Graded on a Curve:
Eric Clapton,
No Reason to Cry

Over the course of my writing “career,” I’ve practically made a cottage industry of disparaging Eric Clapton. I’ve called his supergroup Cream overrated, eviscerated him for making inexcusably racist remarks in the mid-seventies, and let it be known that I’m revolted by just about every song he’s written in the past several decades, especially those twin pillars of pure treacle, “Tears in Heaven” and “My Father’s Eyes.” I’ve condemned him for turning his own best song, “Layla,” into a sluggish travesty, and called him chinless, feckless, gormless, a tool, one of the most overrated guitarists in rock history, and the owner of a voice less suited for rock’n’roll than for working behind the customer service desk at your local IKEA. Oh, and let’s not forget Slowbland.

So why write a review of a guy I have virtually zero respect for, aside from his brilliant work with Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos, and a small handful of great songs scattered across approximately 150 LPs? Because I actually enjoy 1976’s No Reason to Cry, that’s why. Or at least I used to, when I was a mere sprite, and I’m curious to discover why. It’s hardly one of Clapton’s more beloved albums, and while you can actually find human beings who think highly of 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, which included that pair of embarrassments “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” I’ve never run into a single sentient being with ears that worked who had so much as a single good thing to say about No Reason to Cry.

Like its 1975 predecessor, There’s One in Every Crowd, No Reason to Cry contains no reggae-lite hits or beloved cult favorites, and as far as most people are concerned is simply another one of the many LPs that marked Clapton’s largely lost decade, the seventies, which saw him beat heroin addiction by becoming a hardcore drunk, and was marked by constant geographical cures to Miami, Jamaica, and finally (in the case of No Reason to Cry), Shangri-la, The Band’s former bordello turned recording studio in depraved Los Angeles, home of the evil Eagles.

During the 1970s plastic and cocaine-infested LA was where bands came to lose the thread; small wonder that David Bowie, who recorded the brilliant Station to Station there but in the process lost his shit thanks to a diet of peppers and milk (seriously) supplemented by limo-length lines of high-grade cocaine, later remarked, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth.” It was also the place where Robbie Robertson, who was also doing a fair amount of blow at the time, received a rude wake-up call in the form of a morning walk along the beach during which he encountered a fully dressed and unconscious Keith Moon, being tossed to and fro by the surf.

But Clapton was already a car crash in slow motion—having as I mentioned switched from heroin to some truly heroic boozing—by the time he arrived in the City of Angels, and he found some convivial companions at Shangri-la, and with their help managed to produce an LP that I’m surprised to discover I still enjoy, some 35 years after having last heard it. To be honest, much of my enjoyment stems from The Band’s involvement on the LP, to say nothing of the contributions of Bob Dylan, Ron Wood, Billy Preston, Georgie Fame, and a whole slew of others, some of whom can be heard on the LP and some of whom appear to have just stopped by to say hello. But then an artist is only as good as his collaborators, and in this case Clapton, who had always loved The Band and in fact long harbored an itch to be a member of the band, had good ones by the dozens.

Opener “Beautiful Thing” sounds like a Band song because it is. Written by Rick Danko and Richard Manuel almost a decade before The Band’s sojourn with Bob Dylan in the basement of a house called Big Pink, it’s a slow, lackadaisical number and frankly not one of the band’s finer tunes, although it beats the shit out of anything on Islands and features some easy-going guitar interplay between Clapton and Wood. Its chief drawback, besides the fact that it simply isn’t that catchy, was Clapton’s decision to let Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy sing the choruses, which gives it a rather hokey feel. Clapton makes better use of Elliman and Levy (they serve as his echo) on follow-up “Carnival,” which opens with a cry of “Oi!” and is one friendly romp of a tune featuring a nice instrumental jam, some really frantic organ (most likely by Preston, as it doesn’t sound like Garth Hudson), and some really impressive drumming by Jamie Oldaker, a long-time member of Clapton’s studio and touring bands.

The LP’s highlight comes next in the form of a Bob Dylan tune, “Sign Language.” It seems Dylan was living in a tent on Band property at the time (Why? Why does Bob Dylan ever do anything?), and would drop in on the Clapton sessions whenever he felt the yen. He offered Clapton the excellent “Seven Days” but Clapton said nah, so Ronnie Wood scarfed it up. Dylan then offered Clapton “Sign Language,” a mid-tempo tune on which Clapton and Dylan swap vocals when they’re not singing together, to the accompaniment of some truly awe-inspiring single notes from the guitar of Robbie Robertson and Dylan’s dobro. As for the lyrics, all I know is that Dylan’s eating a sandwich in a café at a quarter till three, AM or PM not specified, with Link Wray playing on the jukebox. And Bob can’t enjoy his sandwich because he can’t understand a single thing the person sitting opposite him at his table is trying to tell him. It may not be “Visions of Johanna” but it works, although where he found a café with a jukebox with a Link Wray selection on it will forever remain a mystery.

Meanwhile, Clapton’s take on Albert Fields’ “Country Jail Blues” doesn’t offend my lack of intestinal fortitude as most blues songs do, probably because it’s short and as much a Dylan-styles blues as any of the other 2,000,000 species of blues. It opens with some happening piano and organ when in comes Clapton, singing in a lower-than-usual register that I wish he’d utilize more often. He proceeds to play lots of big, hammering chords, as well as a solo that is top-notch. It’s nuthin’ fancy, to quote the great Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I’ll take it over exactly 87 percent of the blues songs I’ve been forced to endure over my lifetime.

“All Our Past Times” is a mid-tempo Clapton-Danko composition and the LP’s second best track, thanks to the vocal contributions of Danko, whose expressive vocals never fail to move and amaze me. Throw in lots of guitar by Clapton and Wood, and a large contingent of singers on the choruses, and what you’ve got is the perfect song for a drunken, late-night sing-along, which for all I know is how this tune got recorded. (Clapton recalled later that he and Richard Manuel were generally the only ones left standing at the end of some of the sessions, mainly because they were the biggest drunks in the lot.) As for “Hello Old Friend,” it was the LP’s only kinda hit (No. 24 on the Billboard Top 100), and one can see why. The melody is every bit as friendly as the lyrics are dumb, Jesse Ed Davis’ guitar playing reminds one of George Harrison (one of the few humans not at the sessions), and the organ is great. The song is more poignant than the sum of its parts would lead one to expect it to be, and Elliman and Levy’s vocals are, for once, exactly where they belong.

Clapton and Company’s take on Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” leaves me cold, despite the excellent piano and organ, to say nothing of Clapton’s rough’n’tumble guitar. I think part of the problem has to do with Clapton’s voice, which is thin and not particularly expressive (with some great exceptions) and anything but an instrument for conveying the hardships and heartbreak of the blues. He sounds like a white guy playing black blues, as opposed to Dylan who always sounded like a white guy singing white blues, if you follow my drift. Follow-up “Innocent Times”—just the title sounds like trouble to me—features Levy on lead vocals, and while she acquits herself nicely, the song does zilch for this guy, aside from Clapton’s excellent dobro solo and some ace rhythm work.

The Levy-Dicky Sims number “Hungry” is more like it; Levy and Clapton sing together on a driving rocker that wouldn’t sound out of place on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, and Clapton plays his best guitar on the record on it. Throw in a great chorus, and the way Levy follows Clapton’s bona fide hurting “I’ve been slipping into desperation” by singing, “You’re the only salvation that the Lord designed,” and you’ve got yourself a song that bears frequent listening. Nor does it hurt that the band finishes off the tune with the best jam on the record, what with Clapton recalling glory days with his frenetic guitar work, backed up by some stellar drumming. These ain’t the blues, they’re rock’n’roll, and listening to Slowhand wail away helps me remember what I loved about No Reason to Cry in the first place.

The slow and doleful “Black Summer Rain” ought to move me but doesn’t, and once again I can only attribute it to Clapton’s very limited vocal capabilities. There he is, black summer rain falling on his head, and I don’t feel even the slightest urge to loan him an umbrella because his vocals make him sound like a guy in a dry room pretending to be standing in a black summer rain, and I can only wonder what this song might have been had he elected to let either Richard Manuel or Rick Danko sing the thing. That said scads of people find it their favorite song on the album, and who am I to argue with scads of people? A few people, certainly, but scads? Only a fool messes with scads of people, by saying things like “Black Summer Rain” is his least favorite song on the LP. Obviously there is something in my genetic make-up that only allows me to enjoy Clapton’s vocals on fast-paced tunes like “Layla,” “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” and “Let It Rain,” although truth be told I also like his vocals on slowboats “Let It Grow” and “Bell Bottom Blues,” so there goes another theory shot to shit.

Anyway, No Reason to Cry ends on a great note with a cover of Walter Jacobs’ 12-bar blues “Last Night,” which sounds even more like an end-of-one-very-wasted-night sing-along than “All Our Past Times.” The vocals are ramshackle and the playing shambolic, and it’s all wonderful fun. I have sometimes thought that musicians should only be allowed to record wasted, and should I ever be elected ruler of the world that’s the way it’s going to be. Anyway, the tune opens with some bluesy piano, and the drumming is so wonderfully primitive I can’t help but suspect that’s Richard Manuel, who occasionally picked up the drumsticks, playing the damn things. Meanwhile Clapton, amidst ragged guitar riffs and some nice honky-tonk piano, actually sounds like he means whatever it is he’s trying to say. And the joint vocals on the chorus (is that Manuel singing with him? I can’t tell) are wonderful. These are the blues played the way I want to hear them played, namely by some blotto guys who all decided to swap instruments and just wing it.

So what does that leave? An album that includes five cuts I’m happy to hear anytime, a couple of cuts that are pleasant enough but nothing to write home about, and one or two cuts that I hope never to hear again. As for why I loved it so much way back in the day, I haven’t a clue. I suspect I liked it because it was by the immortal Eric Clapton and I felt obligated to like it. There’s no denying it’s not one of Clapton’s great albums, but Lord knows he’s done worse, and plenty worse for that matter. I would sooner listen to No Reason to Cry’s weakest cuts than the strongest cuts on virtually all of his subsequent LPs, and if there’s one thing to be said for the LP, it’s not lacking in surprises. “Sign Language” alone justifies its existence, and if that’s not enough for you there are “All Our Past Times,” “Hello Old Friend,” “Hungry,” and “Last Night.” I suspect that’s more excellent songs than he’s cut since he went and got sober, which was ages ago.

On the chorus of “All Our Past Times,” Clapton and Danko sing, “All our past times should be forgotten/All our past times should be erased.” I wouldn’t go that far. But if you’re talking about anything Clapton’s recorded since 1976, I’m in total agreement.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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