Eric Clapton: The Artist Formerly Known as God
On Pilgrim, Eric Clapton demon- strated that there’s more to salvation than a heavenly guitar solo.
It was in the early Sixties that Eric Clapton first grabbed people with the scream in his sound. People called it the “woman tone,” but that was no woman—that was his life. On songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crossroads,” he used his guitar to give voice to the emotions he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, vent as a singer or songwriter.
That changed with Pilgrim. Released in 1998, it was Clapton’s first full album of new material in more than eight years. Compared to much of Clapton’s past work, Pilgrim found him standing up to some powerful ghosts: Stevie Ray Vaughan, with whom he was touring at the time of the guitarist’s death, in 1989; Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor, who died in 1991 and was the inspiration for Clapton’s 1992 hit “Tears in Heaven”; and his own father, whom Clapton had never known and whose absence informs the Pilgrim track “My Father’s Eyes.” “‘My Father’s Eyes’ is very personal,” said Clapton. “I realized that the closest I ever came to looking in my father’s eyes was when I looked into my son’s eyes.”
And, unlike in the past, he did not rely on his guitar playing alone to do the dirty work. On Pilgrim, Clapton rose to the challenge posed by his uncommonly revealing lyrics by taking some uncommon risks vocally. From the raucous bluesy shouting of “Sick and Tired” to the technically demanding ornamentation of “Broken Hearted,” he sang the album’s tracks with the same controlled abandon once associated only with his guitar playing.
GUITAR WORLD What significance does your album’s title, Pilgrim, hold for you?
ERIC CLAPTON I think everybody has their own way of looking at their lives as some kind of pilgrimage. Some people will see their role as a pilgrim in terms of setting up a fine family, or establishing a business inheritance. Everyone’s got their own definition. Mine, I suppose, is to know myself. That’s probably as close as I can get to it. My goal is to really come to identify who I am to myself.
GW The album represents a breakthrough for you in terms of songwriting: you wrote 12 of its 14 songs. It’s been almost a decade since you’ve even come close to being this prolific. Was composing the songs on this album important to your process of self-discovery?
CLAPTON Absolutely. As you’ve observed, my normal output is usually much less than this. Actually, that used to be the way I wanted it. I would always want no more than two or three of my songs on an album because I just didn’t want to reveal myself.
It wasn’t cowardice. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was a mixture of cowardice and insecurity, or just low self-esteem. In the past I would think, What have I got to say that’s any better than, say, [songwriter] Jerry Williams? or whoever else was contributing songs to my albums. But on Pilgrim, I started developing a really healthy respect for my own talent.
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