Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?

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I’ve almost always liked Eric Clapton. And, like his recently titled album suggests, “I still do.” However, I won’t be reviewing his new album for BourbonAndVinyl. For me, “I Still Do” is just another mellow strummer along the lines of “Back Home,” “Old Sock,” or “Clapton.” Sure, “I Still Do” has better production than most of his LPs, but I still have no interest. I have to admit to a bit of frustration with Eric Clapton. Here’s a guy who made his reputation on fiery guitar solo’s in the 60s with such history-making acts as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream. His playing earned him the graffiti tag: “Clapton Is God.” Now it appears he’s turned his back on that sort of guitar virtuosity in favor of a very mellow and often over-slick, produced sound. It’s just not interesting to me at all. At this point I’d even settle for a little of the blues fire he showed on “Slowhand,” my first Clapton album purchased with my own money. I also purchased “Just One Night” his live album from that era and I think it’s the best live album he’s ever done. Do yourself a favor and check that one out.

I heard Keith Richards say of Clapton in an interview years ago, “Eric is ok, but he’s just so afraid.” I chocked it up to Keith being stoned and rambling, but I’m beginning to think he may be right. Clapton seems downright afraid of letting loose with his guitar. Similar to Robert Plant, it seems Clapton wants no part in living up to his past. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’d like to think he wouldn’t so actively flee from it. I saw Clapton in Dallas about 10 years ago or so, and he ended the rather weak show with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I’m still pissed. I mean, really? He’s always had an affinity for the “Great American Songbook,” but come on, man.

I was thinking about Clapton’s work in this millennium the other day, really everything since “From the Cradle,” trying to make sense of it. It suddenly occurred to me, Clapton is also rather famous for being a recovered addict. He managed to somehow kick heroin in the 70’s. I’m not sure when he finally won the battle against alcohol but he’s been sober quite a while now. I typically don’t trust someone who doesn’t drink, but I always respect the recovered alcoholic, so good for Eric. We all make that choice every day. Clapton famously founded the Crossroads Rehab center and does (I believe) an annual concert in Chicago with all the guitar firepower in the world performing. I’d actually like to attend that festival but the Rock Chick doesn’t share my affinity for 70’s guitar-blues-rock (maybe she’d go for the shopping?). When thinking about Clapton’s late career it suddenly occurred to me, maybe he’s making amends. Perhaps he associates the blistering guitar solos of his youth with his drug and liquor addictions hence he’s turned his back on that part of his skill set.

According to what I’ve read, “Making Amends” is defined by the 12-Step Program as the attempt to “make direct amends to such people (I’m assuming that you’ve harmed), wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” I believe this is Step 9 and it led me to this theory of Clapton’s late career. To understand my theory you really have to look at his collaborations. Clapton’s late career is chock full of collaborations. Could it be that he’s making amends with these people? I read his autobiography a few years ago and I have to admit, I’ve never read someone’s autobiography and come out liking the person less afterward. It seems he was a colossal asshole when he was on the sauce.

  1. George Harrison – as early as 1992 Clapton went on tour in Japan with Harrison. He attended/helped organize the Harrison Tribute concert. Let’s face it, he stole George’s wife… so there was a lot to be sorry for there.
  2. B.B. King – “Riding With the King,” his collaboration with B.B. is one of the better collaborations he’s done. Not sure why he’d need to make amends with B.B. Everybody loved and respected B.B. King. Maybe he felt bad about exploiting and/or stealing from the old blues masters. You’re really looking for something to feel bad about if that’s your motivation.
  3. Cream – the 2005 Reunion Concerts/Live LP – Clapton’s stormy relationship with Jack Bruce (bass), and Ginger Baker (drums) are the thing of legend. In the end they’d just go on stage and jam while ignoring each other. From the smiling faces and mellow performances one could suggest Clapton succeeded in “getting the healing done.”
  4. Steve Winwood – 2009 Madison Square Garden Concerts/LP – From everything I read, Winwood was hoping for a lot more collaboration and leadership from Clapton when they were in Blind Faith. Unfortunately Clapton quietly faded into the woodwork. Maybe this joint concert was an attempt to show us what might have been. I love this live album. Winwood appears to be one of the few people who can coax a little fire out of Clapton’s guitar. Clapton provides a solo on Winwood’s fabulous tune “Dirty City” that makes you think, “where the fuck has this sound been?” “Dirty City” is a must-buy.
  5. Glyn Johns – “I Still Do” – Clapton read Johns’ autobiography and in it Glyn describes his initial collaborations with Clapton which were not positive. Johns was brought in to work on “The Rainbow Concerts” album and Clapton wouldn’t show up for “touch-up” recording sessions for that live album. Johns went on to work with Clapton later and it went a lot better, maybe Eric was sober finally, and he wondered in his book if they were still friends. Suddenly, Clapton is bringing Glyn to produce “I Still Do.” That smacks of “amends” in my book.
  6. J.J. Cale – “The Road to Escondido” – Clapton has recorded more J.J. Cale songs than just about anybody. He recorded this collaborative album in 2006 and did a tribute album when Cale sadly passed in 2014. Heaven knows what Clapton has to make up for here.
  7. Wynton Marsalis – “Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center” – again, no idea what amends would be made here but this is a critically acclaimed live album.

It may be a stretch to say that Clapton has mellowed out and stop playing fierce guitar as a reaction to his sobriety. However, if you look at his collaborations, you could make the case that he’s out there making amends. It’s produced better music than his solo albums, so I’m not complaining here. He did cover Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” a tune which has an air of remorse and confession about it. Of course the Wynton Marsalis, J.J. Cale, and B.B. King collaborations seem to be more of a joyful thing, so I could be wrong. I often am. But I felt this was good food for thought.

I would still advise checking out some of these collaborations. I believe you’ll find them more satisfying than “I Still Do.” And yes, I still do like Eric Clapton, blazing solo’s or not.

Cheers!