Thursday, June 17, 2010


Reaching way back for this one -- so far back, most of you faithful readers hadn't found this blog yet. So let's give it another spin. An obvious choice, perhaps, a knee-jerk "classic" -- but all the more reason to listen with fresh ears.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

" 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 -- whose name was 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.


Anonymous said...

So nice that Eric could get himself together, ahem, to write a song about the toddler's out-of-window tragedy. Just swallow hard and pen "Tears in Heaven." Not quite so mercenary as Elton trying to churn out a quick tribute song after the Dianah tragedy and coming up empty.
"Bernie...I'm all dried got anything?"
"Sorry bloke, nothin here."
"Bugger it, give me some Hallmark Card lyrics...we'll just change the Marilyn stuff a little bit...go with the same melody."

But it was nice to hear "Layla," though, I think it has not weathered quite as well as the ZEP FM staple, "Stairway To Heaven."

By the way, who is doing the savage lead overdub vocal, Bobby Womack?

Lost in my moves was a very nice circa 1970 album, "Delaney and Bonnie and Friends with Eric Clapton." Nice stuff, with Slowhand at his best, that is, understated.

Have a nice weekend,

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, you're too cynical -- I'm sure Elton couldn't write a new song because he was just too grief-stricken. After all, he and the Queen Mum were BFFs. But yeah, I feel kinda squeamish about Clapton turning his son's death into a platinum hit. I never felt the same about him after that.

The overdub vocal? I think you mean Bobby Whitlock, not Bobby Womack. And until I went to look that up, I didn't realize that the other guitarist here is Duane Allman. No wonder it's so intense.

Anonymous said...

At least Sir Elton didn't choose "Crockadile Rock" for his heartfelt Dianah tribute (now THAT's cynical).
By the way, I'm sure you already know that R. D. Davies reference to "Dianah," in Word Of Mouth's "Good Day" was for 1950's British Blonde Bomshell, Dianah Dors.

Yeah, Bobby Whitlock...thanks.


Dave K. said...

In my humble opinion, Layla is one of the high points in rock history with superb twin guitars of Clapton and Duane Allman and that shimmering piano coda played by Jim Gordon. The rest of the Layla album is almost equally brilliant. Clapton never came close to this level of greatness in the 40 years since.

When I first heard the acoustic version, I thought it bastardized the original--not so much because it was so laid back, but because it was wholly devoid of any passion. I somehow came around to liking it.

Holly A Hughes said...

It's like they're two different songs, right? I like them both, but for totally different reasons.