My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (July 1988)
In July 1988 I was one month away from moving away from home for college, working at a Caldor store in Warminster, PA and nervously throwing up whenever I dwelled too much on the thought of moving away from home for college. Music wise I continued my lessons with Jim, was still listening to a mix of jazz and rock on Philadelphia radio, and practicing with my Epiphone Sheraton. By then I also had an acoustic Fender Avalon (a parlor sized, cherry red guitar with a Strat style headstock) along with my Peavey T-15. That’s right: even at this stage of my life I had too many guitars for someone with too little talent to justify!
The July issue marked the first of two straight months of heavy Eric Clapton coverage (culminating in a cover story in August). This issue’s feature was on the new 6 LP box set Crossroads released on Polydor that purported to be a look back at the Clapton’s then 25-year long recording career. Clapton was unquestionably my favorite guitar player (heck-favorite musician) at that time, and after devouring this article I was so excited when my sister told me that she’d get the set for me for my upcoming 18th birthday. I got rid of my vinyl records a long time ago, but I transferred them to MP3 first, and I STILL listen to this compilation on a regular basis. I just found a person on Spotify who laboriously recreated almost the whole thing, so you can listen to it too!
In 1988, Eric Clapton was 43 (five years younger than I am now). To teenage me, he was a contemporary musician with lots of great stuff in his back catalog, but it’s interesting to see how the writers at Guitar Player (in this, and other articles) treat him as an old man. Think of all that he had yet to accomplish/experience: sobriety, the death of his young son, huge pop stardom with his Unplugged record, 10 more studio albums including multiple excellent “all blues” albums, three “Crossroads Guitar Festivals”, happy marriage and the birth of three daughters and the sale of hundreds of instruments and memorabilia to fund his Crossroads 12 Step Treatment center in Antigua. Obviously no one can predict the future, but the occasion of a career retrospective was particularly “backwards looking”, and reviewer Dan Forte seems to fall a bit into the tone of people on guitar internet forums who claim that Clapton hit his peak in his 20s.
Forte’s review “Eric Clapton ‘Crossroads’: 25 Years of Genius”, notes that “Few if any rock guitarists’ work has been analyzed to the degree that Clapton’s has, and no guitarist’s work could stand up to such intense scrutiny as well.” That said, he does see fit to point out what he thinks is the biggest issue of the set (and by extension, of Clapton’s career):
The few problems apparent on Crossroads stem from a sort of identity crisis. Just what is this hefty document? Certainly not a “Greatest Hits” collection. Even at his biggest, Clapton’s audience could always have been termed a “cult”, albeit a huge cult, and he crossed over to mainstream radio infrequently…In the words of Bill Levenson (Executive Producer of the progject), “I just see it as an honest 25-year portrayal. It shows the hits, the misses, the live material–it’s a good 25-year documentary. And it was really meant to be an instructional tool, almost.”
As someone who has played along to the tracks hundreds of times, I know I’ve used it for instruction for sure. That said, if you’ve read Clapton’s autobiography (written 20 years after this) or seen the recent Life in 12 Bars documentary (another 10 years later), it’s clear that Clapton himself is content to take a scattershot view to his past, emphasizing some points and minimizing others. For better or worse, it’s his right to do so, but as something of a Clapton scholar, I really appreciate this collection as a “primary source” of sorts.
Very 80’s, Forte points out that the collection is organized chronologically, but “of course, CD owners can just set their players on ‘random’ and get a different show with every listening’.” He is also excellent at describing the sonic (and sometimes cultural) impact of the recordings. The following are some of the sharper bits:
“The Yardbirds demos that open the collection are essentially the tentative first steps of a neophyte band attempting to play their newly discovered passion, and as such are not representative of the creative force the band came to be. John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’ actually pales by comparison with the Animals’ authoritative reading of the same (which is ironic, since Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine has doubtless never been mistaken as the deity)…”
“The primitive ‘Lonely Years’ and the bouncy “Bernard Jenkins’, both duets with John Mayall, were recorded prior to the Blues Breakers sessions. The former shows Clapton’s abilities as a seamless accompanist as few tracks in his entire catalog do. On the latter’s opening solo, he attacks every note full-force. For a 20-year old Brit, he was anything but intimidated by studio microphones, his elder-statesman bandleader, or the fact that he was crossing the color line with every bend of his Les Paul.”
“The next several cuts, unfortunately, illustrate all too clearly the slump that followed Clapton’s triumphant return (with 461 Ocean Boulevard). “Better Make It Through Today” is at best one of the few tracks that stands out on the mediocre There’s One In Every Crowd; the catatonic stance on Elmore James’ cathartic “The Sky is Crying” is more indicative of this 12′ dud as is the unreleased “It Hurts Me Too”. During this period, Clapton’s blues playing merely represented the slower portions of the program, with interchangeable songs, uninspired soloing, and cumbersome backing.”
Wow. Tell us how you really feel about ’70s Clapton, Dan!
“And finally, the set ends with the newly recorded version of “After Midnight”–yes, the one in the beer commercial. This seems to have been chosen out of convenience more than musical considerations. A more dramatic reprise to end Clapton’s history-up-to-now would have been his dynamic reworking of “White Room” at Live Aid–not only dipping back into Cream’s catalog, but reinterpreting a song Jack Bruce had originally sung and then leaning into his wah-wah for all he was worth.”
“Considering the glitzy sheen of “Miss You” or “After Midnight” it’s ironic to recall that this is the same Eric Clapton that forsook pop stardom with the Yardbirds in favor of following a purist’s path in search of the spirit of Robert Johnson. Eric Clapton has stood at the crossroads more than once in his 25 years of music making. And so far no one has passed him by.”
I’ll get to say more about Clapton in next month’s blog post, but I think it is worth pointing out that when he left the Yardbirds to pursue blues purism he was 20 years old and it was only 27 years since the death of Robert Johnson. Rather than holding him up in judgement based on statements he made as a callow youth, I prefer to revel in the wide range of excellent music Eric Clapton has provided us for the last fifty-five years!
“According to recently published figures by the American Music Conference, a non-profit association that encourages amateur music participation, 1,247,265 fretted instruments (which includes such instruments as mandolins and banjos) with an estimated retail value (ERV) of $328,322,000 were sold in the United States in 1987. Of that number, only 123,400, with an estimated retail value of $89,280,000 were produced in the United States. Although the AMC is not able to break the domestic figures down by instrument, it is able to do so for imports: 517,300 acoustic guitars ($79,570,000 ERV) and 453,000 electric guitars ($150,642,000 ERV) were shipped to the US last year. These figures represent an 11% increase in imports and a 5% increase in domestic units over 1986 numbers.”
Pretty neat. Besides the fact that I think that half of those 453,000 imported guitars are available for sale right now on Reverb, the dollar value of fretted instrument sales would be the equivalent of over $718 million today. I did a little looking and found a “music industry census” online that shows that in 2017, total guitar sales in America were 2,630,950 units with a retail value of $1.07 billion (average price $433). The number of instruments sold was up 6.4% from the prior year and the ERV was up 7%. So while recognizing that America’s population has grown from 240+ million to over 325 million in the last thirty years, I find these data reassuring about the current and future state of our instrument.
Speaking of guitar forums, when people aren’t talking about new guitars, a major topic of discussion is always modifications to instruments they already own. Guitar Player’s article about New York luthier/repairmen Roger Sadowsky and Jay Black made for a very interesting re-read. According to the article, Sadowsky’s clients included:
Bruce Springsteen, Al Di Meola, John Scofield, Will Lee, Prince, John Abercrombie, Nile Rogers, Sting, Paul Simon, Hall and Oates, Joan Jett, Lou Reed, Billy Squier, Jack Wilkins, Jim Hall, Tommy Shaw, Mike Stern, Steve Khan, Tony Levin, Carmine Rojas, Victor Bailey, Joe Beck, Jeff Golub, Bill Frisell, Daryl Jones, T-Bone Wolk, and Neil Jason.
Wow. That’s a music hall of fame right there! Sadowsky is still active, and Jay Black went on to work for Fender’s Custom Shop for over a decade and has his own business today. They had some pretty interesting points to make about guitar modifications and the difference between New York and L.A. (which always seems to come up in these old magazines!). Once again, in the pre-internet days, it’s clear that they viewed their job as providing expert advice to their customers:
“Much of what we do is educate our clients. Often they know what they want, but they don’t know how to get there. They’re seduced by ads that don’t deliver, and they end up wasting money. We evaluate everything that comes on the market and simplify matters by making recommendations.” Sadowsky estimates that his business is now divided equally between customizing instruments and producing and selling his own line of guitars and basses.
“Customizing”, Roger explains, “means upgrading the level of a guitar’s performance. It’s been about a decade since guitar customizing became really popular. Companies like Charvel, Schecter, Mighty Mite and DiMarzio came out with replacement parts such as necks, bridges and pickups, which essentially brought a parts mentality to Fender-style guitars. People began looking at guitars or basses as interchangeable parts rather than as an instrument.”
“One of the key insights I had was when a client brought in his Strat for extensive work–fret job, new pickups, a bridge, shielding–in all a $500 to $600 job. I remember being surprised at how the instrument wasn’t significantly improved after all that work, whereas other guitars I’d done the same things to came out superior. I eventually realized that there is an inherent acoustic quality going on in the instrument, which is a function of the wood. “
Later in the piece, Black notes that “players who buy student-level guitars and hope to improve them through customization are much better off buying a high-quality guitar and making small adjustments.
Sadowsky implies that one “do-it-all” instrument is more important to working New York musicians “who are dealing with subways and taxis…[they] usually carry one axe and whatever effects fit into the pouches of their gig bags” than to L.A. “studio musicians have cartage to haul their gear around.” The article closes with an interesting point that many of us on guitar forums should consider:
“Irving Sloane, who authored several definitive books on guitar construction, once told me, ‘Great instruments are not made for the listener, they are made for great musicians.’ Most of us have felt, at one time or another, that if we only had different pickups or a certain tremolo system or a better bridge, we would be better players. We naturally prefer to blame our equipment rather than ourselves. Jay and I are just trying to eliminate the instrument as a source of problems, so the musician can focus on his creativity….The magic is in one’s hands and soul, not the equipment.”
Very thought provoking stuff!
The cover story on Jerry Garcia is par for the course of late-80’s Guitar Player: 17 pages, including transcription of the “Hell in a Bucket” solo and a detailed sidebar feature on his famous guitar gear by Garcia’s roadie. As I noted above, I didn’t like the Dead as a teenager, and I still don’t see the appeal, but there was one thing pretty interesting to me about the article: it’s emphasis on a new beginning for the 45-year-old musician who had fallen into a drug-related diabetic coma two years previously. Honestly, it shocked me to see that Garcia was only two years older than Clapton, who was definitely not at his best either (booze and coke wise) because he looked so much older. The part of the interview focusing on Jerry’s recovery from the coma was very interesting:
“Well, I was in the hospital for about three weeks. I had…my Steinberger, and I started to poke around a little bit while I was still in the hospital–but just a little. Then after I got out of the hospital, Merle Saunders and John Khan came up to my house a couple of times a week and made me practice. Merle would bring music and we’d play through the changes of standards and stuff like that. Gradually, I started to pick it up again. At first it was very stiff and mechanical. I could figure things out to a point, but it took a while before I really had a sense of how music worked. I had to kind of reconstruct all that. It was about a three or four month process before I felt I was playing well enough to play in front of somebody. I knew I wasn’t playing as well as I remembered that I had been able to…”
So it wasn’t really a matter of not playing for three or four weeks. There was actually damage to your memory?
“Oh yeah, I had some damage. The damage part was worse than the three or four weeks…But the blessing of losing hunks of your memory is that you don’t get too hung up over what you don’t remember, because it’s gone. It’s not a question of ‘what is it I don’t remember here? Is it something valuable?’ It’s gone…Gradually everything sort of came back, but it wasn’t without a certain amount of work. I had to do everything at least once to remind my muscles about how something worked. It was the thing of making the connection between mind and muscles, because I hadn’t been away from playing for so long that my mind had forgotten. The neuropathways were there and the reason for doing it and why it worked -the intellectual part- was also there, but they were separated. I had to pick them up like, here’s a chunk of how music works, over here is a hunk of why I like to play it, and here’s a hunk of my muscles knowing this stuff. It was a matter of putting my hands on the guitar and actually playing through tunes and trying to solve the problem of how the structure of each tune works-addressing the whole thing. That’s what did it, but it took a while. I’m still in the process of rediscovery. I suddenly go, ‘Oh right. Here’s a whole area. I remember that year that I worked on this stuff.’ It tends to come back in chunks. But like I say, I don’t remember what I don’t remember. I’m not hung about it, and every time I discover something new, it’s delightful.”
What an interesting passage! It’s really sobering to realize how much of our ability, personality and talents are locked up in our grey matter, and so stories like this, or like Pat Martino’s are very inspirational to me.
That’s all for this month. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you’ll come back for next month’s cover story Eric Clapton. Until then, keep on picking!