Sunday, January 12, 2014


"Layla" / Eric Clapton

Forgive me for recycling -- but even though I've already written about this song, it just had to be part of this series.

"Layla" -- we're talking the original, not unplugged-for-PBS, version -- reminds me of freshman year in college, when my friend Kathy and I cranked it up loud enough to make her next-door neighbor, named Leila, pound on the wall. 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 bit more about both drugs and sex and suddenly his music made sense. Late to the party again.

Then my older brother Holt -- fount of all musical knowledge for a while, he who first told me the Beatles were going to be on Ed Sullivan, he who first brought Sgt. Peppers into our house -- informed me that "Layla" had been written about Patti Boyd Harrison, George's wife. Yes, the same Patti who would eventually divorce George and marry his best friend Eric. Having recently read Patti's autobiography Wonderful Tonight, I happen to know that did not turn out well for her. But listen to "Layla," and you can see -- she had no other choice.

Doesn't this just rip your heart out? He starts out teetering on the brink, peeling off that heartbreaking guitar riff, a miserable wail that just won't go away. Time and again it pierces through the song, annihilating everything in the passion of his unrequited love.

It's a story all right, but a story told in reverse. Verse one paints a dark version of the future: "What'll you do when you get lonely / And nobody's waiting by your side?" It sounds like a veiled threat -- "if you don't love me soon you'll lose me" -- but come on, this guy is not going anywhere. I know I said "unrequited love," but that's not right. He is convinced that she's really in love with him, though she can't admit it even to herself -- "You've been running and hiding much too long / You know it's just your foolish pride." Unrequited love is a blow to one's ego, but this kind of wrenching unconsummated love? It's a fire that won't be put out.

Verse two looks to the past: "I tried to give you consolation / When your old man had let you down." Reminding her, incidentally, that her old man HAS let her down, and is likely to do it again. (I believe it was George's affair with Ringo's wife Maureen that was the last straw.)  And there's Eric, the not-so-innocent bystander, languishing on the sidelines: "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. And 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 . . . that part's about the present, this agonizing limbo of desire he's been trapped in too long.

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. "Please don't say we'll never find a way / And tell me all my love's in vain" -- like I said, he's not going anywhere. He'll play that tortured riff over and over again until he dies.

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 Patti finally gave in. If anyone ever recorded a song like this about me, I'd be his in a nanosecond.

3 DOWN, 49 TO GO

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