I discovered Eric Clapton, Rock Star, earlier this year.
He’d been around, of course. I just wasn’t paying attention. In the early years, as he moved from the increasingly commercialized Yardbirds into John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, I was being introduced to Lead Belly. While I learned to play the 12-string, Cream (Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Clapton) came and went in just two years, disbanding a few months before Woodstock. After Cream, Clapton formed a new group, Derek and the Dominos. Layla, the title track on their album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was released in December of 1970. First told by the Persian poet Nizami, the story of Layla and Majnun became one of rock’s definitive love songs, its famously contrasting movements composed separately by Clapton and Jim Gordon.
Clapton’s contribution to Layla was inspired by his then-unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, wife of friend and fellow musician George Harrison. Though unaware of the details behind its composition, Layla haunted my life for years. I loved the song, but couldn’t have told you the artist’s name. It was enough to hear the music, drifting unbidden through the air of two decades and three continents, poignant and breathtaking as an unexpected tear.
Unfortunately, the album opened to lackluster sales even as its length proved prohibitive for radio airplay. Edited and released as a single in March 1971, it peaked no higher than #51 on the Billboard charts. Depressed by Layla‘s lack of commercial success, the breakup of the Dominos and his own unrequited love for Patti, Clapton retreated into drug addiction and disappeared from public view.
His re-emergence in 1973 coincided with my departure for Africa. By the time I returned to the States, his career had risen and fallen again. Apart from noting the story of his son Conor’s death, the beautiful song Tears in Heaven written in tribute to the child and the inevitable mention of his name in conjunction with every award in the business, Eric Clapton was no more to me than a name.
All that changed last April. Immersing myself in the Blues prior to a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi for the annual Juke Joint Festival, I discovered Robert Johnson, the Delta Bluesman whose short life and limited discography left an indelible mark on musicians who followed him. Eric Clapton was one of those musicians. As he said in a particularly interesting interview, “See… most of my youth my back was against the wall, and the only way to survive that was with dignity, and pride and with courage. I heard that in certain forms of music. I heard it most of all in the blues.”
Articulate in conversation, thoughtful and composed, Clapton today is one of the most effective blues interpreters among us and capable of occasional surprises. Asked which book he would take to that mythical desert island (and denied opportunity to take a full set of Charles Dickens), he settled for Barnaby Rudge. His favorite music includes Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but there’s room on his list for Luciano Pavarotti singing Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme as well as the Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Opus 50 by French composer Gabriel Fauré.
Given what I’ve learned about Clapton, it seems entirely fitting that he not only performs across the stages of the world but crosses its skies as well.
Minor Planet 4305/Clapton was discovered March 7, 1976 by astronomers at the George R. Agassiz Station of the Astronomical Observatory associated with Harvard University. At the time of discovery, it was known provisionally as 1976EC. After proceeding through a relatively stringent and complex naming process, the minor planet was designated Clapton as a tribute to the musician (International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Circular Number 16249, dated April 10, 1990).
The substance of the IAU’s recent debate about new definitions and terms for planets and “those things out there between Mars and Jupiter” isn’t particularly relevant here. It’s enough to note that “Small Solar System Bodies” is now the preferred term, but “minor planet” and “asteroid” remain acceptable for common use. Located between Mars and Jupiter in an area of space known as the Asteroid Belt, Minor Planet Clapton is part of a collection of debris which may have originated during the formation of the solar system.
The International Astronomical Union knows little about the physical properties of Clapton. They estimate its diameter to be 8 to 18 kilometers. Like all minor planets, Clapton is composed of rock or a mixture of rock and metal, has no atmosphere and is incapable of supporting life. Just 1/9372 as bright as the faintest objects visible to the naked eye, it can only be seen with a telescope.
Clapton is in a 4.97-year elliptical orbit around the sun ranging in distance from 405.4 million km at perihelion (closest point to the sun) to 465.8 million km at aphelion (furthest point from the sun). The next perihelion passage will occur in January, 2011.
The diagram below shows the orbit of Clapton in relation to the major planets of the inner solar system For those who are interested, clicking on the image will take you to the IAH Minor Planet page with an updated diagram and links, including a link to ephemerides (sky location) for each of the rock’n’roll minor planets. If you missed a Clapton/Winwood concert, you at least can determine Planet Clapton’s location in tonight’s sky!
From the IAU: This view of the inner solar system is seen from the north ecliptic pole. The sun is the yellow star at the center of the image. The blue orbits represent, in increasing distance from the center, the major planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter. The position of each major planet at the date indicated at the bottom of the plot is shown by the large circled cross. The orbit of the minor planet is shown in red, with the location of the minor planet (at the date indicated at the bottom of the plot) shown as a white circled cross. From this vantage point the planets revolve around the sun in a counter clockwise direction. The vernal equinox is off to the right. The portion of the minor planet’s orbit that is below the plane of the earth’s orbit is shaded grey. The perihelion point of the minor planet’s orbit is at the end of the white straight line through the sun indicated by “P”.
Eric Clapton certainly isn’t the only rock musician who’s had a planet named for him. The International Astronomical Union has honored several others including (appropriately if ironically enough) George Harrison. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Holly and Jerry Garcia are all in orbit, along with Enya, Peter Gabriel and the BeeGees. In short, the list has something for nearly everyone, although Kurt Cobain and Eddie Van Halen are absent and may still be working their way through the IAU’s process.
I think of the world’s astronomers and their collection of minor planets every now and then as I wander through a certain boatyard. There’s a fellow there who’s always ready for a little conversation. Sometimes one or both of us are too busy to chat, but I’ll still ask, “How’re things?” “Fine, just fine,” he replies without fail. “The world’s still rockin’ along…”
And so it is. Tonight, if you do the sensible thing, you’ll turn off the tv, put the computer to sleep and wander out into the dark, taking time not only to look but to listen very, very closely. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a certain beat as the celestial spheres and oblongs and chunks circle along their planes. And if your ear imagines an especially fine riff, a little vibrato that seems to shiver across the cosmos from nowhere and everywhere, with no beginning and without any end, it just might be emanating from (4305)Clapton, the perfect conjunction of planet and star.