In 1992, Eric Clapton released an acoustic version of his 1970 Derek and the Dominos classic, “Layla.” Inspired by the Persian epic The Story of Layla and Majnun—and, of course, by Clapton’s personal life—the original was ubiquitous at the height of album rock. But the relaxed, dad-friendly “unplugged” take made an instant sensation, too: it was an inescapable part of the soundtrack of the early nineties. To this day it’s a Lite FM staple—just try to visit the dentist’s office without hearing it.
When it came out, I remember hearing it was everywhere. In stores; on MTV; in the local salon, Visual Difference, where tough young women gave me terrible haircuts between cigarettes. And whenever that live cover came on in our car—as it did in the cars of countless boomers across the nation and the world—my mom would go on the same tear.
Recall, to start, that the set was recorded in front of a Brixton audience. Unlike the rest of the world, the crowd captured on tape was presumably hearing this cover for the first time.
“See if you can spot this one,” begins Clapton with lazy impishness, breaking into the now-familiar acoustic riff. And literally within one bar—probably two seconds—someone shouts “YEAH!” and there’s a flurry of enthusiastic applause.
“How do they know?” my mom would always say with wonder. “How do they know?”
The real clapping starts when he goes into the first verse. “What’ll you do when you get lonely,” he sings. “And nobody’s waiting by your side?” Now, they’re sure—even those who were maybe succumbing to peer pressure in those first few moments can applaud with authority.
“That’s fair enough,” my mom would say. “That’s an appropriate place to clap.”
Later still, just as he hits the chorus, she’d make a prediction: “Here come the real morons.”
And, indeed, at the mention of the titular “Layla” there are a few whoops of thrilled approval and very belated recognition. Oh, yeah—it’s “Layla”!
Now, it’s more than possible that these whoopers had, in fact, recognized the song before this moment. Perhaps these are even the same savants who had so excited my mom’s admiration only moments before—they’re merely giving a second voice to their joy in sharing an experience with others. Maybe they felt, in that moment, that aging wasn’t so ignominious—different, certainly; quieter, slower—but rather had a certain style. Maybe they knew that within a year most people would recognize this Lite FM version more readily than the original. Some, perhaps, would never even know that this was a man who’d pined for Pattie Boyd and won her from George Harrison; who had enlisted the services of Duane Allman for one of the finest slide-guitar solos of all time; who had most assuredly not been unplugged.
Then, as Clapton wended his way through the chorus, my mom would say, “The original’s much better.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.