Eric Clapton and The Grateful Dead are firmly cut from two different ends of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum. Slowhand is an example of perfectionism, moulded from a love of jazz and technical style which saw him actively compete against the musicians of the day. It is the antithesis of what The Grateful Dead stood for. They weren’t meticulous and, instead, adopted a carefree approach which championed freedom over anything else. It didn’t leave much common ground between the worlds of Jerry Garcia and Eric Clapton.
Cream once shared the bill with The Grateful Dead when they came to Sacramento in 1968, and the collision of these two iconic bands made it a night that Clapton would ever forget. It seems strange that these two were booked on the same bill, especially as The Grateful Dead seem to have been born as a reaction to artists like Clapton who did everything perfectly, from a technical standpoint. However, if it wasn’t for artists like Slowhand breaking down this ground, then who knows if the Dead would have been able to have their remarkable impact. The key ingredient that made the Dead such a unique talent was their oddity and uniqueness which forged their cultish fanbase.
Their approach meant that not everyone was a fan of their style and some prominent musicians were happy to talk about why they didn’t enjoy them turning over the applecart. One unsurprising outspoken figure was The Who’s Pete Townshend, who labelled them as being “one of the original ropeys”, following their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Rolling Stone once asked Clapton in 1968 for his thoughts on his peer’s comments towards them, and his response was fascinating. “Ropey! That means a drag,” Clapton brazenly stated. “I don’t think the quality of their music is as high as a lot of other good recording bands. People are more concerned with live music, maybe, than with recording. I’m not sure of that. I’m guessing. If the Grateful Dead are one of the best, they’re not doing a very good job on record.”
Clapton did hold some respect for the guitar playing style of Jerry Garcia, but, it’s safe to say, it wasn’t one that he ever tried to emulate or would ever want to imitate with Slowhand damningly noting: “It’s very good and very tight, but it’s not really my bag.”
Although the music of The Grateful Dead wasn’t something that captured Clapton’s heart, the spirit of the San Francisco scene that they had been born out of was something that the former Cream man could appreciate. The free-spirited nature of the West Coast was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the dog eat dog world of London.
“Everybody digs everybody else and they don’t hide it,” Clapton said about the West Coast scene. “In England, they could use a little more maturity. The English music market has been bred so long on immaturity, in the press and music papers they are concerned with nothing else but top 40 and music doesn’t really matter. There isn’t one English music newspaper that covers the whole field of music; they’re all cut up in a little bunch.
“They could use, from San Francisco, a little more open-mindedness about music, to grow up about it. Music isn’t any more a three-year thing. It’s not related to “overnight successes” and things like that; it’s grown out of that. The people behind it, the managers, and the people who make their bread out of it, have got to learn that and grow out of it as well. Musicians are not half-wits anymore.”
As the decades went on, Clapton’s opinion of The Grateful Dead and this travelling circus that they created changed, even if the music was still secondary to the mystique surrounding the band. Following Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, Clapton was even suggested to be joining the group as his replacement.
This was news to him, however, when Larry King asked him if he’d have liked the opportunity to join The Grateful Dead during an appearance on CNN in 1998. “This is the first I have heard of it,” Clapton said before revealing, “I would have loved to have played with them actually. That would have been great fun, just to pick up some of that vibe that, just to figure it out.”
The Grateful Dead’s approach to music was so unconventional that it took the music world by surprise, and people like Pete Townshend or Eric Clapton initially couldn’t understand the fuss surrounding them. As the years went by the world of The Grateful Dead became more clear, and those who couldn’t comprehend what made the group so enchanting seemed to soften their stance towards them. Clapton’s change of attitude perfectly summarised the shift in public perception and the legacy that The Grateful Dead left.