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Behind the Curtain: (Almost) Close Encounters of the Eric Clapton Kind
Most Behind the Curtain columns feature Steve Rosen detailing his eye-popping encounters with rock and roll icons — but this piece, about his decades-long pursuit of Eric Clapton, is different.
Once upon a time long ago in a land of guitar wizards and six-string warriors …
Forgive the mixed literary metaphors, but that seems as accurate a way as anything else I might write to kick off this story. Because this is a tale of fiction. Rather, it’s a true story about something that didn’t happen. A non-fictionalized fairy tale. A fable of an almost was. The one that got away. The missing piece. My Moby Dick, the ten-fingered creature that almost destroyed me. The rare Snow Leopard. The Holy Grail. Well, you get the idea.
When I dream back on my life in letters — a prosaic and shit-kicking way to describe placing fingers on typewriter and computer keys and bashing out words for a living — one name stands alone. Four syllables and 11 fucking letters. Picture a vast and rolling hillside where guitar necks protrude from the ground and written on the fretboard of each one is a name:
Guitar players I’ve interviewed; shared dialog; engaged in conversation.
But sitting right in the middle of this extraordinary orchard is a huge and deformed guitar sticking its neck out. Imagine Salvador Dali painting a fretboard. Strings curled up and slithering like snakes and frets dripping off the side of the neck like something surreal. There is a name crudely scratched into the fretboard, and not impeccably inlaid the way it is on all the other flowering fretboards. No, there is only one name chiseled into the wood, all the letters appearing at straight angles and not adorned with filigree or sweeping swirls. Gouged from the wood, ripped from the grain is a single word:
E R I C C L A P T O N
A bit dramatic perhaps, but I’m trying to make you understand how much I desperately wanted to meet him and how much it affected me that I never did.
This is going to be a shorter story than the others you’ve read here because this is the story of something that didn’t happen.
We’ll call this Almost Close Encounters of the Clapton Kind.
My first non-encounter occurred on October 19th, 1968 at the Inglewood Forum. I was there with my then-best friend Skip watching Cream perform during their Farewell Tour. They were so impossibly astonishing that I would forever compare every other concert I’d eventually see — and there were a shitload of them — to this one. Back in the day when security was barely an afterthought, you could move from your seat [ours were in the stratosphere] down to a better seat or even onto the floor. Skip and I managed to snake our way to a spot just a few feet from the stage. I sat there with my mouth open and just gazed on Eric Clapton with something bordering on idolatry.
He was fucking god. Just 24 years old at the time, he was the kinghell guitar player on the whole planet. Nobody could touch him. Around me was a crowd of people who were likewise held in thrall and the feeling was religious. I remember this insanely beautiful girl standing in front of me who was staring at Clapton with what could only be described as lust in her eyes and I thought, “Holy fuck. What would it feel like to be Eric Clapton for one day?”
The second non-encounter happened on November 20th, 1970, when Derek & the Dominoes played the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I didn’t think much of the Dominoes, and in fact save for a few fleeting moments in Blind Faith, I’ve always thought Eric Clapton never brought the fire the way he did with Cream.
The second he started hanging out with Delaney Bramlett his playing suffered, and for me he never came close to the magic of that trio.
So, I’m at the Santa Monica Civic with Skip — we went to all the concerts together — and because security was so lax, you could bring cameras into the hall and click away to your heart’s desire. I had some piece of shit camera and took some photos [you can see one of them here and you’ll understand why I became a writer and not a photographer] but the shining moment was after the concert.
As the auditorium emptied out, Skip and I scurried out a side entrance to hang out near the loading in dock behind the building. We’d been there a dozen times before and knew where the bands loaded in and out. Sure as shit, about 15 minutes later, Eric Clapton strolled out with an impossibly alluring woman on his arm. He was about to step into an awaiting limousine when I shouted out, “Eric!” He looked up and I snapped a photo. I had spoken to the Man. Well, almost.
Fast forward several years. I’m in England and though I can’t believe it, I’ve been invited to a book signing for author Steve Turner’s Conversations With Eric Clapton. Guess who’s supposed to be there? I was beside myself. I was finally going to meet him and at the very least shake his hand and tell him that his solo on “Crossroads” was some of the greatest guitar playing ever recorded.
I was so fucking nervous, I started hyperventilating. I had only begun my life in letters and I was a nobody and why I was even there still mystifies me to this day, but I was there in that little bookstore and I was going to breathe the same air as Eric. The event was slated to begin at 6:30. The kickoff time finally arrives, but no Clapton. By 7:30, he still hasn’t shown up but there’s nothing to worry about because the cat is just fashionably late. 8:30 rolls around and everybody has now been milling around for a couple hours and the hors d’oeuvres are gone and champagne bottles are empty. I knew what was coming next. I could feel it.
A publicist from the book publisher announces to the room that Clapton won’t be coming and offers her condolences.
This is as close as I’d been or almost been.
I hated Clapton.
About 10 years later in 1983, I had another shot. Eric Clapton was part of the ARMS Tour, which was a benefit set up for Ronnie Lane. Eric, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker and other big-time players had assembled to help Lane, who was suffering from MS. I thought, “Holy fuck. What if I could get Clapton, Beck and Page together at one time?”
Pat Siciliano was the publicist for Columbia Records at the time and was handling press. I told him what I wanted to do and he said if I wanted to fly to Dallas, I might have a chance to interview the three guitar players there for a pair of dates on November 28th and 29th. He couldn’t officially set anything up so I’d basically be on my own as well as having to pay for my own flight, hotel and everything else. Pat would supply me with a press pass but that was it. I tortured myself for days. “Should I go or should I stay?”
In the end, I decided not to go. The chances of cornering even one of those three dudes was remote at best [though I had previously interviewed Beck several times and Page once] and trying to get all three of them to sit down at the same time would have been impossible. Additionally, by this time Jeff Beck hated me. I had written a book about him called The Beck Book [I probably mentioned this in my Jeff Beck Behind the Curtain story], which he despised and wanted to see me drawn and quartered. Robert Knight, his personal photographer, even told me, “Jeff fucking hates you.” So I had that going for me. Also, my encounter with Page hadn’t ended so well when John Paul Jones threatened to beat the shit out of me [you can read about this deadly encounter in my Page Behind the Curtain tale].
I could just picture sitting down with the three of them and the first words out of Jeff’s mouth would have been, “You fucking dickhead. I should stomp your ass into the ground.” [I’m paraphrasing here but I’m sure the sentiment would have entailed bodily harm]. Page would have countered with, “Yeah, this guy is a fuckwad. What’s he even doing here?” [Paraphrasing again, but whatever he said, it wouldn’t have been pretty].
So I opted out — or chickened out, really. I’d already been verbally manhandled by Jeff and Jimmy and the thought of two of the greatest guitarists in the solar system taking shots at me while Eric sat there watching was simply too much. Thinking about it now, I should have gone. If I could have actually managed to round up the trio, who cares what they would have said? I mean, shit, if you’re going to be demeaned and belittled, why not be demeaned and belittled by the best?
About 20 years later in 2004, I had my last chance. Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival was being held at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. I was flying out there for a Japanese magazine and thought, “This time I’m going to nail him.”
What a moron I was. The closest I ever got to him was sneaking into a press room I shouldn’t have been in. I saw Clapton in a corner and said to myself in mantra-like fashion, “Go talk to him. Go talk to him.” I didn’t go and talk to him. I think I drifted over in his direction a few feet and then stopped cold. I knew at the very most I might get a hello out of him if I was lucky and he was in a good mood but then I thought, “What if he ignores me entirely?” or simply nods or something. I didn’t need that.
What I failed to mention is besides these Almost Close Encounters, I tried for virtually 20 years in a row — maybe longer — to set up interviews with Eric. I knew his publicist and she liked me — or at least I think she did. She’d always take my phone call and she had arranged interviews with some of the other bands she handled. So once a year, I’d give her a shout and request an interview. She’d come back with something like, “Will this be for a major piece in the Los Angeles Times or the cover of Rolling Stone? That’s the only press Eric will do.”
Right, like that was going to happen. I’d done a few album reviews for the Calendar section of the Times and a couple of small stories for Rolling Stone but that was it. Major features and cover stories weren’t on the horizon. Still, I persisted. I thought maybe one of these times Eric will relent and sit down and I could do a piece for some guitar-related mag somewhere.
That never happened. They say the true adventure is in the pursuit, going after your prey and stalking it and if it gets away, well, that’s OK. Horseshit. Don’t believe it. I look back on all this now with the dredging up of these memories and I don’t feel good about it. I don’t feel fulfilled because I tried and failed. I only feel like I failed.
Clapton celebrated his 75th birthday on March 30th. He suffers from tinnitus, deafness, peripheral neuropathy and some other age-related ailments. His playing is nothing like it used to be and he has admitted as much. For all the hate I feel, no, hate is the wrong word. Disappointment. For all the disappointment I have because he never talked to me — not that he even knew I was ever trying to talk to him – I love him and I hope he lives forever.
In my mind, he will. He is onstage at the Inglewood Forum, 24-years old. He is beautiful and perfect and there is no other human being anywhere who can touch him. I have that memory and it will stay with me always.
Maybe that’s enough.
June 24, 2022
June 24, 2022