Spirituality of Eric Clapton Part I by Jonas Cox

Good Morning

It is important that I start with a definition and two disclaimers.  First the definition, sin is a powerful word that gets thrown around a lot.  It is one of those words we believe communicates yet our definitions might very a great deal.   Most reference to sin involves destructive behavior.  Which can take of form of self-harm or harm to others.  For the purpose of this sermon I have used that definition, destructive behavior to self or others.

Now the disclaimers, First, I can’t stand commemoratory Christian music and second that this will not be your normal sermon.  These 2 disclosures come with some risk.   Carl Jung a famous psychologist claims that we see who we want to see in people.   We project aspects of our own personality onto people so they better can serve our needs.   You may have projected some aspects of Christianity onto me as your Clerk that don’t really apply.  This sermon may challenge your projection of me and through that you might know me better, that may be good or bad.  I feel called to take that risk.

Contemporary Christian music does not inspire me to be a better Christian.  I may be stereotyping too much here but I often feel that those artists are using Christianity as a marketing tool.   They seem to be saying of themselves  “look at me, I am safe and in the club so buy my records and you can be safe too and secure membership in the Christian club.  But I am not looking for safe and I don’t like the aspect of Christianity being a club. Further I feel I have little to learn from those who do not write about real experiences or perhaps have few real experiences to write about.

There is a movie staring Steve Martin called Leap of Faith.  In it Martin plays a itinerant preacher, Jonas Nightingale,  who is really a con-artist working to bilk the towns people out of their hard earned money in exchange for a miracle,  namely to deliver rain for their parched crops.   When the local sheriff played by Liam Neeson exposes the preacher’s sorted past including felony arrests, Jonas starts to leave the stage in shame, and then he suddenly, regains his composure and argues that it is better to learn about sin and the evils of sin from a sinner than from a “pasty white virgin priest”.  This speaks to my condition.

I wouldn’t listen to a travelogue written by someone who has not traveled.  I wouldn’t ask directions from someone who have never been to the region I want to know about.  Though my reason for asking may be to avoid the region altogether or certainly to avoid its pitfalls, it is useless to speak with someone who has no experience or refuses to communicate about those experiences.  That is why I find contemporary Christian music so loathsome.  But Rock and Roll tends to be very different.  Our mother’s were right in warning us,  it is sinful!!  That is, it is full of references to self-destructive behavior but it is here that I find inspiration.  But not in the way my mother feared it would happen.

I look to rock and roll for inspiration about spiritual life.  But not just any rock and rollers, only those who recognize sin for what it is, powerful  tempting and destructive and write honestly about their experiences of its power.

Genesis 4:7    If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

So I am not typically inspired by many of the bad boys of rock and roll because they continue to wallow in their self-indigent lifestyles.

Luke 6:45  And man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

While some of these rock and rollers may have overcome their demons they don’t share the depth of those struggles in their music but I am inspired by Eric Clapton  He is someone who has been there,  wrestled with his demons and as suggested in Genesis “ruled over them”  Clapton uses his music as a tool to subtly show the depth of his soul.   I find inspiration in his struggles.   So this sermon series, assuming the Elders allow me to continue, after today,  will show you what I find inspiriting in Clapton’s immense body of work and how  his interactions in the world have deepened his spirituality but that is for later in the series. The purpose of today’s sermon is to establish his credentials as someone who chose to behave in self-destructive ways and then moved beyond them.   Which then gives me reason to want to hear his struggles.

Eric Patrick Clapton was born in 1945 to a 16-year-old single mother in Ridley England.  His father was a 25-year-old solder from Canada, whom Eric never met.  Given the taboo of being a single mother in that era, His grandparents raised him as their own child.  He was 9 years old, when he learned that Patricia whom he believed was his older sister was in fact his mother.  He would later describe that experience and the impact it had on him by saying:   It seemed like everyone was lying to me.  I was doing well at school and suddenly I was at the bottom of the class.

This proved to be quite a blow for a young man already showing signs of addiction. Eric continues,  I couldn’t get through a day without doing something to alter my conscience.   It started with sugar when I was 5 or 6 years old.  I became addicted to sugar because it changed the way I felt

Later his addition moved to alcohol, cocaine and eventually a heroin.  I started drinking as soon as I could lie about my age and get onto a pub. . . The first time I got drunk I woke up 2 days later and couldn’t wait to do it again . . . then it was speed and then I got into the heavy stuff into my 20s.

 I knew for quite a long time that it had me.

In his 30s Eric recorded the song Cocaine, written by JJ Cale,  A classic rack and roll song about a very commonly used drug.  In a minute I want to play you that song but first.  Lets talk about the lyrics and why the song is an honest look at the power of self-destructive behavior or sin.

The song opens with the line “If you wanna hang out you’ve got to take her out Cocaine.”  This line speaks to the powerful social influences of the rock and roll world especially in the 70s.  Drug abuse was very common and it is easy to imagine tremendous social pressures within the rock and roll community to take illicit drugs.   This line is followed with another social reference If you want to get down, down on the ground cocaine”  Here the social reference, “Get down”,  using the parlance of the period,  common in pop music of that era,  to set up the potential bad effects of drug use “Down on the ground”  is a powerful way to contrast the delight and horrors of drug use.  The lyrics again juxtapose them selves in the last stanza. But the middle stanza speaks only of the power of the drug to over come bad feelings and fatigue.  Cocaine is a stimulant that gives its user an intense feeling of happiness according to Wikipedia.

If you got bad news you wanna kick them blues cocaine                                                   When your day is done and wanna run,  cocaine. 

Finally the last stanza is back to a contrast

If your thing is gone and you wanna ride on cocaine                                                      Don’t forget this fact you can’t get it back cocaine.

While the reference is juxtaposed, it is unclear what he is referencing.  But, whatever the proposed benefit of use (thing) is, it is clear that something valued is being forever lost in the last line.

So the verses of the song send a very mixed message,  speaking honestly about the reasons for using cocaine but also about the dark side of cocaine use.

The chorus is the same line repeated over and over “She don’t Lie”  a total of 12 times in groups of three.  What is this over use, of one phrase communicating?  Is it   how dependable this drug is to the addict abusing it.  “She don’t lie”, but instead she consistently delivers the effect of euphoria and stimulation as promised?  Or is the repetition part of the denial of addiction.  Repeating 12 times might serve the purpose of allowing the user to live in the fantasy that every thing is OK “she don’t lie” meaning you can trust the world you have created around yourself.

When Clapton admitted to a friend that he was an addict and needed help he soon found himself thinking.  What have I done? I have let the cat out of the bag. Because for years I had said I’m fine.

In an interview with Ed Bradley, Clapton would later describe his move away from addiction like this:  That thing about denial, The ability to lie to ourselves as Human beings was very strong in me

While the lyrics of the song display a mix message about drug use, the message  it’s lyrics convey is honest and straight forward.

The music , as played by Clapton, is easily the most powerful part of the recording.  I can feel the power of this addiction in steady beat of his guitar.   As stated in Genesis:  sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you,  and for a time it had rule over Eric’s life.  Listen for the power of addiction as this song is played.   Cocaine by Eric Clapton  (Roll music)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heR59UoQWbY

Eric was hooked on Heroin for about 2 years.   His abuse of alcohol and cocaine would last for several decades before he gained sobriety.

Next I want to describe another addiction or as Eric would later describe it an obsession with a woman.

Arguably one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time,  Layla was released in November of 1970 it’s contrasting movements were composed separately by Clapton and Jim Gordon The song was inspired by a 7th century Persian love story The Story of Layla and Majnun.   In the story Majnun falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful young Layla but is forbidden to marry her by her father.  The young man goes insane with desire.

As this song is played listen to the power of his obsession with this beautiful young woman.  As I mentioned before the song has contrasting movements first a rock and roll movement where he declares his love for her and explains the risk of insanity if his love goes unrequited. The second is a melodic love song where it seems he might be imagining that he is holding her in his arms.  (Roll Layla)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fX5USg8_1gA

Layla is a powerful song of love, with a beautiful melodic second movement so  how could this be evidence of destructive behavior?   Many of you already know the answer to that question.  This song for Eric is not about a 7th century Persian beauty.  And it isn’t her father who is denying the suitor’s love for her.  Eric has fallen in love with Patty Boyd, the wife of his close friend and Beatle, George Harrison.  He is asking for her to “find a way”  to love him instead of Harrison.   Clapton would later say of the relationship:  I was obsessed with this woman so I don’t know if I loved her . . .  I don’t know . . if I was capable of knowing what love was then . . . as a practicing drunk I just wanted something very badly.

So two of the greatest roll and roll songs in Clapton’s repertoire were born of addiction and obsession, Cocaine and Layla.  While it may be common for celebrities to be addicted to a drug and have relationships based more on obsession than love,  it is rare the they chose to so eloquently display them for the world.  Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone Magazine describes the work like this:  “there are few moments in the repertoire of recorded rock where a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide… to me ‘Layla’ is the greatest of them.” 

 For years Eric Clapton was a practicing addict.  Out of those experiences he performed and shared works of art. He writes from the depth of those experiences.

He was a sinner.  He knows that sin is powerful, tempting and destructive.  He shares the pitfalls of those experiences with us as a listening audience.

As you will hear in later segments of this sermon series he was able to turn his life around because as he put it:  ( I had to ) Let it go and acknowledge,  that I am not the master.   It ain’t about what I want,  it is about what I can give

The depth of Clapton’s experiences and his more recent insights, inspire me as a Christian.  He has been through the valley of darkness and survived the experience. Hearing his music inspires me to learn from his life.  In the next part of the series we will explore references in his work that I interpret to indicate a deep relationship with God.

Both of these songs were popular in my youth.  I had Christian friends who rejected Eric Clapton because the song contained the word Cocaine. They saw it as evil and put Eric outside the Christian club.  Thankfully God kept him. We as Christians need to be careful in our rejection of others.  When we draw boundaries based on what we see as self-destructive behavior we exclude a population of people that God includes.   We are called by Christ to be inclusive.

Benediction:

Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,
for they are of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you, Lord, are good.

Psalms 25:6-7

 

Message by Jonas Cox given at Spokane Friends Meeting, 26 November 2017

 

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