Eric Clapton was already a mega-superstar when I became president of his record label, Reprise. He had a dedicated team inside the company that watched out for him, including Mo Ostin, the chair of Warner Bros Records, my ultimate boss, and the Reprise general manager, Rich Fitzgerald, who Clapton admired and trusted so much that he asked him, more than once, to leave the company and become his manager. There was no need for me to butt in and I never had much of a connection with Clapton, other than going backstage at his shows and shaking hands with him and posing for pictures. He always seemed like a very nice guy and he was the opposite of a needy, freaked our artist like most big stars are. Eric was the least demanding super-star I ever met.
And, as a kid, I always liked his music as well-- going way back to The Yadbirds, Cream (both of which I hired to play concerts at my school), Blind Faith (an 8-track tape of which I listened to 100 times as I spent 2 years driving back and forth from London to Katmandu) and Derek and the Dominos.
I had been talking to several close Clapton friends in recent months about his awful-- and very strange-- reoccurrence of some extremely right-wing behavior recently. (You probably remember reading about his racist rant 4-5 decades ago at a concert in England when he endorsed racist sociopath Enoch Powell: "Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country. I don't want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch's our man. I think Enoch's right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I'm into racism. It's much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don't belong here, we don't want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don't want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck's sake? Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white.") He later apologized and said it was alcohol that made him say that hateful crap.
Some of Eric's friends and associates have told me he's lost his mind again. There were years that Eric's music kept the doors of my company open. I don't want to hear anything bad about him. Friday's L.A. Times column by Virginia Hefferman, Eric Clapton’s not God, just another vile anti-vaxxer, was painful to see but not surprising in any way. She seemed to be describing me, or at least a part of me, when she began by asserting that "The music people adore when they’re young often crystallizes their identities and unlocks oceanic feelings. It’s easy to latch onto certain songs, become defensive about their brilliance and refuse to let go. For many rock fans-- white men especially-- a mighty object of youthful adoration is Eric Clapton, the heavily decorated rock musician. Clapton, who is 76, has been in the news this week-- not for rock-goddery but his reckless anti-vax rhetoric. His dangerous stance on vaccines has forced yet another conversation about the importance of 'separating the music from the man.'"
That was always important for anyone in the music industry, although, like I said, not really with Clapton, who was always a pleasure to deal with in every way. Hefferman doesn't have that perspective. She hates Clapton-- and his music... and, apparently, anyone who likes his music too much.
"In Clapton’s case," she wrote, "the music and the man are one and the same-- arrogant performances of 'iconoclasm' that appeal chiefly to young, self-doubting minds eager for outlaw heroes. The Clapton package hit the spot at a certain hormonal stage of life. But then you grow out of it, especially as both the music and persona curdle." Everyone is entitled to their opinion of art. Hefferman included. She probably should have stuck to talking about his politics and laid off the music-- but her whole point was that the two are inseparable.
"Throughout the pandemic," she wrote, "Clapton has joined in criticism of the COVID-19 lockdown, as if governments were just 1960s priggish parents grounding kids for smoking grass. He played on an anti-lockdown track by fellow science-denier Van Morrison. Then he started citing nutjobs and YouTube videos as evidence of conspiracies around the pandemic."
But Clapton also chose to get vaccinated. (It’s almost as if he didn’t want to contract a deadly disease.)
After his second shot, he alleged that the vaccine left him with a 10-day flare-up of pain in his hands and feet, possibly-- he implied-- related to the peripheral neuropathy he suffers from. Neuropathy is the result of an injury to the nerves. It can be caused by alcoholism. Clapton has long admitted his alcoholic history.
On Wednesday, Clapton announced that he won’t play in venues that require audiences to show proof of vaccination. Clearly old Slowhand is willing to create superspreader events, secure in the knowledge the coronavirus is unlikely to infect him.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who, like Clapton, is vaccinated, immediately tweeted his admiration: “Bravo, Eric Clapton. Artists should defend individual Liberty.”
Here we go. Vaccinated celebrity-types discouraging vaccination for the masses. Worse: making vaccine hesitancy seem heroic, a revolt against tyranny. For art. And just as the Delta variant delivers death around the world.
Nostalgia keeps Clapton the guitar hero from being dismissed as a public health hazard. He should have been pulled off his pedestal long ago.
Nearly from the start, Clapton revealed himself as racist, violent and now anti-science, and you can’t separate that from the “Clapton is God” package.
This is not to say that everyone who likes Clapton’s music shares his views. It’s to say that Clapton the delirious soloist has always been striking the same chords as Clapton the anti-vax preacher.
There are decades of vileness that have been overlooked or rationalized.
There was that time in 1968 that Clapton damned Jimi Hendrix in Rolling Stone, using a casual racist slur and citing vulgar racist nonsense as the source of Hendrix’s appeal as a sexual fetish object.
There was the time in 1976 that Clapton announced at a concert, again with racist slurs, that he wanted to “keep Britain white” and to deport all Black people.
And of course there’s the time in 1999 when Clapton told the London Sunday Times that fueled by drugs and alcohol he abused the model and photographer Pattie Boyd in the 1980s, when they were married. “I took sex with my wife by force and thought that was my entitlement,” he said.
Now Clapton, with his dangerous vaccine ideology, seems to be taking a life-or-death public health matter by force, and thinking it’s his entitlement.
In The Guardian in 2018, critic Neil Spencer praised Clapton’s music as “dazzling” and full of “caustic brilliance,” cautioning against putting too much stock in his “poor behaviour and assorted addictions.”
“One must trust the art, not the artist,” Spencer wrote.
Dazzling and brilliant are generic words of praise, and clearly in the ears of the beholder. But “caustic” means corrosive. If Clapton’s music is corrosive, certainly so are his actions and ideologies. They’re all of a piece.
With Clapton, it seems time to trust both the art and the artist-- and both seem to be begging (on their knees) to enter retirement.
One of my favorite restaurants in L.A.-- one of my favorite restaurants in the world-- is a fine dining vegan place on Melrose, Crossroads, named for the Clapton song by founder and music super-fan Steve Bing (RIP).