There are more essential, classic Eric Clapton songs than I have fingers (even though I’m missing one of them) and toes and certainly in the grand scheme of things, ‘Cocaine’ is nowhere near the top. Given that the man also fronted Cream, responsible for ‘I Feel Free’ and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, which the Seidler brothers first learned when it was appropriated for a Big Mac ad in the early ’00s, it gets bumped down further still. It’s probably the same dilemma that faces anyone trying to make an effective Billy Joel compilation that will fit onto one CD; how do you select which of a slew of world-beaters deserves top billing? Do you get in trouble if you put ‘Tears In Heaven’ too far below ‘Layla’? Do you include some of the stuff he did with The Yardbirds, who would go on to spawn, among other things, Led Zeppelin? I don’t envy these people one bit. But what I do know is of all the Clapton songs I hear wafting through the golden oldies station on long drives back from holiday houses and supermaret queues, the one I never tire of (frankly, because half the time they don’t play it), is ‘Cocaine’.
If you want to sit in on any blues jam in the world, particularly one comprised of white guys, there are certain standards you have to know. Like jazz, which was technically born from it anyway, the modern rock canon is indebted to the work laid down by Clapton and his fast-living friends in the sixties and seventies. There’s more than likely going to be a few Rolling Stones numbers in there, some Dylan, Howling Wolf and BB King. You might get away with some Motown, too, if you’re lucky. But without fail, almost every single time you see a bunch of newly introduced musicians in a room together, someone will inevitably yell out ‘Cocaine!’, and the entire ramshackle group knows exactly what to do. The first few times this happened, I though we were all getting free drugs. And even though he covered this song anyway (the original was written by a certain John Cale, affectionately known as ‘JJ’ to distinguish him from the Velvet Underground one a few years earlier), Clapton is quick to point out that it’s actually an anti-drug anthem. This is something he can say with conviction now that he’s done more than his fair share of the stuff, repented for his sins and opened one of the world’s most renowned rehab centres. And indeed if you listen to the lyrics outside of that excellent descending, crashing blues chorus, he’s actually telling the truth. Unfortunately, nobody ever really does, and that includes whoever happens to be singing it on a Tuesday night at a dive bar anywhere in the world.
At the risk of opening myself up to a barrage of substance-abuse jokes, I really love ‘Cocaine’. It’s really the best kind of rock song around because it manages to optimise all of the elements so that it appeals to nearly everybody. It’s not too loud, not to rough, not too sweet and not too fast. It hangs back but it isn’t soppy, the guitars are crunchy and dirty but not sloppy and it seems to swing, but it’s played straight. A lot of that has to do with the way Clapton’s recorded at least three completely differently sounding guitar parts in sync – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he played them on three separate guitars either. They fill out the entire mid-section of the sound, hovering both above and below Clapton’s gruff vocal while the bass conveniently only hits the first note of every chord, minims being a largely underutilised form of expression these days (it’s to be expected, you can’t pump up the bass when it’s only heard twice every bar.) But really the appeal of ‘Cocaine’ goes far beyond its tales of woe with white powder and the syncopated roll into oblivion that comes with the main stanza, it’s something more primal. It’s that step-up, step-down feel that just swaggers into the room – any room, really – and says ‘I am a rock song and you already know what I sound like, because I am part of the fabric.’ Sometimes that’s the most enjoyable thing of all. And unlike (what I’ve -ahem – heard) about it’s namesake, it doesn’t feel terrible the next morning, either.
Eric Clapton – ‘Cocaine’