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Contemplating the career of Eric Clapton reminds me of Pauline Kael's famous line that she could not believe Richard Nixon had been reelected because she didn't know anybody who'd voted for him. I don't know anybody who's voted for Eric Clapton. In the course of an average American adulthood, I have literally never encountered one single person who has confessed to liking Clapton's music. His success floats far overhead as a kind of cultural question mark—how could one generation believe "Clapton Is God," while the next generation cares nothing for his works?
Clapton ranks fourth on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (1. Jimi Hendrix, 2. Duane Allman, 3. B.B. King). I recently conducted my own, less formal, poll over the course of two parties and one punk show. UK slander laws being what they are, I should stress that my results are simply an unscientific sampling of two dozen Southern Californians in the 24-37 age range. Obviously, many Americans would not be so quick to dismiss a man's entire life work—the supergroups, the pioneering blues-rock and psychedelia, the gangbusters solo career, the geriatric Cream reunion, the Grammies, the wealth, the drug treatment center—as mere "Crapton." But my results were illuminating.
The complaint I heard most frequently and bitterly was with Clapton's music, specifically 1970's "Layla," more specifically the famous "Layla" opening "deedle-deedle-deedle-do." Over the course of my research, I was subject to multiple on-the-spot renditions of the riff that resonates 'round the globe in endless ringtones and absent-minded whistlings. Several people commented on the stunning lack of class hidden in the song's lyrics, an intense, groin-based paean for the wife of another man in which a direct insult is offered to the other man (who also happened to be a close friend, George Harrison, No. 21 on the Rolling Stone list).
The word "creepy" came up a lot. According to my survey, Clapton is "creepy" and "gross" and "looks like a peeping Tom." The British Sunday Times has claimed that Clapton once ordered a bandmate to let him sleep with the bandmate's girlfriend. The story (like Kael's quote) is probably counterfeit, but even as urban legend it serves the same purpose. The fellow seems to have a perception problem. Eight different people alluded to 1969's Blind Faith album cover—the one featuring a budding and topless pre-teen girl—as the work of piggish deviants.
Every person I asked also spoke of Clapton in the sharp tones of cultural vampirism, as a thief of the songs of Robert Johnson, Bob Marley and B.B. King. One young lady brushed off Clapton's four-decade career as "Blues Hammer bullshit." Three people recalled Clapton's 1976 appearance in Birmingham, where he allegedly decried immigration and warned the crowd that Britain was becoming "a black colony." To outsiders, it might seem slightly ironic that Clapton eventually chose the (majority) black (former) colony Antigua as his home, but this has been worked into his defense against further accusations of racism, the old "some-of-my-best-walled-off-neighbors-are-black" defense. (Of course, these days Clapton's racist remarks could easily be grandfathered into irony. Certainly there is some irony in the Honda Center listing "I Shot The Sheriff" as a "Clapton Classic.")
For his masterful guitar work, the British government has bestowed the title of Eric Patrick Clapton CBE. The CBE stands for Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a UK order of chivalry one rung below knighthood. There is no Sir Eric. Queen Elizabeth herself only vaguely knew of his works, asking if he had been playing guitar long before receiving the honor.
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