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How a 12th-century poet inspired a classic Eric Clapton song

Eric Clapton is no stranger to taking his musical inspiration from literature. Famously, he was inspired by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey when he and collaborator Martin Sharp were writing the lyrics for Cream’s 1967 classic, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’. 

However, another one of his songs, possibly his most iconic track, was also written under the influence of literature – but with a much more tangible edge. This song was not a Cream work, nor one of his solo efforts; of course, it was Derek and the Dominos’ 1971 hit ‘Layla’.

Everything about the track is stellar. The riff, the chorus, and featuring the late Duane Allman on guitar, in terms of classic rock, you can’t go wrong. The break featuring the piano in the middle is also incredible. Soft-rock to the core, at this point, the band sound more like Steely Dan than the blues-rock supergroup Derek and the Dominos.

The idea for the track came from a love story by the celebrated 12-century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi, entitled The Story of Layla and Majnun. A classic tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’, the story follows a young poet who goes crazy after falling madly in love with an enchanting woman whom he cannot marry due to societal and cultural restrictions. 

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Even though Clapton had written songs about anything and everything before this point, including referencing Homer’s ancient work, the decision to adopt the narrative of a traditional Arabic tale seems a tad niche, even for Clapton. By chance, a copy of it was given to him by a friend, and it resonated with the lovelorn Clapton, who at the time saw many parallels between the story and what was happening in his own life.

At this moment in time, Clapton was hopelessly in love with his best friend George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. Clapton would eventually marry Boyd in 1979, but he didn’t know that at the time and continued to be a lovesick wreck, becoming withdrawn and something of a recluse. It is said that many of his songs from this period were inspired by her, including the majority of Derek and the Dominos’ 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and 1977’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’.

Of the song, Clapton told the BBC in 1998: “As a song, just in itself I don’t think it’s got much going for it, to be honest with you. I mean, there’s a structure, and there is a melody, but historically where it’s at in the scheme of things, at the end of the ’60s with the kind of bands that were coming into being, with the way that music was changing, and with the historic little bit of life history, you know with me and George and Pattie, that it got a life of its own”. 

Clapton himself seems to think that the song has endured due to the influence of Nizami’s words and the real-life struggles he was having in dealing with and concealing his infatuation for his best friend’s wife — and he’s right in that assumption. It’s autobiographical tales such as this that keeps the flame of classic rock alive as it struggles for relevance in a world where music and society have changed so much.

Next time the track comes on at a wedding, and all the drunken relatives are playing their air guitars, just think, was this the scene that the emotionally broken Eric Clapton imagined all those years ago? I’d wager it wasn’t, but such is the subjective power of music.

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