in wages to buy his first guitar at 17.

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The Cabin Muddy Waters Lived in As A Boy

The idea behind Blues music upon its birth was that the artist had to HAVE the blues to sing the Blues. Clapton’s lackluster performance on Me and Mr. Johnson–as on so many of his past records–further demonstrates that he is too far removed from that state of the soul to make real music. My disgust with the album has nothing to do with “purism” or a lack of grittiness. I’ll take a clean sound if it’s got soul. I’m talking about modern blues masters like Charlie Musslewhite, John Hammond or even Tom Waits. Clapton, by contrast, compounds weak performances with vocal deliveries that sound as though the man is slipping into a coma as he sings.

I’m sorry, but a guy who puts out albums with liner notes that include catalogs of his own merchandise is the last guy on earth who ought to be cutting blues records. Clapton has made it clear that the tremendous celebrity status he engendered as a young man was so unappealing to him that he is willing to release decades worth of diluted, subpar blues/rock, which he has done. He has proven to be a rather powerful enemy of his own reputation, and has subsequently forgotten how to bring his soul to the microphone. If anybody ought to be keeping his hands off those Robert Johnson records, it’s Eric Clapton. If you want to know what Johnson sounded like, stick with the original tunes and hunt down the stuff that Muddy was listening to while he worked with his bare hands in the fields of Mississippi to save enough for that first guitar: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson or The Mississippi Sheiks.

17 Responses to “On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb”

  1. douglas martin Says:

    *applause*

  2. admin Says:

    Ha! Thanks man. This guy irks me–but that’s probably pretty obvious by now. ;)

  3. Jay Says:

    Sounds like a very angry review by someone who doesn’t get it. I doubt Clapton would tell you that his versions have half the soul necessary but his love for the music and his love for what that taught him as a young man in England doesn’t invalidate his desire to honor Johnson.

    The fact is that Clapton is an astoundingly good guitarist and has had an enormous influence on all of rock and some blues. He is – this is a fact – and excellent blues guitarist.

    To say Clapton has done some sort of disservice to Johnson’s music is to wish the world would stand still and no one try to find new expressions as they grow. that’s silly.

    Clapton has had plenty of personal pain to be able to own the blues. The album was not meant to supplant or give and example of Johnson’s music as a strict interpretation – it is meant as Clapton’s desire to share his love for Johnson’s influence on him and reawaken the fact that Johnson’s music is still out there to be heard and influence others. I doubt that Clapton felt he was doing the songs better or as well as Johnson – it is a tribute.

    Maybe this review is written from some other point of view – one hopes it isn’t from a racial point of view because that would be simple minded and ignorant.

  4. admin Says:

    All perfectly reasonable arguments, Jay. What I am struggling mightily to understand, however, is the suggestion that this piece may have been written from what you call a “racial point of view”? If it helps to know, I am a white guy. I have no idea what that might have to do with anything, though. Maybe you can clarify?

  5. Jay Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxTWQD91b5c

    Surely the man in the above video is “incompetent” when it comes to playing the blues.

  6. Jay Says:

    The other videos were too much?

  7. admin Says:

    No, No–not too much at all, Jay. I’m grateful that you called these videos to my attention. I have been out of town reporting on a Tom Petty concert in Ft. Lauderdale, where I enjoyed the pleasure of watching Steve Windwood, an old Clapton cohort, join the band for a couple of numbers (including one Spencer Davis Group surprise!)

    The videos you’ve sent only serve to reinforce the sadness with which I report on the death of Eric Clapton’s soul. I will not argue that he is not talented–nor, by the way, did I ever suggest that he is “incompetent.” To the contrary, I specifically note that he is indeed “competent.” The point is that mere competence is no effective mask for the soul-lessness of the music he has released over the past few decades. Is he a talented musician? Absolutely. Does he convey even a fraction of the soul that other luminaries such as J.J. Cale or even Steve Windwood continue to demonstrate? Not for a minute. It’s this issue of soul that makes an artist such as Neil Young so immensely more relevant than Eric Clapton–Young is a man who, despite age, still brings all the fire of his heart to the microphone–a fire I haven’t heard in Clapton’s music since his last session with John Mayhall. You and I both know that I am hardly alone in this criticism.

    The only thing that remains a source of lingering confusion for me, though, is your assertion that people who criticize Clapton’s music are racists. I still don’t see any clarification of that remark–it would be greatly appreciated.

  8. Jay Says:

    Sorry – not saying that at all. That was not my assertion. I simply said IF that was the point – a white man singing/playing the blues – then that would be a very sad and ignorant statement.

    Still disagree about Clapton – he plays and sings the blues very well. Many professionals you mention feel the same and hold him in high esteem.

    Love Neil Young – love his music. Love the passion he still has for his music – but I see Clapton paly and I am sure it’s still there.

    I guess we will agree to disagree. Thanks for posting the thoughts though. Always open to listening to other points of view.

  9. Jay Says:

    I came back to just ask about the choice of the words in this review of Clapton’s Me and Mr Johnson. I am curious about your age. The choice of words – “On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb” gives me pause.

  10. admin Says:

    If what we wrote here did not give you pause, we would consider this venture a failure. I’m glad that this piece proved to be an engaging read for you.

  11. Jay Says:

    It’s the choice of words I am referring to – not that the piece was provocative. It reads like a very young opinion, so I was just curious about your age.

  12. admin Says:

    Jay: Clearly the piece IS provocative–this is your sixth comment about it! And that’s great–I warmly welcome reader response and dialogue.

    Now, as for your allegations of puerile language: I am a professor of English and creative writing at a University with many publications to my credit, including a book. So while I welcome debate on my choice of words, I can assure you that I am neither too young nor unqualified to write about art.

    Again, it’s best if we keep our Clapton debate on the topic at hand as opposed to personal invective about race or age.

  13. Jay Says:

    After reading through all your other articles on your site, it is pretty clear that you are a person (or group of people) writing personal opinion reviews … most of which receive little comment. Your article on Rocky Frisco was excellent because you wrote about a musician and not about your unimportant opinion.

    To be an expert, it helps to be recognized as an authority. You seem to be going about creating a reputation by writing hoping that someone will read it.

    You are plain wrong about Clapton and your dismissive language is conceited and narcissistic. Your words and your attitude show a lack of understanding of Clapton and his career and what he tries to do with music.

    Clapton has had plenty happen in his life to make him a true blues artist – he has lived it. Clapton is clearly a lot older than you and has lived life.

    Clapton’s music is a tribute to the old blues players. It is his own type of contemporary blues but it is absolutely valid and heartfelt real blues. When Clapton grabs a guitar by himself and plays the blues, it is even closer to that of the original blues players, but all of his interpretations are on the money – for his love of the blues. To release a blues album this day and age is NOT a commercial venture. Don’t you think those inserts came from the record company – not Clapton personally? He does not water down the blues as you suggest – it isn’t sanitized or turned into something someone might be listening to with their kids in the car as they take them to school. He does make it a contemporary interpretation – adding regular meter and some instrumentation, but it is the blues – that’s a fact.

    Resting on his laurels – REALLY? Have you seen him recently? Did you see him on the 2006 – 07 World Tour? With Steve Winwood in NYC? During the Cream Reunion 2005? During his summer tour 2008? He is hardly resting anywhere. He is a real musician. He is out there working, doing concerts. He is highly respected and not doing anything like “resting on his laurels.”

    What’s truly laughable about your criticism is that you really know nothing about that which you profess to have knowledge – the blues. You seem to be one of those self appointed critics who thinks because they have listened to some music, read some books, and read other critics that they know enough to be one. There are two types of people in the world, those who DO and those who TALK about it. I play guitar – I KNOW what Clapton does is extremely difficult and he does it extremely well.

    Clapton has played with Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, BB King, Steve Winwood, John Lee Hooker, JJ Cale, one could write down a huge list of others.

    When one chooses to be critical of someone in the manner you chose, we have to ask … what have you done? What have you done to earn the right to be so dismissive and rude? What is this web site really about? It seems to be about you and your ignorant opinions – which mean very little in the scheme of things to anyone in this world.

    “Who Are We
    We are hopeless music dorks who suffer from a neurotic compulsion to write about the music we love.” It must also include the music you hate – you didn’t mention that.

    Your writing about Clapton makes me angry because of the choice of language. The very title shows such unmitigated self-appreciation and lack of understanding of music. Clapton is a true artist – not just about commercial gain.

    The issue you have with Clapton’s music is your own ears – his music is filled with passion – your own self-censor just doesn’t allow you to hear it. Maybe being on the computer instead of out there living life is one of the problems. I challenge you to pick up a guitar for the next 40 years and make a career for yourself laying yourself out there each night with people like you watching and writing dismissively about you. Clapton deserves far more respect than you offer.

    Shame on you for dismissing someone who has shaped and influenced rock music more than any rock guitarist and has helped generations find blues through his music – Clapton is someone who musically and personally accomplishes on a daily basis more than you will probably ever achieve in a lifetime of spouting your self-absorbed, conceited tripe.

    So let’s kick your ridiculous opinion web site to the curb for being the real pretender here. My sincere advice is that you take the “the only tree that’s left, and shove it.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK5kjxU75xg

    “It will be easy for blues purists to find fault with these versions—Clapton has standardized the meters, reformatted the songs as Chicago-style shuffles, and left very little of the originals intact—but he’s clear about his own limitations and always has been. “They called me the master of the cliché,” he said in a recent NPR interview, and more than 30 years after Rolling Stone panned him as “a virtuoso at performing other people’s ideas,” the criticism still stings. “I ran with that for a long time, thinking, ‘Well, that’s what I am.’ I have a limited vocabulary, I will probably do the same thing over and over again, and try to disguise it. But I’ve found a way to accept that.”

    Accepting that means not trying to outdo Robert Johnson—steering clear of passages and solos that he can’t duplicate and taking care to avoid charges that he’s trying to sound like someone else. Because Clapton understands that it can’t be done. “His best songs have never been covered by anyone else, at least not very successfully—because how are you going to do them?” Clapton wrote in the Complete Recordings liner notes. “To have tried to mimic Robert, vocally or musically, wouldn’t have made him accessible at all to people who are listening today.”

    At its best, Me and Mr Johnson is pure Clapton autobiography. He’s still searching to find himself, expressing regret for his past and surprise that he’s survived so long. On “When You Got a Good Friend,” he can’t imagine why he’s treated his lover so badly; on “Love in Vain,” he carries her suitcase to make it easier for her to leave him; and on the thunderous “Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” the last song Johnson ever recorded and the most difficult for Clapton, he says goodbye to his mother in a mixture of anger, betrayal, and sadness.

    “That’s been the hingepin of most of my conflict, just accepting how I came to blues,” Clapton told NPR in 2001, talking about both his childhood and his love for Johnson. He’s still mystified that “a person like me, born in a place like England, could have made a career out of music that on the face of it, doesn’t really have much connection to my cultural upbringing. And yet there is a connection, in terms of the spiritu-al side of it, the emotional side of it, the psychological side of it. I began the road of going into the dark and coming out into the light. And I’ve now done a bit of work on it and actually accept who I am.”

  14. admin Says:

    Thank you once again for the passion and interest you’re bringing to Culturespill–and thanks as well for the compliment on our interview with Rocky Frisco. We think quite highly of him, and we’re proud of the interview.

    You raise quite a few provocative points here, so I hardly know where to start. Let me give it a try: you rail against our take on Clapton as “opinionated,” but, surely Jay, you realize that your take on Clapton–whether or not you’re a guitar player–is also an opinion. There are few facts in criticism of art–it is an inherently subjective discourse, whether it’s me bitching about Clapton or you extolling his virtues. This is why I have always found the “you’re so full of opinions!” attacks to be absurdly comical.

    The general gist behind your point that you are a guitar player, and therefore, it would seem, more qualified to speak of and appreciate Clapton’s work, reminds me of the tweed-clad professors cloistered in their ivory halls as they hammer out their obscure manifestos on antique typewriters for an audience of four (usually their colleagues.) This is exactly the problem with Clapton’s work–it has long ceased to exhibit the kind of passion that once attracted legions to his music (it seems so long ago now.) It plays well with your cadre of guitar aficionados, but, as with any creative venture worthy of massive audiences, it must also appeal to people outside of that elitist milieu–people like yourself who proudly (and defensively) announce to Clapton’s critics that they, too, are guitar players (always through the gritted teeth of a bully.)

    I’m surprised that you feel the need to remind me that Clapton has played with a host of legends and was instrumental in bringing blues music to wider audiences, when in the very first paragraph of this piece, we mention that “Clapton’s role in defining rock ‘n roll and introducing the work of many blues legends to the larger audiences they so richly deserved cannot be denied.” Is that another one of those “ignorant” opinions you attribute to our site in your 7th–and most acerbic–comment on this story?

    You also accuse us of a delusion that we are “experts.” Nowhere on this site do we make any such claim–we’re music lovers with a blog, and it’s OK if we’re not Perez Hilton, either. We do this for love of the music, not, as you seem to believe, to attract the effusive adoration of the world. It should also be readily obvious to you, as a clear lover and defender of Clapton, that Eric Clapton hoped to make music of far broader appeal than merely the guitar-playing “experts” you anoint as the exclusive authorities on Clapton’s work–surely the man who said in a 1987 interview on The South Bank Show that he “wanted to be the greatest guitar player in the world” had an ambition to capture the attention of more than a mere cloister of defensive “experts” and guitar players such as yourself. The suggestion that only “experts” can now appreciate Clapton’s music is a testament to just how boring his work has become over time. Are you honestly going to tell me that “My Father’s Eyes” or “One Track Mind” are worthy of the reputation this man earned with the sizzling blues and rock he helped pioneer so long ago? Surely not.

    I also understand that Clapton tours a lot. But so does Great White. Does that make Great White a great blues band? Obviously not. So of what consequence is Eric Clapton’s itinerary? Very little, really–except to show that he, like Bob Dylan, has a gritty work ethic and enjoys taking his music on the road. Good for him. That has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not he rests on his laurels, which songs such as the ones I just named above undeniably confirm–they constitute, compared to what we know Clapton’s capable of, nothing more than watered-down tripe with the “Clapton” brand name slapped on the cover to drum up sales, thus pouring more gasoline on the flames of his ego (and fattening the pocket book, of course.)

    The Clapton I love is the one who sneered at The Yardbirds for agreeing to record Graham Gouldman’s pop-flavored “For Your Love,” a sell-out to which Clapton so vehemently objected that he left the band, recommending Jimmy Page as his replacement (and demonstrating great taste in the process.) I applaud him for that show of authenticity, and for agreeing, despite this bitter separation, to tour with the original line-up (along with Page and Beck) to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. That’s maturity, leadership, and integrity. But, then again, I’m completely ignorant of Clapton’s life and work, so what would I know–right Jay?

    Eric Clapton is not a bad man, and I have nothing against him personally. His more recent output, however, leaves far more to be desired than devotees such as yourself will ever permit yourselves to recognize–you are blinded by the shrapnel of your own inflamed affections, and clearly, that damage was done long before you ever found Culturespill. It is not our doing–nor is it our problem.

  15. Jay Says:

    Fair enough

  16. Mark Laskowski Says:

    I have no doubt that in more than one way, endlessly subjective though they all may be, that the Me and Mr. Johnson album kinda sucks. Or more appropriately, I would think it did.

    Wasn’t it Lester Bangs who said of Clapton (years ago, obviously . . . Lester is no longer with us but Clapton is) that his “fingers moved a bit slower every time he is taken out of the pickle jar” but that he “knows the power”?

    But this comment thread, whoa boy. How did we all find ourselves with so much time on our hands?

  17. Joseph N. Scott Says:

    The article says: “Another thing the blues ‘ain’t,’ though, is comforting–or at least that’s the way the genre’s founding fathers intended it to be.” Blues music was around by 1908, so its founding fathers were probably born 1885ish. Can you give us some examples of those founding fathers stating that they didn’t intend their music to be comforting?

    “The idea behind Blues music upon its birth was that the artist had to HAVE the blues to sing the Blues.” Who specifically believed that as of around 1908?

    Just trying to separate the bullshit from the real thing here.

    Joseph Scott

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