Little Boy Blues
Of all the strange movements in rock history—and there have been more than a few—perhaps none are quite so eccentric as the British blues boom of the mid-‘60s. Though still regarded today as an authentic extension of the stuff that started in the Mississippi Delta some decades prior, it was in fact fueled less by close contact with original blues than by Britain’s distance from it, a separation that allowed outlandish fantasies to flourish unchecked by reality. For a while, every hip white Brit wanted to be black, but what did that really mean to kids whose contact with African-Americans was filtered through scratchy 45s? For starters, it was viewed rather mysteriously as a rejection of the capitalism in pop music, an attitude summarized most notoriously by the boos that greeted a Muddy Waters performance when he dared use something so crassly commercial as an electric guitar. Secondly, myths of primitivism, sexual and otherwise, ignited the passions of UK blues fans that wanted to escape their blasé middle-class roots and strict moralist upbringing, thus the countless 12-bar rape anthems that so many sub-Zep groups churned out. Yet another quirk of the blues blokes was their tendency to use the form as a vehicle for interminable soloing, a trait surprisingly absent from the purported source material. Capturing most if not all of these threads was a mild-mannered young man named Eric Clapton, an undeniably gifted guitarist hailed as a god then and just as revered as he enters his fourth decade in the business.
Though Clapton turned some of his heroes into his biggest detractors (Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson were unsparing in their criticism when he played with them), he’s been inundated with praise from the public since the beginning. His entry in the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues series, for instance, takes it as a given that his place in the blues pantheon is as secure as Robert Johnson’s, an assertion that might seem bold if it hadn’t been repeated so many times by now. But Clapton’s struggle for authenticity has been a long and spotty one, something I suspect Clapton himself knew almost as acutely as his rare critics. His stint with the Yardbirds gave him his first taste of popular success, but the band’s gigs with Williamson were an embarrassment to the pious gunslinger, as was his subsequent realization of the fraud he was committing with Cream (a realization which should have come much sooner, specifically, the moment he realized that Jack Bruce was singing “Spoonful” with an inexplicable Jamaican accent). Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, he continued groping for that elusive sound that had started him on his journey so long ago, but it wasn’t until his Unplugged album that a summary of everything he had learned felt deeply absorbed rather than a flashy parade of other people’s clichés.
Mr. Scorsese’s sampler of Slow Hand’s work doesn’t stretch to that late of a date, instead sticking to material he recorded in groups from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers through Derek and the Dominos with “Rockin’ Daddy” from Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions thrown in. This period featured some of his most wretched excesses, but aside from a 17-minute slog through “Spoonful” with Cream, the album comes across surprisingly well. Most of the reasonable objections to Clapton have always been firmer in theory than when he’s playing, anyway, and even those mutterings are parried by some fretwork that succeeds as music as well as cultural adoption. The two selections that exemplify this best are the quietest, and both are outtakes: “Sleeping in the Ground” from the Blind Faith era and “Mean Old World,” a duet with Duane Allman from the Layla sessions. There are more visceral moments, some of the best of which come from his tenure in the Bluesbreakers, but those make a better case for his status as a blues-rock deity, an argument that hardly needs reinforcement. At the end of the disc, Scorsese hasn’t so much presented the blues as detailed the struggle to bridge the gaps between London and the Southside of Chicago, between rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, and between an idol and his gods. The sweat of that struggle, captured here so vividly, is pure Clapton, for better and for worse.