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Is “simple” sometimes simply the best?

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton. File photo

By Jim Kempton

In 1969 following a devastating love affair with his best friend George Harrison’s wife, rock guitar hero Eric Clapton walked into a sound studio with a group of exceptional musical mates and recorded “Layla,” considered by many to be the finest rock opus of that decade.

Named after a 13th century Persian princess whose refusal to marry her secret lover drove him to madness, Clapton chose the story to evoke his own. Fueled by heartbreak, pouring his grief into every note, Clapton and his band Derek and the Dominos fashioned an entire album of torrential-aching love songs that became a lasting testament to unrequited passion.

Attending a small college in San Diego, I served on the Associated Student Body staff the same year Clapton toured for the Layla album.

As student government officers, we were entrusted to choosing the musical events, allowing us to select who would play at our small auditorium. With popular graffiti of the time proclaiming “Clapton is god,” Derek and the Domino’s was our unquestionable first pick.

As with many of the bar-setting shows the Dominos put on that year, Clapton turned his back on the audience when he played his scorching guitar solos. As a student body officer, one of the tasks that fell to me was introducing Clapton to the lone music critic who had come for an interview. To be one of the few non-band members allowed back stage during the event was a more than worthwhile compensation.

After the show, having made the introduction, I hung backstage hoping to listen in, unnoticed. What would the man whose lightning-fast solos had earned him the moniker “Slowhand” have to say?

Midway through his short interview, the critic (pompous as he was prejudiced) lobbed a disdainful query to Clapton about turning his back on the audience during the solos.

“I don’t understand what the fuss is about,” the critic challenged Clapton. “I watched you from the back here and those runs on your guitar are just not that hard to play. In fact they are quite simple. Why do you feel you have to hide them when almost anybody could play them?”

There was a momentary pause as Clapton leaned forward toward his dismissive critic. Every unseen ear in the backstage was straining to hear the reply.

Clapton’s soft voice articulated every word of the two-sentence maxim: “They’re not that hard to play,” he responded. “They’re just really hard to think up.”

It was, as I look back on it now, a defining epiphany.

Like Vermeer’s magnificent painting technique, Newton’s straight-forward description of gravity, Michael Jordan’s gravity-defying leaps or Hemingway’s spare prose, Clapton’s assembled notes were deceptively simple. But, they were also astonishing in their effortless beauty.

Sometimes I realized then, simple is simply the best.

Jim Kempton is a music lover who believes Eric Clapton and Duane Allman’s double lead on “Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad” (from the Layla album) is arguably the fastest, most dramatic and heartbreaking work in the rock music canon.

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