Eric Clapton: Blues Power
GW Do you think it would be justified if guys who’ve been around as long as you three choose to just make some nice, catchy tunes?
CLAPTON Yeah, I think that’s perfectly justified, but I don’t think you could sum up this album like that. When we were cutting tracks and when I sang on them, I was doing it to the utmost of my intensity. If that is mellow, then that’s what’s happening, you know. That’s a natural progression. But it doesn’t feel like that to me.
GW The magnitude of Crossroads reinforces something you, in certain respects, have tried to downplay: the Clapton-as-biggerthan- life-guitar-hero. Not only in terms of yourself, but in general, how do you view the so-called “guitar hero”? Do you think it’s a valid thing, a tasteless exercise…
CLAPTON No, I think it’s very admirable, and I think it strengthens a belief that kept me going for years—that you have to have an ideal. And if I have to be a hero, even to myself, it’s worth it, because it’s something to strive for. I quite like having my mettle tested in that way. I didn’t like it not so long ago; I tried to avoid it, to play it down, and tried to destroy it. And that process nearly destroyed me, too, as a human being. I found that one went with the other: in order to be a growing human being, you have to keep pushing yourself to the limit. To try to go inward or backward is actually very, very destructive. I find now that I’m actually quite happy to try and perpetuate this myth, even to myself. I mean, I was in Africa this last tour, where I had to fill out all these forms each time we changed countries. And where it said “Occupation,” I put “Legend.” [laughs] I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago; I took it all far too seriously.
GW You must be aware that certain critics will inevitably slag you because “this has all been done” and “the days of guitar heroes are over.” Does that ever inspire you to go out and say, “I’ll show them who’s washed up!”
CLAPTON Oh, it does even now. On this record I was determined to make each solo as outside my capabilities as possible, to push myself as far as I could—even if it was just in terms of how many frets you can bend. “Anything for Your Love” has got Robert playing on it, and when I did the solo on that, I looked at him, and he was amazed that I had this one note—I just push it—at the end of a phrase. He was just blown away. So if I can do that to him…
And that really reflects on what I think about critics. I don’t think they have much experience to talk from, except for listening. It’s my peers that count, and if I get criticism from them, if they think I’m going in the wrong direction or not living up to my capability, then I’ll take it onboard. The last time that something hurt me involved Elvis Costello. I mean, I consider him a peer because we’re in the same business. I’m not that well acquainted with this music or anything, but I consider him to be very serious. And he wrote me off. It had to do with the beer-commercial syndrome and all that. [In the mid Eighties, Clapton recorded the J.J. Cale song “After Midnight” for a Michelob beer commercial. Clapton had previously recorded the track for his self-titled 1970 solo debut.] He’s got a bit of a soapbox about that, you know. He said that he could understand certain people who’ve got something to say doing it, but as far as he was concerned, I’d said it all and had nothing left to offer. So that, coming from a peer, is hurtful. But that will make me strive more than anything a critic will say. When a musician runs me down, then I want to prove something to him.
GW Between the period with Tim Renwick and when you teamed up with Mark Knopfler, you were the only guitarist in your band. Was that rough?
CLAPTON No, I love it. In many ways, you sacrifice a lot when you bring another great guitar player in. It’s kind of a novelty at first; it’s something you have to get over. With Mark I went through a great deal of being in awe, and again with Phil [Palmer]. The first week or two of playing together, I was listening to him too much, being too self-conscious about the situation. But when you get over that, you get used to him being there. I don’t ignore him, but I just go ahead as if there was no other guitar player. And I’m quite narrow and selfish, both about my boundaries and where my limits are. I don’t let anyone try and knock me off.
GW With someone as unique as Knopfler, do you ever find yourself being influenced by them?
CLAPTON Not at all, no. They have their thing, I have mine. I’m actually still more influenced by records than by other players. I still try to steer myself towards my early heroes. The only person that I would be severely influenced by is Robert Cray. I mean, during that whole week when we did these things together for the album, I found I was playing far above my normal standard. I had to, because he’s such a consummate and total musician that you have to be ready day and night. He’s like a ninja. [laughs]
Normally, put into that situation, most guitar players are hit and miss; they might take two or three passes at something. Robert doesn’t—it’s first time, every time. That’s very rare, and when you’re around it, it keeps you on your toes. I would love to be in that situation all the time, but at the same time I’m a man of leisure these days. I don’t wish to be on the road 360 days a year, which is what Robert does. He doesn’t have anywhere to live. [laughs] It’s a steady joke. I ask him, “Have you got anywhere to live yet?” “No.” He doesn’t have a house. So I don’t really want to be in that place. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to play every day anymore. And that’s what it takes.
GW In two instances I can think of—the Freddie King (1934–1976) album and the [1986 ITV1] South Bank TV special with Buddy Guy— you sounded almost exactly like the hero you were jamming with. Was that intentional?
CLAPTON Sure. I mean, you’re paying respect to the form. It would be completely fruitless for me to be playing onstage with Buddy and come out with some kind of Zeppelin-style guitar solo. I have to respect not just him but the form of the music. And what I loved first and foremost about the blues was that it had a very severe, strict form—one which you pay a great deal of attention to. There are certain notes you play for a turnaround, at the beginning of a solo, for the entry into passages. It’s just as rigorous as classical music, in a sense. You have to pay respect to it. So when I’m around those guys, and when we’re seriously trying to do something special, then that’s the way I’ll play. And I thank God I have enough experience and I studied it enough in my youth to know what not to do—which is more the case that what to do.
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