By Jason Isbell
(Oct/Nov 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 5)
I was 10 years old when I first heard “Layla” on the local classic rock radio station. Or at least, that was the first time that I heard it and paid any attention to it. That song affected me intensely, even though it had been recorded almost a decade before I was born. It had everything: Melodic guitars battling each other way up in the mix, high, growling harmonies, a story of confounding romantic loss and gain, and THAT OUTRO.
This was back when they still played the long ending on album-oriented stations. When I got home, I called the DJ and requested that they play “Layla” again, without even knowing the name of the band that had recorded it. I found a blank cassette, tuned to the station on my stereo, and waited with my finger on the record button. I sat there waiting for the rest of the night. The DJ had forgotten. So I called him again the next day when I got home from school, and after another couple hours of waiting, I finally got the song on my Maxell.
I played “Layla” for my mom and she told me it was Eric Clapton’s band, so I made her drive me to the record store, about 30 minutes away. At the counter, I asked for “Eric and the Dominos.” I bought Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for the first time that day, on vinyl and cassette. Every song on that album was a revelation to me. I wore the tape out and re-bought it many times before finally getting it on CD.
I studied all of the stories surrounding that project, digging up every piece of related fact or folklore I could. I memorized the names of the members of the band, staring at the album art until I could recognize each by photograph. I learned of Clapton’s relationship with George Harrison’s wife (the inspiration behind “Layla”), Duane Allman’s untimely death a year after the recordings, and Jim Gordon’s schizophrenia and eventual murder of his mother. All these things seemed impossible, even mythological, to a wide-eyed kid learning to play guitar.
Years later, around the time I was joining the Drive-By Truckers, Bobby Whitlock moved to Muscle Shoals. He’d played organ and sang harmonies (and some lead vocals) for the Dominos, and he was a rock ’n’ roll cartoon character in my eyes. He drove a huge old Caddy with “Domino” on the license plate, and moved into what had been the reception area of an old studio. He spent some time hanging around the house where I lived with Shonna Tucker and a bunch of other folks, and at night we sat around the table playing songs. Still incredibly talented and completely nuts, he told me I was the best flat-picker he’d ever seen and invited me to join him for a couple shows. That meant the world to me.