Eric Clapton: Time Pieces
GW Before that time, you’d actually played with Muddy Waters. How did that come about?
CLAPTON I think Mike Vernon [the producer of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton] put the whole thing together. He got Muddy in the studio, and all I can remember is just being incredibly scared, clumsy and overwhelmed, you know? Completely overwhelmed. At that time, the blues thing was going through some funny changes; if you played electric guitar, you’d sold out. Josh White had done a lot of touring in Europe, and Big Bill Broonzy had, too. Josh would go on and do “Down by the Riverside” and “Scarlet Ribbons” and things; it was very middle-of-the-road blues and folk, and it was all acoustic.
Then Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry would tour and they made it palatable; they kind of acquainted everyone with the blues via the acoustic guitar, and so I think when Muddy came over the first time, he brought an electric guitar and it wasn’t very well received. So he wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. It was only the purists who knew about Chicago blues.
GW It must have been an overwhelming thing for you to play with him, since you were only about 20 at the time.
CLAPTON Yeah, if that. I couldn’t take it all in. I felt really stupid because I was a little boy trying to play a man’s music, and these were the men. They were actually just past their prime, so they’d done it; they’d done what I’m still trying to do. I felt really clumsy. I thought I didn’t really belong, but I felt very grateful for the opportunity.
GW Everybody assumes you were with the Yardbirds a long time or that you were with the Bluesbreakers a long time, but in actual fact it was a matter of months in both cases.
CLAPTON Yes, I went through all those things very quickly. I mean, Cream was like a year and a half or something, and even with John Mayall, I was only half there. I was so unreliable, so irresponsible. I would sometimes just not show up at gigs, and that’s how Peter Green would be asked to play—because I was not there. I went to see John last year to actually make amends. I’d been looking back and realized how badly I’d behaved.
GW How does Cream fit into your perspective now? It must have been a very intense 19 months.
CLAPTON It was very intense; it actually seems like we were together for three or four years, but in fact it was very short. I think my overall feeling about it now is that it was a glorious mistake. I had a completely different idea of what it would be before I started it, and it ended up being a wonderful thing, but nothing like it was meant to be.
GW It was meant to be your band, wasn’t it?
CLAPTON It was meant to be a blues trio. I just didn’t have the assertiveness to take control. Jack [Bruce] and Ginger [Baker] were the powerful, dominant personalities in the band; they sort of ran the show and I just played. I just went with the flow in the end and I enjoyed it greatly, but it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be at all.
GW In the Cream period, you virtually ran the gamut of Gibsons. You played a Firebird, a 335, Les Pauls, the very famous psychedelic SG. Were there any particular favorites? Apparently, you’ve still got your 335.
CLAPTON Still got that 335, and I love it. I still get it out every now and then. The 335 was a big favorite, and that particular Firebird— I had some great times on that. The single pickup was a fantastic sound. I think that SG went through the Cream thing just about the longest. It was really a very, very powerful and comfortable instrument because of its lightness and the width and the flatness of the neck. It had a lot going for it—it had the humbuckers; it had everything I wanted at that point.
GW You’ve played as a guest on many different albums, but the most unusual must be your contribution to Frank Zappa’s We’re Only in It for the Money.
CLAPTON Yeah, we were pals. It started when I went to New York with the Cream and the Who to do the Murray the K show [Murray the K was a famous New York City disc jockey during the Sixties]. We used to go down to the Village to find out what was going on; there were the Fugs and the Mothers [of Invention, Zappa’s band], and you’d be able to go into the Café Au Go Go and see B.B. King play and just everything. New York was unbelieveable. The Mothers were at the Garrick Theater, and there would be nobody in the audience—nobody! They were experimenting every night; they’d have odd people, bag ladies and marines, on the stage, and Frank would come off and sit in the audience and talk to someone while the band played. It was madness! He took me home one night to his house and he made me play into a Revox [tape recorder] and told me to play all the licks I knew. I thought it was really sweet, and I didn’t mind doing it. I was just really flattered that he was interested, because it was clear this was a musical intellectual I was meeting.
He was very manipulative and knew how to appeal to my ego and my vanity, and I put everything on this tape. I think he just had files and files of tapes of people, and I was in there somewhere. When I went back I called him up and he invited me to the studio. He’d already had someone inside a piano talking—he’d climbed inside the piano—and he said, “I want you to pretend to be Eric Burdon [the Animals’ lead singer] on acid.” And that’s what I did. I was just saying, “I can see God,” and all this stuff, and it was funny to be involved with these people. I felt like I was being incredibly hip and fashionable… God, I had some funny times with Frank.
Another time I went to L.A., and I knew he was having a party, so I went ’round to his house and someone opened the door and put a guitar in my hands. It was already plugged in, like they’d been tipped off that I was coming, and I walked straight into this trap. Another time, I went to see him in concert, and he invited me to play. When I went out to do my solo, he did that famous thing of doing hand signals to the band, and they went through about 10 different time signatures and fucked me up completely! I couldn’t make head or tail of it.
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