Along about 2006 I saw a 2005 reunion concert by Cream at Albert Hallon PBS. They sounded good. At times they sounded wonderful. But, let me just say it, they looked pretty scary. Not Eric Clapton, he's omnipresent on the tube, you know what he looks like these days whether you want to or not. I don't particularly want to, I don't care for most of Clapton's music. Someone once called Clapton chameleon-like as a musician, and I think that's very apt: he solos with the Beatles or teams up with Duane Allman, and he's as good as anyone ever gets; he plays "Layla" with his latest collection of slick hired-gun studio musicians, and he just sounds like another hired gun. Boring boring boring, makes you want to hear some teenage garage band with no chops play "Layla" : they'd butcher it, but they might put at least some of the passion back into it, too.
I hadn't seen Jack Bruce for a long time, though. I wasn't prepared to see him looking like what he is: a man over 60. I was reminded of Frank Zappa's snarky comment about nostalgia, about it being like a bunch of old guys sitting around playing rock 'n roll, because, for part of the concert, Bruce was actually sitting down. He still sounded like Jack Bruce, though. Ginger Baker sounded like Ginger Baker. And Clapton? As always: a chameleon. Back with Bruce and Baker, suddenly he sounded like the guitarist from Cream again. It was not exactly the same Cream as back then: all three of them have more chops now, and the solos didn't go on for nearly as long. What I mean is: suddenly Clapton was being challenged again to keep up with Bruce and Baker, and once again he soared magnificently to meet the challenge, and played so much better then he has for most of the past several decades. (What do I know. 10 million or so Clapton fans think that he's better than ever, apparently. Clapton certainly shouldn't lose any sleep over some non-guitar-playing naysayer such as myself.) The music was dazzling, it was alive. For a lot of the concert I just listened, and didn't look at the screen.
Reunion concerts and reunion tours seem to be very big these days, with rock and soul groups from the sixties, like Cream, coming back from who knows where, punk and disco bands from the seventies too, and younger bands. (Seven years elapsed between the Beastie Boys' "Hello Nasty" and "to the 5 Boroughs." Does that qualify it as a reunion album?)
Still for some reason it was disturbing. Maybe because the band originally was together for only a couple of years, and so those songs were associated, in my mind, with those specific hairy young men dressed in colorful brocade and puffy shirts who first played them, and that specific time, when Lyndon Johnson and Jimi Hendrix were still alive, when the Vietnam war and the protest culture it had generated were both in full swing. The appearance of a generation gap seemed to be more or less mandatory among rock musicians. Clapton and some others, of course, acknowledged their debt to older blues musicians, and when they covered a blues song they even made sure that the record companies and radio stations paid the composer his royalties for a change. Still, they were marketed to look like a short-lived incandescent world of their own. Gruesome death in Vietnam was in the news every day. Then several young rock fans died in gruesome circumstances at Altamont, and then several students were killed at Kent State, and then Janis Joplin died, and Jimi Hendrix died, and Jim Morrison died, and apparently Eric Clapton almost died from heroin addiction, and Duane Allman died... "Hope I die before I get old" ... and by 1974 Eric Clapton sounded like someone else. That earlier Clapton seemed as thoroughly gone as Hendrix or Morrison.
I don't blame Clapton for changing musical styles, although to me he was a lot more interesting back then. For one thing, I don't think that celebrities owe their fans anything. For another, breaking out of one specific genre and trying new things is a good thing -- whether I like the results or not, which is another way of saying: Clapton doesn't owe me anything. For another thing: before he kicked heroin, Clapton seemed pretty miserable. In Cream, his gloom was offset to a considerable degree by Bruce's bouyant good humor, but Derek & the Dominoe's was his band, his show, and he had the opportunity to really wallow in his misery. "Layla," the seven-minute title track, not the whole album, is certainly a magnificent piece of music, but it's also the portrait of a man going completely to pieces. You couldn't expect anyone to stay like THAT. I'm glad he survived. I don't think it's surprising that his music changed so much.
The youth culture of the late sixties, seen in retrospect, had a lot of embarrassing aspects to it. Any time that young people decide to completely break with the past, they're going to say and do a lot of stupid things, and believe that they're being original when they're just behaving like young people always have. If you say things like "Don't trust anyone over 30," and don't die before you turn 30, you've created a nice little dilemma for yourself. In many ways the sixties youth culture seemed to have a built-in self-destruct mechanism.