Song 53: Eric Clapton, “Lonely Stranger” (1992)


I buy vinyl every once in a while, which I know has become something of a hipster cliché, but to me it has nothing to do with hipness. As I’ve said before, I miss the artifacts of buying music, the object you pick up, look at, put on. And while CDs are how I’ve heard most music over the years, there’s something beautiful about records. They not only sound warm and full, they’re more personable than cold, hard CDs. They bend.

Just about the least hip record I own (well, except Saturday Night Fiedler) is Eric Clapton Unplugged, a massively successful and influential album that you don’t hear about much today. I can say honestly that it was one of the main reasons I wanted to play guitar. I thought Clapton’s uh, plugged-in work was perfectly fine (and the Derek and the Dominos album is one of my favorite things), but his playing on Unplugged is just beautiful. He’s not trying to play fast, he’s trying to make you realize what a difference it makes when you can hear the pick hit the strings.

When the Unplugged version of “Layla” came out, I remember my dad reminiscing about hearing the original version on constant rotation when he was hanging around the UMass student union, and saying that it was refreshing to hear such a different rendition. As the Unplugged version started getting played on every radio station and in every mall food court, I started to feel the same way about the 1992 version as my dad did about the one from 1970: enough. (Which reminds me: it’s been 21 years since Unplugged came out, which is just about the same amount of time between the original and Unplugged versions of “Layla.” You are an old person!)

I instead became attached to the album’s ballads, especially “Lonely Stranger.” It doesn’t feature any of the solos that made me want to play guitar (those are on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Old Love”), but it made instant sense to me, and also cemented my love of sad songs (which probably explains how R.E.M.’s sadsack Automatic For The People, released the same year, became my favorite album). I’ve always been something of an old man, and my love, at age 12, for a song about a guy “well beyond his day” and limping out of town, may have been the moment my age rapidly increased. (If you need any more evidence that I was a very old 12-year-old, this sentence can be found in my journal entry about my 12th birthday: “I got a Mickey Mouse hat, Eric Clapton Unplugged, the Aladdin soundtrack, a new Calvin & Hobbes book, a great Champion sweatshirt, and a wonderful jean jacket.”)

I listened to Unplugged constantly through junior high and high school, so I know every cough, every accidental note, every aside (“see if you can spot this one”). It’s tangible and real, like a needle on a record.


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