THERE, I SAID IT: Eric Clapton is the gateway drug to atheism

Editor's Note: from time to time I'm going to post an excerpt of the new anthology book I'm editing called THERE, I SAID IT: Bob Dylan Is Overrated (And A Few Other Carefully Considered Objections To The Greatest Musicians Of All Time).

One of the coolest things about this project is how wildly different the essays are, stylistically speaking. Some, like the last one I posted, take a scientific approach, assessing the music of Mr. Billy Joel by rigorously calibrating said music's ability to inhibit male sexual potency.

Today's essay, written by the brilliant Alex Funk, takes a more academic approach. His subject is the former Mrs. Pattie Boyd. And his results are more than merely devastating: they may prove to be definitive.

Is Clapton actually God?

Having grown up Unitarian, I’m inclined to demand a relatively high burden of proof. So let’s begin with this: whatever claim Sir Eric has to godhead status finds no basis in his singing or songwriting. The former quality achieves invisibility on good days, tediousness on bad ones. The latter trait might initially appear more laudable. But consider some of the EC-associated hits that he had no hand whatsoever in writing:

“For Your Love” (1965)

“Crossroads” (1966)

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968)

“White Room” (1968)

“After Midnight” (1970)

“I Shot the Sheriff “(1974)

“Cocaine” (1977)

Here are three more pillars upon which the Clapton legend is built:

“Sunshine of Your Love” (1967)

“Layla” (1971)

“Tears in Heaven” (1992)

Slowhand gets co-writer credit on these, and in each case we know what he contributed. He wrote the bridge to “Sunshine” (“I’ve been waiting so long...”). That is indeed a snappy little bridge, and hats off for it.

Now: think of your favorite half of “Layla”: is it the first three minutes of chugging, bluesy “Got me on my knees,” or the strangely powerful coda, with rootsy piano and twanging guitars almost tangibly stretching out for the unattainable? Yeah, that second part was written by Jim Gordon**, and that distinctive high guitar line was played by Duane Allman.

But wait! You cry. Clapton wrote a couple of (semi-) legendary songs all by himself:

“Wonderful Tonight”

“My Father’s Eyes”

I simply cannot stand the first, and know several women who think that, pace Pattie Boyd, any person non-ironically writing that song in their honor would accomplish nothing more or less than serious nightmare fulfillment. The second is a cynical, gospel-cloaked return to the personal anguish well that flowed so lucratively with “Heaven.” These are not great songs, and arguably not even good.

So, then, to the heart of the matter: to love Eric Clapton is to love his guitar playing. (Duh.) Proselytizers attempt to sell me on two aspects of that axework: dexterity and tone. With the first I can be impressed but never obsessed: the conflation of hours logged or riffs mastered with actual artistic accomplishment is one of the quintessential Fallacies of Youth. Does Clapton rise above Steve Vai in this regard, or Jeff Beck, or Joe Satriani? If it’s a tie, we need further justification for Eric’s outsized reputation.

Then tone, the last redoubt of musical subjectivity. Let me attempt to situate Clapton’s tone within the context of some legendary neighbors at the blues-rock interface: Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, and Jimmy Page. Though each created his own unique palette, the three neighbors have in common guitar playing that is at times ‘blistering,’ ‘huge,’ ‘raw.’ King’s punches you in the chest, even in studio recordings; Hendrix’s soars, sets things on fire; Page’s goes in and out of tune, of white noise, of intelligibility.

Clapton’s tone, on the other hand, is restrained. Thoughtful. Brooding. “Flawless and impeccable,” adds a Clapton-loving friend. These are all positive things. But who ever went to a rock or blues concert for impeccable thoughtfulness?

Tonally speaking, I find Clapton much closer to Mark Knopfler, another six-string virtuoso with a thoughtful side and a perfectionist streak. And it’s personal, sure, but I find Knopfler’s playing warmer, more open, less studied and self-conscious.

Here are five songs Knopfler wrote by himself during the eight years in which Dire Straits was an active band***:

“Sultans of Swing” (1978)

“Romeo and Juliet” (1981)

“Telegraph Road” (1982)

“Walk of Life” (1985)

“Brothers in Arms” (1985)

I’ll take these five over the Clapton credits above, which are culled from a greater-than-30-year span. Knopfler and Dire Straits are still waiting to hear from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which in the meantime has seen fit to induct Eric Clapton not once, not twice, but three separate times.

Surely I can’t be alone in listening to Clapton like a Unitarian at a Catholic mass, eager to genuflect out of peer pressure and respect, but tormented by the hypocrisy of accepting the tripartite glory of a deity he struggles to believe in at all. The hand slips awkwardly back toward the thigh, Derek demoted (Dominoes in tow) from iPod to backup drive.

THERE, I SAID IT will be published October 17th. If you'd like future posts emailed to you directly, go ahead and subscribe below!

**Or possibly his girlfriend Rita Coolidge.

***This is in addition to “Private Dancer,” which he gave to Tina Turner, and “Money for Nothing,” for which Sting snagged a co-writing credit by recycling the melody from “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” into “I want my MTV.”

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