Cambel McLaughlin thought he was being punked. An unapologetic opponent of lockdowns and Covid-19 vaccine skeptic — he is, as he puts it, “pro-medical choice”— the 27-year-old Brit is founder of Jam for Freedom, a group of U.K. musicians that plays for free in public spaces, spreading the anti-lockdown word and sometimes singing songs with lyrics like “You can stick your poison vaccine up your arse.” For their efforts, Jam for Freedom are often hassled by police, and McLaughlin himself says he was arrested for what he calls “breach of Covid regulations” during one show.
This past spring, the car the group used to transport its gear was rendered nearly unusable after an accident, so McLaughlin started a GoFundMe page to help pay for transportation, gas, and legal fees. And one day this past spring, he was shocked to see a £1,000 donation on the site from Eric Clapton.
“I’m, like, this could be fake,” McLaughlin recalls. But when McLaughlin emailed the account listed with the donation, he received a text from the 76-year-old British guitar hero himself. “It was something complimentary, along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’s Eric — great work you’re doing,’ ” McLaughlin says. The two later talked by phone, and before McLaughlin knew it, Clapton offered his family’s white, six-person VW Transporter van as a temporary replacement for Jam for Freedom’s wheels. He also gave them a chunk of money (McLaughlin declines to say how much) to buy a new van — and said he might even sit in with the group at some point. Thanks to Clapton’s assistance, Jam for Freedom are now free to spread their message all over the U.K.
In the past, Clapton has been reluctant to voice his political views. As he told Rolling Stone in 1968, “What I’m doing now is just my way of thinking, but if it gets into a paper somewhere, people will say that what I’m saying is the way they ought to think. Which is wrong, because I’m only a musician. If they dig my music, that’s great, but they don’t have to know what’s going on in my head.”
But in recent months Clapton has himself become a leading vaccine skeptic, part of a community that Dr. Anthony Fauci has said is “part of the problem — because you’re allowing yourself to be a vehicle for the virus to be spreading to someone else.” And while never explicitly condemning the lockdown, he’s said “live music might never recover” and joined Van Morrison for three songs that amount to lockdown protest anthems. By way of a friend’s social media account, he’s also detailed what he called his “disastrous” experience after receiving two AstraZeneca shots (“propaganda said the vaccine was safe for everyone,” he wrote).
Clapton recently embarked on a U.S. tour booked in red states despite surging transmission numbers and death rates — and at venues that largely don’t require proof of vaccination. In the process, this Sixties icon, who embraced the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle as much as anyone in his generation, has drawn praise from conservative pundits. In Austin, he posed for backstage photos with Texas’ anti-vax-mandate Gov. Greg Abbott, known for his attacks on abortion and voting rights. The sight of Clapton in backstage photos with that state’s notorious governor amounted to a deal killer for some: “I just deleted all my Clapton songs,” went one comment on Abbott’s Twitter feed, along with, “A Kid Rock type with better guitar skills. Done with him.”
In what may be among the final acts of his career, Clapton risked his reputation and part of his devoted fan base when he doubled down on his views. “If he had a bad reaction, that’s bad,” says Bill Oakes, who ran RSO, Clapton’s label, in the 1970s. “Obviously most people haven’t. It’s a shame that this is the way that a lot of young Rolling Stone readers are going to read about him for the first time. He is one of the greats, and this is how he makes the headlines in his dotage.” (Through a representative, Clapton declined to comment for this article.)
Even people who haven’t thought much about Clapton lately are now wondering: What is he thinking? His fellow musicians don’t know what to make of it all: Queen’s Brian May referred to vaccine skeptics like Clapton as “fruitcakes.” Longtime Clapton collaborators and friends in the music business declined to comment about his current beliefs to Rolling Stone. As the manager of one prominent peer put it, “I wouldn’t want him to touch this.”
For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?
What changed — or did anything?
In the summer of 1976, Dave Wakeling thought he knew Clapton, too. Wakeling, who’d go on to found the English Beat, one of the U.K.’s pio-neering ska bands, was 20 that year, and such a big Clapton fan that he’d once hitchhiked from his Birmingham home to London to see Clapton’s band Blind Faith in Hyde Park.
But when he saw Clapton at the Odeon theater in Birmingham in August 1976, Wakeling was gobsmacked. A clearly inebriated Clapton, who unlike most of his rock brethren hadn’t weighed in on topics like the Vietnam War, began grousing about immigration. The concert was neither filmed nor recorded, but based on published accounts at the time (and Wakeling’s recollection), Clapton began making vile, racist comments from the stage. In remarks he has never denied, he talked about how the influx of immigrants in the U.K. would result in the country “being a colony within 10 years.” He also went on an extended jag about how “foreigners” should leave Great Britain: “Get the wogs out . . . get the coons out.” (Wog, shorthand for golliwog, was a slur against dark-skinned nonwhites.)
“As it went on, it was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Wakeling recalls. “And then it became obvious that it wasn’t. . . . It started to form a sort of murmur throughout the crowd. He kept talking, and the murmurings started to get louder: ‘What did he fucking say again?’ . . . We all got into the foyer after the concert, and it was as loud as the concert: ‘What is he fucking doing? What a cunt!’ ”
When Clapton voiced support onstage for the conservative British flamethrower and fascist Enoch Powell, a prominent anti-immigration politician who had given his polarizing “rivers of blood” speech on the topic in Birmingham in 1968, Wake ling was particularly offended. Thanks to white and black workers toiling together in its factories, Wakeling had sensed that Birmingham had become more integrated in recent years.
Clapton’s comments shocked his bandmates, too. “What Eric said was a total surprise,” recalls George Terry, a member of Clapton’s band at the time, “as he never mentioned he would be saying something at the concert to me or other members of the band that I knew of.”
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