Down at the Crossroads: An Interview with Eric Clapton

When he was just a directionless teenager at Kingston Art School in England during the early `60s, Eric Clapton began a passionate, long-distance love affair with Chicago. Upon hearing the blues of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Hubert Sumlin on vinyl records, Clapton saw his future as a guitarist.

Since then, he’s gone on to sell millions of albums, and become one of the touchstones of rock guitar. But he never forgot his Chicago connection, and remains one of the greatest champions the city’s blues scene has ever had.

So it’s only fitting that he returned to his spiritual birthplace as an artist last week to host his second Crossroads Guitar Festival, Saturday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill. The festival was a benefit for Clapton’s pet charity: the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a clinic for the chemically dependent. It featured 22 artists and bands, including Jeff Beck, the Band’s Robbie Robertson, and a Clapton reunion with Steve Winwood, partners in the short-lived `60s super group Blind Faith.

A few minutes after ending a rehearsal with his band before the festival, Clapton, 62, sat down for an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Dressed down in a white T-shirt and fraying jeans, the bespectacled guitarist was in a garrulous mood, clearly thrilled at the prospect of sharing the stage with some of his boyhood heroes.

Why Chicago?

A combination of things beneficial to everyone. To start with, it has to be on the continent, because of the music heritage. Economically it makes sense. I’d actually like having it in my garden (in Surrey, England). There is some beautiful countryside where I come from that would be ideal. But it’s very rare to get an open-air show in England where it doesn’t rain. America is a perfect solution, because all the musicians can get to it easily. Chicago is central. It also has the added benefit of being the birthplace of modern blues. It came up from the South, and the good stuff that I was listening to was coming out of Chicago. For me it had a certain resonance. And I was confident we could find somewhere to play here.

When you were listening to those classic Chicago blues records as a teenager, did you have a mental picture of what Chicago was like?

A certain amount of image was created by the guys themselves. It was well known there were these clubs called Smitty’s and Pepper’s Lounge and the South Side of Chicago was the hot place to be. Needless to say, where I came from, we didn’t get the full picture, the harsher aspects of it. It seemed incredibly romantic, gangsterish and exciting.

The first band I identified with from Chicago was the Muddy Waters band. The Best of Muddy Waters was the first thing I had where it was quite clearly coming from this town. I looked into the guys who were around him — Otis Spann and Little Walter — and found their records, and then I found Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and everybody else. It also seemed to keep pointing back to the fact that this was the home for all that.

It became the place I wanted to go to as a teenager. A lot of people would’ve liked to go to California, especially during the `60s when the love thing was going on. Even then, during the mid-’60s, I felt Chicago was the place to come to, musically, for me.

When you actually got to meet the people on those records, what was that like?

I met Muddy in London when I came to do a session with Blue Horizon, this blues collective label. I was shoved in there with them, I managed to finagle playing on their session. And they were extremely powerful men. And I was a little boy. I was only 19, and very unsure of myself. I had met Sonny Boy Williamson earlier. He was quite a mean boss. A character. The difficult part about that was that I wasn’t a huge fan of his. We really didn’t hit it off. I was in the Yardbirds, and he was coming out on a blues tour, and they decided to put us together. And we really didn’t get on well. He didn’t think we played well, and I thought he was a strange guy and unnecessarily harsh. When I met Muddy, it was a different story. He was generous, open, a benevolent character. He was much more secure in his status in the music business. I really don’t know what the deal was with Sonny Boy, but it was clear the guys around Muddy knew who they were. There was no infighting. I was very impressed as the years went by that all the guys who played with him were free to make their own albums. They were encouraged to make their own albums. Jimmie Rodgers made some great records, Little Walter made some great records. There was no paranoia about that. It wasn’t competitive.

You have a blues holy trinity on this bill: B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin. But they’re all very different stylists. What did you learn from each of them?

The first one who got to me was Hubert, by virtue of having the earlier records on Chess that Howlin’ Wolf made, which Hubert was on. I’d never heard anything like that kind of guitar playing before. It seemed to me almost impossible to define how he was getting those effects. Buddy later came to London and I saw him play live, and got a whole other take of what Chicago blues was like live, and what kind of guitar player he was.

B.B., I got to later on. When I first heard him, for my taste it was a little bit too homogenized, it was commercial blues. He was coming from a whole other area: T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and Louis Jordan. I hadn’t figured out how to get to Louis Jordan. I only got there later in my life, and began to understand where that sat in the history of it all. My interest came from country blues to Chicago, and my interests and tastes were defined by more primitive classics. Anything that smacked of production or background singers, even horns … it took me a while to digest Bobby Bland and Little Junior parker, because they had orchestras. I was interested in Muddy’s kind of thing, small combos, with two guitars, harmonica, bass and drums.

Then I started to see more and more of B.B. and started to realize that his proficiency on the instrument was probably far beyond anybody’s reach. It was something else he was doing that these guys would attempt. Buddy would tell you that he grew up trying to imitate him. But I didn’t realize that. None of these guys was doing the same thing when I first heard them.

It wasn’t until you talk to these guys and set up a meaningful relationship, which is the only way you get them to talk about how they grew up and what they listened to. It was very good to know what they meant to one another, too. There wasn’t any rivalry. Everyone seems quite happy to share their space. There’s a lot of difference in their styles, but viva la difference.

But there were the cutting contests in the Chicago blues clubs, and the showmanship came about because of this overheated environment where everyone was a great player. Did you have any sense of competition or rivalry with your peers on the British scene?

I only got to know two or three guys that play that style. There was Peter Green, and I can’t think of anyone else who played from the same origin, same root of influence as I did. The other guys mentioned like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were much more from a rockabilly sensibility. There were very few people drawn to Chicago blues and country blues the way I was and Peter Green was. I suppose because we were so rare, there wasn’t a rivalry. It was more of a nurturing. We’d be starving, and if you run into another of your kind, it’s something to feed on.

The head-cutting thing is an interesting phenomenon. I’ve been involved in it, where I’ve been on stage with lots of players and we try to expand what we usually do, just to make a statement. I never felt it to be anything other than that. Not hostile. I’ve never seen it done with any malice.

So you enjoy it?

Oh, yeah! It’s inspiration to me. I play a certain way on my own at home. I play a certain way if I’m the only guitar player in my band. But if I have Doyle (Bramhall) and Derek (Trucks) in the band like I have for this show, I will try to do more, outside of what I normally try to achieve. We did a gig on (the previous) Saturday where Robert Randolph opened. He’s difficult to follow. Normally speaking I’d stay away from the stage (during the opening act), but on this occasion because there was nowhere to go, I watched his set. It had a really positive effect on what I played. I knew Robert was going to stay for us, and I played for Robert. That’s the way I think it works. You don’t play to spite them or to play against them.

Cream was about three guys pushing each other, and the “Layla” sessions were about you and Duane Allman pushing each other. Do you feel pushed to another level when you’re in the company of people who aren’t going to back down from you? Does your own playing benefit?

Yes. It’s the difference between being a bedroom guitar player with your headphones and computer to being out in the marketplace, out with the big boys. There’s nowhere to hide. I have to step beyond what I’ve been practicing. I have to go beyond what I know.

It’s a gamble. Unless you have a great deal of faith and confidence in yourself, it’s tough to step from the known into the unknown, because anything can happen. The guys we admire that made music such a great thing, the history of music, is about going into the unknown. The great players, they like it out there.

It takes you out of your comfort zone.

Yeah. Ever since I was inspired by the guys I heard on record, it was my ambition to meet them and play with them in person. One by one, those guys who were my heroes would eventually be in the same room with me.

I can remember meeting Mike Bloomfield, even before I met (Jimi) Hendrix. The guy in America at the time was Mike Bloomfield. There was no one else. You know why? He was serious. There was no bull involved. He was an academic musician, he knew his stuff, he knew his roots, he knew where it came from and he knew where he belonged in it. It didn’t have anything to do with being on TV or show-biz or commerciality or popularity. He knew about me too.

So from the beginning it was about meeting people that I admire and getting up into a place where I thought, “This is it.” What do we do? We just play, play our hearts out. And I’ve done that now with just about anyone I’ve ever listened to. I’m a very fortunate man. I enjoy being in that arena, where we just have to make it up.

Was there ever a time where you were pushed further than you wanted to be?

Yeah, and it’s a funny one too. In the `60s and `70s they set about to make these sort of super jams. There was one (in the late `60s) you can see on YouTube, I think, where Buddy (Guy) was in town, Buddy Miles was in town, and someone had this idea we should do this super jam. I think Jack (Bruce) was on bass. And Rahsaan Roland Kirk was there.

I’d seen him play many times, but I’d never been on stage with him, and I was very intimidated, because I knew he was a fairly aggressive guy, and someone said, what are we going to play? And I just hopefully threw out, “Let’s play a blues.” Figuring I’d be safe. And Roland Kirk says, “OK,” and (counts down very fast).

I didn’t realize that blues can be any tempo, and it was horrendous. I had nothing to do. It was taken far beyond my capabilities. There was this square-off going on. Roland was happy playing the groove, but something started up between the two Buddys, and all hell broke loose, kind of seriously hostile. And I’m thinking, I wished I’d never come. The only time it’s backfired and whoever thought it was a good idea, hadn’t really done their homework.

Blind Faith is one of the great unrealized chapters in your career. Why return to it now?

I like the music. Everything was going so fast (38 years ago). We weren’t really ready to be a band. We were in the same boat, and the next thing we knew we were playing stadiums across America. The management was nuts and wanted to reap (the money). We were just pushed out there too soon. … We made one album, where we were just beginning to scrape the surface of our creativity and I was gone, off joining (the American rock group) Delaney and Bonnie, and having fun.

The thing with the corporate commercial enterprise is that the fun can get kicked to death very quickly, and it did. We were snowed under with our obligations. And I’ve always yearned to renege that, try to get back (to that original idea). Because from Day One, Steve has always been a huge hero of mine. I’ve always looked forward to seeing him play. There has always been a great deal of affection between us. And that was a sad event, and it took a while for us to trust one another, or for him to trust me, because I was the one who abandoned it.

We enjoy country pursuits as well. We fish and do those kinds of things together. We played a show about two months ago where we did the songs just to see if it would be OK, and it was great. And he is a remarkable guitar player, too. He should have been at the first guitar festival (in Dallas in 2004), so now I am trying to redress that and bring him, and see what happens.

What was the goal with Blind Faith?

My approach was that I had been very inspired by the Band, and Traffic too. Both had been based on a principle that Steve talked about, which is “unskilled labor.” Everyone would carry the weight. People would take turns singing, trading instruments, and Blind Faith was a beginning attempt at that principle of making music for fun on a much more amateur scale. It was a reaction to the pseudo-virtuosity that had been laid on Cream.

The supergroup thing had had its day for me, and the expectations were boring. There was only one thing people wanted: drum solos, mad psychedelic solos. And I wanted to be in a band where we could just establish grooves. It might have been that we were influenced by Booker T, the Meters, those groups that played for the love of the groove.

We had a fairly good run-up to it, and then the notion of how to make that marketable, of where you go to play it, what sort of venues, we handed over control of that to management, and we should have applied our creativity to the whole thing. We went straight into world tours playing in massive stadiums of 20,000 people. You play a set, and it’s impossible to create a really intimate atmosphere. There is nothing like playing in a club the way you just throw everything in the air and improvise as much as you can. You need that to be in a smaller venue.

Which is why you switched to Delaney and Bonnie?

Yeah. Blind Faith had been smaller scale. But we bought into this financial dream of it, too, and that went big. And here’s Delaney and Bonnie and no one knows who they are, and the anonymity of it attracted me as much as anything. I dived into that tide. I could become a sideman. I really love standing next to the bass player and drummer. I like that more than standing up at the microphone. I really do.

You’ve always considered your singing voice secondary to the guitar. But you’re a pop star, and your voice is really well known. Did you ever get comfortable with your singing voice and playing that role?

I think I deliberately sold out a couple of times. I picked the songs that I thought would do well in the marketplace, even though I didn’t really love the song. But that’s been kind of limited. I feel I’ve been very true to my principles, even the way I sing. I’ve always been aware that the best way to cover that slot is to do it yourself, rather than get a singer.

I’m not a big fan of lead vocalists, people who sing but don’t play. I never wanted to be in a band where the guy who was up front just sang. I’ve always thought it better when one of the musicians sings, like Steve Winwood. And Delaney was one of the first people to say to me, “You can sing, you should sing.” So, what I’ve tried to do is get to the point where it’s barely satisfactory to myself. I’m competently doing it to the best of my abilities. But I’ve never really worked on being a singer.

When did you find your voice on guitar?

When I was in the John Mayall band (Bluesbreakers, 1965-66) I really found my stride. I knew I was playing with my own resources and not piecing together other people’s stuff, not just emulating someone.

You did a lot of woodshedding during that time. Do you still work on your guitar playing?

I did more of that in the `90s than I’m doing right now. I just don’t get the time right now. I’m a new father, with a young family who at this stage of the game require quite a lot of my attention, and deprive me from any kind of rehearsing. Anytime I pick up a guitar, I’m a source of amusement for them. They try to take it away from me, or tell me to shut up, or make me play things that they can dance to. My time is not my own.

You have three young daughters.

All under the age of six. I also have an older daughter who is 22, and she’s fine, established in her life. And these young ones, they are very angelic and they are very distracting. For this festival, they left me alone for two weeks, home on my own so I could work on stuff. Beyond trying to play anything coherent, I just sat there with an electric guitar and practiced bending (the strings). Because otherwise I don’t play at home unless I’m amusing them.

You’ve also managed to get Robbie Robertson out of hiding this weekend. You went to play with The Band at their house in Woodstock in 1968. How did that go?

Robbie and I first met at a friend’s house in (Los Angeles in the `60s), and I knew that I met someone that I would want to know through my life. He was a serious guy, a great musician. He was out there in some respect, and I wanted to be around him, and see what was going on.

We went up there (to Woodstock, N.Y., where Robertson and the Band lived in 1968). I met with the guys. They didn’t play. They showed me around Big Pink, their clubhouse. Maybe they jammed a little bit, I don’t think we did anything serious. It was more getting to know one another.

And through the years Robbie and I have stayed in touch, and played on a few things. At one point we tried to collaborate to write in the early `90s. We spent a couple of months woodshedding; there are loose ends there. So Robbie coming to play is a good way for us to get in tune again.

George Harrison was very similar to Robbie in some respects. They obviously love music, but it’s a very divergent appreciation. (They also love) movies, literature. And playing live is not very much a part of his life. And it was the same with George. George found it in the end very difficult to approach the live stage. And I’m not sure how Robbie feels about that. But if he’s anything like me, I’m sure he has a yearning for it. There is that thing in all of us. There’s something that comes off with the night, the stage, the audience. As much as you rehearse, it’s all an act of God.

Yet I’m amazed you sit in with the Band, and nothing musical came of it?

We were all having too much fun. There was no one around. At that time, it seemed to me there was no one in control of the Band. That was another thing that appealed to me about them, and the way they ran their affairs, was that apart from Albert (Grossman) in the background there, I don’t know who their manager was. They made their decisions. They were grown-ups.

I still felt I was in and around other musicians who were led where they were supposed to go. We really weren’t in control of our own destinies. The Band appealed to me because they seemed to know what they wanted to know. And they were like men. In the same way the blues guys were men. And I wanted to be a man. Through the late `60s and early `70s, I’d see those guys on tour, and we’d get up and sing and play with them, and hang out. It was never taken very seriously.

Did you enjoy The Last Waltz (the Band’s farewell concert in 1976, in which Clapton, Bob Dylan and a host of greats performed)?

I did, yeah. A fantastic event. I loved it.

The backstage scene must have been unbelievable.

Unbelievable. The wildest party I’d ever seen. And everybody there was the right people to be there. There wasn’t anybody there where you went, “Who invited him?” Most of the things I’ve been to, there are maybe two people I want to see, and there are a lot of people I want to hide from. But everybody there… it was great, great meeting.

Was the music up to snuff?

For me, Muddy (Waters) and Van (Morrison) steal the show. Van doing (“Caravan”) with the leg kicks. Some of the greatest live music you’ll ever see.

I take it you’ve seen the movie?


Did the movie match up with your experience?

I have to say I was pretty off my head. I think a lot of us were. But the music stood up. The Band had their chops up. And whoever was off their head, it didn’t show, because they put it together so well.

You brought Cream full circle (with the 2005 reunion tour). Is there anything more going on with you and that band?

I never close the door on anything. There is always going to be a valid reason to re-approach things, as long as everyone is alive. What if I went bankrupt and I was on the skids? I’d kind of hope that one of those two guys would say, “Let’s put together a benefit for Eric.” So there’s always going to be a reason to go back to it.

But you don’t see any new music being done with Cream?

No, I don’t. Because my selfish reasons are that after doing this here in Chicago, I don’t want to do anything for a while. Robbie and I will probably kick some things around. And that probably won’t even start till next year. I really want to be with my family for a couple of years. And if I’ve got something left to say … I’ll probably go on the road again. But I don’t want to make any plans now.

The music industry must be depressing to you now, though.

I think it’s finished. I think it’s had its day. I don’t buy CDs anymore either. It’s gotten to a middle ground for me now, where the things I found really interesting from the past, they’re hard to find. You can get only a certain amount on iTunes, and you can’t get vinyl. It’s obsolete. I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t care. Because as far as I can see there has always been a handful of people dedicated to making music with their hands, and as long as that’s alive, I’m happy. I will probably live long enough to see that continue. Maybe that too will die, but I won’t be here.

You’ve done so much to nurture the blues. Do you think it will carry on?

Oh, sure. There is no shelf life for that. It’s classical music now. It’s on another level with the music of the great masters. It’s very important. It touches people in a way that classical music touches people. It’s on the same level.

But are there new people coming up to keep it going or will it survive only in the recordings?

Both. There will be a certain element preserved and enshrined, but as a language it will continue to flourish, because the people who understand the language know how to put it into any kind of music you can play. It’s possible to use that root to embellish rock, pop, jazz. It doesn’t have to be strictly uniform. It can be applied in different ways.

Would you say that’s the key part of your legacy: shedding light on the blues and bringing it forward?

It’s always been important to me to point out where it comes from, not just music, but anything. I get a little concerned when people don’t look back far enough. The punk thing worried me because it was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the past, the roots of music. It was a purely political move. It’s dangerous. And I think that’s why it was so exciting to people, the kind of revolution it symbolized. Thank God certain people carried on through it and ignored it. In a way it was necessary, but it could’ve wiped out the origin of where we come from.

But the Chicago blues stuff you admired was pretty punk too, very in your face. They were the punks of their day, in a way.

I think Buddy would fit that. But he’d also tell you about all the guys that came before him. The thing with the punk movement was, they didn’t want any of that stuff. It was all dead. It was calculated.

What was your response to punk?

Stick to your guns and do what you love. Clearly, I was one of the people targeted with “assassination,” along with Phil Collins and anyone else popular during that period. The thing to do was to keep going, and believe I was doing the right thing. But I was fearful. I was worried about meeting some of them. There was such antagonism.

I’m sure there were people in the middle of it all like Joe Strummer of the Clash who did like the music from before. But I never met Johnny Rotten, and I didn’t want to meet Johnny Rotten. I didn’t want to meet people in confrontation where I’m marked as dead. I was scared. And I’ve never really understood or was motivated by hatred or anger. Blues when it was played at its most aggressive can be about anger. But it’s a much more compassionate setting.

You titled one of your albums Journeyman, which is a modest way to look at your role in all this. Do you believe that?

Yes, it’s comfortable. I’m just a water carrier. I like that. It makes sense to me. It’s more fun, the responsibility is a little less severe. I’m just trying to turn the light on.