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The strange case of Eric Clapton: How a guitar legend turned into a self-confessed curmudgeon

The English guitarist, singer and songwriter has become a major proponent of Covid-related conspiracy theories, and has turned his efforts to writing ‘protest songs’

Carlos Marcos
Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton playing at the O2 Arena in London, in March 2020.Gareth Cattermole (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

In the last pages of his book The Autobiography, Eric Clapton writes a truth and a lie. This is the true part: “I am lazy, refusing to do any exercise, and as a result am completely unfit. I am a complete curmudgeon and proud of it.” And here is the lie: “I have tried to remain on the margin of political and social issues.” In his defense, it should be pointed out that he wrote this book in 2007, when he was 62 years old, and he was yet to begin enjoying his passion for calling out politicians. But now, at 76, the rock legend is still a curmudgeon and has begun a crusade against the people who run the world.

After a musical career that stretched more than five decades, Clapton claims that for the first time he is writing “protest songs.” Against what? Against a plot to brainwash the population. Last week the musician gave an interview on the YouTube channel The Real Music Observer. There he detailed his theory, that people who are vaccinated against Covid-19 could be victims of “mass formation hypnosis.”

He went into detail about how this could be possible, saying that he “remembered seeing little things on YouTube, which were like subliminal advertising. It’s been going on for a long time – that thing of ‘you will own nothing and you will be happy.’ And I thought, ‘What’s that mean?’ And bit by bit, I put a rough kind of jigsaw puzzle together. And that made me even more resolute.”

To sum up, Clapton believes that the population is being hypnotized by YouTube so that they get vaccinated. The musician first listened to Belgian psychologist Mattias Desme, and then sat in front of YouTube in order to appreciate “those messages.” Desmet, a psychology professor at Ghent University, believes that this supposed hypnosis could be the “first step toward totalitarianism” and the committing of atrocities in the name of collective wellbeing.

In the second part of the interview, and in the wake of the reaction that his first statements prompted, he clarified that he was neither “anti or pro vaccines,” adding that he was not concerned if he was “misunderstood.” The guitarist added that he felt that his career was over until he recently found this new motivation. He points to Stand and Deliver and This Has Gotta Stop as the songs that reacted to this situation. They were written along with Van Morrison, another veteran musician who has adopted a similar stance since the pandemic hit. The pair sing in the song the following lyrics:

“You let ‘em put the fear on you

Stand and deliver

But not a word you heard was true

But if there’s nothing you can say

There may be nothing you can do

Do you wanna be a free man

Or do you wanna be a slave?”

His combative attitude has not only stirred up his fans, but also other creative friends of his. In a recent article in The Washington Post titled “What happened to Eric Clapton?”, blues guitarist and singer Robert Cray spoke of his experiences with Clapton.

Cray, who is eight years younger than his former friend and mentor, had recorded and played together and were in fact planning to tour. But Cray pulled out after an exchange of emails with Clapton. Cray, who is Black, wanted to know what Clapton was referring to when he compared Covid lockdowns to slavery. “His reaction back to me was that he was referring to slaves from, you know, England from way back,” Cray told The Washington Post. After a few more emails in which his concern became ever greater, Cray decided he could not open for Clapton in good conscience. Clapton has admitted that recently his phone has stopped ringing. “Over the past year there have been a lot of disappearances, a lot of dust around, with people moving away pretty quickly,” he said.

Days later, Clapton posed for a photo with the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, a politician from the far-right wing of the Republican party – some even say he is more radical than former US president Donald Trump. Among Abbott’s track record is the approval of the most-restrictive abortion law in the country, the elimination of the need for a permit to carry firearms, and sending hundreds of police vehicles to the border to “create a wall of steel” and stop Haitian migrants from crossing into US territory. The photo shows Clapton and Abbott with big smiles on their faces.

The last song Clapton released, on Christmas Eve, is equally controversial. It is called Heart of a Child, and was co-written with Robert Monotti, an Italian architect living in London whose passion for writing pop songs was previously undiscovered. He was, however, known for promoting a denial discourse about the coronavirus pandemic. The lyrics state:

“Turn off the TV

Throw your phone away

Don’t you remember

What your daddy used to say

Don’t break the heart of your child

Don’t let your fear drive you wild.”

In October 2021, Rolling Stone magazine turned its back on Eric Clapton for the first time, having once classed him as the second-best guitarist in history (the first was Jimi Hendrix). In an article titled “Eric Clapton Isn’t Just Spouting Vaccine Nonsense – He’s Bankrolling It,” the magazine reported that the musician was sending money to the anti-vaccine organization Jam For Freedom. Clapton has also refused to play in venues where a “Covid passport” is required for entry. The strange thing is that he himself has been vaccinated – with at least two doses. That was the start of his crusade, when he started to tell people about his terrible experience after his second shot. “Needless to say the reactions were disastrous, my hands and feet were either frozen, numb or burning, and pretty much useless for two weeks, I feared I would never play again, (I suffer with peripheral neuropathy and should never have gone near the needle.) But the propaganda said the vaccine was safe for everyone…” he said in an interview.

The members of Cream pose for a February 1968 portrait. Left to right: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce.
The members of Cream pose for a February 1968 portrait. Left to right: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce.Michael Ochs Archives

All of this information has sent journalists and fans to examine the past of the musician in a bid to find some information that helps explain this attitude. Has he been fooling us all this time and it turns out he has always been so reactionary? Clapton was never involved in politics previously. He recorded his best music in the 1960s and 1970s, and his album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, created with rock band John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, is the one that he pointed to as having defined his style. He later went on to create Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, that group considered his best musical moment, as well as the only album released by his group Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

Clapton remained at the rearguard of both bands, a product of his shyness and allergy to fame. He found it difficult to take the step to going solo, something that he managed to do in the 1970s with great works such as 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) and Slowhand (1977).

His worst phase was in the 1980s, when he was battling against alcoholism having overcome his addiction to heroin in the previous decade. But in the 1990s, he had a major hit with Unplugged (1992), one of the biggest-selling live albums of all time and which contained one of his greatest hits, the ballad Tears in Heaven, which tells the story of the terrible accident that claimed the life of his young son. For Clapton purists, it’s frustrating to see that one of the major reference points of the electric guitar has an acoustic album as the biggest seller in his career.

Van Morrison and Eric Clapton play a concert in London on March 3, 2020.
Van Morrison and Eric Clapton play a concert in London on March 3, 2020.Gareth Cattermole (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

In terms of his discography, the last three decades have seen erratic production: few releases, and none of any great quality. Of note are his tributes to the masters of the blues, From the Cradle (1994), his collaboration with B. B. King on Riding With The King (2000), and his tribute to Robert Johnson: Me and Mr. Johnson (2004). His last studio work was a dispensable album of carols, Happy Xmas (2018), and two months ago he published another live acoustic album with his regular repertoire of songs, recorded during the pandemic: The Lady in the Balcony: Lockdown Sessions. It is also not among the best work in his career.

Given his drift toward a protest singer, his fans are concerned about his next moves or statements on political issues, the health crisis or conspiracy theories. Because he made his opinions about the music that surrounds him very clear in his memoirs: “The music scene as I look at it today is a little different from when I was growing up. The percentages are roughly the same – 95% rubbish, 5% pure.

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