#411: Eric Clapton, "461 Ocean Boulevard" (1974)

I’ve been having stress dreams lately. Usually, as their name would suggest, they happen when I’m unusually stressed out about something—daytime worries carrying into the night—but I’ve been puzzled by them this time because that’s not the case. It almost seems like they’ve been happening because I’ve been so happy in the day-to-day. Apparently I am a person who cannot not worry. When my conscious self doesn’t, my subconscious takes over.

And so, the dreams. A dream in which I’m trying to convince my father not to sever his own arm from his body (he is doing it to save us, somehow, and I want him to slow down, to be sure there is no other way, but it seems I will not be able to convince him). A dream in which we are about to be buried under a wave of rubble, and I will not be able to save anyone. A dream in which I’m running down the street, rushing to get somewhere (by the time I wake I’ve forgotten where I was trying to go), and my legs keep moving slower, butting up against more and more resistance—I look down and see I am wading in water, I keep pushing and pushing against it, trying to run as the water rises, it never occurs to me to swim. A dream in which my mother and I are fighting, she is going to hurt someone if I cannot make her understand, she is never going to understand, in the dream I am so angry, in the dream I know I can’t stop until she listens but I also know she will never listen. A dream in which a boyfriend who is an amalgam of every boyfriend I’ve ever had—a series of boyfriends shape-shifting as one—betrays me over and over, in a different way each time. A dream in which I am an addict, with cravings I cannot control, and I watch myself do terrible things, I watch myself destroy everything, horrified.

Again and again, I wake unsettled. I wake worried or angry or ashamed. I wake frustrated with myself, my life, the ones I love. I wake in the middle of the night and shift to my boyfriend’s side of the bed, put my arm across him, I had a bad dream, I say, by which I mean a dream that made me feel bad, and he murmurs something unintelligible, pats my hand, and I rest my head against him until I fall back asleep. In the morning, he’ll ask what the dream was, and I will not remember. Or I wake in my own bed, throw the covers off and feel the fan move the air around me, take a sip of water, say out loud to myself, Settle down. Or I wake and it is morning. The dream life is not your life, I think as I shower, the dream life is not your life, let it slide away. I breathe, and the feelings linger even though they are not real. Settle down, I think as I make coffee. Settle.

I think Eric Clapton must have known that feeling. 461 Ocean Boulevard feels like one long settling down. A mellowing. An exhale.

From the image on the cover of the album, 461 Ocean Boulevard looks like a vacation. The sort of place where you can rise as late or as early as you’d like, sitting in the yard with a cup of coffee as the day begins or missing the morning altogether. At such a place, you’d wear clothes so comfortable they could double as pajamas, or you’d throw a big T-shirt on over a bathing suit and that’s how you’d go about your day. Because I am a writer, during my stay there, I would fill notebooks. I would read books I love. I would do these things, probably outside, in comfortable sunny weather, all day. It would be productive, but it wouldn’t feel like work. It would feel, instead, like an oasis.

And that’s how the songs on this album feel.

When I listen to rock music made in the ’60s and ’70s, I often think of my college boyfriend, who, when I was first getting to know him, declared that all music worth listening to was made before 1980. As far as I can tell, this is a sentiment not uncommon to nineteen-year-old boys.

They just don’t make music like that anymore, I remember him saying, which is true. At the time, I believed what he said not necessarily because I actually agreed, but because I thought he was smarter than me, that he understood things about music I did and could not.

But, so many years later, it still seems to me that the appeal of a lot of classic rock is undeniable. It’s music where you can really hear them playing the instruments. You can’t ignore that it was created by people. The songs have multiple components, and each component is a made thing. There’s a thrill to hearing them come together.

It was music that was satisfying to listen to as I rode in his car (a blue Honda Prelude, low to the ground), wearing sunglasses, windows down, late summer. I don’t remember listening to Clapton specifically with him, but we must have. I remember him telling me a story his father had told him about going to a Clapton concert—strangely, I remember him telling me the story (it was over winter break, I was visiting him, we were in his childhood bedroom) without remembering the contents of the story itself. When he talked about music it was often in relation to his father. Although he never would’ve said it so plainly, he prided himself on liking music that his father also liked.

I sometimes wondered if his love for classic rock had more to do with creating a space he and his father could inhabit together more than anything else, a space that helped him foster friendships with other boys at school who also hungered for communion with their fathers—and isn’t everything about this, really, for everyone, when we are nineteen? How to live apart, to be on our own but also, somehow, secure the connections we need but don’t understand or want to admit to needing? These are the beginnings of the lessons we will continue learning, dilemmas we face and overcome again and again as we assemble them into a life.

And while we are all knee-deep in that assemblage, here is a thing to love about music: it calms, consoles, and connects us as we leave each moment and catch the next. As we hang in that space between, holding nothing. As we ground ourselves again. Settle down. Settle. And the calm song sympathizes, Dear Lord, give me strength to carry on. And the calm song implores you, Plant your love and let it grow. The words to the song are simpler than the song. You exhale. It is a relief. This is your life.

—Katelyn Kiley