Originally published in: Overdose, Apr. 1975

Laid Back, Set Back:
Pondering Clapton

I've been trying for a couple weeks now to get together a review of Eric Clapton's new album, 461 Ocean Boulevard. Throughout this process I've possessed two very strong convictions: that the album is very bad, and that it is very important. The two are linked, for it is just as essential to understand why one dislikes something as why one likes it.

Likes and dislikes, or plain old-fashioned taste, have an arbitrary and trivial ring. Elitist aesthetics, hung up in the machinations of class society, has dismissed taste at least since Aristotle, while in turn disguising its own class interest as some universal value. Only consciousness can see through this class facade, and only the rational, practical articulation of alternate, truly universal class interests can break through.

The terrain for struggle has extended from the marketplace throughout every nook and cranny of industrial society. Continually one is assaulted and shocked by reified phenomena; both critical and perceptual facilities are damaged and demeaned, never given the moment's freedom to heal over. Reason is needed as never before.

My first tack was to compare Clapton's album with Leon Russell's almost simultaneous Stop All That Jazz. There was certainly some sense to this. Russell had backed up Clapton on the latter's first solo album, Eric Clapton, and Clapton drew a credit on Russell's utterly brilliant Leon Russell. Moreover, they have used virtually the same sidemen on their various ventures, from Mad Dogs & Englishmen to Derek and the Dominoes (with Carl Radle and Jamie Oldaker surfacing on both the new albums).

But these biographical instances are less important than the common project and fate they have shared. Leon Russell and Layla were the twin peaks of a major movement in rock at the end of the sixties, melding blues and country sources into a uniquely rock form. They were both so brilliantly conceived and successfully executed that to follow either would prove a hapless task. And it did. Russell slowly wore out the original concepts with nothing new to replace them. Floundering, he returned to his country roots for his flawless but strangely uninspired Hank Wilson's Back, and to his position as one of the finest sidemen in the music business.

Clapton just withdrew. His reputation as one of the most innovative and fluent guitarists ever if anything grew with the mystique of his absence. And now, four years, much pain, and a well-publicized heroin addiction later, the need to "follow" Layla, which was never more than an exigency of the barbarizing star/fan relationship, has been quietly forgotten.

But even if the problems are the same, there is a lot of difference. Russell has slipped ever farther from his pinnacle. Clapton has never done better. Russell's album is downright painful to listen to: it's just awful. It has sold poorly and even diehard Russell fans will think twice before they buy anything else off him. 461 Ocean Boulevard, on the other hand, is slick and listenable all the way through. That, cashing in on a solid following, and a considerable hype, have turned it into a #1 album, and spawned a catchy if nonsensical #1 single ("I Shot the Sheriff"). In fact, the album is a custom-crafted piece of middle class escapism, and Clapton's own escapism.

One is cautious not to be too harsh. Clapton has good reasons for escaping, for his music at its greatest is painful, bound to the pain of self-doubt and self-hate, of fucked-up relationships, the pain nurtured and cherished by heroin. Layla vibrates with that pain, and offers a kind touch for the pain in our own lives. It is very much alive, very much speaking to and with reality. 461 Ocean Boulevard isn't and doesn't. Even when it cops classic Clapton lines, they become phoney. The best one can say is that it's nice to see Clapton alive and well, and if he's pleased with the changes, then let him be.

Russell, on the other hand, can hardly be happy. In fact, the album is even more than a case of artistic suicide. It's an attempt to dissolve Russell's whole sense of identity, from the cover where he is about to be cooked and devoured by war-painted blacks, to the songs where he conglomerates all manner of musical styles from a Tarzan version of Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" to "Spanish Harlem" to a sickly Tommy Dorsey imitation and a semi-amusing take off on Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter." But even more acute than the stylistic eclecticism are the vocals, where Russell tries to obliterate his outrageous Okie spiel, to assume a wholly different (or indifferent) identity.

There are lots of lessons that can be drawn off these two albums. They bear silent testimony to the destructiveness of the star system, both on the "stars" who are enthralled by their recognition, and on ourselves, who demand of them to conform to those destructive, damaging roles. And they give us still another lesson in capitalist rationality, as if we have not yet recognized what commodity-values do to human relationships.

But they don't enlighten, they don't fulfill, they don't satisfy. That is what the best of music does, that is what albums like Leon Russell and Layla did. They are sometimes interesting, sometimes pleasant, but rarely if ever do they touch a live chord in one's life.

The Clapton/Russell analogy does indeed have some merit. But there may be a better one in Lou Reed. [1] Much has been made of Clapton's addiction. It serves as a special plea for the new album, and a special insight into the old ones. It is a reminder that genius comes at a very high rice, a bit of poison to the dream of the rocker's good life.

Clapton's album is discreet. It is more important for what it doesn't say than for what it does. For instance, Clapton never says anything like "I don't know just where I'm going/ But I'm going to try for the kingdom if I can/ Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man/ When I put a spike into my vein/ Then I tell you things aren't quite the same." This is what Clapton's trying to escape from, and who can blame him?

But in doing so he loses grasp on himself, and on his reality, and ultimately on ours, which really isn't so different after all. Reed believes in rock music; he is faithful to his music and his world, encapsulates and explodes it. Rock n Roll Animal bears this quote from Reed's song "Heroin": "When the smack begins to flow/ Then I really don't care anymore/ About all you Jim-Jims in this town/ And everybody putting everybody else down/ And all the politicians making crazy sounds/ And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds."

Heroin is an awful metaphor for creativity. Reed recognizes this and gives us both. You may think he's just some fucked-up queer junkie. But he spreads the contradictions wide, coming as close as anyone I can think of to unraveling truth complex. Against this Clapton lies. Motherless Children, my eye!


1. Other analogies may no doubt be useful as well, especially that of Bob Dylan. Dylan's tour, this year's classic example of cashing in on old accomplishments, plus the maudlin album Planet Waves, almost precisely parallel the case with Clapton. The Band's song "Stagefright" is a good commentary on this. The point might also be made that Clapton and Russell have loosened themselves from the original bases of their music, its roots in blues and country music, and in the life experiences of those who first made that music. As such, especially in Russell's case, the result is a free floating eclecticism.

Archaeological notes: May 10, 2002

This piece was dated Sept. 17, 1974, and signed Micky Todoroff -- a pseudonym that I started writing under. (Something about Mickey Mantle and some Todorov -- I hope not Tzvetan, maybe I was just looking for something Russian sounding to counterpose against Mickey. I had several pseudonyms -- I wrote some bad poetry as Walter Maulwurf, and must've used Jewell Wecker, although that's pretty fuzzy now.) Anyhow, the piece was reprinted in Overdose.