A Dance to the Music of Time — “Layla”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: “Layla”
from the 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos
peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100

It’s my favourite story from the music biz. And I love talking about it again and again, even if it’s one of the weirdest and most retold stories about pop music on Earth.

Picture this: it’s the middle of 1970. You are Eric Clapton. This is a very good person to be. You are only 25, and yet you are already one of the best guitarists in the English-speaking world. This is saying something, because that includes all three guitar-players in the Beatles, who by the way you are friends with. One of them, George Harrison, is your best mate, and you know that the other two haven’t been treating him very well. You feel sorry for George, and you want to see him make his own name, want him to be happy. And yet you are also badly, madly, uncontrollably in love with his wife, Pattie Boyd. This is a problem.

You try for ages to control yourself, torn between loyalty to George and your love for his wife. In an attempt to stave it off, you have dated Pattie’s sister, which hasn’t turned out well. You want to tell her that you love her, but you know that (for now at least) she is still in love with George. You stew in your own juices, torturing yourself with the burden of that knowledge (and guilt) — and then one day, your friend introduces you to “Layla and Majnun”, an Arabic story about a man who goes mad because he cannot get the girl he loves.

And this story hits you like a bolt from the blue. Of course. That’s you. That is you, going mad with love, pining for a woman you know you can never attain. You pick up your guitar, and write the most wretched love song a man has ever penned, spelling out in no uncertain terms what the hell is wrong with you. Soon afterward, you release it out into the world with your new band. (You use a portrait of a Pattie-like woman as the album cover, just to make sure everyone knows exactly who you’re talking about.) And one day, while George is out of the country, you go round to their house, sit Pattie down, and you play her this song.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. It’s a messed-up story, and anyone with a shred of loyalty would immediately want to sock Eric Clapton in the jaw: how can the man air, in such broad daylight, his secret ardour for his best friend’s wife? Even today, we might raise our eyebrows a bit when we hear about this kind of audacity. But that doesn’t make “Layla” any less beautiful. In fact, it only makes you appreciate it more.

To be fair, Eric Clapton did not write the opening guitar riff: that’s the brainchild of his bandmate Duane Allman. But Clapton took it upon himself to play it on the track, and boy it packs a punch: you can basically hear the ferocity on the guitar playing as he gives it his all. It’s not just notes that are floating off the strings: that’s real pain and anguish that Clapton’s trying to play his way out of. It basically sounds like it’s roaring, and you’re caught off-guard the moment you hear that powerful riff, soaring from a low growl to a high squeal and then back again. The notes fly everywhere, the guitar screams rather than gently weeping. Nobody can deny that this shit isn’t real, barely two seconds in. It revs you up, puts you on guard for whatever’s going to come next.

And that’s before he’s even started singing. Eric Clapton’s most famous hits — “Wonderful Tonight”, “Tears in Heaven”, “I Shot the Sheriff” — are all sedate little trips anchored by some gentle guitar playing and soft vocals. Not so for “Layla”. The subject matter is too hot for Clapton to hold back when it comes to “Layla”. Wikipedia tells me that he sang at the highest end of his range when doing this song: small wonder, because he absolutely lets rip. He howls the words out, the harshness and the anguish on them palpable. He doesn’t pull any punches: you know that he’s singing for one person only, and he wants her to know just how miserable he is. It’s actually wretched to hear, and I mean that as the highest praise.

And then you notice the lyrics: my God, the lyrics. They’re basically an exercise in self-pity, of dragging down the person you love in your misery. There are a lot of songs that are negative like that (example: any death metal song), but finding one that confronts its subject so head-on in such rawness is astonishing nonetheless. “What’ll you do when you get lonely/ And nobody’s waiting by your side?” he screams at Layla/Pattie. And when the chorus kicks in: “LAYYYYYYLAAAAAA, you’ve got me on my knees/ LAYYYYYYLAAAAAA, I’m begging, darling, please!” I’m not exaggerating on the “Laylas”, he really does scream them with that primeval intensity.

The weird thing is how unadorned these lyrics are: no clichéd comparisons with raindrops or birds that have flown away. They are honest in their vitriol, pathetic in their pleading — the simplest, most potent emotions you could ever hear in a song. How you feel about the background story depends on your relationship status, of course, but when you hear this song, that hoarse vocal and those sad lyrics will convince any listener that this is a poor man who needs a hug and for somebody to tell him it’s going to be alright. Yes, this man is pathetic, and he really should be moving on. But you would need to have a heart of flint to not feel even a little sorry for him.

All this makes the second half of the song more jarring. It’s easy to focus only on the front bit, because of all the juicy history that lies within it, all that scathing anger. So it’s frankly weird to hear the rock suddenly slowing down and fading away three minutes into the song, the loud wailings of the guitar replaced by a cheery sounding piano solo. The pianist of Derek and the Dominos, Jim Gordon, originally claimed this composition as his own, though as most people around him say it’s actually the work of his ex-girlfriend there’s a bit of doubt on this claim. (The fact that Mr. Gordon was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to a mental hospital after murdering his mother certainly doesn’t help his case.) In any case, he plays for four whole minutes — more than half the song — while the guitars take a back seat to accompany the piano as it blazes its way through the darkness. It’s basically the same theme with a couple of variations into a bridge over and over, but it’s calming, and it provides you with a sense of an ending.

I used to dislike that piano “exit”. It sounded so out of place on “Layla”, which for me was a song about lost love, a three-minute cautionary tale about how emotions left unchecked could explode and cover everyone in its own debris. It was an energetic song for me, all fire and brimstone and utter chaos. To have a piano come in with a steady melody basically slowed everything down, made the piece lose momentum, made “Layla” lose the sense of disorder that was its very raison d’etre. I didn’t want to see this resolved, much less resolved happily. So I’d listen to like the first eight bars or so before switching to the next song on my playlist, which was almost inevitably more tepid than “Layla”. For a while, I even preferred the 1992 acoustic version, which turned the front half of the song into a nice ambient shuffle, but which more importantly had no sign of that horrid piano ending.

But of course, I then got lazy and listened to the whole song instead of skipping ahead. And then I realized: that piece is there for a reason. It wasn’t just a slip of judgment on Eric Clapton’s behalf (though believe me, the man had endless of those). When you listen to the piano and the guitars at the end of “Layla”, it does sound to a certain extent cheerful, but you can also detect a sense of the melancholy behind it. The guitars may have faded into the background, but they’re still there, and as the piano soldiers forward it provides little touches that punctuate the piano tune. It’s almost as if the guitar is taking large gulping sobs as the keyboards sit down by its side, and give it a big damn hug — and when the song eventually ends, the guitar soars up high into the sky, with a little tweet from Duane Allman’s slide guitar which is genuinely sweet to hear. It’s hopeful, that’s what it is.

And that’s why I love “Layla”: it encapsulates so beautifully the story of failed love and redemption. Songs have a pretty funny way of finding their way into your heart just when you most need them, and this one, in its complete lack of subtlety, is almost a torpedo in how accurate it is. The moment you hear it, you know that it has been how you felt, word-for-word. You belt along to the heartfelt pleas, you scream your voice hoarse in a bid to get your Layla’s attention. And yet it’s all for nothing: you can shout her name all you like, but Layla still isn’t going to play ball. Your mind might be a furious tempest, and yes, you are indeed licensed to be unhappy, no matter what people say.

But that’s not the end of the story. For us to move forward, to find happiness again, we need to stop allowing ourselves the chaos, to realize that there needs to be an end to it all. And so the piano comes in: it empathizes with you, tells you that it’s gonna be okay, provides the order you’re so desperately needing. You can still cry, you can still mourn, but you need to move on somehow. And in the end — when the piano, too, slows down, and you savour the ambrosia of every solemn note — you find hope, and you find sunshine once more.

One more thing before we go: after all, I write these pieces as a commentary on pop music itself, not just how much I relate to a song. When I realized the use of that piano finale, and how my respect for it had grown, I learned to love “Layla” as a meta-commentary on us as listeners too. Because “Layla” is very much, I think, a litmus test on who you are as a person as well. As I’ve previously said before, we look to music to find empathy, to find somebody who will understand what we’re going through. If you prefer the rock part — all anguish, pain and guilt (transferred onto a surrogate, of course) — then you’re a stormy person inside, romantic and a staunch believer in turbulent passions, and maybe you’re an obstinate lover as well. But then if you prefer the piano solo, you’re reconciled to the finality of fate, you know that at some point the mourning has to stop and you choose to look forward to another day.

I hesitate to say that the latter attitude towards life is better — you clicked to read pop criticism, not a lecture on morals — so I’ll just say that your own philosophy on love really shines through when you listen to “Layla”, and you pick a side. It doesn’t judge us for it, but it gives you such a visceral shock that you can’t come out without feeling slightly older and wiser for the experience and with a revelation about who you are. And that’s basically why we love pop music so much: to come back shaken, to have gone through hell and survive to tell the tale — and in doing so, to emerge a different, slightly better person.

As for Pattie Boyd, she seems to have been swayed against all odds. She writes in her autobiography (titled Wonderful Today — care to guess which song it was named after?) that when Eric Clapton played it in her living room, his eyes fixed intently on hers, “the song got the better of me… I had inspired such passion and such creativity, and I could resist no longer”. Four years later, after discovering George Harrison in bed with (of all people) Ringo Starr’s wife, she left him for Clapton. They were married for ten years before divorcing in 1989, during which time Pattie realized that Eric had simply wanted what his best friend had. Just like the original Arabic story, Layla and Majnun never had a happily ever after, at least not together. But the story of “Layla” lives on, and fifty years after it was composed it remains transcendent, one that understands that the course of love, true or not, never does run smooth — but still leaves it to us to pick the kind of person we would like to be.

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