In a world exclusive interview with MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti, Eric Clapton discusses the recording of his 1994 Grammy- winning album and the joys of playing acoustic guitar.
“I try to find the places I’ve been before,” Eric Clapton told an interviewer in the early Nineties. “To go back and find a phrase which has a meaning, that belongs to some part of my experience, is very valuable to me because it will put me in touch with something that may involve lots of thought processes that I had forgotten, which are still quite valid.”
Coletti believes that the unique intimacy afforded by the Unplugged format made it the ideal place for Clapton “to unplug his soul for us with such great dignity and grace.” The guitarist also used the warm environment of the show to “teach his listeners a lesson in music history, not only introducing a generation of MTV viewers to a world of country blues songs, but also demonstrating that a man with an acoustic guitar can seriously rock out.”
In a larger sense, Clapton’s achievement can be explained in terms of something even more powerful than anything described above: the power of love and memory. Rock and roll guitarists, like baseball players, welders and housewives, are often masters of the art of denial. Not Eric Clapton. He is a devoted servant of his memory, and he clearly remembers everything. His incredible performance on Unplugged was fed by some of his most powerful recollections—and loves. His set list tells the story: country blues tunes he played in his youth, reworkings of songs from Layla, his most passionately romantic album, new compositions about his lost son.
Hours after his Unplugged performance, Eric Clapton met with Alex Coletti on a darkened stage, and provided some background to the memories he had just celebrated so beautifully for millions of people.
ALEX COLETTI Eric, how did you come to compose the opening instrumental, “Signe”?
ERIC CLAPTON It was written on a boat of the same name last year. I was on holiday with my manager and we chartered Signe, a beautiful yacht. It was a difficult time in my life, and I was writing to heal myself. “Signe” was the first thing I started to write. It’s just a melody which I dedicated to and named after the boat.
COLETTI Why did you decide to perform Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me”?
CLAPTON That was one of the very first records I ever heard. I think it was on an album that also featured “Hey Bo Diddley,” “I’m a Man,” “Bring It to Jerome” and lots of other good things. I chose “Before You Accuse Me” because it’s a straight blues, and can be played any way you like, which is great. I play it live with electric guitar, and I thought it would be nice to try it on the two acoustics as well.
COLETTI It seems that whenever you decide to perform a cover version of a song, they become your songs—people forget the originals.
CLAPTON Well, I hope that’s the case. I heard most of the cover songs in this set when I was very young, and I’ve always wanted to play them. This was a great opportunity for me to pay homage to the things that originally influenced me.
For example, “Hey Hey” was written by Big Bill Broonzy, and it was probably the first blues song I ever heard. I used to play it in pubs when I was very young. I never felt that I mastered it, so I wanted to give it another shot.
COLETTI Tell me about the writing process for “Tears in Heaven.”
CLAPTON It was written for the film Rush. The timing was perfect, because they needed a song about loss and I had plenty of them. “Tears in Heaven” was actually in a very embryonic stage when I was approached, and I completed it for Rush. I needed the film to finish it, because otherwise I probably would have let it go. It was also a good opportunity for me to write about the loss of my son and have somewhere to put it—to channel it—because it didn’t look like I was going into the studio in the near future. I really wanted to be able to say something about what happened to me, and the opportunity that this movie presented me was excellent, because it meant that I could write this song and express my feelings and have it come out quickly.
After the song was done, I thought that it would be nice to put it out as a single as well. There were other songs like it, of course, but that was the one.
COLETTI The availability of the film footage from Rush for the video for “Tears in Heaven” must have also made the whole thing easier for you. You didn’t have to deal with creating potentially painful original visuals.
CLAPTON Yeah. I didn’t want a theme video for that. I just really wanted to perform it, and I think that was the original idea for the video, but when they intercut the film footage it gave it much more of a message—a lot more feeling.
COLETTI “The Circus Left Town” is one of several new songs you debuted on Unplugged. What can you tell us about it?
CLAPTON Some of the songs are still in a very early stage of development, but they will be on a record someday. “The Circus Left Town” is about my son and the last night I spent with him, which was, in fact, at the circus. It’s …there’s not much I can say about it, except that these songs helped me get through a very hard patch in my life and I wanted to make them public. In fact, my performance on MTV was the first time they were played publicly in any form.
COLETTI If these songs are part of a healing process, does playing them in front of people further that process?
CLAPTON Yes. I think that with what happened to me last year— the loss of my son—my audience would have been very surprised if I didn’t make some reference to it. And I wouldn’t want to insult them by not sharing my grief with them in some way. So I do intend to make these things known, and I will play the songs in concert and put them on record. It is a healing process for me, and I think it’s important to share that with people who love your music.
COLETTI Is “Lonely Stranger” part of the “healing process” song cycle?
CLAPTON Sort of. I wrote that in Los Angeles while I was doing the score for Rush. I was just very lonely in L.A.—I felt like an English exile trying to beat the odds. You can get a lot of very strange vibrations coming in from the outside and doing something with the film industry. I really wrote that song to try to kind of cheer myself up.
COLETTI Tell me about “My Father’s Eyes.”
CLAPTON It was another song I wrote on holiday last year, when I had a kind of revelation about my son. It’s a very personal matter, but I never met my father, and I realized that the closest I ever came to looking in my father’s eyes was when I looked into my son’s eyes. So I wrote this song about that. It’s a strange kind of cycle thing that occurred to me, and another thing I felt I would like to share. That’s how that song came about.
COLETTI You recorded “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” on the Layla album, and again now. What is the song’s history?
CLAPTON That’s an old Bessie Smith song, which goes back to 1910 or 1915. I heard an English guy play it in the pubs when I was 14 or 15, and I learned it and played it around the pubs, myself. It was part of my early, early repertoire. In fact, it was one of the first songs I felt I could sing because it was very melodramatic and I could put all this angst into it. I did also do it with Derek and the Dominos, but this is the way I originally did it with the acoustic guitar.
COLETTI When was the last time you played it this way?
CLAPTON Oh God—maybe 30 years ago.
COLETTI You also did an arrangement of “Layla” that is very different from the original.
CLAPTON Yeah. “Layla” sort of mystified me. I’ve done it the same all these years, and never considered trying to revamp it, the way a lot of artists might. Bob Dylan, for instance, changes everything every time he plays a song. I thought this was a great opportunity to just take “Layla” off on a different path and put it to a shuffle. For a start, making it acoustic denied all the riffs—which I think would have really sounded a bit weak on the acoustic. So it just seemed to naturally become jazzier. And, of course, I’m singing it a whole octave down, which gives it a nice atmosphere.
COLETTI Did you experiment with the arrangement?
CLAPTON Well, [second guitarist] Andy Fairweather Low and myself were at my house doing some prerehearsal rehearsal for this and I just picked up the guitar and said, “What do you think of this?” And it just happened—it clicked straight away. So we kept it like that.
COLETTI “Running on Faith” was on Journeyman.
CLAPTON Yeah. Jerry Lynn Williams wrote that, and I’d heard him play it on piano and on acoustic and electric and a lot of different ways and arrangements, so I knew that the song was easily adaptable. So that made it an obvious song to do. I also wanted to include it because it’s a regular part of my stage repertoire and thus fairly well-known.
COLETTI It was good to see you play dobro.
CLAPTON Yeah. I played one on the record. I usually don’t play it onstage, so that was another opportunity— this program is great to give me these opportunities to do things that I’ve always done at home but don’t do onstage.
COLETTI Do you often play slide at home?
CLAPTON Not so much actually, but I would like to play more slide, and I think it’s something you have to be careful with on an electric. I mean it is ideally suited for acoustic guitar, and all of my original heroes played the slide and bottleneck, so maybe it’s something I’ll get into again.
COLETTI Speaking of original heroes, you played Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.”
CLAPTON It is, but I’ve turned it into a hybrid song, really. I borrowed the guitar part from one of the first Muddy Waters songs I ever heard, called “Feel Like Going Home,” then I superimposed Robert Johnson’s lyrics. It’s sort of my simultaneous tribute to both of them. It’s a piece I’ve played since I was 14, but I only recently decided to start singing it.
COLETTI Speaking of singing, the sound of your voice really penetrates in an acoustic setting. Are you feeling more comfortable vocally?
CLAPTON I often enjoy singing in an acoustic setting more than an amplified one. When you’re onstage with an electric band going through a massive P.A. system, it’s very artificial. You can’t really hear your own voice as it comes out of your mouth. You have to depend on the loudspeakers and monitors. So it’s such a joy to sing with a full band acoustically and be able to hear your voice; I find it so much easier to adjust the volume of my own voice. Here, I could sing quietly, which allows me to have more dynamic range.
COLETTI What are the origins of the song “Alberta”?
CLAPTON It’s an old Snooks Eaglin song, which is, again, something I heard when I was very young. Snooks Eaglin’s Street Singer album was an important part of my record collection. He was a great, great player and singer who recorded on the streets of New Orleans. The variety of his repertoire was absolutely amazing, but that song “Alberta” was accessible to me as a beginning guitar player, because it consists of three chords and just straight strumming. It just lodged in my head as a very sentimental song, and part of my early influences.
By the way, Snooks is still active, but he’s indoors now; he doesn’t work the streets anymore. He works in clubs and makes very good records. He’s a great artist.
COLETTI What inspired you to do “San Francisco Bay Blues”?
CLAPTON I don’t know. I’ve heard several versions of it, but the first one I heard was performed by Jesse Fuller—and it was Jesse Fuller as a one-man band. He had two bass drums, a foot bass, harmonica, kazoos and a great, big 12-string guitar. It was one of those songs he played in pubs to get free beer, so it’s very accessible on a sing-along level. I just wanted to do this song because it’s never gone away—just like “Hey Hey” and “Alberta.” These songs have never left my head; they’re always there in a part of my life.
COLETTI You concluded the MTV set with another Robert Johnson song, “Malted Milk.”
CLAPTON “Malted Milk” is a peculiar song. It’s very ironic, because it’s quite clear that it’s not malted milk he’s referring to throughout the song. It came from a period where Robert was changing his style, and it sounds to me like he came across Lonnie Johnson in his travels. There was a massive shift in his style of accompaniment and his style of singing.
I’ve never approached this song before—and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had this opportunity to try it out. It’s a very beautiful song and it’s very simple and I wanted to end the set with it because it sort of brings it back home for me.
COLETTI So is Robert the first influence?
CLAPTON He’s the most important influence I’ve had in my life and always will be, I think.
COLETTI Did you start out playing an acoustic?
CLAPTON The first guitar I ever had was a gut-string Spanish guitar, and I couldn’t really get the hang of it. I was only 13, and I talked my grandparents into buying it for me. I tried and tried and tried, but got nowhere with it. I finally gave up after a year and a half. I started getting interested in the guitar again after hearing Muddy Waters, because it sounded like it was easier—wrong! [laughs] I wanted an electric guitar and, again, I talked my grandparents into buying me one. And, actually, within a very short period of time I got somewhere with it.
So I had two starts, really. However, the second time around I bumped into people who had the same interests—who liked Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson. And those people I bumped into were the original Yardbirds; we used to play together a lot at parties and ended up forming an official band. That was really when I became a professional; it was within a very short amount of time.
COLETTI I’d never seen you play finger-style prior to this performance. Is this a new development?
CLAPTON I did play a lot of fingerstyle when I first started playing. I could never really find the right combination of flatpick or fingerpick so playing fingerstyle is really the easiest way—though it’s quite strenuous on the fingertips. I think you get a nice tone that way; I wouldn’t mind trying it on electric. There is a beautiful sound to be gained from the actual touch of the finger to the string, but that requires a lot of dexterity. Mark Knopfler’s got it and Stevie Ray had it, but I haven’t done it for along time. It’s something I just recently started to work on again.
COLETTI Is that why you’re soaking your fingertips as we speak?
CLAPTON You need surgical spirits to harden them up and witch hazel to take the sting out. That’s the deal.
COLETTI I was a little bit surprised that you decided to use your whole band.
CLAPTON When we came in for rehearsals I wasn’t sure what I’d do—whether it should just be me solo or with another guitar and/or bass. So we tried it a couple of days with everyone and I thought we’d whittle the band down through process of elimination and say, “Well, that’s nice, but it’s not quite right.” And keep going like that until it sounded right. But everyone had such a nice touch and they all managed to restrain themselves. I think it’s a great experience in self-restraint and discipline. I mean, guys like [drummer]Steve Ferrone very rarely play this quietly. Anyhow, everyone held back, so I ended using almost everyone on almost everything, and I think it still sounds good.
COLETTI Prior to your own appearance, had you been aware of the show Unplugged?
CLAPTON The only time I was really aware of it was a couple of years ago when I was in America and saw Don Henley do it. I also caught a bit of Hall & Oates singing [the Beatles’] “Don’t Let Me Down,” which was great. Since I thought I’d like to do the show one day, I sort of avoided watching it—I didn’t want to be influenced by the way other people approached it. In fact, someone sent me a tape of Elton John on the show and I refused to watch it, because it was getting close to me doing the show and I didn’t want to be influenced. I wanted to do it as if it were brand new. I don’t know how my show will tally in with others, but we’ll see.