Rock and Roll Journal  -
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NEW YORK, April 2, 1990—Salutations to Charles Dickens across wheelbarrows of shiny Stratocasters: it is the best and worst of rock 'n' roll times to anticipate writing about Mr. Eric Clapton after watching him ply his transcendent craft at Madison Square Garden for a couple of hours. And from front-row-center no less!

How to catch the smoking-blue gem of his talent without dimming its lustre with the dust of post-facto interpretation?

Musically, in all of rock 'n' roll, there may be no single note as admirable as a well-bent Clapton riff. In terms of personality, "Eric Clapton" might be the four most enigmatic syllables since "Mona Lisa." Let's face it: if the man were a place, he'd be Stonehenge. And so far as status is concerned, his position is merely pharaoh-like.

Add to the dilemma that I caught the guy tonight at a show when he was not at his best, but somewhere over it—one of those extraordinary nights when a musician so takes you by the ears that he makes you try to see the world through him.

My fear, then, is that whatever I might write here in the early-A.M. cool of aftermath could lower the artistically ferocious temperature of the performance. That is to say, this hottest of shows might lose something in its word-by-word transmogrification through the thin lines of a sunfaded legal pad.

Perhaps a fair approach would be to use the sunfaded pad as a launching pad back through the evening. Since the subject at hand is an in-concert experience—and the focus is the quality of that experience—let us return to the front row. Maybe take the show song-by-song—the better to catch my breath with—and report impressions and reactions hot-off-the-head. Maybe then there will also be less heat loss.

Since the man of the hour is a bluesman (Captain Crossroads, if you will), and the blues is a fight, it might be helpful as well as handy to conceive of each song as a round in a heavyweight championship fight.

After all, this Mr. Eric Clapton is in a heavyweight championship fight everytime he picks up a guitar: he has to be as good as Eric Clapton! Whether on stage or in studio, he has to fight with the legend of himself.

Mister Layla can never lay low. It's actually one of the hardest jobs in all of rock 'n' roll: be a heavyweight champ every time out. Play the guitar wearing boxing gloves. Be as good as Clapton, daily. But such is the audience's great expectation.

The audience tonight at Madison Square Garden—the pop cathedral, the world's ultimate 20,000-seater—is a jarring mix of age groups. They range from those who look like they play classical music for a living to those who think that Clapton is classical music.

It looks less like a rock-concert-tour crowd than a Grand Canyon-tour crowd, except that this canyon is lined with seats painted the color of Easter eggs. The man's work has obviously grazed several generations. Captain Crossroads is crisscrossing the years and winning the numbers.

Yet the feeling in the crowd is something more than hero worship. With Clapton, the feeling is deeper. One senses that the man is more than just popular: it's as if people find a little paradise in his music.

The crowd seems to view him as a relation—not of blood but of affection. At the concession stands, there are no candy bars named after him. But in the seats, there are people who have named their kids after him.

By showtime, an exultant atmosphere infuses the crowd. The air seems ready to ignite. With the lights down and the house P.A. system playing an orchestral version of the "Layla" riff, Clapton strides through the long arena tunnel that has in its time let loose many another heavyweight.

He emerges from the Garden cave to blustering cheering and clapping. Then from backstage, amidst smoke and under a sole spotlight, he materializes stage left. Without playing a note, he has already invoked the well-documented, larger-than-life presence: he seems less like a man with a guitar than like Paul Bunyan with his axe—or, more English-enchanted, Robin Hood with his quarterstaff.

The just-turned-45 rock 'n' roll bluesman stands at the center-stage mike. In his long dark brown hair and tight beard and dark-heaven eyes and philosophical expression, he seems relaxed and ready. The eyelids are angular slits and the eyebrows seem like ledges for his hundred-story talent.

The guitar is a pearl-gray Fender Stratocaster. There is only one element of flash and that is a multi-colored guitar strap which has been tastefully bejeweled in the manner that a king might bejewel a favorite drinking glass.

The razzle-dazzle guitar strap slashes down the field of a white plantation suit. Ensconced in amps and mikes and arc-lights, the frontman radiates a soft glow—a white feather in a mechanical Marshall maelstrom. The blue spotlights on the white suit make for a kind of violet-twilit coloration. The alignment of the flesh and the myth in a bright suit under bluish light produces a fierce luminousness, a plenitude of grace.

As the first song is about to begin, one finds oneself wishing the man a better start than that of a certain show five years ago. At Live Aid on July 13, 1985, in Philadelphia, Clapton had spent the entire hot summer day watching the other acts on television.

When he finally took the stage at twilight, the heat and an unusual case of nerves had him practically ready to faint. Then he put his mouth to the mike to begin the first song and got an electric shock. One hopes for better luck this night.

Round 1: "Pretending" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Jerry Williams). In a chiropractor's nightmare of a stance, Clapton leans over his guitar and the band takes wing into its first tune of the evening, the tangy upbeat lead-off song from the new album.

The voice is vibrant and resonant and emotional; the guitar leads, as usual, are long and liquid—Clapton demonstrating how to rip into a song without tearing its fabric.

The band is polished and powerful, but most of the crowd, naturally, follows the white-clad lead. At various vocal and guitar pauses, the people purr their appreciation: Eric Clapton—The Wizard of Ooooooze and Ahhhhhhhs.

Under the colorific guitar strap, there is no rock-star jumping or grinding. The guy is near-to bereft of extraneous motion. So the eye goes to the fingers that are so long, they make the guitar neck look like a penknife.

At one point during the song, I dropped the concert program on the floor. If Clapton hadn't been busy at the time, he might have reached down with those lobster-claw fingers and picked it up.

The long fingers and fluid touch make his hands seem to have no muscles. The fretboard fingerwork is silk. The strings react to the exacting fingers that skip, librate, dance, seesaw, tease, waggle, pluck, wanton, jump, bend, and tilt up and down the guitar neck.

The movement is so smooth, the hands seem wristless. You get to wondering if, rich as he is, Monsieur Clapton couldn't have made more money as an international jewel thief.

Beneath the magic liquid hands, at the vortex of the whirlpool of talent, the eye finally proceeds to the physical heart of the matter, which is of course the sinuous, sensuous instrument known as the electric guitar.

Tonight's wood-metal-electronic fusion is a pewter Eric Clapton Signature Series Fender Stratocaster. It is a splendid new array of splinters, but one has to wonder if he doesn't miss the blues riffs that are probably still rattling around in "Blackie." That was a black 1956 Stratocaster which E.C. created from the best parts of three different Strats.

Whatever guitar Clapton plays—broken-in or brandy-new—he seems to have a kinship with the instrument. More to the point, he has shown himself over the years to be all guitarist—a man who has found the deepest truths of his life through the instrument, and who respects others who play the thing truly.

As well, he has a profound respect for the instrument itself, that is, if it has survived enough bluish moments. One night in 1979, for example, after Muddy Waters had opened a gig for him, somebody tried to hand the old bluesman's guitar to Clapton. He wouldn't touch it—said it wasn't for him to touch.

Another time, in September, 1970, Clapton bought a left-handed Fender Strat for his friend, Jimi Hendrix. He brought the instrument to the London Lyceum that evening, but Hendrix didn't show up as he was supposed to.

He found out the next day that Hendrix had died that night. Clapton went out in his garden and cried for hours.

Tonight, as Eric Clapton stands in the middle of another Garden and makes his guitar cry, one senses that he understands guitar and understands truth and, consequently, can sing so capably about "Pretending."

Round 2: "Before You Accuse Me" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Bo Diddley). After the crackling opening tune off the new album, Clapton follows up with the album's last cut.

Continuing to cultivate the crowd's anticipatory exuberance, the guitarist glides his band straight into the song from the previous one. There is not even a moment's break to acknowledge the audience.

The tempo slows down a mite, but the voice is harsher. Clapton forges ahead full-throated on the vocal and, as is his wont, full-throttle on the guitar, and the Strat obeys him like a steed that trusts its rider.

With each fresh bluesy riff, Captain Crossroads winds the rock clock back to its roots, joins hands with his musical ancestors.

As a matter of fact, the song of the present moment was written by an ex-boxer Chicago bluesman named Bo Diddley, and blues happens to constitute the cornerstone of Clapton's in-concert psyche. Surely, the guy's special feel for the blues is a thing of rock lore.

He grew up in the English village of Ripley; his teenage enravishment with the blues would take him from Ripley to Ripley's Believe It or Not. How a white English boy would cotton to a mature black American sound is one of those legendary rock 'n' roll conundrums—along the lines of Brian Wilson writing the Beach Boys' surf tunes even though he didn't go in the water.

A literary parallel would be Stephen Crane writing his great war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, without ever having seen combat duty.

Possibly the only answer to the young Clapton's fascination with the music is a word he used in a backstage interview just before the concert tonight. He described himself as a "wanderer."

Somehow, for some reason, at age fifteen, he wandered into the blues—a religion prayed by ecumenical hands on little stringed wooden crosses. He had already been a student of the guitar for two years, since his grandmother had bought him a hollow body Kay Jazz II for his thirteenth birthday.

He had been practicing a lot, burning the guitar at both ends. But it was with the blues that he found himself—cut the umbilical cord with a blues chord—took an unspoken blood oath with an art form. It was a sensate synthesis of sources: guys with names like Robert Johnson and Little Walter and Freddie King.

Tonight the British master plays the Bo Diddley song in a style so much his own, yet so much owing to his pedigree of influences. Like the bluesmen of yore, Clapton is a gentleman and finally greets the crowd at the end of the tune: "Thank you very much. Good evening."

Round 3: "Running on Faith" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Jerry Williams). With his third straight song from his most recent LP, Clapton waters the Garden into a modest mellow mood.

This is where E.C. gets Extra Careful. Subtle moments demand subtle moves and, piping hymn-like backing vocals, the band sweetens its act with a soft shower of quasi-religious sounds.

In his late teens, Clapton had considered a career in making stained-glass. Now, in his mid-40s, he creates a stained-glass milieu. Standing more still than his wax-figure self in Madame Tussand's Museum, his voice tries for a supernal feel as he sings a number that puts love on a religious plane.

This singer of "Running on Faith" appears to have a cabalistic faith in himself and his work. The man has not just survived, but has done so by staying close to his blues sources with an obduracy born of indelible conviction.

Clapton's love for the blues has been more than a summer romance. By dint of his faith in blues truths, he has stayed with the relationship through thick and thin; a solid marriage.

His song at this juncture has a hint of schmaltz to it, but the angelic texture carries it off. The lead-guitar underscores the gravity of the issue with a short solo. The big bright soft hands stand out on the guitar neck like headlights on the front car grill of a funeral procession. Carloads of congregated faces follow faithfully.

Round 4: "I Shot the Sheriff" (461 Ocean Boulevard album, 1974; written by Bob Marley). Here our world-champ boxing metaphor permutates into a shootout at the fantasy factory between the sheriff and Eric. The band sidles out of faith-finding single-stepping and starts to rollick.

As the stage disposition becomes more buoyant, one wonders if Clapton learned the song to shoot at the not-so-moot point that is his fame.

To be sure, in the high noon of rock guitar, he is the sheriff (even though he fires through Marshalls). Think of it: the guy has had the rep of being the fastest—and best—guitar gun in town for a full quarter-century now. (A quarter-century is a lifetime in the ultra-speedo roll of rock time; truly, twenty-seven years was the entire span for Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Brian Jones, and Duane Allman.)

It was in a London subway station in 1965 that E.C. was sloganized into the best in the west. The graffiti said "Clapton Is God" and the phrase jumped at a full gallop from graffiti to grapevine to grand mythology. Nowadays, the fame is off the scale. No guitarist in rock 'n' roll is more assiduously observed and talked about.

If fame were a number, Clapton's would be infinity. He's not of this planet: he just visits for concerts and recording sessions. So runs the well-oiled machine of his myth. He has won so many awards that, if his reputation gets blown up anymore, it will just explode.

Then they'll probably make up another new award: ladies and gentlemen, here with us tonight to receive the first annual Rock 'n' Roll Hindenburg Award . . .

The rock guitarist's fame has become something like a religion: many worship, but few understand. His mystic-mythic status has been both his salvation and his cross: salvation because it pays his bills (and then some!) and is a fine reward at the moments when he deserves it; cross because it makes his life unreal at the moments when he doesn't feel he deserves it.

Either way, the fellow has long been overburdened by the daily super-high expectation of quality. So one has to wonder if he utilizes "I Shot the Sheriff' as a public showdown with his own reputation as ace guitarslinger of the wild western world.

In point of fact, it is midway through the Bob Marley number this evening that Clapton closes his eyes and discharges his first absolutely outrageous solo.

Since the man on lead-guitar shoots his best ammo when he improvises, the solo is a stunner. The action on the guitar is so fast, you wonder if he spent the day boiling the guitar in motor oil.

If the guy's hands were on a steering wheel instead of a guitar, he'd be doing 190. The smoldering little notes fly out like scattershot in all directions, yet the handicraft is unerring.

Momentarily, one has a sense of the heat of the Madison Square Garden spotlights. One also has a sense that, when Clapton plays seriously, it's not just a treat, it's a treatise. He's one of the few "living legends" who isn't a lying legend. He's as good as, his rep, maybe better.

Round 5: "White Room" (Wheels of Fire album, 1968; written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown). Having purged the air with a lengthy guitar solo, Captain Crossroads now decides to perfume the place with psychedelia.

He spouts forth a tune from Cream, a group which started in 1966 and ended in 1968. Fact is, when Cream played, it was the Bermuda Triangle of rock bands: you never knew where the three people in it were going to go next, or why. This was also the group that turned a guitar jam into a joust.

For many listeners, Clapton's work in Cream is the cream of his entire canorous crop. It's as if any band he's been in since has been a semi-band—more or less Clapton and Co.

They regard his groups since Cream as Cream and Sugar—softer, more nectared; more suggestive of a tea-and-crumpets party than a blues jam; more on the Saturday Night Live side than Saturday night on Chicago's South Side.

Tonight, the Clapton coterie punches out its number so adeptly that, for the first time in the evening, the lead-guitarist looks as if he's having fun. Cantillating through the song's lower ranges, he seems a soaring rooster at the axis of a six-stringed weathervane.

Quite a sight: a white man in a white suit singing a psychedelic-colored number about a white room.

Round 6: "Can't Find My Way Home" (Blind Faith album, 1969; written by Stevie Winwood). With the momentum back up to a burning ten, Clapton turns over center stage and vocal duties to his bass player, Nathan East.

One is reminded of another Garden performance almost twenty years ago, on August 1, 1971. That day the guitarist played this very hall with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in the Concert for Bangladesh.

It's hard not to reflect on how the Clapton charisma permeates the kingsize venue just as potently as the entire Bangladesh contingent did two decades ago.

The song at this point in time is too high for the Clapton throat. So it goes to the bassist for more mellifluent treatment. East comes through with a creditable rendition of the Winwood piece.

As East sings north, the bandleader goes south—steps back—and scans the crowd. He has been applauded vigorously all night. Yet, institution that he may be, applause is never old-shoe to him. It's never something he takes for granted and here he seems to be sending out radar to probe just what kind of audience he's playing to.

It's notable that while it is Nathan East who sings the Blind Faith song, and it's Stevie Winwood who wrote it, the audience attaches the creation to Clapton.

More than likely, that's because of his persistent band-jumping throughout his long career. Blind Faith, for example, didn't even last a full year. It started up in early '69, and folded up in late '69.

For Clapton, bands are like airplane landings: if you can walk away from them, you're a success. One hopes that he holds onto his present group at least until the evening is over.

Round 7: "Bad Love" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Eric Clapton and Mick Jones). After three numbers from a couple of decades or so ago, the Endowed One boomerangs the crowd back to the present and to the power with some strafing blues.

The band plays the song faster than on the recorded version. In sharp atmospheric strokes, Clapton once again achieves the form-fitting interlocking of blues and rock so that they cohere in the ear.

It is a music of tears carrying lyrics of fears. In the middle of the number, there is a striking moment when the music stops, the lights fade to a hoodooed blue, and the lead-guitar begins to wail.

As the blue music falls upon the gathering's shoulders, one is reminded of the fact that Clapton once said that his favorite book of all time was Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.

In the novel, Barnaby has a talking raven named Grip. With his guitar "grip" during "Bad Love," Clapton evinces the bad bird. The sense of grimness is that implacable. It's as if the guy at center-stage is a lone raven in a dark ravine. Only an artist of broad imagination and wondrous skill could conjure up such an aphotic mood.

Round 8: "Lay Down Sally" (Slowhand album, 1977; written by Eric Clapton and Marcy Levy). The concert reaches its exact mid-point here and this most adroit of guitar players shows his unswerving sense of structure.

After shuttling from present to past to present—and shuffling from fast to slow to fast—he loosens up the set list. It's an agreeable break from the frenetic rocking and impassioned blues.

Clapton's fingers wink and the guitar makes carefree eye contact as the song rolls along blithely. Even the guitarist's face relaxes: he looks as if he could be juggling six apples and not miss a note ... or an apple.

Actually, just now there's the trace of something paradoxical in the performer. Watching Clapton, one gets the feeling of a middle-aged veteran at work, but along with it there is the sense of a boy just ripping away.

The guitar picks are by Ernie Ball and anyone can see that's just what the picking guitarist is having up there: an earnest ball. At age two-score-and-five, he plays with the love of a teenager who just bought his first guitar. (Yet another side-swipe at the Dickens' set list: A Tale of Two Claptons.)

Round 9: "No Alibis" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Jerry Williams). Sally's fine-fun lay-down has mollified the crowd and so it's time to return to the new material and sizzle again.

On to the stage Clapton brings singer Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates fame. The lead-guitarist tips into the microphone, an English Eiffel Tower ever in control, and Hall backs him up on a few vocal licks. The song itself is sinewy yet spry.

Clapton's fingers jump all over the guitar like they had frog legs for dinner. But it is a style devoid of waste. The man performs more with his mind than his body.

It's a fact: Captain Crossroads moves less like Jimi Hendrix on a guitar than like Bobby Fischer at a chessboard. It's less like watching a rock 'n' roll shaman than like watching a computer hum.

But while there are musicians in the world who are better at playing with the guitar, there aren't too many who play it better.

The stockstill stance and the song title "No Alibis" remind one of a certain night in the late 70’s. Clapton got hold of a samurai sword and climbed out onto the 26th-floor ledge of the Rainbow Hilton Hotel in Honolulu.

He came in off the ledge but, the sword still in his hand, three cops arrived and the guitarman had to stand stockstill—three guns pointed at his head—no alibis.

Round 10: "Old Love" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Eric Clapton and Robert Cray). The lights dim and a slow, spiraling intro lets the crowd know that Mr. E.C. is once again about to labor in the venial vineyards of the blues.

This song off the new album is one of the most rippable that Clapton has ever written. He tucks a cigarette into the neck of the guitar and, under a solitary yellow spot, sings dolefully of old love.

He looks like a loner as he plays. Yet the tune is one of rapt attachment. The cigarette burns. The song burns. The hurt burns.

The guitar smokes. Clapton takes a couple of steps back to improvise. Instead of standing stage-center, he turns to his right and begins to walk around the stage, behind the drums, stopping to solo at several points.

Cigarette smoke helixing out of the top of his guitar, the bandleader alchemizes the enormous amphitheater into a little blues club.

These aren't elongated improvisational riffs caterwauling like a hundred banshees on an Irish coast at midnight, but, rather, tight, sharp, well-placed essays. Clapton rips and the clapping ripples.

Slowhand deals a fast hand here. It is downright bewildering to watch such close-to-violent emotions in such a tranquil frame. Yet excoriating finger finesse is why the man is not just a star, but a lodestar ... in a bluesy constellation. Round 11: "Tearing Us Apart" (August album, 1986; written by Eric Clapton and Greg Phillinganes). Clapton shoots some new fireworks into the constellation of his concert station with a trenchant rocker from a few years back.

It takes just seconds for him to jump-start the crowd out of slow old love and into today's love that's so rapidly tearing us apart. The concert's cadence picks up without the audience even knowing it.

The subtle rhythmic lift reveals a performance proficiency grounded in thousands of hours of experience. The number aches with the eternal sound of a hounded soul. Dishing out high-speed runs, Clapton takes the back route around the stage again, much to the obstructed-view sealers' delight.

The guitarist's work on the piece rings of competence and dependability and an unappeasable desire for excellence. You get the feeling that mediocrity is toxic to him.

He reminds one of a player of another stick of wood: Joe DiMaggio, a.k.a. The Yankee Clipper. Like Ric the Ripper, DiMaggio was smooth without being slick—another heavy hitter, another man heartbroken over his obsession with a beautiful woman (in his case, someone named Marilyn Monroe).

I suppose, to carry the analogy one step further, if the all-time greatest rock guitarists were narrowed down to a nine-man baseball team, Clapton would bat clean-up. Who can be better counted on to deliver? Who else to put at the heart of the order but the one who plays with the most heart?

Listen to the crowd listening to Clapton. If Yankee Stadium is The House That Ruth Built, then tonight Madison Square Garden is The House That E.C. Brought Down.

Round 12: "Wonderful Tonight" (Slowhand album, 1977; written by Eric Clapton). Now there is a sanctification of the air as Clapton turns his Fender down to tender and warms over an old chestnut of his own composition.

Music is dialogue between souls and here the talk turns intimate. The song is so lovely that it congests the throat with emotion. It also vaunts the lead-guitarist as much more than the sum of his famous fingers—far more than the legendary "10."

The voice soft as buttermilk, the guitar as delicate as a seashell, Clapton performs the song as if he cherishes it. This is his most personal work of the evening, made all the more effective by its being slowed down from the album version. The song discloses its composer as a wide-ranging stylist who holds within himself a genuine dignity.

Standout though he is, Captain Crossroads knows very well that one of the chief reasons he can do his job this evening is the A-l band around him.

Back in 1969 at the Toronto Peace Festival, Clapton once did a show with John Lennon, and the band's only rehearsal was on the airplane on the way to the gig.

That obviously isn't the case tonight. The band is well-rehearsed, to say the least. The rock 'n' roll conductor has chosen to people his stage with seven extremely talented if relatively unheralded musicians.

After a dozen songs of pleochroic moods and styles, the seven are introduced to the tune of Sly Stone's "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin."

They include: Phil Palmer (second guitar); Nathan East (bass); Steve Ferrone (drums); Alan Clark and Greg Phillinganes (keyboards); and Tessa Niles and Katie Kassoon (back-up vocals).

Round 13: "Cocaine" (Slowhand album, 1977; written by J.J. Cale). After a lull in the action, however brief, Clapton knows it's time to re-energize the crowd. So the fine-carved talent goes back to work on the fine-carved wood with an acrimonious song from over a decade ago.

These days Clapton takes neither drink nor drugs, but in the early 70’s he spent three years as a drug addict. So he knows what he's singing about.

He also knows something about addiction's little brother, obsession. He has been so obsessed with the West Bromwich Albion football team that he used to sign hotel registers as "W.B. Albion."

He loves Ferraris so much, he once drove to Italy just to see one of his being built. He's so enamored of the styles of Gianni Versace, he gave the clothes designer two full pages in his current concert program.

His taste for chocolate is so fervid, George Harrison built his song "Savoy Truffle" around the Clapton sweet tooth.

But there's nothing sweet tonight about Clapton's rendering of "Cocaine." His fingers in snake-like motions, he spits out the words of the song. One wonders if he's thinking about the great guitars he sold to feed his drug habit of two long decades ago.

Round 14: "Layla" (Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs album, 1970; written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon). Framed by a shadowy stage and a protracted instrumental build-up, Clapton crowns the show with "Layla," his twenty-year-old torch song of love and pain.

Based on a story by the Persian writer Nizami, the number is more than Clapton's magnum opus: it is the proclamation nailed to the monastery door of his talent.

With a 7:07 recorded time in the country-fair airplane hangout that is rock 'n' roll record-making, "Layla" IS a 707.

Demons of despair howl through the bones of the song. It is a soul-bearing piece in the epiphanic manner of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" and Lennon's first solo album.

If we may extend the Dickens' parallel, it is a song that will last the ages: A Clapton Carol—with a special wink to the Ghost of Clapton Past.

In the song, Layla has her pleading lover on his knees, and in concert Captain Crossroads has his music lovers on their feet. He round-houses the most walloping vocals of the night in a jagged rural drawl—plays the guitar with all his heart—and the high sky of Madison Square Garden becomes a firmament of invisible sound stars.

Back on earth, I stood at the edge of the stage and got the feeling that the edge is as far as this particular guitarist ever allows anyone to go.

It was not surprising to get that feeling during "Layla" because it is the song that drives into the essential mystery of Clapton's art.

Indeed, for all his fame and all that has been written about him, his great guitar gift remains wrapped in mystery, as graspable as the sea. Congenetically, his best songs (like "Layla") try to tell us that life has an unknowable heart.

After laying the last brick in his blues-rock monument, Clapton bows deeply, takes off his guitar, waves, bows again, and hugs his bandmates.

Then the whole group joins arm-in-arm and bows together. They have much to bow about. It has not been a night of just blues, but a rainbow arc of blues and rock and pop and jazz.

As for the group's leader, the superguitarist, he seems proud of himself without being full of himself. Classy Clapton scampers offstage.

Round 15: Blues Solo Improvisation. The arena draped in black, thousands of ignited matches and lighters tap yellow dots and dashes to signal to Clapton the people's appreciation.

In the past fourteen songs, they've witnessed a greater range of authentic blues than another Garden audience got at a concert years ago, in 1983, when Clapton played here with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Now the assembly of 20,000 is standing and clapping and asking for another taste or two.

A rabid-ripping guitar chord from stage left signals back to the congregation that this showcase night of music is not over. The pop icon pops the Garden ionosphere.

A single spotlight laser-arrows Clapton in a black shirt, his white jacket off, hovering over his electric wand and breaking into a hot blues solo. The man looks pained; the eyes are bolted shut.

His face is wearing what his instrument is playing. One wonders what his mind is thinking. Where inside of himself does he find the blues? Is he remembering that night in 1980 in Madison, Wisconsin, when he barely made it through a show because an ulcer was about to burst into his pancreas?

Is he recalling the death of his grandfather of cancer in 1970? Is he remembering the day in 1974 he told his friend George Harrison that he was in love with Harrison's wife? Or is he thinking he'd like to have a cigarette?

Wherever the mind might be, the fingers are on the guitar and spinning out notes in loose-thrown cross-rhythmic star-showers.

Standing alone in the mountainous pitch-black superstructure, Clapton seems like an explorer. Those educated fingers of his surfeit the rip-up solo with blues that are old and cutting and deep—saber-toothed blues. Round 16: "Crossroads" (Wheels of Fire album, 1968; written by Robert Johnson, arranged by Eric Clapton). At the last so-high solo note, Clapton is re-joined by his band and he spearheads them into Robert Johnson's classic, "Crossroads."

If "Layla" is the heart of Clapton, then "Crossroads" is his spirit. One recalls that, at his toughest career crossroads, he has concentrated his way through.

No matter how enfeebling the problem, he has been resilient. That's the Clapton spirit—ever at a crossroads, be it artistic, physical, emotional, or spiritual—and ever rock-solid.

Along with being a song, Crossroads is of course the name of Clapton's six-album compilation from two years back. Intrinsically, it is not so much a compilation as it is a big box of mood—rock 'n' roll's War and Peace in scope and depth.

Well, tonight, E.C. chooses the song/collection title to go his deepest. Just about every number of the evening has tendered the favor of a Clapton solo. Now he reaches way way way down to tear out the bluest blues from a long-ago Mississippi Delta.

The themes turn on wasted emotions. But the technique is all no-wasted motion. The fingers swift-lip the guitar as Clapton wrings every last trickle of blues tears from the instrument.

With each new stance—here facing the crowd head-on, there stepping back, here hunching over the guitar, there looking heavenward—it's like looking upon a series of Rolling Stone covers on the History of British Blues.

At his most intense during the "Crossroads" solo, Clapton could not pour himself into that guitar anymore unless he slashed his wrists.

He doesn't seem conscious of anything except his fingers and the guitar and the rhythm in the room and the sounds pulsating out of his own aura.

When he enters the music completely, his body and the guitar and even the sounds are as camouflage. He seems less like a person than a silhouette, a blue silhouette. He has the texture of a dream at such moments.

The substance is the feeling he's putting out. And that of course is not onstage for the eye, or out in the air for the ear, but, rather, deep down inside the man, down along that homesick boulevard which some call the soul.

By song's end, can anyone in the place wonder why Clapton is considered the strongest link in the blue chain that runs through the heart of rock 'n' roll?

Round 17: "Sunshine of Your Love" (Disraeli Gears album, 1967; written by Jack Bruce, Pete Brown and Eric Clapton). For his departing encore notes, the choirmaster puts a hot guitar poker under Cream's greatest hit.

Over the years, the number has established itself as a kind of "First Reader" for many people who play electric guitar. It's the first tune that about half of them (maybe more) ever learn.

The song has thus become a kind of riffy Rosetta Stone in that it furnishes the key to unlocking three different musical languages: rock, blues, and pop. Presently, Clapton's fingers flick across the tune so fast, they're more like shadows than flesh and blood.

At one point during his "Sunshine" solo, Clapton stood directly in front of me in a coiled stance at the lip of the stage. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, the better to hear, and suddenly it was 1968 and I was in my teens and on the Madison Square Garden stage was an English band called Cream.

I could even envisage the old microphones that came down from the ceiling and were usually used for announcing prize fights.

This was back when rock 'n' roll was 95% of my life and all that mattered was who had a new album out and who was playing where and when.

The guitar player's hair was longer, so was mine. But here's the kicker: the music felt the same—good fresh rock 'n' roll.

Since we own nothing permanently or with certainty except our memories, it was incredible to have mine brought so perfectly into the present. The moment was magic. The new album may be called Journeyman, but it was "Sunshine" that took me on some journey, man.

When I opened my eyes at ringside to look again upon Eric Clapton a few feet away, I felt a seamless loyalty to this man and his work. I also realized it was true that Slowhand was so fast, he could steal the seconds off a clock.

Clapton's last note of the night whirls out into the galvanic airspace of Madison Square Garden. Ripples of applause make their way to the front of the stage in big curling waves.

Our Mr. Eric Clapton takes off his guitar, bows, and leans it against an amp. He joins the band, arm-in-arm once again, and they take several group bows.

The bandleader had given his musicians plenty of chances to show their stuff tonight, but mainly he kept center-stage—definitely what the audience wanted.

In terms of material, there were sixteen tunes and one blues solo. Half-a-dozen numbers on the set list—over a third of the show—were off the Journeyman album. Four songs were from albums of the late 60s; two from the early 70s; three from the late 70s (the Slowhand album); and seven from the late 80s. What a beginning, tonight, to the last decade of the 20th Century: to see that sensitive art can work so fine with advanced technology; to see that personal mood can walk hand-in-hand with worldwide electronic communication; to see that so many people of so different ages and backgrounds can come together so pleasantly.

From the first whine of Clapton's guitar to its last sigh, the man was often excellent, rarely extravagant, sometimes exotic, never exhibitionist, always exciting.

Captain Crossroads once again proved himself no different from anybody else with two eyes, two ears, two feet, two possessed hands and two million admirers.

He seems to be getting better with age—beating the grays with the blues. Plainly, he's more of a touchstone than a tombstone. He keeps doing treasurable shows like this, and he'll graduate from living legend to genuine miracle by 2001. But it's 1990 and what we can say for sure is that tonight he shot for the heavens and got 'em: E.C. as E.T.

The winner and still champion—still the cream of rock guitar—Eric Patrick Clapton with a slow hand to the chin of great expectations. How the Dickens to characterize such a performance in a single, long-after-midnight, finishing-off phrase?

Call it a technical knockout.