You have one piece of graffiti sprayed about you and you have to spend the rest of your career living up to it. Nearly everyone who discusses Eric Clapton’s early work refers to what he was called at the start of his career, but the truth is that if Clapton was once God, he’s now just a Protestant saint, inspired but ineffective.
On Me and Mr. Johnson Clapton pays homage to his greatest influence, the 1930s Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Clapton has covered Johnson before, first with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and then with Cream in its mind-blowing rendition of “Crossroads”. That performance put the light on top the bridge between rock and blues. Clapton (along with bandmates Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) reinvented Johnson’s acoustic tale of paranoia and legitimate fear as an electric scream of frustration. Now, thirty-five years later, Clapton returns to the music of the man who’s been his biggest inspiration; unfortunately, he doesn’t fare nearly so well.
The genius of Robert Johnson wasn’t just in his playing (which remains exciting) or in his singing (compelling though it is), but in his ability to express so many elements of the blues so hauntingly. His worries shift from the devil to liquor to women with little hesitation and the burden never lifts. The songs feel connected to that time period, at least as we like to darkly romanticize it. Throw in a hard life, a mysterious death, and an uncanny mythology, and Robert Johnson becomes the landmark figure of the blues.
It’s easy to understand why a young Clapton would have become fascinated with Johnson as British musicians in the ’60s rediscovered American blues singers of the previous three or four decades. Johnson’s influence has run throughout Clapton’s career, but Clapton’s direct draw from the blues is most apparent at the bookends of his career. The idea to have Clapton do an album entirely comprised of Johnson covers sounds like a good one. Clapton’s last best album was his straight blues From the Cradle in 1994. Clapton has always been a better interpreter (“Crossroads”, “I Shot the Sheriff”) than a songwriter (“Sunshine of Your Love” at one end and the vapid “Wonderful Tonight” at the other). Covering his hero seems like a perfect step for Clapton.
The failure, though, is pretty complete. The guitar chops are just fine on the album; Clapton has as much skill as ever and his backing band includes Billy Preston and Andy Fairweather Low. The decision to do Johnson’s tunes with a full band doesn’t help matters, but it doesn’t come off as a hindrance (unlike the hi-fi production). It would be nice to have Clapton do a few solo acoustic tracks (as he’s done on tours), but the blues can sound just as dirty with a full line-up as they can with one lonely person. The problem with Me and Mr. Johnson, then, is as intangible as the genius of the aforementioned Mr. Johnson. Where Johnson’s songs poke at open sores, Clapton’s versions put on band-aids. Instead of the traditional bluesman, we’re given the much less exciting elder statesman. Instead of worrying about his soul, his next drink, or his next lay, Clapton sounds like he’s wondering if his Lexus is parked in an okay area.
Before you start to think it, let me say that I’m not making an argument about authenticity. Anyone with a wound and the willingness to show it can sing the blues. Clapton offers no vulnerability on Me and Mr. Johnson in either his singing or his playing; he’s content to have a good time playing his favorite pieces. Clapton’s inclusion and rendition of “They’re Red Hot” is indicative of the problem. It’s a good-time melody, anomalous in Johnson’s small canon. Clapton loosens it open even more by dropping the desire that peeks out of the song. In the following track, “Me and the Devil Blues”, Clapton never expresses the rage and fear of the original. If devil visits and wife-beatings don’t stir up emotion, it’s hard to imagine what would. Clapton redeems himself a bit with his closing number, “Hell Hound on My Trail”. Finally he sounds disturbed, possessed even, but it’s too late.
The album isn’t bad — in fact, the playing is solid, in terms of technique. Worse than being bad, the album’s just kind of vacant. It’s hard to imagine who this music’s made for. Blues fans would be better off with the original Johnson or even Clapton’s other bluesy albums. Clapton fans would be well served by sticking to his early material. Robert Johnson’s certainly a hard man to cover effectively, but Rory Blocked showed us just last year that it’s not impossible on last year’s Last Fair Deal Clapton has the talent and (at least once) the blues guts to do it, too, which makes it frustrating that he leaves us with a tribute fit for Disney special rather than a back alley nip. Maybe this is just what you should expect when god tries to play the devil’s music — or, more precisely, when he doesn’t try.