Today is the 69th birthday of Eric Clapton. I’ve never been much of a fan. Cream was OK but I never felt the need to have their albums, and the solo Clapton career was pretty much a bore. But I do have great respect for Layla by Derek and the Dominoes. This was Clapton at his hottest—the period 1970-71, when he played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and with Delaney and Bonnie and friends, and even his song “After Midnight” was OK. I remember it on the Top 40 chart. But the album Layla, with Duane Allman on slide guitar, is one of the great guitar albums in rock history.
Today’s song is just Clapton though. Allman’s not on this one and that seems a good reason to feature it on Clapton’s special day. And because “Bell Bottom Blues,” and the title song “Layla,” were the songs that I got to know first and best from the album. “BBB” became one of those songs that set the tone for some of my early tape-making, which were all about creating classic rock playlists in an autobiographical vein. Now, “BBB,” at first, had nothing to do with me, personally. It’s a song about a lovesick guy who is trying to convince his ladylove that she means more to him than anything—his dignity (“Do you want to see my crawl across the floor to you / Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back / I’d gladly do it”), his life (“And if I could choose a place to die / It would be in your arms”). And he’s adamant that “it’s all wrong but it’s alright / The way that you treat me, baby”—which is a way of saying she can do whatever she likes with him. It’s a bit of the good ol’ masochistic blues, I suppose, though of course it may all be hyperbole.
What always sold this song to me is, first, the vocal. Clapton sings this one like he means it. Like he’s really suffering, and that the object of his desire is bound to turn down even something as naked and heartfelt as this musical plea. Then there’s lines like “You won’t find a better loser,” which has a knowing irony to it; and the great chorus of “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.” Now, the guy may be a loser and all that, but that idea of “fading away,” as I would subsequently learn, is the great fear when one feels a love affair waning. It’s like the person you once were—fully empowered and erotically plugged in—is ebbing, fading out, going, going, gone . . . . And the thing that makes the blues so powerful is that the singer always associates all the best that he can be with the woman who’s dumping him. It’s like that particular self has no future without her, and that’s a hard lesson to learn.
When did you first learn that? Everybody learns that shitty truth sometime, don’t they? Clapton, in this song, backs it up with more than just impassioned singing. He plays guitar that illustrates what is meant when people say guitars “chime” or “ring like a bell.” The guitar tone in this song is vibrant, alive, and sharp. And when he hits that solo around 2:33-2:43 he takes a cue from Robbie Robertson’s little stinging pickings at the strings. It kills me every time. Clapton has said that, with this album, he wanted to get away from acid rock’s three-day guitar solos and make a record more like The Band’s albums, by which he means no solos for solo’s sake but interplay. This album bristles with brilliant interplay. And most of the songs are pretty top notch too.
Like I said, the song at first was just a great song, but later it became a song I could identify with, as that sense of fading away and that sense of wanting one more day, or whatever it took to reverse the trend toward the end, was, for me, what made the experience of the song so palpable. Oh, and don’t forget that last verse, which changes the tone: “Bell bottom blues, don’t say goodbye / We’re surely going to meet again / And if we do, don’tcha be surprised / If you find me with another lover.” Yeah, cheap shot, like, why would she care? But then this isn’t said in order to hurt her but simply as the realization that all this passion being wasted on some chick who doesn’t care will certainly get the dude “another lover.”
Now, bell bottoms were the preferred jeans of the Seventies. They went with the whole druggie lifestyle somehow. I’m not sure why. It’s been said that Clapton’s title came from the fact that Pattie Boyd—George Harrison’s wife with whom Clapton was passionately infatuated—had asked him to buy her some bell bottoms. Sure, whatever. I’m figuring that seeing her in those bell bottoms lit a fire in Eric. But that’s gossip, y’know. What I do know is that, to me, the act of walking in rain in bell bottoms (they tended to drag a bit) usually meant that water would seep up to about shin level. “Bell Bottom Blues,” as a phrase, always brought that to my mind, that sense of walking around in the rain, bluesing, in dragging, frayed bell bottoms.