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Clapping Back

American rock rebels are getting their backsides handed to them by two old-school Europeans.

Music is an industry of peer pressure, my dad tells me—most industries are, he adds, but music more than most. An entertainment lawyer who’s worked in the music industry for almost 30 years, he would know. When events like Covid hit, with record levels of self-righteous peer-to-peer naysaying, it’s no wonder the artists have been the most hesitant to find their land legs again.

That is, except for a couple of vintage guitarists from across the pond.

Both born in 1945, of an older and apparently sturdier cloth that many of today’s musicians, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison are perhaps the only two big name artists to do justice to their title as rock ‘n’ roll musicians by bucking the Covid monoliths. While the majority of today’s top musicians—the class my father calls “the Brookses and the Springsteens”—continue postponing concerts, mandating vaccines, and generally grandstanding about how their staying at home is for everyone else’s health and safety, Clapton and Morrison have vocally pushed back against the U.K.’s Covid policies, and Covid overreach in general, in the way rock ‘n’ roll always used to: by picking strings.

Clapton’s latest, “This Has Gotta Stop,” is his third track, though his first solo, in which he sings all but explicitly about his fears that governments have gone too far in their efforts to control the virus. His lyrics are not particular to the United Kingdom. Like all good artists, the “Wonderful Tonight” vocalist recognizes something universal in the struggle against an authority which has gone too far.

This has gotta stop
Enough is enough
I can’t take this BS any longer
It’s gone far enough
If you wanna claim my soul
You’ll have to come and break down this door

The Hall of Fame guitarist, who joined Morrison in publicly deriding lockdowns in the song “Stand and Deliver” in December 2020, and again in 2021 as “Slowhand and Van” for another iconoclast track, “The Rebels,” is firmly in his lane of blues rock in the track. The lyrics are brief but stormy, the guitar is moody, and the purpose is simple—to give voice to a real woe. From the same artist whose cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” was more popular than Bob Marley’s original, he once again delivers more than just good music; the lyrics are believable on Clapton’s lips. Other artists have sung about lockdowns, but their predictable (and often globalist) intonations about how “We’re All in This Together” just don’t have the same chutzpah.

Of the two, Morrison is the more philosophic. Lines like “Is this a sovereign nation/Or just a police state?” and “Dick Turpin wore a mask too” in “Stand and Deliver,” as well as “Were they really all that tough?/Or was it just some PR stunt?…It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll/Where have all the rebels gone?” in “The Rebels” are more thoughtful than Clapton’s simple “Enough is enough.” Clapton, on the other hand, brings style. “Thinkin’ of my kids, what’s left for them / And then what’s comin’ down the road / The light in the tunnel could be the southbound train / Lord, please help them with their load,” he sings.

For the “Change the World” artist who is trying to do just that, one wonders if a song is enough. And what is at stake?

The trickle-down effect of canceled concerts at the beginning of the pandemic to the thousands of music industry jobs in my own hometown of Nashville alone was more like a dam breaking. While music streaming only accounts for a diminutive fraction of most artists’ revenue, and tickets pay the bills, no live music means everything else dries up. The people who made up the music industry—managers, lighting directors, promoters, ticket vendors, concessions vendors, merchandizers, and beyond—felt the effects almost immediately, even before ticket refunds sapped whatever was left in the spigot. The layoffs were immediate and widespread. Recounting last year, my father tells the story of one friend who had to lay off 46 employees from his light and sound production company within a week of March 15. Forty-six.

For his part, Morrison, whose native country of Ireland has been among the strictest pandemic pushers, launched a petition to bring back live music, and a fund to support musicians who earn more than 50 percent of their income from live shows, while concerts were banned in the country. Ireland ended its ban on live performances at the end of July 2021.

Clapton, meanwhile, was less vocal until May of this year, when he publicly regretted getting the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine.

In a letter shared on Telegram, Clapton wrote:

I was offered and took the second AZ shot, but with a little more knowledge of the dangers. Needless to say the reactions were disastrous, my hands and feet were either frozen, numb or burning, and pretty much useless for two weeks, I feared I would never play again, (I suffer with peripheral neuropathy and should never have gone near the needle.) But the propaganda said the vaccine was safe for everyone.

Since then, Clapton has announced he will not play any venues which require attendees to be vaccinated, exempting himself—like the nearly third of American adults who still remain unvaccinated—from many of the most popular venues and festivals in the country, from Madison Square Garden to Firefly Festival.

Britain, on the other hand, announced earlier this week it is canceling any plans for vaccine passports, after months of backlash from the British public. Sajid Javid, Britain’s health secretary, says a database to verify who has been vaccinated against Covid-19 remains an option; for now, however, Clapton has scored a small change in his homeland. Next stop: the world.

The guitarist is public about the social effects he’s borne for his unorthodox stance, too. Clapton says he has been alienated by friends and family, and the music industry in general, as a result of his divergence from the mainline dogma.

“I’ve tried to reach out to fellow musicians,” he told Oracle Films in June. “I just don’t hear from them anymore. My phone doesn’t ring very often. I don’t get that many texts and emails anymore. It’s quite noticeable.”

But, he adds in the same interview, he has realized there is “a spiritual point” to his small rebellion, which has something to do with the real purpose of rock ‘n’ roll, and music more broadly. For Clapton, fighting back is about preserving real music in its greatest form, which is played before a live audience. If that’s an old man’s cause, it’s because modern sound is largely engineered.

“Old school people, we don’t lip-synch,” he tells Oracle. “We play.”

An old Brit telling Americans how to be rebellious: It’s a little more than kin and less than kind for the country that was founded on rebellion. But you have to hand it to both Clapton and Morrison. They’ve been bolder than any of our own rebels in music—and even some of our rebels in politics, too.