The Spirituality of Eric Clapton’s Music (Part I)

It is important that I start with a few disclaimers. First I can’t stand contemporary Christian music and second that this will not be your normal sermon. These 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 change that . So while this will not be your normal sermon, you might know me better when I am done and I feel called to take that risk.

Contemporary Christian music does not inspire me to be a better Christian. 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 starring 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 sordid past including felony arrests, Jonas starts to leave the stage in shame, and then suddenly, he 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 has never been to the region I want to know about — even though my reason for asking may be to avoid the region altogether or to avoid its pitfalls. But 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 mothers were right in warning us it is sinful!! That is, it is full of references to sin and it is here that I find inspiration. [But not in the way my mother feared it would happen.]

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

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But 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.”  Genesis 4:7

So I am not typically inspired by many of the bad boys of rock and roll because they continue to wallow in their self-indulgent lifestyles, and while they 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 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, will show you what I find inspiriting in his immense body of work — the ways 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 a sinner — 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 soldier from Canada, whom he 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.”

Academic standing was not the only thing that plagued young Eric.  He recalls the early signs of addiction:

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 to heroin.

I started drinking as soon as I could lie about my age and get into 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 he recorded the song Cocaine, written by J.J. Cale, a classic rock and roll song about a very commonly used drug. In a minute I want to play you that song but first. Let’s talk about the lyrics and why the song is an honest look at the power of 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”, uses 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 themselves in the last stanza. But the middle stanza speaks only of the power of the drug to overcome 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.            If your day is done and you 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 “thing” he is referencing. But, whatever the proposed benefit of its use 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 mixed message about drug use,  the message its 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 the 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)

Eric was hooked on heroin for about 2 years. His abuse of alcohol and cocaine would last for several decades.

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.  Its 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.

A good 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.  Luke 6:45

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 in which it seems he might be imagining that he is holding her in his arms.

(Roll Layla)

Layla is a powerful song of love with a beautiful melodic second movement, so how could this be evidence of sin. 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 rock 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 that 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. Stay tuned.

Sermon by Jonas Cox, November 26. 2017











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