The song opens with a riff that immediately draws the listener in: a quick, high run, echoed by a slower, lower line that repeats the same pattern three times, at three different pitches, then launches back into the high run again. (Audio clip – 40K.) We get to hear the riff twice, without accompaniment, then the drums and other guitars kick in, the deep undertow of the opening riff now offset by a higher, sliding, soaring guitar line. (Audio clip – 40K.) We hear this a couple times then the song pauses to take a breath and Clapton launches into the first verse.
Clapton’s voice is a perfect match to the raw sound of the guitars, sounding hoarse and raspy, yet effectively delivering the lyrics and melody. (Audio clip – 80K.) The relationship between the singer and the object of his desire begins to unfold.
Now we hit the chorus. The opening riff is repeated, with drums and multiple guitars, but now with Clapton’s voice and backing vocals on top. The result is a rich, churning mixture, the emotions of the singer amplified by the instrumentation. The backing vocals are as raw and unpolished as the lead vocal, their soaring voices ratcheting the emotions up another notch. Gordon’s drums are perfect, propelling the song along, his blows to the drums bringing everything back down to earth in time to start the next verse. (Audio clip – 68K.)
Layla, you got me on my knees.
Layla, I’m begging darling please.
Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind?
Two more verses and repetitions of the chorus, and the story is told: the singer has fallen desperately in love with a woman already in another relationship, and is begging for his love to be requited. What’s more, the pretense of their being only friends is driving the singer around the bend.
The churning riff of the chorus now continues, as if the song were nearly over and heading for a fade-out. But now a plaintive slide guitar takes over for the singer, rising and falling over the constant undertow of the other instruments, the backing vocals keeping the heat on with some “whoo, whoo, whoo” sounds at the tops of their voices. (Audio clip – 84K.)
Abruptly, the thrashing of the guitars slows and stops, giving way to a lone piano, playing a new but related melody. It plays through once, then is joined by the rest of the band as it begins to repeat. Now, though, instead of working and pulling against each other, the instruments come together, supporting each other. The lovely slide guitar reappears, but is now buoyed up by the other instruments, soaring grandly, lyrically. Gordon supports by playing shimmering cymbal crashes, and an acoustic guitar augments the piano. (Audio clip – 156K.)
The effect is majestic, and unmatched in all of rock. The intensity of the singer’s emotions is not resolved lyrically, but musically. It is as if the storm suddenly ends and gives way to a wet, green world overarched by a luminous rainbow. The singer’s desperate situation seems to give way to a beautiful vision of a union with his loved one, the pair walking hand-in-hand through the forest alone, freed from other entangling relationships. The raw intensity of the song’s first half is almost a mirror image of the haunting, gentle lyricism of it’s second half.
Next: Jesse Winchester