" Layla" / Eric Clapton
To plug or not to plug -- that is the question. On one hand you've got the blistering 1970 recording of this song by Clapton's band Derek and the Dominos; on the other hand there's the laid-back acoustic version from his 1992 Unplugged album. Instinctively I always go for the acoustic version of any song, especially when the original runs 7:07 minutes long with endless guitar solos. Instinctively, the very first time I heard "Layla" unplugged, I preferred it.
But then on the other hand...
The original version reminds me of freshman year in college, when my friend Kathy and I cranked it up loud enough to make our next-door neighbor -- named Leila -- pound on the walls. At the time, though, (get this) I didn't even know Eric Clapton was in Derek and the Dominos. I didn't get the point of Eric Clapton until senior year, when I knew a lot more about both drugs and sex and suddenly his music made sense.
It was the Cream stuff that won me over, "White Room" and "Badge" in particular. Once I figured out that the lyrics were not important (a real leap of faith for an English major like me), I appreciated Eric Clapton in a whole new light. I happily lost myself in the dense tangle of that music, loving the bluesy syncopation, the passionate abandon of his guitar playing. As time passed and Eric dabbled in reggae ("I Shot the Sheriff," "Lay Down Sally"), or rootsy blues ("After Midnight," "Cocaine"), the groove worked so well, I didn't notice Slowhand was Slowing Down. "Wonderful Tonight"? "Tears in Heaven"? I was just impressed to hear Eric come into his own as a crooner. By the time Clapton unplugged for the MTV show, he and I were both comfortable with narcoleptic acoustic versions of his old hits, versions that sound more strung-out on heroin than the music he made when he himself was on heroin.
My brother eventually told me that "Layla" was about Pattie Boyd Harrison, Eric's best friend George's wife, but by then Pattie had married Eric so it was a moot point -- I never revisited "Layla" to check it out. Why? I never listened to Clapton lyrics. And now here I am finally listening to the lyrics of "Layla," and it's ripping my heart out. I mean, listen to this: "I tried to give you consolation / When your old man had let you down / Like a fool, I fell in love with you / Turned my whole world upside down." I'm not saying it's great poetry, but the story he's telling requires -- no, DEMANDS -- a howl of anguish.
Eric's voice was never suited for howling, but his guitar sure was. That peeling riff at the outset pierces through everything, a miserable wail that won't go away. Even when he strains his voice hoarsely, it's perfect for this song -- he's a lost soul, and she's got him on his knees, begging darling please . . . and when, in the last verse, he moans "Let's make the best of the situation / Before I finally go insane," it sounds like he's insane already.
That magisterial keyboard solo by Jim Gordon (who co-wrote the song with Clapton) no longer seems to me to go on too long; it's like a man staggering around, unable to give up this wrenching passion, and the obsessive pent-up frenzy of the song is just right. No wonder Pattie finally gave in. If anyone ever recorded a song like this about me, I'd be his in a nanosecond.