Eric Clapton went from setting the standard for rock guitar to making ‘full-tilt’ racist rants to becoming an outspoken vaccine skeptic. Did he change? Or was he always like this?
By DAVID BROWNE
Originally published in The Rolling Stone Magazine on October 10, 2021
Cambel McLaughlin thought he was being punked. An unapologetic opponent of lockdowns and Covid-19 vaccine skeptic — he is, as he puts it, “pro-medical choice”— the 27-year-old Brit is founder of Jam for Freedom, a group of U.K. musicians that plays for free in public spaces, spreading the anti-lockdown word and sometimes singing songs with lyrics like “You can stick your poison vaccine up your arse.” For their efforts, Jam for Freedom are often hassled by police, and McLaughlin himself says he was arrested for what he calls “breach of Covid regulations” during one show.
This past spring, the car the group used to transport its gear was rendered nearly unusable after an accident, so McLaughlin started a GoFundMe page to help pay for transportation, gas, and legal fees. And one day this past spring, he was shocked to see a £1,000 donation on the site from Eric Clapton.
“I’m, like, this could be fake,” McLaughlin recalls. But when McLaughlin emailed the account listed with the donation, he received a text from the 76-year-old British guitar hero himself. “It was something complimentary, along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’s Eric — great work you’re doing,’ ” McLaughlin says. The two later talked by phone, and before McLaughlin knew it, Clapton offered his family’s white, six-person VW Transporter van as a temporary replacement for Jam for Freedom’s wheels. He also gave them a chunk of money (McLaughlin declines to say how much) to buy a new van — and said he might even sit in with the group at some point. Thanks to Clapton’s assistance, Jam for Freedom are now free to spread their message all over the U.K.
In the past, Clapton has been reluctant to voice his political views. As he told Rolling Stone in 1968, “What I’m doing now is just my way of thinking, but if it gets into a paper somewhere, people will say that what I’m saying is the way they ought to think. Which is wrong, because I’m only a musician. If they dig my music, that’s great, but they don’t have to know what’s going on in my head.”
But in recent months Clapton has himself become a leading vaccine skeptic, part of a community that Dr. Anthony Fauci has said is “part of the problem — because you’re allowing yourself to be a vehicle for the virus to be spreading to someone else.” And while never explicitly condemning the lockdown, he’s said “live music might never recover” and joined Van Morrison for three songs that amount to lockdown protest anthems. By way of a friend’s social media account, he’s also detailed what he called his “disastrous” experience after receiving two AstraZeneca shots (“propaganda said the vaccine was safe for everyone,” he wrote).
Jam For Freedom play to thousands of freedom protesters in Hyde Park. after they have demonstrated against vaccine passports, continued lockdown restrictions, mask wearing and vaccines for children. They believe by creating chaos in central London they will pressure the government into taking action
A gathering for Jam for Freedom in London’s Hyde Park this June. Clapton has given the group money and offered them his Transporter van.
Clapton recently embarked on a U.S. tour booked in red states despite surging transmission numbers and death rates — and at venues that largely don’t require proof of vaccination. In the process, this Sixties icon, who embraced the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle as much as anyone in his generation, has drawn praise from conservative pundits. In Austin, he posed for backstage photos with Texas’ anti-vax-mandate Gov. Greg Abbott, known for his attacks on abortion and voting rights. The sight of Clapton in backstage photos with the notorious governor amounted to a deal killer for some: “I just deleted all my Clapton songs,” went one comment on Abbott’s Twitter feed, along with, “A Kid Rock type with better guitar skills. Done with him.”
In what may be among the final acts of his career, Clapton risked his reputation and part of his devoted fan base when he doubled down on his views. “If he had a bad reaction, that’s bad,” says Bill Oakes, who ran RSO, Clapton’s label, in the 1970s. “Obviously most people haven’t. It’s a shame that this is the way that a lot of young Rolling Stone readers are going to read about him for the first time. He is one of the greats, and this is how he makes the headlines in his dotage.” (Through a representative, Clapton declined to comment for this article.)
Even people who haven’t thought much about Clapton lately are now wondering: What is he thinking? His fellow musicians don’t know what to make of it all: Queen’s Brian May referred to vaccine skeptics like Clapton as “fruitcakes.” Longtime Clapton collaborators and friends in the music business declined to comment about his current beliefs to Rolling Stone. As the manager of one prominent peer put it, “I wouldn’t want him to touch this.”
For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?
What changed — or did anything?
In the summer of 1976, Dave Wakeling thought he knew Clapton, too. Wakeling, who’d go on to found the English Beat, one of the U.K.’s pioneering ska bands, was 20 that year, and such a big Clapton fan that he’d once hitchhiked from his Birmingham home to London to see Clapton’s band Blind Faith in Hyde Park.
But when he saw Clapton at the Odeon theater in Birmingham in August 1976, Wakeling was gob-smacked. A clearly inebriated Clapton, who unlike most of his rock brethren hadn’t weighed in on topics like the Vietnam War, began grousing about immigration. The concert was neither filmed nor recorded, but based on published accounts at the time (and Wakeling’s recollection), Clapton began making vile, racist comments from the stage. In remarks he has never denied, he talked about how the influx of immigrants in the U.K. would result in the country “being a colony within 10 years.” He also went on an extended jag about how “foreigners” should leave Great Britain: “Get the wogs out . . . get the coons out.” (Wog, shorthand for golliwog, was a slur against dark-skinned nonwhites.)
“As it went on, it was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Wakeling recalls. “And then it became obvious that it wasn’t. . . . It started to form a sort of murmur throughout the crowd. He kept talking, and the murmurings started to get louder: ‘What did he fucking say again?’ . . . We all got into the foyer after the concert, and it was as loud as the concert: ‘What is he fucking doing? What a cunt!’ ”
When Clapton voiced support onstage for the conservative British flamethrower and fascist Enoch Powell, a prominent anti-immigration politician who had given his polarizing “rivers of blood” speech on the topic in Birmingham in 1968, Wakeling was particularly offended. Thanks to white and black workers toiling together in its factories, Wakeling had sensed that Birmingham had become more integrated in recent years.
Also in the crowd was author Caryl Phillips, then a high school student and admirer of Clapton’s work, especially his immersion in reggae and blues. “Clapton was to me somebody who represented the kind of crossover figure who was kind of like me in the other direction – me being a Black kid who actually liked white music, and he a white guy who actually liked Black music,” Phillips says. But like so many at the Odeon, Phillips was taken aback at Clapton’s tirades. “He said a few things about they should go back to where they came from and so on, then he’d play a couple of songs,” he recalls. “He was like a drunk who would remember that he’d been talking about something and then pick it up again a couple of songs later. He was one of the last people you expected to stand up there and speak in this way. It hung like a toxic cloud over the whole evening.” As one of the few Black people in the crowd, Phillips says he also felt “all eyes were kind of upon me, and then swiveled way from me.”
Clapton’s comments shocked his bandmates, too. “What Eric said was a total surprise,” recalls George Terry, a member of Clapton’s band at the time, “as he never mentioned he would be saying something at the concert to me or other members of the band that I knew of.”
Until then, Clapton’s association with the blues — and Black culture — had largely been seen as positive. Growing up in Surrey, raised by a grandmother, he’d begun practicing blues licks on a guitar as a teenager. With the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Cream, his playing reflected lessons picked up from listening to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and other blues guitar masters. Unlike some of his other peers, Clapton gave proper credit to the music’s founding fathers. A Clapton cover of a song by Waters (or Bob Marley) would pad their bank accounts as well as his own. “The man can play,” says Buddy Guy, the Chicago blues legend who first met Clapton in the Sixties and has jammed with him numerous times since. “If somebody’s good, I don’t call you big, fat, or tall. He just bent those strings, and I guess he bent them right on time. The British exploded the blues and put it in places we didn’t put it. I wish I could have had the popularity he got. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so damn hard.”
Clapton was also in awe of Jimi Hendrix’s skills and is said to have been devastated when Hendrix died. But in an 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Clapton referred to Hendrix with a derogatory term that was also hipster slang at the time. But maybe even more troubling was how he displayed a predilection for some racial stereotypes: “When he first came to England, you know English people have a very big thing towards a spade. They really love that magic thing, the sexual thing. They all fall for that sort of thing. Everybody and his brother in England still sort of think that spades have big dicks. And Jimi came over and exploited that to the limit, the fucking T. Everybody fell for it. I fell for it. Shit.”
Clapton’s epic struggles, from his comeback from heroin and alcohol addiction to his opening a treatment center in Antigua to the loss of his son in 1991, have made him a largely sympathetic figure in the press, including Rolling Stone. The magazine has put Clapton on its cover eight times since 1968; as recently as 2015, he was ranked second on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 greatest guitarists. Of the Powell-Birmingham incident, one British writer at the time called it “just another reminder of Clapton’s vulnerable honesty.”
But those who heard of his Birmingham comments had a much different view of Clapton. “I was completely shocked,” says agitprop writer and performer Red Saunders, who was shown a copy of a published report of Clapton’s comments shortly after the concert. “You’ve got to understand the kind of totem-head figure that Enoch Powell is in this country. He’s on the same level as Governor Wallace of Alabama — a high-level conservative, real old tub-thumping British imperialist of the old order.” Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech had spawned a white nationalist movement. Clapton’s embrace of Powell’s rhetoric prompted Saunders to write a letter to New Musical Express: “What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. . . . Own up, half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B?”
Saunders’ letter led to the founding of Rock Against Racism, which for about five years put on concerts in Europe and the U.S. in reaction to comments like Clapton’s. “He actually changed the world in the opposite direction, which was very decent of him, really,” says Wakeling (the English Beat played at one of the RAR shows as well). Saunders recalls that Pete Townshend said he might bring Clapton along when he played one of the Rock Against Racism shows in the summer of 1979. But Saunders says he insisted Clapton apologize first. For reasons that were never specified to Saunders, Clapton never showed up.
Some who knew and worked with Clapton at the time (and haven’t seen him much since) argue his Birmingham rant didn’t reflect his true feelings. “The idea that he was sort of somehow speaking his true mind there is misplaced,” Oakes says. “It was the booze. He was in a truculent mode then, and I don’t think he realized at all the effect of what he was saying. I don’t think it was one of those things where people say, ‘Well, if you’re drunk, it doesn’t matter — if you said it, you meant it.’ I don’t think he meant it.” Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2017, “I just have to face the guy that I became when I was fueled on drugs and alcohol,” Clapton said. “It’s incomprehensible to me, in a way, that I got so far out. And there was no one to challenge me.” He may have had a point about the latter: As a privileged member of rock’s ruling class, he has long shown a tendency to do what he wants when he wants to do it, with seemingly little regard for consequences.