Saturday, January 5, 2013

Derek and the Dominos, "Layla"

Emma is a (literally, I fear) sleepless humanitarian. I won't hear from her for months, or even years at a time, but sometimes she'll call me when she's 15 minutes away from my home, stopping by New York for a quick UN Conference in between ecology work and community organizing in South America. She's one of the most accomplished people that I know, but she's never heard "Layla."

With the restless energy of a pixie, Emma was gushing to me about listening to Eric Clapton's Unplugged record on the way to New York, which includes a popular version of "Layla" more in tune with blue-eyed blues and and soft rock that Clapton is currently akin to. I grumbled something about the original being better, and her reaction was the musical equivalent of when someone finds out that a movie they cherish was originally a book.

Who dares talk about "Layla" anymore? Who talks about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Satisfaction?" There's not much that I can say that hasn't been said better (I like Robert Christgau's 1970 review and Chuck Klosterman's "The Ninth Day" chapter in Killing Yourself to Live). But today I'll write that I love both how innovative and how traditional "Layla" is. It's a proto-metal song that's catchy enough for Beach Boys fans, a plugged-in, blues-based shuffle with Duane Allman on guitar and a sonata's worth of movements. When Martin Scorsese uses Jim Gordon's piano segment to emphasize a montage in Goodfellas, its closest companion is the use of Mascagni in Raging Bull.

That blend of classical and anti-establishment sensibilities has been distinguishing metal for decades. Years after he praised "Layla," Robert Christgau trashed Metallica's Master of Puppets in his Consumer Guide, writing that the band's "stock in trade is compositions not songs" and that he was "no more likely to invoke their strength of my own free will than I am The 1812 Overture's." Eric Clapton should be as proud as James Hetfield and Tchaikovsky.

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