Recently, however, I came across a Clapton quote that almost defies words, and a very good reason to dislike Eric Clapton as a human being. It's from a 1976 concert in Birmingham, Enlgand:
Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. Wogs I mean, I'm looking at you. Where are you? I'm sorry but some fucking wog...Arab grabbed my wife's bum, you know? Surely got to be said, yeah this is what all the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like, just disgusting, that's just the truth, yeah. So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country. You fucking (indecipherable). I don't want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch's our man. I think Enoch's right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I'm into racism. It's much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking [indecipherable] don't belong here, we don't want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don't want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don't want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck's sake? We need to vote for Enoch Powell, he's a great man, speaking truth. Vote for Enoch, he's our man, he's on our side, he'll look after us. I want all of you here to vote for Enoch, support him, he's on our side. Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white! [source]It's an unusually clear statement of principles. You might note that an anti-immigration position doesn't necessarily imply racism, but that's an irrelevant argument here, given the torrent of racial slurs and white supremacist rhetoric.
Enoch Powell, incidentally, was a right-wing British politician, most famous for his "Rivers Of Blood" speech, which decried immigration to the UK in the harshest possible terms. In the speech, Powell, an M.P., quoted a constituent as saying "In this country in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man." Powell's assessment of that man was that he was "a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman." The Times, not a liberal paper, called it "an evil speech."
Clapton came out of his would-be stump speech for Powell looking terrible, but he has remained unrepentant about his words. Later in 1976 he gave an interview to Sounds magazine, in which he says:
I thought it was quite funny actually. I don't know much about politics. I don't even know if it would be good or bad for him to get in. I don't even know who the Prime Minister is now. I just don't know what came over me that night. It must have been something that happened in the day but it came out in this garbled thing... I thought the whole thing was like Monty Python. There's this rock group playing on-stage and the singer starts talking about politics. It's so stupid. Those people who paid their money sittin' listening to this madman dribbling on and the band meanwhile getting fidgety thinking 'oh dear'.There's nothing funny about incitements to racial violence. Clapton's attitude--that the incident was a big joke, what does he know he's just a rock star?--is deeply irresponsible, and it's a small miracle that no one was injured in Birmingham that night. It's a lame excuse anyway, since nothing in the Clapton persona suggests Pythonesque wit. Still, the Sounds interview gives Clapton a free pass. Barbara Charone barely mentions Clapton's comments, and does not quote or give any real indication of the content of his remarks. She attributes the comments to honesty on Clapton's part. Her selective take on Clapton's words is as follows:
Unlike other artistes of his stature, Clapton can't be bothered to disguise true feelings or adopt phony attitudes.
So one night in Birmingham someone said something that triggered off an unexpected part of Clapton's rowdier personality. Maybe it was the drink. Maybe it was just a bad day. But it was so human and typically Eric. How many times have you gotten a bit drunk and spouted out great truths and philosphies only to later blush the next morning?Charone's excuses are logic-challenged--maybe he's just too honest! Sure, Eric just got drunk and said crazy, racist shit--but who doesn't! Let's laugh about it! Later in the article, Charone, jokingly and to Clapton's face, pins responsibility for his words on "the Arabs," probably a reference to the beginning of his diatribe. Clapton takes her bait, and criticizes Arabs for spending their riches poorly: "they're sinking a lot of money into England and we'll probably regain if we're clever enough. Then they'll have to go back and discover more oil." (No evidence of a rapier wit there).
Clapton and his apologists attribute his animus toward Arabs to a member of the Saudi royal famly taking a pass at his wife. Though Clapton was no stranger to adultery, one can understand his offense at a royal harassing his wife. Yet Clapton's actions blame all Arabs for the behavior of only one, as if his actions came from an inborn predisposition. That is essentialism. It's also present in his rant about "disgusting" foreigners, in which he names only dark-skinned immigrant groups. Clapton mentions one incident of a foreign-born person acting crudely, and extrapolates to the point where he can believe that "this is what all the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like."
Imagine for a moment: what if a young Prince Charles had made eyes at, say, Jimi Hendrix's wife? Would Hendrix then be justified in vocally hating all white people? Would he be justified in advocating that all Britons be barred from entering Washington State? Would we stop short of calling his comments racist, since he collaborated with many white musicians?
The comparison is imperfect, but I think it illustrates the point: those things are unimaginable--Hendrix would have been labeled a Black Panther and his career as a crossover artist would have been toast. But let's pretend Jimi Hendrix did do those things, and then spouted a hateful, nativist jeremiad, and ask a question more to my point: would the music press then explain away and ignore his hateful outburst?
Because that's what has happened with Clapton.* On the one hand, there are the apologists. One of them is Harry Shapiro, who in 1997 published a book about Eric Clapton, Lost In The Blues. His book discusses the controversy, but charitably refers to Clapton's hate speech as a faux pas. Shapiro prints a story, told by Clapton, in which he was approached by a Rastafarian two years after his Birmingham rant, and asked if he hates blacks. Clapton told him no. The guitarist is then quoted as saying "what started it, was the upsurge in London of Arab money-spending." Shapiro adds, "there was a story that one particular Arab had made a grab for Patti, not guaranteed to endear them to Eric at all."