My love affair with this song goes back to early 1993. Steve Wiatt got the Bob Dylan tribute video on Pay-Per-View (remember that?) and lent the VHS tape to my dad (I do believe it’s still in his possession after all these years). And then my dad showed me the clip: Ronnie Wood introduces Eric Clapton, and Clapton proceeds to give one of the most spiritually generous performances of his life.
I had never heard Dylan’s own recording of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” before - later that spring I would buy my first Dylan CD (remember those?) and fall in love with the pencil-sketch charm of the version on Bringing it All Back Home. But Clapton’s rendition is lovingly, reverently, exaggeratedly Dylan-esque: warm, humming organ, those noodley little walkdowns down from the five chord, and, as ever, liberties taken with the vocal melody, rhythms, and even the lyrics themselves. Bob would be proud - of course he is still alive, anyway, so I could ask him what he thought about it, if I knew how to get in touch with him.
But the guitars! Sounding like nothing Dylan ever recorded. The soaring, beautiful, sweet, bluesy guitars - Clapton on his trusty Strat, G.E. Smith (remember him?) chiming away on a Tele. I had been playing for a few weeks the first time I saw this performance, and it made an impression. Clapton takes two solos, and they are stunning in their immediacy and melodicism. Some gorgeous, soul-lifting bends…he makes it look so easy.
Ironically, the ease with which Clapton built his solos was something I could not relate to at the time, much as I loved the sounds I was hearing. My mind, like my father’s, was designed to distill the colorful richness I was hearing back down to the pencil sketch of Dylan’s original: figure out the chords, memorize the lyrics, and be able to play and sing this thing by heart before sundown. This is the song that taught me to transpose before I knew what that was called, taught me to sing in my own style before I knew what that was. I’ve never let go of it, but I’ve never been able to make it feel like that Clapton version.
A few Christmases ago, my brother Tristan converted that VHS tape into a DVD and presented it to me under the tree. We watched it that morning, and I wept. I sobbed in front of my whole family. It was bittersweet to see that the gorgeous lead guitar playing that had so inspired me was still so far out of reach, and worse, that it was so okay with me. It was like I had promised myself, “I will play guitar,” and then went out and bought a french horn, never even noticing or caring that I had broken that contract. And in a way, I still don’t care.
Today one of my students, a delightful sixteen-year-old, was working on “Love Minus Zero.” To explore arrangement possibilities, I went on YouTube. There, in the suggested search field as I typed in the song title, was “clapton.” Could it be? It was - some Japanese guy posted the clip. We watched and listened - and then I shared it with another student later that day. And then I listened to it on my walk home in the dark (YouTube on the iPhone!).
And something interesting is happening - I’m hearing more. I pointed out to my student that while it sounds as though Clapton is playing continuously, he’s really creating separate phrases that overlap. One comes over in an arc and as it ends another comes underneath, like the currents of water in an ocean wave. I noticed that most of the solos are pentatonic. I realized how little he was playing during the verses - laying out and letting the rhythm parts back up the voice, then filling in with meaty licks between the lines of lyric as though it were a blues tune.
So this thing might actually be within reach: to learn one or both of these solos just for fun and education. Maybe the assumptions I’ve always made about myself with respect to my natural abilities as a musician are ready to be overturned. That will mean a lot for the way I teach, but even more for the way I live.
Regardless, “she knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.” Deep, man. That either means exactly what I’m talking about, or nothing at all.