Sunday, May 20, 2007

Standing at the Crossroads

There's an old joke about a theatergoer who leaves a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet and blurts out to his companion, "The whole thing was full of clich├ęs!"

Failing to make that mistake, Steve Audio has a piece today on Eric Clapton, about whom he says, "Too many know Clapton today as an Armani-clad aging rocker, whose playing, while very nice, doesn't seem to be inspirational, but rather sort-of...well, generic. This is the Clapton of the slow, unplugged version of "Layla", of countless major events like 'The Concert For George".The reason Clapton sounds generic today is that, simply put, he wrote the book for the modern rock guitarist, and everyone else is copying him. Period."
The post makes the point with a number of well-chosen early videos, all well worth watching.

Two of them are of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, which Eric Clapton made his own, at least to the extent that anyone can wrestle a Robert Johnson song away from its creator. Since my last post was about ummm, similarities – yeah, similarities – in recordings between two musicians, I thought it was a good opportunity to look at the new ideas someone brought to the table when covering a song. Have a listen to Cream's Crossroads at the Steve Audio post above.

There's no video of Robert Johnson, of course, but here are two versions of Crossroads, with images, from YouTube.

Version 1
Version 2

Cream added so much to that song. You might not prefer Cream's version; that's certainly your prerogative. But you can't claim that Clapton ripped Johnson off, either. He credited him, and went on to rearrange the song completely. Not everyone does that – Keith Richards, for instance, feels that he rearranged "Love In Vain" extensively, but if you listen to the Stones' version and Johnson's version one after another, they're clearly similar. The Stones made an almost timid change to the master's song, perhaps afraid to re-imagine it as their own. They didn't rip it off either, but unlike Clapton, they didn't drag rock music kicking and screaming to a crossroads and point out a whole new direction for it to go.

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