NEW YORK (AP) — Eric Clapton, a Belieber?
The 71-year-old guitar legend has three daughters ranging in age from 11 to 14, and it's only natural they have little interest in dad's old Robert Johnson records. They're Justin Bieber fans.
"I was, I suppose, a little bit disappointed that they were talking about him, until I heard the music," he said. "It's got some substance now."
Clapton's fans need not worry about that sentiment. His new disc being released Friday, "I Still Do," fits like a comfortable shoe into his canon. He sings songs by Johnson — it's a wonder he can find one he hadn't covered already — J.J. Cale and Bob Dylan, along with two originals. There's plenty of tasteful acoustic and electric guitar licks, even if recording turned out to be an unexpectedly painful experience.
Just as he was about to go into the studio with producer Glyn Johns, who made "Slowhand" with Clapton 40 years ago, he came down with a nasty case of eczema.
"It was a nightmare," he said. "I started thinking that it was psychosomatic, that maybe I was nervous. And maybe I was. Who knows? I had full-body eczema and it ended up my hands."
He was determined not to back down, recognizing that he would have gotten depressed if he had stayed home. The back cover of "I Still Do" pictures Clapton's hand in a protective mitt holding the neck of a guitar, only the fingertips exposed.
Another name on the album's credits will trigger memories and guesswork for long-time Clapton fans. The disc credits "Angelo Mysterioso" for acoustic guitar and vocals on the song "I Will There." Since a near-identical pseudonym was used by George Harrison when he played on a Clapton album but couldn't be credited for contractual reasons, speculation spread that it was a track the former Beatle had left behind. Harrison has been dead for 15 years.
While the thought was "really sweet," Clapton said it's not him.
The old name was dusted off because the real artist's record company didn't want him associated with Clapton, odd as that sounds.
"I like the idea that people will speculate," he said. "They might get it right. They might get it wrong. But I'm not going to say. I gave my word."
One of Clapton's new originals, "Spiral," turned out almost inadvertently autobiographical. Playing to a groove his band had come up with, Clapton made up lyrics on the spot: "You don't know how much this means," he sang, "to have this music in me."
"I've gotta have it," he concludes.
Clapton enjoys performing, but not the travel or nights in hotels. It means the days of extended concert tours are over for him.
Can he still conjure the days when he was the young gunslinger, when his fiery playing led to "Clapton is God" graffiti in London?
"I can't go to that place anymore," he said. "I have to work hard now to get to the place where it's absolutely free. The days you're referring to I was doing it non-stop all day long and it was all I ever thought about. I was a young man with a passion. I don't know that guy anymore at all. But I know where the music came from and I can tap into a point where I think it's OK."
Clapton has talked about retirement, about recognizing when it's time to hang up the guitar before someone has to tell him. It's impossible to ignore the spate of music-related deaths: David Bowie and Prince may have gotten the biggest headlines, but Cale and B.B. King hit Clapton the hardest.
In that context, it's hard not to wonder if a message is being sent by the last song on Clapton's disc, the standard "I'll Be Seeing You" popularized by Billie Holliday.
"It's one of those things that's been haunting me," he said. "I love the song and I love the sentiment. Just in case I don't cut another record, this is how I feel. I kind of might be saying goodbye. But I've been doing that for a while."
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder