My guitar teacher Steve thumbed through the folder that contained all of the songs I have learned to play in the last decade.
“Let’s do Wonderful Tonight,” he suggested. Izzie set down her acoustic and plugged her electric into the amp. Together we do a killer cover. But not today.
I crossed my arms across my chest and said, “No Eric Clapton. He broke my heart.”
Steve holds that we should separate artists from their human foibles. He believes the so-called cancel culture often goes too far in gleefully destroying people’s livelihoods based on past mistakes without regard to the fact that those people have often grown and matured since the incident. I see his point. Many of the artists he adores – Neil Young, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry – have at one point been addicts, misogynists, tantrum-throwers, and down right ugly humans. Wagner was an anti-Semite. Picasso a misogynist of the highest order. James Brown an abusive predator. Rudyard Kipling’s work dehumanized people of color and Dr. Suess’s picture books contained numerous racist characters.
A creative life often draws those who are broken or hurt in some way. Much of the world’s best art is a product of artists confronting their demons. Playing Art versus the Artist is a dangerous rabbit hole to wander down. If I threw out every song by an artist who had done something really stupid, I’d probably only be left with Cat Stevens and Dolly Parton.
I am generally willing to assume the best of people, give them leeway for being a product of their time. I have always been able to separate great art from the person who created it.
So why am I so upset with Eric Clapton? He tragically lost his 4 year old son in 1991, when the toddler fell from a 53rd-floor apartment. As a parent myself, I cannot fathom what this sort of loss does to your mental health. Shouldn’t he get a pass for acting like a grade-A jerk occasionally? Why does playing his music now feel like such a betrayal of my values?
Maybe it was learning that the three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame went on an alcohol and drug-induced racist rant about “dark skinned immigrants” during a 1976 concert in England. “Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? … 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.” This from a self-proclaimed “blues purist.” I guess it’s a love black culture, but hate blacks sort of thing.
Maybe it was Clapton’s much-publicized backstage photo with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, known for his attacks on abortion, voting rights, and vaccine mandates.
Maybe it was the public statement he made stating that his AstraZeneca vaccine caused disastrous reactions. “My hands and feet were either frozen, numb or burning, and pretty much useless for two weeks … I feared I would never play again,” he said online. What he didn’t add was that he was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in 2013, a nerve disease that causes those exact symptoms. To blame symptoms that have come and gone for almost a decade on a vaccine received a few months ago seems misguided at best and dishonest at worst. Especially since the causes of peripheral neuropathy include toxins such as alcohol and drug abuse. As Clapton had a heroin, cocaine, and alcohol addiction for many years, it wouldn’t be surprising that any drug introduced into his body at this time might cause such an immune response. Not sure it was the vaccine so much as, you know, what Clapton himself calculates as a former $16,000 a week heroin problem.
Maybe it’s his complete disregard for Science. You can find numerous YouTube videos from the last 18 months of Clapton claiming public health recommendations and controlled, peer-reviewed scientific studies on covid-19 are nothing more than “propaganda.” He wrote and released a musically disastrous anti-lockdown song with fellow misanthrope Van Morrison. The lyrics, “Do you want to be a free man? Do you want to be a slave?” seem especially distasteful coming from two rich, old, white men. They literally check every patriarchal box, but would have us believe they are speaking for the marginalized. Clapton recently vowed to only perform at venues with “discriminated audiences” (i.e. no vaccine or negative test requirements). While this decision is completely within his rights, it’s also completely meritless based solely on his paranoid conspiracy theories. His disregard for the safety of his band, fans, and venue employees is disappointing. He has an enormous platform and he’s using it to spread misinformation instead of trying to help educate and save lives.
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. In his 2021 memoir titled Eric Clapton: The Autobiography, the singer actually admits to a tendency toward “conspiracy phobia in all things, including politics.” But, it’s all just too much terrible for me. I can’t dissect the art from the artist, cannot reconcile his views and his music. Because what he writes, sings, and plays is a direct reflection of who he is. If true artists pour their souls into their work, his soul seems too full of hatred and paranoia for this guitarist.