When I was 15, I got to see Eric Clapton play live. Well, that's actually just an expression. I did see Eric onstage. But live? In terms of energy, movement and raw passion, I think Mitch Albom saw more of this on his Tuesdays With Morrie. The show was a lean, mean 54 minutes long. Lean, in that nobody had their shit together enough to solo. Mean, in that we all felt that way when we left. And nearly turned over the ticket kiosk.
I did hand something of special significance to Clapton when the show was over. He dropped it. It was the most exciting thing that happened all night.
If I had known that the band had done enough smack to put the entire town of Scarsdale to sleep for the winter, I wouldn't have gone, but I didn't know what heroin was in those days. Still, looking back, there was never a better Scared Straight commercial masquerading as a rock concert in American history.
If you're of a certain age, you must know how ridiculously excited I was when I heard that Clapton, in his Derek and the Dominoes period, was coming to my town. The feeling was both spiritual and exciting — like doing meditation while on speed.
Just to explain, if you're a kid, the idea of the best guitarist in the world (Jimi Hendrix had died the Fall before) coming to your town, seemed, at first, so powerfully-exciting, it couldn't be true. The people in Port Chester suddenly felt like we had transformed into another, much more famous town. Like Bethlehem. Because a truly religious figure would soon be visiting us: Mr. Clapton, followed not far behind by The Three Wise Men: Jim Gordon, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock.
This religious analogy isn't as whack as it sounds. In those days, Eric Clapton was known as "God." And to give you youngsters an idea of the exuberance and overheated rhetoric of the time, the name suited him. Eric had made landmark records with John Mayall, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Cream, Delaney and Bonnie and countless others.
He was loud, but lyrical, wore shiny pink pants and a sherpa coat, but was immeasurably modest. The only thing that had ever gone wrong for him, was that he asked to join The Band. They said they didn't need a second guitarist. They were probably right. But, after hearing that, we cursed those cocked-up Canucks for months.
Anyway, after tiring of being God, Eric gave the gig back to its original owner. Which took a while. Apparently, the Supreme Being said he was enjoying his retirement, wearing a leisure suit and hitting the singles bars. But He finally agreed to resume his position if Eric would show him the solo to "Strange Brew." So, Clapton got himself a synonym and made one of the great albums of the '70s, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, which probably made The Band want to commit group suicide.
The record didn't sell spectacularly, but no one cared. It was, and continues to be, utterly brilliant. Deep, brooding, bluesy and so romantically bereft, so suicidal at times, that it forced Leonard Cohen to up his game.
So, we were ready. And I was readier. A girl I knew at prep school, who was sweet on me, went to the arts and crafts center and made a domino out of a block of wood. It was painted white and had black spots on it. When the concert was over, I was to give it to Mr. Clapton. Little did I know, that by the end of the show, I wanted to take that domino and use it to give the guitarist an extraterrestrial-style anal probe.
My little long-haired friends and I got dressed that night and kept calling each other. We were worse than girls. Who was wearing what? "No, you can't wear those jeans with the embroidered marijuana buds on them. I'm wearing mine!" "No, if you're going to wear them, I'm not going!"
Finally, Woody, the poet, John, the politico, Billy the left-leaning union socialist and I, unimpeachably the coolest one of my gang (hey, I'm writing this, I get to describe myself any way I want), were ready.
My mom drove us there.
I can't seem to remember who opened. I was stoned. But my friends and I got straight instantly when Derek and The Dominoes walked onto the stage in as graceful a fashion as The Four Stooges. I think Eric and Bobbie Whitlock even bumped into each other, ass-to-ass, like Larry and Curly. Eventually, they all remembered what instruments they played, and after figuring out how to do it, sat at them. Clapton didn't sit. But he should have. Considering his dramatic lean, I figured he was just tired. But I was still young. Drummer Gordon was the most animated, all smiles, testing the kick drum and doing great paradiddles.
Derek and the boys started to play. I think. The whole situation seemed remarkably similar to when they weren't playing. Except there were some chords and drumbeats and shit. But after having fallen asleep many a night to "Layla," I couldn't believe these were the same men who made that record. They didn't exactly suck. Sucking often involves energy expended, people trying and failing. They needed to improve at least 40 percent to suck.
Mostly Eric Clapton and his brothers just took half-hearted swipes at "Bell Bottom Blues," "Have You Ever Loved A Woman?" and "Little Wing." And, as a result, I told a therapist a month later, I think this was the very night that my lifelong battle with depression started.
Finally, a whopping 47 minutes into the show, Derek and Company started playing something I thought sounded familiar. It took about two minutes to realize it was "Layla." If, like me, you hate that Antonio Carlos Jobim version on Clapton's Unplugged album, be grateful you've led such a sheltered life.
The version Eric and company did that night, made the Unplugged "Layla," sound like The Ramones led by an auctioneer. It was so slow, so lifeless, so dead, that if it was a person, you'd put a tag on its toe and shove it into a cold drawer. I'm not a religious man. But I prayed at that moment. "God, you can have any pet or relative of mine you want. Just make it stop."
After a few more minutes, He did.
By now, you're probably wondering if I made contact with Clapton and managed to keep from shoving my handmade domino into his tightest, most inconvenient orifice.
I did sort of make human contact with this spoiled, heroin-swollen sarcophagus. I went toward the stage, as Eric stood there, acting like he was contemplating issues as paralyzingly complex as Hamlet's. I got to the stage. I called his name.
After only 10 tries, he looked at me. I was holding something and trying make it seem as non-threatening an item as possible. Although considering the show, where he and his cohorts did their version of "I Walked With A Zombie," he's lucky I didn't chuck it at his head.
Regardless, I got close to Eric and said, "My girlfriend made this for you." I handed up the domino. Eric smiled fuzzily and patted my shoulder gently. I would've done the same thing to him, but I was afraid mummy dust would rise off him, like all members of the recently-exhumed.
"Thanks mate. What is it?" Eric asked.
"It's a domino," I told him.
For a second he looked like I had asked him to explain Pascal's Theory Of Probability. It was a long second. Finally, he made the connection. He reached down for the white block of wood. I handed it up to him. Eric had it nearly in his hand, but when his eyes closed for a second, he dropped it. I didn't stay to see what happened after that. I was too busy thinking about my own emotional state.
So this, I thought, is that depression I've heard about for so many years. Maybe I would've experienced it anyway. Who knows? In any case, I started to walk and just kept walking.
My friends were waiting for me in the lobby. And besides, I'd seen enough. Too much for a 15-year old, who'd just watched his hero play guitar with as much dexterity as Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. Clapton had looked like he was on the verge of falling off the stage and there was no way I was going to stay for that.
It probably wouldn't have mattered. I'd already witnessed Eric fall hard already. And everybody knows — even kids — that sometimes the symbolic kind can be worse than the real thing.
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