COVID Wars: Who Needs Science When You’ve Got Eric Clapton?
As a massive public figure, Clapton must realize that spouting his pro-COVID nonsense could have grave consequences.
British guitarist Eric Clapton is perhaps best known as being immortialized in graffiti that declared, “Clapton is God.”
Today, that graffiti might instead read, “Eric Clapton is a public health disaster.”Noah Berlatsky
Another COVID Victim?
It seems that the COVID-19 scourge has claimed another victim. No, he’s not suffering in a hospital, coughing uncontrollably, hooked up to a ventilator. We’re referring to British guitar great Eric Clapton, whose very public anti-vaccine, anti-public health measures and COVID denial has friends and colleagues scratching their heads and wondering, what the f— is he doing?
They are especially concerned about the damage to his reputation. “It’s something that he brought upon himself,” remarked drummer Jim Keltner, who has known Eric for 51 years and played on the Derek and the Dominos Layla album. “And I’ve been hoping and praying really that he…[can] make this go away somehow so that it doesn’t interfere with his music.”
In a June interview, Clapton complained, “…I don’t hear from anyone. My phone doesn’t ring very often. I don’t get that many texts or emails anymore. It’s quite noticeable.”
Like most musicians famous or not, Clapton saw his big plans for 2020 go up in smoke, including a “semiregular” residency at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Clapton: “Which from a selfish point of view is devastating because I’m of an age [when] I don’t know how long my faculties will go on.”
“It’s what he lives for,” explains Keltner. “You can’t take [his] gigs away. It’s like breathing for him.”
Clapton says he got vaccinated in February. He claims to have suffered side effects that seem otherworldly: the first shot laid him up for a week. The second: “My hand and feet were either frozen, numb or burning, and pretty much useless for two weeks,” Clapton said. “I feared I would never play again.”
Some medical experts weren’t buying it. “He could be helping us in finishing off this pandemic, especially with a vulnerable population,” says Joshua Barocas, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado. “We’re looking at millions and millions of people worldwide. He could be a global ambassador, and instead, he’s chosen the pro-covid, anti-public health route.”
Blues guitarist Robert Cray is precisely the type of musician that elder statesman Eric Clapton can enjoy mentoring and collaborating with. Cray is a five-time Grammy award winner. More relevant to the moment, Cray traces his roots to segregated Georgia in a family just a few generations removed from slavery.
On the eve of touring together after months of dark stages, Cray was told that Clapton would include a “protest song” in his repertoire. It was a song written by Irish rocker Van Morrison titled “Stand and Deliver.” What got Cray’s attention was the second verse:
Do you wanna be a free manVan Morrison
Or do you wanna be a slave?
Do you wanna be a free man
Or do you wanna be a slave?
Do you wanna wear these chains
Until you’re lying in your grave?
Cray realized immediately that Clapton’s protest song was comparing government public health measures to slavery. The son of segregated Georgia demanded an explanation. “His reaction to me,” remembers Cray, “was that he was referring to slaves from England from way back.”
That didn’t make sense to Cray. A further email exchange left the Georgia bluesman wanting. Weeks later, Cray informed Clapton that he could not in good conscience open for Eric in the upcoming tour. Cray: “I’d just rather not associate with somebody who’s on the extreme and being so selfish.”
And so ended a 35-year musical friendship.
Playing With Extreme Politics
The above photo begs the question: Is Eric Clapton sidling up to Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to demonstrate his solidarity for the governor’s extreme right-wing pro-COVID, racist agenda? Or is this an opportunistic Texas politician, up for reelection in 2022, who knows the value of a photo op with a rock ‘n’ roll icon?
It’s probably the latter. In his statements to the American press about his pro-COVID agenda, Eric Clapton recites his personal reckoning with the pandemic: his physical reactions to the vaccine and the inconvenience of not performing with his body clock ticking. Clapton’s objections to public health measures certainly don’t even come close to Gov. Abbott’s, who is a right-wing cultural warrior.
Rock Against Racism
The racist Eric Clapton was in full view in Birmingham, England on August 5, 1976, when a drunk Eric took the stage to scream, “Stop Britain from becoming a black colony!” and other declarations even more cringeworthy. Clapton voiced his endorsement for the virulently anti-immigrant Tory politician Enoch Powell.
Clapton’s half-apology was a paltry “I don’t know what came over me that night. I don’t know much about politics.” The good news is that his public rants planted the seeds for the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement in 1976, transforming several rock tours into full-throated anti-racism advocacy, with its leaders beckoning Clapton, “Come one, Eric…own up. Half of your music is black.”
Eric Clapton, ever the enigma, never participated.
My Eric Clapton
I am a big fan of Eric Clapton’s guitar. I am impressed by the fact that Clapton has made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three different times: For his youthful tenure with the Yardbirds, as a member of Cream and for his solo recordings. I agree with Rolling Stone naming Clapton the second greatest guitar player of all time, wedged between Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.
When I was a kid, I frequently visited a friend’s house in my neighborhood (hey, Bobby!), where we listened, transfixed, to Eric Clapton’s two solo performances on John Mayall & the Bluesbreaker With Eric Clapton, “Steppin’ Out” and “Hide Away.” The two songs cemented my devotion to the electric blues guitar.
I want to be an unabashed Eric Clapton fan again, without the noise and absurdities. I wish Clapton would just button up.
It’s getting to be too much to ask.