In 1969, a psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first articulated the five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying. There are many different forms of grief, however, and in 1970 guitarist Eric Clapton was in the throes of his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, Beatles guitarist (and best friend) George Harrison’s wife. Frustrated, hurt and confused by his anguish, Clapton decided to record a concept album in which a barely veiled Boyd served as the object of his obsession and infatuation in the form of the fictional figure Layla. Making the Layla album was Clapton’s way of working through the stages of grief, and whether he realized it or not, the narrative of Layla progresses pretty much along the same denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance phases that have become all too familiar to those of us who have faced some kind of loss.

I’m going to do something a little differently here. I think it would be somewhat illuminating if I provided some lyrical snippets to illustrate the five phases, so let’s do that.

  1. The album opens with “I Looked Away,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” and “Keep on Growing,” all with pretty clear references to denial: “And if it seemed a sin/To love another man’s woman, baby/I guess I’ll keep on sinning/Loving her, Lord, till my very last day” (“I Looked Away”); “I don’t want to fade away/Give me one more day, please/I don’t want to fade away/In your heart I long to stay” (“Bell Bottom Blues”); “Maybe someday baby, who knows where or when, Lord/Just you wait and see/We’ll be walking together hand in hand, along forever/Woman just you and me” (“Keep on Growing”).
  2. Clapton moves into the anger phase with a cover of Jimmy Cox’s bitter “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (track 4): “In your pocket, not one penny/And as for friends, you don’t have any/When you finally get back up on your feet again/Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.”
  3. Clapton eases into the bargaining phase with “I Am Yours,” “Anyday,” a cover of Charlie Segar’s “Key to the Highway” and the flat-out accusatory “Tell the Truth” (tracks 5-8): “I am yours, however distant you may be” (“I Am Yours”); “But if you believed in me like I believe in you/We could have a love so true, we would go on endlessly” (“Anyday”); “Oh give me one, one more kiss mama/Just before I go/’Cause when I leave this time you know I/I won’t be back no more” (“Key to the Highway”); “Tell the truth/Tell me who’s been fooling you?/Tell the truth/Who’s been fooling who?” (“Tell the Truth”).
  4. The depression phase probably comes the most naturally on “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?,” a cover of Billy Myles’s “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (tracks 9-11): “Got to find me a way/To take me back to yesterday/How can I ever hope to forget you?” (“Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”); “You just love that woman/So much it’s a shame and a sin/But all the time you know/She belongs to your very best friend” (“Have You Ever Loved a Woman”); “When I’m sad she comes to me/With a thousand smiles she gives to me free” (“Little Wing”).
  5. Clapton reaches a measurable level of acceptance on the album’s final three tracks: a cover of Chuck Willis’s “It’s Too Late,” the epic “Layla” (more in the instrumental coda than in the verses and chorus) and “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” which was written and performed by Bobby Whitlock. “It’s too late, she’s gone/It’s too late, my baby’s gone/Wish I had told her she was my only one/It’s too late, she’s gone” (“It’s Too Late”); “Let’s make the best of the situation/Before I finally go insane” (“Layla”); “And if I never see her face again, I never hold her hand/And if she’s in somebody’s arms, I know I’ll understand” (“Thorn Tree in the Garden”).

Do I think Clapton consciously tried to create a narrative that follows the five steps put forward by Kübler-Ross? Not really. I think it just came naturally when he assembled the track order because it’s a very natural arc. Kübler-Ross herself said that not everyone who faces grief will go through the steps in order, if they even go through all five. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that the theory is even flimsier than that, since Kübler-Ross claimed that everyone always experienced a minimum of only two of the stages. In other words, the five-stage model creates a very artificial narrative, one that works in theory but not in practice. Luckily for us, Layla‘s double album-long narrative is a likewise artificial creation that, like a movie or novel based on a true story, puts events in the most dramatic order. In a move that would probably never seem plausible in a work of fiction (keep reading to find out why), Boyd left Harrison in 1974 to be with Clapton. They married in 1979 and divorced ten years later.

Nevertheless, we still have the Layla album to give us a snapshot of the Clapton/Boyd relationship as it was in 1970. “Layla” may be one of rock and roll’s greatest songs, but the Layla album is just as worthy of a spot in rock & roll lore. The album is often overlooked due to its overtly bluesy nature, but it’s really quite an intense experience to share in such private, painful, unrequited passion. In fact, those who discovered “Layla” through classic rock radio may be a bit bewildered to find pretty much nothing else on the album that would fit on classic rock radio. Layla is, for the most part, a straight-up blues album with a staggering feast of guitar interplay between Clapton and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, who joined the sessions while the Allman Brothers were in Miami, where the album was recorded in August and September of 1970.

Clapton writes in his autobiography about what transpired once the album was finished:

Finally, there was my unrequited love for Pattie. I had convinced myself that when she heard the completed Layla album, with all its references to our situation, she would be so overcome by my cry of love that she would finally leave George and come away with me for good. So I called her up one afternoon and asked her if she’d like to come over for tea and listen to the new record. Of course, it was blatant emotional blackmail and doomed to failure. By this time I’d already applied quite a lot of pressure, and this was just more of the same. Having said that, the quality of the music was pure, and I really did need to share that with someone, and who better than her? Anyhow, she came over and listened, and I think she was deeply touched by the fact that I had written all these songs about her, but at the same time the intensity of it all probably scared the living daylights out of her. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and I was back at square one.

Over the next few months I blindly kept on trying to persuade Pattie to leave George and come and live with me, but I was getting nowhere. Until one day, after another session of fruitless pleading, I told her that if she didn’t leave him, I would start taking heroin full-time. In truth, of course, I had been taking it almost full-time for quite a while. She smiled sadly at me, and I knew the game was over. Apart from one brief meeting at the London airport, that was the last time I saw her for several years. (p. 130-131)