Sitting In

Close Encounter of the Musical Kind

Issue 117

How great would it have been to drink coffee with Mozart, share a pint with Brahms, or take a shot of Stoli with Tchaikovsky?  Just to sit around and talk about music or life. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around during the late 1700s to mid-1800s, nor would I likely have traveled in such rarified circles.

The closest I’ve come to spending time with music royalty – old school or modern-day – was playing a little billiards with Slowhand. Yes, the one and only Eric Clapton.

Eric Clapton. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Majvdl.

Living in Manhattan most of my adult life, it hadn’t been too uncommon to encounter a celebrity or two here or there. My apartment building was two away from The Dakota, the famed landmark building where John Lennon was tragically assassinated. I’d occasionally see Yoko (and bodyguard), and for many, many years on my way to work each morning I’d pass Sean Lennon heading to school. One bright morning I encountered another Dakota resident, Lauren Bacall. The late Ms. Bacall was walking her dog, and was dressed in a housecoat with rollers in her hair and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. So much for the indelible image I had of her and Bogie in Key Largo.

But let’s not digress any further.

One afternoon in the late 1990s a colleague and I decided to blow off work early and play a little pool. We headed up to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Amsterdam Billiards, a joint with about twenty tables. Since it was mid-afternoon on a workday, the rather large billiard hall was empty.

Just as we’re in the midst of a couple of games, in walk two gentlemen, who set up a few tables away from ours. I’m a tad nearsighted, but I immediately noticed one of the men resembled Eric Clapton. I said to my friend (and no joke, my former colleague’s name is Derek, the pseudonym Mr. Clapton coincidentally took on while fronting the band Derek and the Dominos), “Derek, that guy looks like Eric Clapton…?” My friend, not being a refined music aficionado like me, and hardly enthusiastic about this potential sighting, just shook his head and quietly muttered, “I dunno.” Two seconds later I heard Eric’s English accent, which sealed the deal.

I tell my buddy, who is a far more skilled pool player than me, “I’m gonna walk over and challenge them to a game.” I casually walked over to their table and said, “my friend is kicking my butt; would you guys care to join us in a game of eight ball”? “Sure,” replied Eric.

As I signaled to my friend to join us, I put out my hand and said, “hi, I’m Stuart.” Clapton reciprocated and said, “I’m Eric, and this is Russ,” (Russ Titelman, Eric’s longtime producer).  Of course, I’m trying to play it very cool and nonchalant, but inside I’m going nuts. “Nice to meet you guys,” I replied.

(As an aside: years later I worked in sports and had the pleasure of meeting many famous athletes. Always a fun experience, but for me this Clapton encounter was on a stratospheric level.)

As we shook hands, Clapton had a very firm grip, no wimpy clasp from this guy, I said to myself, “wow, these are the tools of his trade,” just like a surgeon or a high-end carpenter. I’ve met some NFL quarterbacks in my time and when I shook their hands they were noticeably the size of oven mitts. Nothing remarkable struck me about Clapton’s hands, other than of course they obviously are quite nimble and full of dexterity.

I vividly recall setting up my first shot and my hand was shaking in disbelief that I was playing pool with friggin’ Eric Clapton. My mind’s eye immediately flashed to the first time I listened to classic Cream LPs like Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire. This isn’t someone who is just famous, this is a legend!  This is someone who I revered and respected musically for a very long time, as far back as his early days with The Yardbirds.

After a few minutes, I compose myself and ask Eric about what projects he’s working on, inherently acknowledging at that point I knew who he was. There were many, many things I would have liked to have asked him, but rather than come off as some psycho-fan, I remained respectful of both his privacy and space.

A couple of games into our challenge match, I was about to ask Clapton and his producer if they wanted a beer, trying to be polite and gracious. I stopped myself because I remembered Clapton was in recovery and likely didn’t drink. Of course, silly me, he could have easily ordered coke or an orange juice, but I stopped myself in fear of creating an awkward moment. Although Clapton was as natural and easy going as one could be, I was overly cautious about ruining the “vibe.”

Clapton actually had his own cue stick! I mean you wouldn’t expect Eric Clapton to show up at a gig without his own guitar, right?  He’s the consummate professional, though I did frankly get the impression that playing pool would not be a regular occurrence for him.  I said to Clapton, “I thought snooker would have been more to your liking,” a game developed by British Army officers in the 19th century that’s played on a different-sized table. Eric kind of laughed and acknowledged his cue stick was a gift from his pal Russ.

The four of us chatted and played pool for about an hour. You’d think someone of his stature might be standoffish or even a bit aloof, but he could not have been nicer. If only I’d had a smartphone or camera with me to immortalize the moment.

I wish I could tell you who won, but I have zero recollection of the outcome.

I’ve seen Clapton in concert many times – including his solo tours, the 2005 Cream reunion with Jack and Ginger at Madison Square Garden (third row), and the 2009 pseudo-Blind Faith reunion tour with Stevie Winwood, also at the Garden. He’s never disappointed.

In closing, I’d like to share that my pool skills have grown but, alas, they remain quite shabby.

Postscript: The aforementioned Sean Lennon has grown up and if you fancy early Pink Floyd or King Crimson, check out the Claypool Lennon Delirium, a little project Sean took on with bassist Les Claypool.

 

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Stokpic.

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