Havens & Clapton On The Reading Table

Originally posted January 22, 2008

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with two autobiographies: Richie Havens’ They Can’t Hide Us Anymore (1999, written with Steve Dawidowitz) and Eric Clapton’s Clapton: The Autobiography (2007). One is pretty good and one is fascinating.

Of the two, I’ve been working on the Havens book a little longer, and it seems to be taking me a little more effort to get into it. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I’m not as familiar with the outlines of Havens’ story as I am with Clapton’s. Or maybe it’s because Havens seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on the years in the early 1960s when he was scuffling around New York City’s Greenwich Village. At times, I find that fascinating and find the book hard to put down; other times, the tales seem to drag on, and I find it hard to turn the page. It could be that the book is too much a listing of people met and events lived through and not enough an assessment of how those things affected the person in the middle. I don’t get a sense of how Richie Havens felt about the things he recalls.

That’s not the case with the Clapton: I find the pages flipping by at an amazing rate, and the overwhelming sense I get is one of melancholy. Clapton, looking back at his life, is brutally honest, and he’s careful to take responsibility for the turnings in his life, many of which were accompanied by vast quantities of drugs and alcohol. Writing from the hard-won perspective of recovery, the famed guitarist is nothing so much as saddened by the way he treated the people around him, the way he approached his music and the way he lived his life for so many years.

I’ve read about half the book so far, and one of the passages I find most affecting was when he recalled the circumstances of his participation in the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh, organized by his good friend, George Harrison. Clapton – deeply addicted to heroin at the time – agreed to come to New York to practice and play as long as a consistent supply of the drug could be secured for him.

When he arrived in New York, the drugs were waiting for him in his room. “I tried some, but nothing happened,” he writes. “It turned out that what they had scored for me was street-cut, with a very low amount of actual heroin in it and cut with something nasty, like strychnine, so that it was about a tenth as strong as what I was used to.”

The result was Clapton’s going through withdrawal and missing the rehearsals for the epic concert. Some medication at the last moment, Clapton says, allowed him to feel well enough to make the sound check. “[A]lthough I have a vague memory of this and then of playing the show, the truth is I wasn’t really there, and I feel ashamed. No matter how I’ve tried to rationalize it to myself over the years, I let a lot of people down that night, most of all myself. I’ve seen the concert only once on film, but if I ever want a reminder of what I might be missing from the ‘good old days,’ this would be the film to watch.”

There is, reading the Clapton memoir, the sense of a train wreck waiting to happen, most likely because so much of his story is so well known: The virtuosity, the addictions, the romances, the tragedies. But it’s well written, and there’s a very distinct voice telling the story. One of the things that amuses me is Clapton’s occasional use of British slang without any attempt to explain it. Maybe such explanations aren’t needed; maybe there’s no mystery in those usages that catch my eye. But I chuckle when I see them, as when Clapton wrote without explanation about the workman whose culinary preference was “bangers and mash” (that’s sausages and mashed potatoes to we non-Brits).

Reading Clapton this morning got me to wondering about what cover versions of songs he might have released. There is, of course, the entire catalog of traditional blues written by others long gone, especially Robert Johnson. That’s not quite what I have in mind for cover versions, though, so I dug a little deeper into Clapton’s catalog. And in 1989, he released one of the niftier – and shorter – performances of his career on Journeyman, a brief exploration of the song “Hound Dog.” Clapton’s performance of the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition owes very little to Elvis Presley and at least a little bit (in terms of pace, not intensity) to Big Mama Thornton, whose recording (Peacock 1612) held the top spot on the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks in 1953.

As I don’t think I’ve ever shared Big Mama’s version, here it is along with Clapton’s cover.

Big Mama Thornton – “Hound Dog” [1953]

Eric Clapton – “Hound Dog” [1989]

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