Friday, November 26, 2010

Desert Island Discs, #1--Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Every year as an icebreaker exercise I ask students to name which record album they would want with them if they were trapped on a desert island (with an infinite supply of electricity).  Parenthetically, I've been doing this so long that I've had to change the question from "record album" to "CD" and now I come across lots of kids who say they don't listen to CD's.  The answers always vary, ranging from pop stars du jour to classic rock to some equivalent of "mixed tape" (the most creative students).  But I thought I would take some time here to delve into my choices.

I will write about other albums in the future, but for most of my life there has only been one true "desert island disc" for me: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.  The album was released in the Fall of 1970 (40 years ago), just three months after I was born.  I picked up my first copy of the album on vinyl at the local Pathmark supermarket when I was 14.  The album cover has a bewitching image of a mysteriously beautiful woman on the front, and "Brownie" Eric Clapton's sunburst Fender Stratocaster on the back, surrounded by dominos.

"Derek and the Dominos" was a group fronted by English guitar legend Eric Clapton.  Clapton, who was born in 1945 (12 days before my mother) fell in love with American blues music in his early teens and became obsessed with learning how to play like his heroes (in due course during my early teens I fell in love with Clapton's music, and he became the gateway to my own blues obsession).  He played lead guitar in the Yardbirds (who later featured future superstars Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the lead guitar chair), leaving them after they became, in his words, "too commercial".  Clapton went on to play for a year with British blues patriarch John Mayall in his Bluesbreakers.  During this time the 19 year old Clapton blazed his way to fame on the "Beano" album, which prompted London graffiti artists to scrawl "Clapton is God" on the walls of the metropolis.

Clapton left Mayall to start the first "supergroup", Cream, with former Graham Bond Organisation drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who had played with the GBO and the Bluesbreakers, among other outfits.  Cream had a short, meteoric career, demarcated by thrilling live performances and vicious infighting between the rhythm section members.  Clapton had envisioned a true blues group, while the others preferred jazz oriented free-form explorations.  Clapton soon tired of this conflict, and began looking for new outlets for his creativity.

One example of this was enabled due to his close friendship with Beatle George Harrison. In the late 1960's, as the Beatles were also starting to grow apart following their withdrawal from the road, Harrison felt that his contributions were being denigrated by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  During the tracking of what became the double LP known as the White Album, Harrison brought Clapton in to play the leads on the stirring number "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".  Clapton also began listening to the first album by The Band, Music From Big Pink.  The rootsy, folksy music emanating from what critic Greil Marcus later called the "Old, Weird America" (recorded by a group made up of four Canadians and an American) inspired him almost as much as the concept of musicians living communally in an idyllic, country setting.  Once again, Clapton decided to leave the group which brought him fortune and fame to seek his muse.

By now, Clapton had met up with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who led a band that played with Joe Cocker on his "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour.  Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, featuring a crack rhythm section from Oklahoma (bassist Carl Radle, organist Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon) had the authentic Americana vibe, and seemed to be a mix of communalism and professionalism that attracted Eric Clapton.  He hired them as the opening act on the only tour for his next band, Blind Faith.  The experiment with Blind Faith died out quickly due to Ginger Baker's drug addiction and the fact that Clapton preferred being a sideman for Delaney and Bonnie than the frontman of his own group.  After Blind Faith fell apart, Delaney produced Clapton's eponymous first solo record, which featured hits like "Let it Rain" and "After Midnight", songs that represented a departure from the blues pyrotechnics EC had made the basis of his renown.

During this time, as described in painful detail in his autobiography, Clapton, Eric Clapton's frustrations were not only musical in origin.  He had fallen deeply in love with Pattie Boyd Harrison, the wife of his best friend, the Beatle George Harrison.  The Harrison marriage was not very strong, but Clapton was conflicted with worries of being disloyal, and Patti was not ready to leave her husband despite his infidelities.  As a way of hiding from the stresses of his passions, Clapton hid in a haze of heroin with his teenage girlfriend Alice Ormsby-Gore and obsessed over Patti.

One source of this obsession was reading the classic Arabic story of the doomed love of Layla and Majnun, making the rounds of swinging London's newly multi-culturally aware youth.  Soon Clapton had written several songs based on the idea of hopeless, forbidden love and put together a group with Radle, Whitlock and Gordon to record them.  Hoping to remain incognito, the group was billed as "Derek and The Dominos" (though the concept was ruined when a nervous record company released posters proclaiming "Derek is Eric").  After a week of recording at Criterion Studios in Miami, the Dominos were joined by Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.  The 24 year-old slide guitar wizard pushed Clapton to new heights of songwriting, arranging and soloing in their ensuing collaboration.  After weeks of marathon sessions combined with ingestion of massive quantities of drugs, one of the greatest albums ever made was finished.  The following is my summary and description of the tracks on the record.

Side One
"I Looked Away": This song begins with a simple melody in the key of C played on a Stratocaster, with counterpoint lines overdubbed.  Eric Clapton played all of the guitar on the first three songs of the album, even though the music does bear some resemblance to Allman Brothers-style twin lead guitar work.  This is likely due to the influence of producer Tom Dowd.   Clapton sings the bulk of the song, until Bobby Whitlock bursts in with a soulful change of tone:

Seems a sin
To love another man's woman
I guess I'll keep on sinning and loving you Lord
'til my very last day

This is one of the first of many hints that the theme of unrequited (or at least, unanswerable) love would permeate the album.


"Bell Bottom Blues": This song was reputedly written for Patti by Eric (see more about this at "Layla" below).  The lyrics of this song never fail to pull at my heart.  When Clapton sings "if I could choose a place to die, it would be in your arms", or "it's all wrong, but it's all right" I choke up.  He is so passionately in love with her, but he doesn't know what it will take to have her.  In the chorus of the song he cries:

Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?
Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?
I'd gladly do it
Because I don't want to fade away 
Give me one more day please
I don't want to fade away
In your heart I want to stay

The solo in this song is deceptively simple, switching from C major to A minor and featuring emotional, plucked harmonics (influenced by Robbie Robertson of the Band) that sound like angels.  The song features a long fade out which repeats the chorus.  After listening to this song I am drained emotionally.
"Keep on Growing": This mid-tempo rocker has a groove more like the work Clapton did with Delaney and Bonnie. Clapton shares the vocals with Whitlock again, and in this song he seems to describe how he needed to move on from Alice and be fully available to Patti. Clapton sings:

I was standing
Looking in the face of one who loved me
Feeling so ashamed.
Hoping, and praying Lord that she could understand me
But I didn't know her name

then Whitlock comes in with:

She took my hand in hers and 
Told me I was wrong.
Said, you're gonna be alright boy
Just as long
As you keep on growing

Many have argued that the duelling guitars solo on this number must be Clapton and Allman, but studio logs seem to indicate that Clapton did all of this work himself, though he consciously played in an Allmanesque vein.  Either way, this song is a major burst of hi-energy to pick the listener up.


"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out": Clapton put classic blues numbers at the end of sides 1-3, and this was the first.  "Nobody Knows You When Your're Down and Out" was originally recorded by Bessie Smith in the Depression, and it's world weary acknowledgement that popularity follows fame and fortune, but without it one has nothing is another drop back into the abyss of sorrow that Clapton seemed to be feeling.  Interestingly, just a short while after singing "I began to fall so low / Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go" Clapton descended into near hermit like existence with nothing but Alice and heroin to get by (when Patti rejected him even after listening to this album). There is slide guitar on this song played by Duane Allman, making his first appearance on the record.


 Side Two
"I Am Yours": The beautiful lyrics of this song, which are repeated twice, come straight from Layla and Majnun:

I am yours
However distant you may be
There blows no wind but wafts your scent to me
There sings no bird but calls your name to me
Each memory that has left its trace with me
Lingers forever as a part of me.

The musical accompaniment includes Indian style percussion and Duane's slide guitar, both repeating the melody line and embellishing it.  This song is lovely, and it always makes me think of my wife.  It is one of the most gorgeous love songs I've ever heard.


 "Anyday" : Beginning with an emphatic combo of Hammond organ and slide guitar, this song rises to crescendo after crescendo.  Clapton seems to be feeling optimistic about his chances in this song, as he sings:

If you believe in me
Like I believe in you
We could have a love so true
It would go on endlessly
And I know, anyday, anyday
I will see you smile
Anyway, anyway
If only for a little while

This is followed by Whitlock's gruff, soul-inflected voice trying to supplement the optimism with bravado:

I know someday baby you're gonna need me
When this old world has got you down
I'll be right here so woman call me
And I'll never, ever
Let you down

The instrumental highlight of the song is the intertwining of Duane's slide with Clapton's standard guitar playing.  They seem to raise each other to new heights of expressiveness and joy in each chorus. Clapton takes the first solo, sounding similar to that which he played in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and then Duane takes over with screaming slide action.  


"Key to the Highway": This blues in A was recorded live, and in fact it fades in during a solo chorus.  The song was originally recorded by one of Clapton's early heroes, Big Bill Broonzy, but the guitar duel between EC and Duane lift this into one of the epic blues rock songs ever.  Clapton plays standard guitar while Duane plays slide, and each man's solos wring the last drops of emotion from the common blues structure (though this is an 8-bar blues, not a 12-bar song).  The song describes a man having to hit the "highway" after having been "driven from home".  In general the lyrics are in keeping with the themes of the album, but the passionate playing is even more evidence of just how strongly Clapton was feeling the need for "one more kiss mama, before I go". 

This is the most played song on my iTunes playlist, as I often put it on and play along on my guitar. 


Side Three
"Tell the Truth": This song also brings some funky, countrified Oklahoma sound to the album.  Bobby Whitlock has described the writing of this song as coming out of the creative, drug fuelled ferment of the apartment the band all shared.  The song was the single for the album, and it seems like a single.  Frankly I've never felt that this song really fits with the rest of the record, and as a youngster I would often skip over this song (the old fashioned way, by lifting the tone arm) to get to the next one.  As a result my vinyl copy was scratched a lot at this point.


"Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?": This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and one of the all-time great "twin lead guitar" songs.  My theory is that Duane Allman plays most of the lead on this song, though many people disagree.  To me the expressive soloing sounds so much like Duane, and so not like Eric that it is plain.  But either way, the song is a rollicking treat of guitar soloing.

Starting with jet speed guitars responding to every lyrical line, along with a swinging bass and pumping Hammond organ, Clapton plaintively demands "why does love got to be sad?"

Like a moth to a flame
Like a song without a name
I've never been the same since I met you
Like a bird on the wing
I've got a brand new song to sing
I can't keep on singing about you

The main solo that starts at 1:16 into the song blazes with passion. It is clearly Duane (without slide) who takes the first solo on his Gibson, with Clapton answering later on the Strat. The solos on this song (and on the next one) sound like the melodies to new songs.  They are so vocal that I often imagine new words in my head while they play circles around each other.  The fade out of this song is sort of a nice foreshadowing for the extended coda of "Layla" on the flip side of the record.


"Have You Ever Loved A Woman": the third blues standard on the album (also in the key of C), this song by Billy Myles had been famously covered by Freddie King, a Texas bluesman who had long been one of Clapton's heroes.  The words to the song describe a terrible situation, but one that I felt very deeply as a young man.  In college, I was secretly in love with the girlfriend of one of my best friends.  Eventually it worked out, and she and I have been married since 1994, but whenever I heard this song I felt deep down the pain and confusion of the singer:

Have you ever loved a woman
So much, you tremble in pain?
Have you ever loved a woman
So much, you tremble in pain?
But all the time you know
She bears another man's name

But you just love that woman
So much, it's a shame and a sin
You just love that woman
So much, it's a shame and a sin
But all the time you know
But all the time you know
She belongs to your very best friend

Have you ever loved a woman
And you know you can't leave her alone?
Have you ever loved a woman
And you know you can't leave her alone?
But something deep inside of you
Won't let you wreck your best friend's home

The song follows a typical blues "call and response" pattern, and Clapton's fills after each line sting and burn.  Duane Allman plays the first solo on slide guitar, taking two choruses to play a slow, stately lead.  Meanwhile, Clapton's rhythm work behind him is getting more pungent and insistent.  Finally Clapton screams into action, ripping off the most emotionally charged guitar solo I've ever heard.  To me, he is singing the words "I just love you woman, and it's a shame and a sin, but I have to have you.  I won't stop til I do.  I love you and I will tell you all my life"--I can hear how these words fit with the melody and rhythm he is playing.  At one point Clapton speeds up so fast he almost overtakes the beat, and he slows down while still milking each bended note for all the emotional content he can.  This is a solo for the ages.

Side Four
 "Little Wing"  Clapton was a great friend of Jimi Hendrix, who wrote this song.  The Dominoes recorded this song in the summer of 1970, only a few weeks before Hendrix died.  While in America Clapton had bought a left-handed Stratocaster for Jimi, and he hoped to give it as a gift at a nightclub that September night when Hendrix died at the age of 27.  This version of "Little Wing" is more of a rocking version than the Curtis Mayfield, soul inspired version that Hendrix had recorded.  This version is to "Little Wing", in some ways, as Hendrix' version of "All Along the Watchtower" was to Bob Dylan's original version (except that unlike AATW, the Dominos version of "Little Wing" has not become the canonical form of the song.  Originally meant as a tribute to a fellow guitar hero, by the time the album came out Hendrix had passed and this came to be seen as a memorial to a fallen legend.  Personally I've always preferred this version of the song, but I am definitely in the minority in that respect.


"It's Too Late": Written by early rock and roll songsmith Chuck Willis, this slow, 1950's -sh rocker is like the sorbet one eats to cleanse the palate before the next course, which is one of the greatest rock songs ever.  Over a simple chord pattern, Clapton sings with a bluesy voice:

It's too late, she's gone
It's too late, my baby's gone
Wish I had told her she was my only one
It's too late
She's gone.
I wonder does she know
When she left me
It hurt me so
I need your love babe
Please don't make me wait
Tell me
It's not too late.

The song features good solos on standard (EC) and slide (DA) guitars over a rock and roll shuffle beat.  And while you can't hear this on digital versions of the song, on the original vinyl album, the last drum kick of this tune led without pause into the iconic opening lick of "Layla".


"Layla": The greatest rock song ever?  Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 27th, and it's hard to argue with many of the songs they list higher (except for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), but I think it's the best.  Clapton's voice is blasted by booze, drugs, sleeplessness and longing.  I can't think of another song where the singer is so clearly opening his heart to the listener.  The words of the song come straight from his relationship with Patti, who becomes Layla for the course of the record.

Parenthetically, Patti Harrison Clapton was the inspiration for several great love songs.  George wrote "Something" for her (the second most-covered Beatles song), Eric wrote "Bell Bottom Blues", "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" in her honor.  That must feel amazing.  But Patti says that when she hears these songs they make her sad for the loves she lost.

The tough guitar, with soaring harmony leads introduces the song, which has poignant lyrics:

What'll you do when you get lonely
And no one's waiting by your side?
You've been running and hiding much too long
You know it's just your foolish pride.

Layla--you've got me on my knees
Layla--I'm begging darling please
Layla--darling won't you ease my worried mind.

Tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down.
Like a fool, I fell in love with you.
You've turned my whole world upside down.

Layla--you've got me on my knees
Layla--I'm begging darling please
Layla--darling won't you ease my worried mind.

Let's make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane
Please don't say we'll never find a way
And tell me all my love's in vain.

Layla--you've got me on my knees
Layla--I'm begging darling please
Layla--darling won't you ease my worried mind.

 According to Patti, Eric invited her to his flat and played her the record. Patti says:

...he wanted me to listen to a new number he had written. He switched on the tape machine, turned up the volume and played me the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard. It was "Layla".  He played it to me two or three times, all the while watching my face intently for my reaction. My first thought was, "Oh God, everyone's going to know this is about me." I was married to Eric's close friend George Harrison, but Eric had been making his desire for me clear for months. But with the realisation that I had inspired such passion and creativity, the song got the better of me. I could resist no longer.

Though in reality she did resist, and in desperation Clapton threw himself headfirst into the pool of heroin that he wouldn't leave for years.

The beautiful coda to the song, played on piano with Duane's bird-like trills on slide guitar was written by drummer Jim Gordon as part of another, unnamed tune.  But Clapton encouraged him to donate it for this record.  To me it is a lovely melody that hints at hope, redemption and endless possibilities.  In a lot of ways, "Layla" is two records in one, the hard rocker and the contemplative coda, but together they are even greater than the sum of their parts.


"Thorn Tree In the Garden": If you look up "anti-climax" in the dictionary you see this song.  It is a pretty song, plaintively sung by Bobby Whitlock, but after "Layla" who needs it?  Listening to the words more carefully shows that it fits lyrically and conceptually with the album, but it is hard to listen to this song (which sounds better suited for Harry Nilsson or B.J. Thomas) at the end of the record. 


Eric Clapton: Clapton continues to record and tour.  After kicking heroin he married Patti, but the marriage was spoiled by both of their alcoholism.  While Eric marrying Patti seems like a dream come true, it was more of a nightmare.  Clapton has been sober since the late 1980's, and has founded a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Antigua.  He auctioned off nearly all of his guitars to pay for the center, including "Brownie", the guitar used on this album, which fetched over $450,000 in 1999.

George Harrison: George remarried after Patti left him, raising a family and enjoying a life in movie making and seclusion.  He released several albums, including one as part of the Travelling Willburys, a "supergroup" with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.  He and Clapton remained friends, and EC coaxed George out for a co-headlining tour of Japan in 1991.  George died in 2001.

Patti Boyd Harrison Clapton: Patti is still alive, and recently wrote a memoir of her interesting life.  She is a well-regarded photographer.

Alice Ormsby-Gore: The daughter of the British ambassador to the US, who fell in love with Clapton at the age of 17 never recovered from what was ultimately unrequited passion for EC and an addiction to heroin.  She died in 1996 from an overdose, living in poverty in a bedsitter apartment outside of London.

Delaney and Bonnie: Their marriage broke up, but each stayed in entertainment.  Delaney died in 2008, and Bonnie is still alive, occasionally acting and singing.

Carl Radle: Radle died in 1980 as a result of years of drug and alcohol abuse.  His girlfriend (who found his body) later committed suicide.

Bobby Whitlock: Is still in the music business, and has a memoir coming out soon.  It should be a good read. 

Jim Gordon: Murdered his mother with a knife and hammer in 1983.  Diagnosed as a schizophrenic, he has been imprisoned ever since.

Duane Allman:Less than a year after recording "Layla", Allman died from injuries sustained during a motorcycle accident.  He was 25 years old.

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