For some of us, partial obscurity is a badge of honor. Or of authenticity. The fundamental belief is that because a few of us have discovered something, what we have sussed out is better than if all of us do. It’s like this. We find it. Like it. We know that anyone with half a sensibility would like it, too, if they’re aware of it. So we don’t want them to know because if everyone likes something then it is, almost by default, no longer exceptional. While it is never the case that everyone likes anything, we still like it if the artists and musicians that we like are not liked by the great audio unwashed.
Now what may happen is that those whom we like get discovered by more people. At some point—and when this point occurs is something that is indefinable yet perceived—the level of popularity is such that we have “lost” those whom we once revered. The obscurity has been traded way.
And so we turn our backs and wander off, seeking out that which has yet to be embraced by the many. And the performer(s) in question make it, if not big, then at least bigger.
Which brings me to Eric Clapton.
Let me put one thing aside at the start. He is a fantastic guitar player. Pile on the adjectives. Go ahead. He deserves them. He may not exactly be the deity that was spraypaintedly proclaimed, but he is certainly in a pantheon of players, the likes of which come about all-too rarely.
To be sure, when I first heard Fresh Cream I had a “holy shit” moment. When I learned that the Yardbirds and John Mayall had once numbered him among their numbers, I realized that this guy was better than good. Maybe not god, but goddamn he could play. By the time Wheels of Fire was released, Clapton’s ability, particularly that as could be heard on the live album of the pair, was unquestionable. Schmaltz like “Sunshine of Your Love” notwithstanding, Cream had, dare I say, risen to the top. It was probably a good thing that they broke up. Otherwise that would have put an end to it. (Although one could say that by the time of Goodbye the number of people putting the vinyl on turntables had probably diminished, but still. . . .) We Knew. They Didn’t. And so things were good.
Things got better in some regards with Blind Faith in 1969. The problem here was the original cover art of the band’s album, with the topless pubescent young lady, which caused all manner of controversy and attention. In addition to which, here was what was being hailed as the first “Super Group.” How Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech (previously a member of a band, Family, that even obscurophiles found obscure) constituted a “Super” anything is an act of remarkable marketing. (The deluxe, remastered version of that album that was released in 2001 as a two-CD set is one of the best bets of this century.)
Given Blind Faith’s flame out, Clapton joined up with a traveling roadshow of sorts, a band that played a curious subgenre that can be characterized as secular revivalism. Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. This led to a number of musical transgressions later in his career (at least one can certainly hear the “Ol’ Timey” echoes in some of his work), but there was a brief bout of actual redemption, which took the form of Derek & the Dominos, and the consequential album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. While the title song certainly achieved positive attention for Clapton, it was a work that he really didn’t follow through with: Listen to the piano-driven coda of that song, and realize that it could have been a fresh direction for his music going forward. Instead, he went into another direction which led to such Jesus Christ Superstaresque works like “Let It Grow” and “Hello Old Friend.”
Clapton went for popularity. And it is clear how some of us feel about that.
But the point is that Clapton in the post-Dominos work essentially devolved from greatness to adequacy. His voice isn’t all that good. He rolled out with pathetic pop like “Lay Down Sally” when Robert Palmer was “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley.” There are his countless moonstruck ballads, which lack the authenticity of the blues that he once performed so well; I’d take Boz Scaggs’ “Harbor Lights” et al for any of Clapton’s (e.g., “Wonderful Tonight”), and I’m not that crazy about them, but if I was forced to choose what to play with candle light, a cheap bottle of rose, and. . . . Then there is Clapton in his Jimmy Buffettesque songs; isn’t one of them more than enough—singers, that is? “I’ve Got a Rock and Roll Heart” sounds about as authentic as Pat Boone singing the blues. Come to think of it, “I Can’t Stand It” is sort of like Clapton singing the blues a la Boone. And on it goes, through the catalog. Weren’t The Clapton Chronicles and The Cream of Clapton enough? Do we need more?
OK. Maybe this is sour grapes. Maybe I just think that Clapton sold out in a way that makes me disappointed that the amazing playing that he once did was never explored as it could have been. Of course, had it been, Clapton wouldn’t have recently appeared on the Today Show.
Meanwhile, back in Obscurity. . . .