Rockers don't fade away they just lose their bite

MIKE LITTWIN

February 26, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

I don't know why I watch the Grammys. I always do, though, and they never fail to depress me.

If you're of a certain age, and you consider yourself a rock and roller, the show is bound to bring you down.

One of two things always happens, and usually both:

One, they bring out fresh, young, cutting-edge acts that totally confuse me. Did you see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in all their rock-funk glory? They were loud and exciting and dangerous -- and, as far as I could tell, from the moon. Let's just say I kept hoping for subtitles. Host Garry Shandling summed up my feelings perfectly when he said of their act, "You know, I've got to get out more."

Two, some has-been wins all the awards.

Either way, you end up feeling so old you drown your sorrows with a pint of Ben and Jerry's.

This year's has-been is, of course, Eric Clapton, who won every award except the Irving Thalberg. And all I could think of was how Clapton had turned into John Wayne.

We'll go back to 1969, a time that found Clapton somewhere between Cream and Derek and the Dominos, but fully into legend. A few years earlier, there were sections of London where you couldn't walk two blocks without seeing "Clapton is God" scrawled on the wall of any available building.

Clapton had invented the rave-up -- the guitar break that ends only when either a string or a finger snaps -- when he was with the Yardbirds. He had introduced blues-rock to a generation of white kids. He was the rock-and-roll hero.

And the people at the Grammy awards probably wouldn't have let him in the hall. I'm sure they made space for the Ohio Express, however.

Anyway, it was in 1969 that John Wayne won the Oscar for "True Grit" in one of those sympathy votes that's basically a lifetime achievement award. The Duke beat out Dustin Hoffman, whose performance in "Midnight Cowboy" was only one of the greatest in the modern era.

Now Clapton, age 47, gets the sympathy vote. Where did the years go?

Clapton is up there on the podium, nice and humble, collecting his umpteenth Grammy. His hair is expensively coiffed. Lots of ear showing. His beard is trimmed just so. He looks as dangerous as a TV weatherman.

Worse than that, for the last 20 years, Clapton has written junk. The blues master sold out long ago to prettified quasi-blues ballads that sound good on elevators and occasionally prompt tours sponsored by beer companies.

Naturally, this is the incarnation of Eric Clapton that sweeps the Grammys.

It's understandable, of course. The song he wins with -- "Tears in Heaven" -- is legitimately heartbreaking, given its subject. He wrote the ballad to help exorcise the pain of his young son's unfathomable death. If you know the context, the song is extremely moving. If you don't, it's closer to maudlin.

But it's not a great song in either case. Nobody knows that better than Clapton, who might have been happier with the reworked "Layla" on the "Unplugged" album. When Clapton got his first award of the night, he told the audience there were many better candidates. That was not false humility.

Not that his was the worst song nominated. Not by a long shot. Here we are fully into the rock-and-roll era, meaning if you were 16 when you first heard Elvis you'd be 53 today, and the best-song nominees include -- can I get an eee-yow from James Brown? -- something by Vanessa Williams, a song from a cartoon movie and the unforgettable, if-I-hear-it-again-I'll-kill-someone "Achy Breaky Heart."

What do you expect from an era wherein radio stations advertise music as Lite Rock?

For me, the best part of the Grammys came when they introduced Little Richard. He was in the crowd, and I guess they were giving him some kind of award. The way I understand the Grammys, everyone gets some kind of award.

What I liked about it was that they didn't let Little Richard come to the podium to speak. All he could do was wave.

The reason, I hoped, was that they were afraid of him. Yes, afraid.

They were afraid that this old guy was rock and roll enough to do something sufficiently wild to upset an audience and especially a sponsor.

Maybe that's wishful thinking.

More likely, they were afraid he might get winded climbing the stairs.

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