Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History
By Chris Welch
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis), 2011
256 pages; USD $40.00 / CAN $44.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-4046-2

My awareness of Clapton first came indirectly, with Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” In 1968, I was in sleepaway camp H.E.S. for three weeks that summer. Being co-ed, there was a weekly dance for us all to mingle. As I was 13 that year, it was a good thing. However, the only record anyone thought to bring along was the “Sunshine” 45. Though I don’t remember what the flip, “SWLABR,” sounds like, I do remember we all voted that we preferred the A-side. “Sunshine,” by itself, was played over and over at the gatherings, for hours. When we wanted to slow dance, we played it at 33-1/3. When we wanted to “freak out,” we played it at 78. I’m still comfortable hearing it in all speeds.

While “Sunshine” was in my consciousness, I wasn’t aware of who Cream was, as far as members go. At the time, I was more of a fan of girl groups, nascent garage, Simon and Garfunkel, and Allan Sherman. I don’t even remember hearing “Strange Brew” or “White Room” until well into the ‘70s.

What I do remember from my middle school days in the very late ‘60s and onward, though, was the graffiti. In the stalls of the Rock’n’Roll High School-style smoke-clogged Bensonhurst bathrooms, those few times I dared venture into there, were the common pen-scratched “Frodo Lives,” “I Grok Spock,” and “Clapton is God.”

Chris Welch has been writing about rock music since Clapton originally showed up on the scene, which is when they first met and struck up an acquaintance. It seems fitting for a man who has followed Clapton’s career - from humble beginnings to the present – to write a book about his music-making life. Clapton comes across as a restless artist, rarely being satisfied and eventually running away in one manner or another, caught between his self-doubt and explosive ego. You know… a musician.

The luscious oversized hardcover, filled with over 400 illustrations, is subtly broken into sidebars beyond the chapters, with descriptions, histories and photos of his guitars, dissection of certain key albums, and replication of artifacts such as posters, band images, and even concert stubs.

There’s no skimping on ink here, as most of the reproductions are excellent, in vibrant color or black-and-white. Then again, they are not overly doctored, either, so if the record has a ring on the cover, or a discoloration from time, that’s present as well.

The research that went into these images is staggering, from extremely rare releases, such as 45 cover sleeves, small concert ads and tour programs, promotions, and even personalized guitar picks.

But this is hardly a mere coffee-table photo book. It is also a full textual history of the artist, and includes quotes from many of the major musicians that connected with Clapton in the course of his life, and especially career. Even without all the reproduced figures, this is a full biographical book on Clapton’s craft. Welsh also does not hold back any punches, stating how some of Clapton’s recordings during the ‘80s are lackluster and not up to his potential.

White much of the detail is keen, and for that I can assuredly recommend this release, there are still a couple of holes and quibbles. For example, there is very little personal information that is included, with short shrift on Clapton’s drug and subsequent alcohol abuse, and very little mention about the turmoil brought about through the relationship of Pattie Boyd (whose own autobiography I found abysmal, but I digress…), with just a couple of references and one photo of them together. There is no citation in the text of Clapton’s involvement in the Who’s film version of Tommy (though there is a photo of him as the Preacher, and the disappointing film’s poster are shown), nor anything about his reaction to his best friend/rival George Harrison’s passing. Perhaps this is a conscious choice, wanting to rely more on the output of the artist rather than be bogged down in personal minutia?

The quibbling, nit-picking part is the use of the word “Ultimate” in the title, because the last time I checked Clapton was still alive, so there will be more to come, I hope….

This is just part of a series of “Illustrated History” releases for Voyageur, such as AC/DC and Aerosmith, and it’s a worthwhile project for certain. Each one is certainly a gem of images and information, and this one is absolutely essential to the Eric Clapton is God contingent, if not all the fans of his music and those interested in some solid rock history.

Bonus Videos:

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