I was listening to Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs’ Under the Covers Vol. 2 today (quick verdict: fine, but I do wish they’d strayed a bit more from the originals’ arrangements), one of whose tracks is a version of Derek & the Dominos’ “Bell Bottom Blues.” As is true of many of the originals covered on this album, “Bell Bottom Blues” is a song I’ve heard so often, for so many years, that I know seemingly every sonic nook and cranny of its recording. Partly that’s sheer repetition…but it’s also that when I was younger, I had less music to choose from, and more time to listen to it – which meant that I listened to songs over and over and over again.
The amusing aspect of this song – which I hadn’t listened to in years, I don’t think – is that when I first heard it I was all of ten years old or so (I’m almost exactly halfway between Hoffs and Sweet in age), which meant that I didn’t really understand what it was about. I didn’t really get some words (Clapton’s and Whitlock’s vocalizations didn’t exactly prioritize enunciation), and even if I had, the situations they referred to would have been beyond my grasp. (And of course the title is completely an inside reference: Pattie Boyd had asked Eric Clapton to buy her a pair of bell-bottom jeans when he was visiting America…or so the story goes.)
But what’s interesting is that the little narrative I made up utterly nailed the emotional content of the song: that communicated loud and clear. I imagined the song was sung from the perspective of someone who was dying from some mysterious hippie illness (which, if I remember, is what I imagined the title referred to). I’m not sure if I’d specified who was his addressee – but clearly he was pleading for something. And although I couldn’t necessarily have named the emotional tones of the whole thing at that time, the song has always felt the same to me: the narrator is despondent, frustrated, ripped raw…and not a little self-pitying. Of course, the song (like most of the Layla album) is about Clapton’s then-unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of one of his best friends (George Harrison). And this song, along with “Layla” (which Clapton completely destroyed and eviscerated in his lame unplugged rendition), are straight from the messy guts of Clapton’s emotional wreckage. The specifics of that wreckage were more than a ten-year-old kid could put together – but the music and the performance intensely and effectively conveyed its effects.