So, 35 years on, Clapton is no longer God: he now plays the Devil
Rob Webb 2003-10-29
''Clapton is God'' was a commonplace piece of urban graffiti in the late-Sixties, as the guitarist with the Bluesbreakers and then Cream set new standards for dazzling solos and beefy riffs, attracting the religious adulation of rock fans with spray cans. The white boy could certainly play the blues. He was a technical genius, although perhaps lacking the soul of Jimmy Page or the vision of Jeff Beck. After becoming supreme AOR guitarist in the Eighties and Nineties, Clapton has now reached for his story of the blues and thumbed the pages back to the first chapter. He's retrieved his bottle-neck and returned to his roots.
Me and Mr Johnson is Clapton's open acknowledgement to the Mississippi blues master Robert Johnson; a man Clapton says has influenced him all his life. Recording in 1936 and for a year or so afterwards, Johnson played songs that echo up from the wellspring of popular music like solemn and brooding prayers to some dark entity. Rumour was that he had sold his soul to Beelzebub, down at the crossroads, in exchange for his extraordinary guitar expertise. He died in 1938 but he has become a touchstone for the genre, his brief output inspiring a host of postwar guitarists and songwriters, from Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, to the British bluesmen such as Page and Clapton. Without Johnson the blues would be a very different shade indeed.
So, 35 years on, Clapton is no longer God: he now plays the Devil. For him to take on Johnson's catalogue makes perfect sense. With both wailing electric guitar and acoustic-slide under his arm, Eric runs through ''When You Got a Good Friend'', ''Milkcow's Calf Blues'', ''Come On In My Kitchen'' and a dozen other tried and tested Johnson tunes. They are all delivered with sincerity, love and respect. The band are as tight as a bottle-stop, the recording is as clear as a bell and Clapton's singing and playing sound just fine. Me and Mr Johnson will appeal to his AOR audience after a bit of authentic as much as it will to staunch blues fans hungry for digital-age renditions of Johnson standards.