Saturday, September 2, 2017

Man of a Thousand Faces: Eric Clapton Crossroads (1988)

Back in 1970, when Eric Clapton ducked for cover under the name Derek and the Dominos, he actually revealed more of himself than he had earlier in his best music with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream. On the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the passion that drove his voice and his playing also had the element of losing control – as he did playing "Crossroads" with Cream on Wheels of Fire – where the music took hold and pulled him kicking and screaming into its tumult. Since Clapton's addictions, I believe, emerged from that plunge into desperate pleasure, it didn't surprise me that as he tackled the substances, the substance of his music became more careful and craftsman lite. While there may indeed be legitimate reasons for not touching the flames that ignite both your follies and your genius (after all, Derek and the Dominos were decimated by drugs and self-destruction), it may be that Clapton never really had a fully defined personality, a self that might have carried him through his addictions without letting him lose his spark.

Watching him with the Dominos sing Chuck Willis's desperately doomed "It's Too Late" on The Johnny Cash Show (which sets up the title track "Layla" on the album), you realize that Clapton's face has always morphed and been shaped by the music he plays. He never really looks the same from band to band. The music gives him definition rather than the other way around. As he trades lines with keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, while invoking the brotherly spirit of Sam & Dave, Clapton doesn't look comforted by the companionship. Driven by the fear of the emotions the song stirs, which is closer to desolation than comfort and satisfaction, he produces some of his best and truest music. The 1988 CD box set, Eric Clapton Crossroads, is a four-disc omnibus that tries to account for his genius through the many phases of a checkered career that in the end that fails to come into focus. Despite the linear chronology, which includes many highlights and duds, Eric Clapton Crossroads never identifies the intersection of those four corners because the artist who seems to possess a thousand faces has just as many disguises. Compiled with great care by Bill Levenson (who did a remarkable job the following year with the box set, The Allman Brothers Band Dreams), Eric Clapton Crossroads tries to shape the artist's evolution from a blues purist into a pop craftsman, but in doing so the collection reveals that Clapton's success is something of a hollow victory. (The set begins with The Yardbirds' very white by-the-numbers interpretation of John Lee Hooker's sexy "Boom Boom" and ends with Clapton's late-eighties synth-drenched re-recording of JJ Cale's "After Midnight," which eventually found its home as part of a Michelob beer commercial.)

Back in the late eighties, as vinyl was giving way to CDs, the box set was a popular means to providing a retrospective on an artist's career since you could fit more music on the compact disc than on an LP, and give it a digital clean-up in the process. What made the prospect so promising, too, was the opportunity to move past the expedience of the typical greatest hits album and into something richer where the music could answer key questions about the artist's value. Eric Clapton Crossroads is certainly a clear-headed attempt to do just that, unlike Bob Dylan's Biograph (1985), which was a shapeless and haphazard mess, or the equally jumbled Miles Davis: The Columbia Years 1955-1985 (1988). You don't experience the shock and surprise in the evolving sounds of Bob Dylan and Miles Davis on those box sets because the track selection is so uneven and arbitrary. Their artistry comes across as accidental. Levenson's Eric Clapton Crossroads shows us through a wide range of material that the guitarist is no accident. In Levenson's view, Clapton has always been at a crossroads in both defining his sound and refuting the idolatry his early music invoked in fans who proclaimed that 'Clapton is God.' So when he joined The Yardbirds in the fall of 1963, he arrived with a religious devotion to the blues and the group delivered on his zealotry with a number of pro forma covers of Billy Boy Arnold ("I Wish You Would"), Jimmy Reed ("Baby What's Wrong"), Naomi Neville ("A Certain Girl") and Sonny Boy Williamson ("Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"). But their devotional tributes were so earnestly bland that they continually missed the mark. It was as if they were speaking the language of the blues so literally that they didn't comprehend the actual meaning of the words. The lasciviousness underscoring Sonny Boy Williamson's original of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," for instance, is lost to The Yardbirds, who might as well be promising her an afternoon of Scrabble. It wasn't until the band recorded Calvin Carter's "I Ain't Got You" in 1964 that Clapton's solo guitar break, with biting notes that tore holes in the eardrums, provided the band with some cayenne pepper. But with the group's turn to pop stardom with the infectious "For Your Love," Clapton saw sacrilege in the air and fled the nest. (Truth be told, The Yardbirds found their true identity after Clapton. They were a better pop band with the versatile Jeff Beck on lead guitar, and later the industrious Jimmy Page, on memorable blues/pop hybrids like "Heart Full of Soul," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" and "Evil Hearted You.")

With John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Clapton found both a comfortable home and a finishing school to hone his craft. Revisiting Otis Rush's "All Your Love" and Robert Johnson's "Rambling on My Mind" reveals Clapton as a quick study of the feeling of the blues while he crafts a sound that both defers to his antecedents and finds his own clear mode of expression. But that breakthrough is heard more dramatically in the later rock trio Cream, which he formed in 1966 with bass guitarist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, where the blues percolates in a psychedelic stew that enables Clapton to build explosive improvised solos. The dramatic tension about where they might end became almost unbearable (as on "Spoonful" from Cream's debut album). Which is why the appearance of Jimi Hendrix at that time woke Clapton up to the possibilities of how the blues could transform popular music into a form of sacred text. On "Sunshine of Your Love," "White Room" and especially "Crossroads," is where you hear Eric Clapton surrendering to a sound like a pilgrim on a sojourn. But as much as he acquiesced, there was fear in the act itself. The presence of drugs in psychedelia caused many casualties, but for Clapton the effect was more psychological. He'd watched Hendrix go to extremes of self-expression in his music that also equalled his appetite for chemical refreshment and it ultimately took his life. From there, where Clapton expressed both anger and fear about Hendrix's passing, music became a tug of war between finding release in his songs (such as "Presence of the Lord" with Blind Faith) and hiding in cautious craftwork ("Blues Power" on Eric Clapton).

That internal battle would also be fought in his romantic life when he fell into deep, obsessive love with George Harrison's wife, Patti Boyd, as if he could only surrender himself to those things he couldn't possess. Yet that bottomless pursuit took his music places emotionally that he hadn't dared reach before. When you listen to "Tell the Truth" and "Layla" on Crossroads, there's a mania in the sound that borders on heightened hysteria, a sense that only death could bring peace to the singer. It was heroin that eased the agony of obsession and brought Clapton's music to a deadened place where, even though he ultimately conquered the drug as well as winning the woman of his desires, he had no reason to reach further into his soul. What we hear by the time we get to the holistic "Let it Grow," his pallid cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," and his numbing version of Elmore James's aching "The Sky is Crying" is musical torpor. Personal salvation came at an artistic price. When we reach the eighties, Clapton finds a tranquil space in personal domesticity where his concentration on mastery creates an armour that hides a deeper fervour. The soul-tearing sounds of "Layla" become the cautiously friendly "Wonderful Tonight," and the delectably seductive "Strange Brew" becomes J.J. Cale's "Cocaine," which sounds about as threatening as a cup of tea. Phil Collins further commercialized Clapton's music and his guitar playing, which, heard especially on "Forever Man," developed into an everyman's slickness.

Eric Clapton Crossroads ends just before the artist finds commercial success in the middle of the road with his 1992 Unplugged live album, where even "Layla" gets drained of its unrelenting power. There's no question that Clapton's personal life in those years was a series of tragedies that could test any man's desire to reach inside himself to the most vulnerable places. Those risks, of course, have sometimes taken artists to places they never returned from, as Kurt Cobain could attest to from the grave. But Clapton was drawn to the blues for a good reason. He heard a calling in the music that demanded a price be paid to capture its essence. “For me there is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall," he once said. You can hear Clapton scaling those heights on Crossroads in his concluding guitar solo on "Let it Rain," or even earlier with quick machine-gun breaks in Cream's "I Feel Free." The daring in those moments is truly exhilarating to behold. But the later music creates a false excitement where craft is no longer the elation of discovery, but instead the safety of acclaimed mastery. The most depressing aspect of Eric Clapton Crossroads is that he feels no need to resist it.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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