Category: Layla


A word of caution: what follows is how I remember things, but not necessarily how they actually happened. An event can happen, but if it doesn’t happen to someone, did it really happen? To a certain extent, the meaning of a thing is assigned to it by the person describing it. So bear in mind that what follows is my version, which is probably different from other people who were there.

The high school I went to (7th-12th) was very small – 15-20 students in the entire school. It was a little private school in Amherst, MA that’s not there anymore, called Harkness Road High School, or HRHS. My older sister went to HRHS, too. I was still in 6th grade, not yet old enough for HRHS, when I first laid eyes on Debbie. HRHS was holding its annual prom-like event (not a dance, but rather a themed dinner). I was there, since families of students were invited. Debbie was one year older than me, and was close to finishing her first year at HRHS. I remember I was struck dumb that first time seeing her.

Debbie was incredibly quiet, passive and introspective. She didn’t talk very much, and probably wasn’t noticed a lot in her family of 8 siblings, her being the youngest. She wasn’t unusually good-looking, but she had a killer smile. It was probably so powerful ‘cause she didn’t use it very much. Seriously, she could level mountains with that smile; she leveled me.

There’s just something about girls like Debbie; a lot more is hidden from view than is shown. Most guys just pass them by, but I’m intrigued by a girl that doesn’t just give her gold away to any passing stranger. For me, though, intrigue lead to attachment which lead to kinda creepy behavior. Being a teenager, everything was a big deal for me, and thus my infatuation with Debbie became all-encompassing, 10 times larger than the vessel that held it.

For her part, Debbie viewed me as an annoyance, an unfortunate bug in her ear she couldn’t get rid of. But as irritating as my unrequited affections were, it’s regrettable that she didn’t respond with more grace, or even more temperance. Because of the people we both were (she wasn’t very direct and I wasn’t able to take a hint), things got messy. Instead of just telling me flat-out that she would never date me, she withdrew further inward, hoping I would just go away. In such close quarters – and in a school of only 20 students, everything is close quarters – I couldn’t; not completely.

Throughout my 7th grade year, Debbie and I pretty much ignored each other, though my feelings were still lightly simmering. But in my 8th grade year, they started boiling over. Everybody knew – granted, “everybody” is relatively few – including Debbie.

If the story had gone on like that, it probably would have been fine. My feelings would have eventually faded (a fire that hot can’t burn for long), and Debbie would have relaxed about me. But around a month into my 8th grade year, Debbie started dating a friend of mine, named Nick. Nick was my “bad” friend, the one friend your parents think is a “bad influence.” He was into some stuff I wasn’t, like gangsta rap and weed and smashing mailboxes. I went over to his house after school sometimes, and we spent the summer after 7th grade working for the same guy, doing random manual labor jobs around his property – if I never see another post-hole digger as long as I live, it will be a-okay with me. I didn’t really understand Nick, though I thought I did. His life was a lot harder than mine had been, and he had a large will to rebel.

But obviously, Nick didn’t value our friendship very much, at least not enough to keep him from saying yes to Debbie’s advances. Debbie might have just started dating Nick, a friend of mine, to get me to leave her alone, but it pained me for more than just the obvious reason. Other than the blatant scorn that I felt, there was that Nick didn’t view women as human beings who had actual thoughts and feelings. Instead, he thought of them as walking sets of tits, objects to be used and discarded. Or at least that’s the big talk he advertised to me, anyway.

So there you have a real-life soap opera-like love triangle, rife with teenage stupidity and groan-inducing melodrama. It seems like a much smaller thing 17 years later, but back in 8th grade, it was the literal destruction of the universe.

So I can totally understand Clapton’s wailing, moaning and sobbing over a woman he loves that just doesn’t love him back. When he sings in “Layla” to the title character, “you got me on my knees,” I get it. ”Layla” and the rest of the album it’s on mean so much to so many people because his pain is our pain. And nobody that album touches hasn’t felt that pain in some form or another.

Sometimes a musician presents his pain so honestly that it’s like watching someone committing suicide. But when you share a little empathy with the musician, it changes. His pain is your pain, so his catharsis becomes your catharsis. Art is therapeutic, but not just for the artist; it works for the spectator as well.

Tomorrow: oh, the damage a simple zipper can do…

Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs – Polydor Records – 11/21/1970

In a nutshell, most of Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs is about Pattie Boyd. While the wailing and gnashing of teeth of Eric Clapton over his unrequited love for Pattie is the centerpiece, that’s not the only thing going on. After all, Clapton wasn’t the only songwriter in Derek & the Dominos; Bobby Whitlock lends a bit of order to Eric’s barely controlled chaos.

“Tell the Truth” is an excellent rocker with country elements to it, loud and aggressive while still retaining a consistent groove. Whitlock wrote most of the lyrics, with Clapton only contributing the last verse. Whitlock’s voice, which takes more of a front seat here than on most other songs, is deep and sonorous. It lacks the desperate tone of Clapton’s, but it serves him well because he uses it in appropriate arenas.

Another song with hard-driving force yet beautiful grace, “Keep On Growing” has victory and joy in its melody. Clapton and Whitlock combine their songwriting forces here to make the most awesome song of their collaboration. It could also be noted that this song, as great as it is, was one of the few recorded before Duane Allman joined the band, so he doesn’t appear on it.

In a little switch for the cap (though it logically follows the long instrumental section of “Layla”), “Thorn Tree In the Garden,” is sweet and gentle. Whitlock’s voice switches modes to a sad and mournful tone. The band all sat in a circle on the floor with a single mic in the center for this one, a more chill method than usual.

Bobby Whitlock

Now, Whitlock has explained that “Thorn Tree” is about when he was forced by his landlord to get rid of his dog and cat. He brought the cat to Delaney Bramlett’s mom, but when he got back, he found his landlord had given the dog away without his permission. According to Whitlock himself, the song is about that event (his landlord being the “thorn tree”), but I have a different interpretation. Keep in mind that it’s not true; if it was, though, it be so much cooler that it being about a dog.

I imagine that “Thorn Tree In the Garden” is about the whole Eric/Pattie/George fiasco, 9 years in the future after Pattie has left George and Eric’s dreams of having Pattie for his own are fulfilled. But it’s from George’s perspective. The sadness and passive melancholy make sense in the context of a woman’s former lover, the woman having gone off to greener pastures. While George doesn’t understand why she left, he does understand that Pattie will be happier once she’s in the arms of another man. But that doesn’t stop George from missing her terribly. The “thorn tree” would of course be the man who stole his lover away; Eric, in this case. But the focus of the song is the garden (the girl), not the thorn tree.

Jimi Hendrix

Then there’s a piece that stands out from the rest of the album, a Jimi Hendrix cover called “Little Wing.” Hendrix was another one of Eric’s close friends. They had bonded back in Eric’s days with Cream, and Eric was one of the first musicians to make prominent use of the wah-wah pedal, an item he had been tipped off to by Jimi. “Little Wing,” at the time of the Dominos recording, was only 3 and a half years old, being the centerpiece of Axis: Bold As Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s a spacey and mystical slow-blues song, showing off Jimi’s distinctive guitar style. The Dominos’ take on it is significantly different, being loud and epic while losing none of the original’s beauty or cosmic wonder.

In a ridiculously eerie twist, “Little Wing” was recorded by the Dominos as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix about a week before he died. About two months before this record was released, Jimi died from choking on his own vomit after ODing on sleeping pills. Musicians and fans world over were shocked and saddened, not the least of which was Eric Clapton. “Little Wing” was one of the last songs recorded for Layla, and the bizarreness of the prophetic tribute could not have been lost on Clapton and the others.

On Monday: my own personal Layla.

Eric & Duane

August 26th, 1970. Producer Tom Dowd was in Criteria Studios in Miami, doing a record for Eric Clapton’s new band, something Eric formed out of the ashes of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. He had gotten together with D&B keyboardist Bobby Whitlock for some easy jamming over brews and joints, and they had been quickly joined by Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, D&B’s rhythm section. Dubbed Derek & the Dominos, Tom was recruited to man the boards for them after his success recording Idlewild South for the Allman Brothers Band.

That prodigious August afternoon, Tom received a call from Duane Allman, the Skydog himself, letting him know that the Allman Brothers Band would be in Miami playing a benefit concert that night. When Eric found out, he wanted to go.

“You mean that guy who plays on the back of ‘Hey Jude’?” (Wilson Pickett’s, not the Beatles’) “…I want to see him play… let’s go.”

The bunch of them went to the Allmans show that night, and managed to score seats in front of the front row barricade. When the Dominos came in, Skydog was playing a solo, eyes closed and lost in the glory of the blues. When Duane opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, a famous name and godlike presence in the guitar world. And he was staring right at him. Duane froze. Luckily, the Allmans’ other lead guitarist Dickey Betts was right there to pick it up, but when Dickey followed Duane’s gaze to see what he was gaping at, he had to turn away to keep from freezing himself.

Clapton and Allman were two guitar Supermen, transcendent beings Nietzsche would have been proud of. If they had been different people with bigger egos, I think all of Miami would have sunk into the sea with the weight of their posturing, not to mention their talent. But that wasn’t how it went down. Instead, they each had an admiration and giddy excitement at seeing the other one play. Instead of arching their backs and showing their fangs, they both said “oh man, it’s Eric Clapton!” or “I can’t believe this… it’s Duane Allman!”

Slowhand and Skydog met after the show, talked some shop, and Duane said he’d love to come by the studio to check out what they were doing. Eric excitedly said, “Bring your guitar! You gotta play!” And like that, a musical brotherhood was born. Duane became an official member of Derek & the Dominos, and the two were inseparable for the entire recording of Layla. They talked shop, swapped guitars, and showed each other techniques. But the best thing was that they traded licks, calling and answering with their guitars in a fantastic partnership; and it’s all caught on tape for the generations to enjoy and learn from. Pay attention, you blooming guitarists; this is how it’s done.

“Key to the Highway,” the last track on the first half of this double album, contains the glory, beauty and excellent freedom of blues music in its Platonic form. Blues is all about having a basic progression that’s repeated, and improvising over it to creating a unique sound and musical experience not just with each song, but with each repeat of the form of a song. “Key to the Highway” is only 8 measures played over and over again. Yet no set of eight measures is the same because of the splendid element of the guitarists having no idea where they’re going, what comes next, or where it will end. They only know that when the 8 measures are up, the song will start over again, and so can they.

The recording of it came by happy accident. 60s camp artist Sam the Sham was recording “Key to the Highway” in the studio room next door for his album Hard and Heavy. The band recognized it (it’s an old blues standard first recorded by Charles Seger in 1940), and they just started playing it improv-style. After they got going, Tom Dowd started recording. The jam apparently goes on for about 15 minutes before what’s on the album actually starts.

I can imagine “Key to the Highway” going on forever; no beginning, no end. The musicians never tire, never sweat, never get bored or let their minds wander. It’s a picture of heaven for me. I’ve heard lots of things from lots of people about heaven, but my  mom’s description is the one that sticks with me. She says heaven will be all God’s children singing endless praise to him, ceaselessly giving him the glory due his name in a progression that never stops. To complete that picture, I use “Key to the Highway.” When we get to heaven, we will never get tired of playing those 8 measures.

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