Eric Clapton: yet another problematic favourite

Eric Clapton absolutely shredding that baby blue Strat. Majvdl via Wikimedia

A quick summary of what Eric Clapton has against vaccines – and immigrants, apparently

I might be dating myself here, but there was a time when for me and my peers, the epitome of a love ballad was “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton. Only much later did some of us learn that this English guitarist, singer, and songwriter once ranked second in a list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time, put together by the Rolling Stones magazine. He was also ranked in the top five on two other, similar rankings.

Victim of a great personal tragedy, Clapton’s son Conor passed away in an accident in 1991. The artist channeled his grief in one of his best songs, “Tears in Heaven.” In his illustrious career, Clapton has received 18 Grammy awards and was honoured by the Queen of England in 2004 for his contribution to music. These accolades make it hard on those of us who grew up with his music to come to terms with his unfortunate re-entry into the media.

Joining the long (and growing ever longer) line of celebrities who seem to be letting down their fans, Clapton has recently been on the news as a leading anti-vaccine activist. Not only that, he has apparently been donating to several movements that are geared towards spreading skepticism about the vaccine, and also took part in at least one lockdown protest concert called the Jam for Freedom. The artist’s personal social media is also seen replete with accusations of the vaccines being propaganda.

Clapton embarked on a U.S. tour, booked in the red states, despite surging numbers of new cases and death rates. Even worse, he then made a point of announcing that no proof of vaccination would be needed to attend. Many are lamenting this decline of the former great – yet another testament to how you either die a hero or do something to disappoint the multitudes of people who once loved you and your art.

Of course, journalists around the world went digging around for something, anything, that would explain this abrupt apparent change in personality. What they found might be worse than Clapton’s anti-vaccine stance. Dave Wakeling, a musician and former Clapton fan, has shared stories of the time in 1976 when he saw Clapton in Birmingham[i]. Wakeling recalls Clapton, clearly drunk, going on a rant about immigrants. Based on other published accounts of the time, he began making racist comments, complete with nasty slurs, right from the stage. He also states that the influx of immigrants into the UK must be stopped, because otherwise the country will “become a colony.” Earlier in 1968, Clapton had endorsed a prominent anti-immigration politician, Enoch Powell. Wakeling and others recall that soon after the Birmingham incident, Clapton did issue an apology that was essentially just him saying that he was drunk and having a bad day.

Former bandmates also remember the incident and said that this side of Clapton was a total surprise to them. As usual, there are also those who defend the artist, saying that his rant does not reflect his true feelings and that he was just not in full control of himself at the venue. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2017, Clapton himself said that he is surprised by how different of a person he is when fueled by drugs and alcohol. In his 2007 memoir, he once again insisted that his statements were not “meant to be racist,” but rather “anti-government.” Many of those present, however, do not feel this aligns with the words Clapton had used when singling out specific immigrant groups.

One reason why there seems to be so much hearsay and unclear anecdotes about this incident is that somehow no major news outlets covered it, and next to no recordings of the show survive. Had it not been for Clapton’s recent problematic anti-vaccine actions, maybe this would not have come to the surface. Either way, as a former fan, there is much to lament in this situation. Time to add one more artist to the list of those whose work I can no longer enjoy unconditionally.

[i] This article references “Eric Clapton Isn’t Just Spouting Vaccine Nonsense—He’s Bankrolling It,” Rolling Stone, October 10, 2021.

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