Eric Clapton: The Artist Formerly Known as God
GW “River of Tears” is perhaps one of the most passionate vocal performances of your career. Given the personal nature of this album, can we assume that it, too, is autobiographical?
CLAPTON “River of Tears” was recorded very early in the Pilgrim sessions, and I can remember thinking, This is as good as anything I’ve ever heard myself do. In fact, it became the standard for the rest of the album. I didn’t want anything else to fall below that.
Lyrically, it is about a specific person. My impulse for writing the song was initially very manipulative. I was always toying with the idea that when she’d hear this song there would be a reconciliation or something. It had a purpose.
And then it started getting vindictive. It got quite vindictive in some of its early stages, and at some point I started feeling like the lyrics were becoming too melodramatic. I realized that the way to save it was to bring it back to talking about me, and that maybe I’m an unavailable person— maybe it’s me that’s unavailable. That whole thing in the song about just drifting from town to town and not really being able to fit in takes the blame off somebody else and places it on myself.
GW Your ability to question your own motives sounds like a therapist’s dream come true. How did you sustain such honesty on the album?
CLAPTON Working with a partner makes that possible—especially if it’s someone who knows what you’re up to. If Simon thought I was being dishonest with my lyrics, he would call me out and say, “I think this is unfair,” and I’d listen and address it. On that level, our partnership is as fruitful as anything I’ve ever experienced.
GW Your guitar playing is somewhat subdued on this album, but one track where you really let it rip is “Sick and Tired.” The song is built on a Texas-style shuffle rhythm, à la Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the vocal and solo are very much in the style of Jimmie Vaughan. Is this a tribute to the brothers?
CLAPTON “Sick and Tired” was done purely for fun. The riff came first, and I just thought of the Vaughan brothers. I told Simon to program a shuffle and exaggerate the backbeat so it would sound like a Texas-style groove. I then began improvising these silly lyrics, and thought, “Well, I might as well make it a song now.” It’s like a spoof, really.
GW I’m not sure how you may take this, but we thought the vocals and playing on “Sick and Tired” sound more impassioned than any performance on your blues tribute, From the Cradle [Reprise, 1994].
CLAPTON Funnily enough, I think that the bit of irony in there gave me the license to carry the anger of the vocal. I remember going into the studio and singing that with a lot of anger. Quite hard. But since there was irony in the lyrics, that made it okay. It didn’t get overindulgent.
GW You weren’t operating under the pressure of making a grand blues “statement,” as you possibly were when you recorded From the Cradle.
GW Are you particularly close to Jimmie Vaughan?
CLAPTON I’ve known Jimmie for a pretty long time. And then with the passing of his brother, Stevie, Jimmie and I kind of bonded on a very deep level. We don’t talk enough, and a lot of the time it’s my fault, but when we get together I love him. He’s as close as I’ll get to having a brother. And I think the world of his playing. And his singing—his singing is great!
GW What did you think of Stevie’s playing?
CLAPTON Oh, he was one of the greats. I have to tell this story: We played on the same bill on his last two gigs. On the first night, I watched his set for about half an hour, and then I had to leave because I couldn’t handle it. I was going to go on after this guy, and I just couldn’t handle it! I knew enough to know that his playing was just going to get better and better and better. His set had started, he was like two or three songs in, and I suddenly got that flash that I’d seen before so many times whenever I’d seen him play, which was that he was like a channel—one of the purest channels I’ve ever seen, where everything he sang and played flowed straight down from heaven. Almost like one of those mystic Sufi guys with one finger pointing up and one finger down. That’s what it was like to listen to. And I had to leave just to preserve some kind of sanity or confidence in myself.
GW In addition to paying tribute to your son and the Vaughan brothers, it’s clear you had someone else in mind while making this album. On several tracks you pay direct homage to R&B great Curtis Mayfield. Why Curtis?
CLAPTON Well, his last album, New World Order, came out the year I was starting to put this album together, and it was a huge inspiration to me. It was great on so many levels.
First, Curtis is older than me, yet he was working in a very hip field. The album was very progressive and featured guys like Organized Noise, a tremendously modern, urban R&B production company. That in itself is pretty cool.
But what really got me was that he had recently been severely crippled in a terrible stage accident and should be suicidal by all accounts, yet here he was singing about joy and gratitude and life. All of those components were an inspiration to me. Whenever I began to question why I was pushing myself so hard on Pilgrim, I only had to picture Curtis.
GW Did you go back and listen to his classic albums? Some of the string arrangements on Pilgrim seem to be inspired by earlier Curtis Mayfield tracks.
CLAPTON Yeah. That was deliberate.
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