Greatest of All Time: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

This was to be the first entry in a recurring column where I investigate albums that friends consider to be the greatest of all time.  I started with my own favorite album, which Eric Clapton released in 1970 with his band Derek and the Dominos.

Let me be clear: When I say that Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is my favorite album, I mean to imply that I believe in my heart of hearts that it’s the greatest album of all time, and I fully expect it to remain that way forever.  Fighting words, huh?  When I came up with this project, almost every favorite album choice was the product of varying amounts of deliberation, so what makes me so unusually sure?  Well, I enjoy tossing the art I enjoy into competitions that result in lists to commemorate winners.  I believe that the insane decision making that leads to me thinking about why song number X is better than song number X+1 forces me to appreciate my favorite things as much as possible, heightening not only my passion for the works themselves but my confidence in my qualitative evaluations of them.

To use an example, I recently explained why I think Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” is the greatest song of all time by noting what was special about what it evokes.  Those ascending piano notes and that “You change all the lead/Sleeping in my head/To gold/As the day grows dim/I hear you sing a golden hymn/The song I’ve been trying to sing” chorus nail love both lyrically and sonically.  The most affecting songs are the ones that sum up sentiments, and love is by far the most worthy prize in that category.  “Tunnels” takes the emotion that you always strive to feel and presents it as music, and as such the song is transcendentally rewarding in a way that will be relevant for your whole life.

The songs we love are a lot like the people we love.  Despite being aware of obvious subjectivity, deep down we believe that our wife or our favorite album or what have you are, in fact, the greatest.  It’s almost puzzling why anyone would settle for anything or anyone else.

In dealing with appreciation that reaches the level of favoritism, love will always be relevant, and this is for two reasons.  The first is rather obvious, and that’s that the highest plateau of appreciation approximates love.  The second is that works that appeal to love are far more likely to receive it.  As such, my favorite song is the quintessential love song, and my favorite album is Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

To put it simply, Layla outlines a deep passion in no uncertain terms and then furiously examines it.  “I Looked Away” kicks off the album with a deep regret, which resurfaces late in the album with the definitive cover of Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late.”  “Keep on Growing” finds Eric Clapton feverishly fantasizing about how wonderful life would be if he got his girl, while “Anyday” shows us all how much he appreciates her.  “Little Wing,” which Clapton pries from the hands of then-recently deceased Jimi Hendrix to make entirely his own, gets at what Clapton appreciates about her.  “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” sufficiently displays his turmoil with its breakneck speed and general sense of panic.  “Bell Bottom Blues” shows that he thinks she’s worth all the hurt he’s going through, and penultimate track “Layla” accomplishes an almost impossible task: It convinces you that Clapton’s love is so real and vital to his own happiness that, despite the potential devastation and the seeming impossibility of success, this girl is worth going after.

You know what?  She absolutely was.  Pattie Boyd was the then-wife of then-Beatle George Harrison.  Harrison’s three best songs were all actually related to either Clatpon or Boyd: “Here Comes the Sun” was written in Clapton’s backyard, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” features Clapton on lead guitar, and Boyd was Harrison’s muse for “Something,” the song that finally convinced Paul McCartney and John Lennon of Harrison’s songwriting talents.  Clapton and Harrison were actually best pals.  Harrison paid back Clapton for his favor with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by co-writing “Badge” with him for Cream’s final album, Goodbye.  Despite his healthy friendship with Harrison, Clapton was madly in love with Boyd.

After splitting from Cream and the short-lived Blind Faith, Clapton swiped Delaney and Bonnie’s backing band (Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, Carl Radle playing bass, and Jim Gordon on drums) to form Derek and the Dominos, and he’d even add legendary guitarist Duane Allman to the mix.  The result was maniacally layered, stupidly visceral electric blues that we’ve never seen the likes of since.  Thanks to this, the album’s primary flaw of letting things go on too long (“Key to the Highway,” the album’s least important song by far, is also its longest at over nine minutes) becomes something of a blessing, allowing the talented people behind it to all show off at once (at the most frantic moments of “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” or “Layla,” I count at least seven guitars).  It results in a setting of raw, unrestrained power that wonderfully houses Clapton’s romantic fire and even allows it to grow rather out of control.  The most confessional, intimate albums are messy, but that’s because their refusal to hold anything back makes them more honest and complete.

Boyd heard Clapton’s passionate plea.  In 1974, Boyd and Harrison divorced, and Boyd and Clapton wed in 1979.  He was in love with a woman he couldn’t have.  He created an album for her.  He got the girl.  The album changed the lives of those involved.  It serves as the turnaround point to the sweetest rock and roll story of all time.  Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is what all other art can only aspire to be.

If I were here to make as solid an argument as I can for Layla being the greatest album of all time, I would end there.  Unfortunately, love’s damnable uncertainty is one of the most prevalent themes in Layla, and to go just handily with that, its legendary story of the guy winning the girl through the power of music is tainted.  Of course, everything was still pure back in 1970.  After “Layla” convinced you that Clapton’s destructive desires were worth dying for, Clapton’s bandmate Bobby Whitlock closed the album with a song pondering things that Clapton didn’t dare think about: What if it didn’t work out and life went on?  “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” written and performed by Whitlock with just an acoustic guitar, has a greater chance of making me cry than any other song.    After “Layla” sported Clapton’s unmatched intensity and Jim Gordon’s gorgeous piano coda, it almost seems offensive that Whitlock would use the last word to whisk everyone back to a world where failure can’t always be avoided by sheer force of desire.

Clapton got lucky.  He got the girl.  Despite this magic album convincing us (and Boyd) that he deserved her, he didn’t.  Maybe he did back in 1970.  However, Clapton’s addiction to alcohol and various drugs (most famously cocaine) drove a wedge between them, and his recurring infidelities began before their marriage.  She began dabbling in drugs and infidelity herself, but Clapton’s behavior dwarfs any wrongdoings for which Boyd might be responsible.  While with Boyd, he fathered two illegitimate children, one of which Boyd didn’t find out for seven years, at which point she and Clapton had been divorced for two years.  Ending in 1989, their ten-year marriage was horrible on the same scale that the story of their courtship was wonderful.

My first time listening was early in eleventh grade, back when I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, calling “November Rain” the greatest song ever written, and pining for a girl that I should have, and maybe did deep down, known I had eternally ruined my chances with.  Since then, it’s only ever been displaced as my favorite by The Clash’s London Calling or Arcade Fire’s Funeral.  What can I say?  I’m a sucker for love songs, concepts, and stories. Even before I knew all the gruesome details, I certainly never reached for Layla so that I could feel hopeful.  Layla has always been the album I’ve reached for when I’ve felt powerless, as if to say, “Okay, I’m lost, but someone’s been around.  Just walk me through it one more time.”  That goes against something I said earlier, though.  What if I find the right girl and settle down?   It’s actually a hope of mine that I leave powerlessness behind one day, so why am I confident that Layla will forever remain my favorite album?  Speaking as a hopeless romantic who has so far failed to even initiate a relationship with anyone that I’ve deemed worth suffering over, to feel powerless is to feel passion, and that’s something everyone needs to power through a lifetime.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 7:49 AM  Comments (1)  

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  1. I have shared your passion for for layla. I too bring only this one album out when I am lost, down and feeling like I’ve lost control. The music of layla never let’s me down. I always get more than I expect even after listening thousands of times. I have been through lost love, almost lost my life but was given a reprieve with a heart transplant — no kidding. Many dark days with my own thoughts are what keep me drawn back to this album. The passion and sadness of Clapton, the energy infusion of Allman. Even the Gordon coda. All the stars came together for all of us in this classic. The guiding hand of producer Tom Dowd who got Allman introduced to Clapton and make this perfection of explosive love songs that will never be repeated.
    One thig I learned from your observation. That I loved and married my ‘Patti Boyd’. I hope it sticks for me. But I’m happy to have had the heights of love. I join you as a hopeless romantic.
    I can’t wait to her all these songs again soon.

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