In 1977 Eric Clapton released Wonderful Tonight, possibly one of the greatest love songs ever written. He wrote it for his then partner and soon be wife Patti Boyd. The couple would go on to be married for 9 years before separating, a marriage that was rife with infidelity, alcoholism and domestic abuse. So what does that then mean for the song?
To be clear, I don’t mean for one second that how their relationship ended means Clapton loses the right to sing this song or that it somehow diminishes it. But I do wonder does it change it somewhat? That age old debate of whether or not the personal life of the artists affect the art rears its head again. There have been many artists accused and convicted of awful crimes and the debates are endless as to whether or not people should continue to enjoy their art as a result.
That’s not quite the debate I want to have though. Clapton’s misgivings and actions with Boyd may make you decide you want nothing to do with his music and that’s totally fine but my focus rests more on the real life events and how they influence the overall mood and attitude of the work itself, specifically for the artist themselves. For me, Wonderful Tonight is one of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon.
There’s no denying it’s an absolutely beautiful song and that Clapton has performed it many times since his split from Boyd but how does that feel for him? Is he that far separated from that time now that it doesn’t even cross his mind? Or does he use it as a reminder of the good times they no doubt had before things soured?
It’s a question that fascinates me because I’ve had it crop up in my head for some of my own songs through the years. The first fully fledged song I composed was a track called Ban On Love. It was a standard pop punk teen rebellion song protesting my school’s newly imposed relationship policy. Essentially there was a ban placed on any public displays of affection between couples, which as I’ve gotten older I’d say is fair enough in certain capacities, but this went as far as putting a ban on hand holding. The song proved to be one of the more popular numbers performed by the band I was in at the time and still stands as one of my favourites of my own compositions but I do find it harder to sing nowadays. Namely because I’m not a wannabe rebellious teen in school anymore.
Like anyone else that’s ever put pen to paper and written a song, I’ve written many songs about loves lived and loves lost. Some of those written whilst in relationships were a little harder to sing once said relationship had ended and on the flipside some of the more bitter breakup songs lost a bit of venom for a while once I reached the point of acceptance and moving on from how I felt in the immediate aftermath.
Ultimately the conclusion I reached on how I feel about those songs is twofold. On the one hand, say for the likes of the love songs, the conclusion I had to reach is that they’re not just for me. The greatest compliment you can receive as a songwriter is someone telling you that your song has struck a chord with them and they’ve allied it to their own life experience. The other conclusion I reached however is that it’s all just an act ultimately. I write my own songs, not nearly as much I’d like to, but I also cover other artist’s songs regularly. I’ve covered songs with very little direct personal connection to me or my circumstances, but once the lyrics and melody resonate in some way I’d like to think I can do a “justified” cover of it. My own songs are no different. At the time I write them for myself, but when circumstances change that doesn’t mean I toss that song to one side. Same goes for Clapton and Wonderful Tonight, and long may it continue.
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