A new online generation has suddenly « discovered » one of the oldest controversies in rock. But is the story more complex and instructive?
Is it too late to cancel Eric Clapton? While the veteran guitarist is getting into controversy, old scandals with depressing predictability have resurfaced.
It started with news that Clapton recorded a single for the singer’s Save Live Music Campaign called Stand and Deliver, written by well-known anti-lockdown critic Van Morrison. Pretty soon the internet had erupted with comments not only mocking the 75-year-old rockers for their views on social distancing, but also digging up old remarks to accuse Clapton of doing something much worse. Things were moving pretty quickly, from one user who said, “Here’s a terrible song about everyone should die” to another who added, “On the plus side, maybe more people will find out that Eric Clapton is now is a racist hole. « . ”
To be fair, this happens to Clapton whenever he does something that has the slightest interest. Yet when another turmoil erupted on stage over his infamous outburst in 1976, anyone expressing freshly-minted outrage might consider that the world had 44 years to boycott Clapton but showed little inclination to do so.
For those new to history – and according to Twitter there are some – it was on a gig in Birmingham in August 1976 when an extremely drunk Clapton walked off the stage on a manure rant and the controversial MPs Enoch Powell praised and claiming Britain would become « a black colony » before spitting insults on those he deemed « not welcome » on Britain’s shores. There is no record of Clapton’s remarks, so an alleged log in which he states « I used to be on drugs, now I am on racism » should be treated with suspicion. However, it was widely reported that he used racist slurs referring to « foreigners », « c-ns » and « w-gs ». .
It would be a career end if someone had such a vicious crash with their status today. But the world was actually quite disgusted in 1976. Clapton’s remarks were labeled « shock horror » by daily newspapers and heavily criticized in the music press. The organization Rock Against Racism was formed in direct response to these statements and did an excellent job of highlighting endemic racism in music and combating the rise of the National Front in Britain. Meanwhile, Clapton continued to release millions of sold albums and played sold-out concerts in some of the largest venues in the world.
I don’t think anyone will deny that Clapton’s remarks were objectionable. Not even Clapton himself, who over the years has expressed remorse and referred to himself as « disgusted » and « ashamed ». The question is: were Clapton’s remarks unforgivable? And the answer is: Definitely not, because Clapton’s popularity has endured.
Should you « Is Eric Clapton Racist? » In a search engine, you will find that the controversy is revived every few years when another generation of fans discovers that their idol has clay feet. The remarks were made when Clapton was deeply involved in alcohol and heroin abuse, through his own admission of flirting with « fascism » and « racism » and on a vicious, self-destructive course that would almost certainly have killed him if he did wouldn’t have done it. After much personal struggles, things finally got sober in 1989.
Read Clapton’s biographies, and the picture of his personality emerging in the 1970s is quite disgusting: a damaged, bitter soul that alienates many of his closest friends with his antisocial rudeness, and 8 monthly. Spent £ 000 on maintaining his heroin habit and performed so drunk that he often had to lie down on stage. « I sabotaged everything I let myself into, » he admitted in an interview in 2018. « I was so ashamed of who I was, some kind of semi-racist, which didn’t make any sense. Half of my friends were black, I was with a black woman, and I advocated black music. ”
Whatever racist ideas took root in his confused mind, they did not seem to be reflected in his life and work. As a child, Clapton adored black musicians and studied and copied Muddy Waters, BB King, Blind Blake, Bill Broonzy, and other blues players. In the course of his life he often made friends with his heroes, worked with them and used every opportunity to introduce others to their work. In a documentary of his life, Eric Clapton: 12 Bar Blues, BB King is shown proclaiming, « I’ve never met a better man than my friend Eric Clapton. ”
In the 1960s, Clapton was one of his closest friends with Jimi Hendrix, playing on albums by Howling Wolf and Aretha Franklin. He campaigned for reggae artists and recorded Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff. Since Clapton got sober, he has shown remorse and tried to make amends. He founded the Crossroads Center, a drug abuse rehabilitation charity on the Caribbean island of Antigua, in 1998 and has supported it ever since. He has been known to work extensively behind the scenes to help other alcoholics and drug addicts. Yet those awful remarks from 1976 still haunt him as they should. He is confronted by them in the 12-Bar-Blues documentary and is visibly shaken, but also at a loss to really explain them. He admitted that it was not easy to watch the documentary and called the racist incident « shocking » and « unforgivable ». ”
For some people, Clapton will always be dominated by his worst and most humiliating moment. However, I suspect most of the name-calling came from those who didn’t really like him at all. It is a certain joy to see Clapton regularly being attacked for something he expressly regrets. For example, it is interesting to compare Elvis Costello, who appears to have been extensively forgiven for the racist remark that led to the failure of his career in America in 1979. Costello drunk and labeled Ray Charles « blind, ignorant, n —– » in a barroom dispute, but his explanations and apologies have now been accepted and the incident is now rarely mentioned except as a footnote in his career.
Perhaps this is partly because Costello never achieved the cultural significance of Clapton, where the common listener must take a position: for or against. I wonder how much of the hatred that is regularly unleashed online comes from those who find Clapton’s blues style anathema. For the majority of his fans, this is just old news that pointlessly flares up again.
Clapton will never be allowed to live what he has said, and he cannot really complain about it. Nevertheless, he was allowed to continue his career. His new single will be released on Friday. And however you feel about rock stars fighting lockdown, it has been criticized worse in the past. I suspect it’s too late to stop him now.
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Eric Clapton, Van Morrison
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