(Re)Collection #3: Derek & the Dominos
Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Brian Fallon, a solo artist as well as a member of the Gaslight Anthem, has "Bell Bottom Blues You Made Me Cry" tattooed on his neck. I have wondered about that song ever since I first glimpsed his tattoo.
The record on which this song appears, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, came out in 1972. I was 6 years old. Bell Bottom Blues is not a song from that record that I have any real experience with. Layla, on the other hand, is full of meaning to me. Every time I hear Layla, it takes me back. The place to which I return is not always the happiest.
I can hear that twin guitar riff blaring out the window of our banana yellow Ford Pinto with fake wood paneling. I can see the green shag carpet on the floor of my dad's Florida crash pad on a golf course. He hid out there after he took off and left us in Clearwater, Florida before the Christmas of 1973. I guess he started drinking again. I was too young to know what was going on. I just knew that it was a whole lot more peaceful after he left.
I hear it intermingled with the smell of weed smoke as my mom dragged me along through a sprawling party at an abandoned quarry outside D.C. She was trying to find my sister who had run away again. That hippy scene scared the shit out of me.
Layla was everywhere. It was mysterious and foreboding. What was all this strange sounding adult music about?
It is no surprise that most of my close interactions with music came courtesy of my sister who is 3 years older than me. She might as well have been 10 years older. She was unimpressed with me when I was brought home from Sibley Hospital and never really warmed up to me much after that. I can still hear her tone of voice when she told me that if she ever caught me up in her room in the attic she would kill me. I took this seriously because when we shared a bedroom in an apartment when I was 7, she did in fact beat me up and drag me down the steps by my hair when she suspected I had been rooting around in her stuff.
For a few years, lots of grim and magical music blared from her room in the attic. Then she started leaving home when I was 10, she was 13. Running away. From what, I wasn't sure. That was 1976. She had a desire to be free of all authority figures and little brothers like most rebellious teens. She and my mom were in a state of constant war. She took it to an extreme.
My mom unofficially kicked her out in 1978. She was 15. She fled to my dad's house on 13th & S Street in D.C. My mom and I lived on Nevada Ave and Military Road. It took my parents two marriages and awful divorces to realize that they were not meant for each other.
My dad's new neighborhood was rough rough rough. Prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps, adult movie houses, burned out buildings. When King got shot in 1968 and DC burned, many middle class families took off to the suburbs and left the torched city to those who couldn't afford to move. My dad took advantage of the cheap rent.
I used to ride my skateboard all around that neighborhood. Needles littered the alleys. Lots of action out on the streets. And for some reason, people left me alone. I have no idea why. The kids in the neighborhood didn't beat me up. I think I must have been a novelty: a blonde-haired alien on a skateboard. Why did my dad allow me to roam free? Different times.
My sister found temporary sanctuary at my Dad's townhouse which he shared with his girlfriend. My dad liked to garden, and he used his green thumb to grow tomatoes, basil and weed. So she fit right in to that groovy scene. His rules and curfews were fluid.
That was until my dad and sister had a massive fight (a regular occurrence) and he punched her in the face and knocked her down the stairs (a not so regular occurrence). She was thrown out of another house. Or she left of her own will. I don't know where she went, but she was gone. It turns out she hitchhiked across the country. She would show back up, get put back in high school, maybe do a stint at the psych hospital and then be off again. She finally vanished for good by the time I was almost 13. Tough times. I can't imagine what she went through. But she would never have told me anyway because I was the enemy living at home with mom. She just figured I was a little spy.
Time and distance have allowed me to forget about all the yucky circumstances of the 70s. I recently bought that Derek and the Dominos record in Lincoln, Nebraska at Vintage Vinyl when I was visiting my wife's family for the holidays. It is an interesting and at times beautiful record. I am not really a fan of blues rock, but Duane Allman and Eric Clapton's guitar parts intertwine and harmonize in evocative ways. The melodies stick with me. And Bellbottom Blues is actually a really good song.
The music of Derek & the Dominos will never change the way I think about music or really even speak to me on that deeper level that only certain music can. That music came along in my teenage years with the discovery of David Bowie and then punk rock. But I definitely appreciate it now.
So yeah. I understand why Brian got the tattoo. Well, I don't understand why, but I get that a song can be so affecting and emblematic of a period or moment in your life that you would want to immortalize your love for it with a tattoo.
Music is like that. It gets stuck in you.