Some songs are both easily forgettable and deeply familiar. I hear them and feel as if I am unearthing a repressed secret from childhood or recalling a past life. They are not songs I would count among my favorites or listen to often, but they seem to have some magical quality to hypnotize me for a few minutes, then disappear completely for months or years until I stumble upon them again and am triggered back into a trance.
Blind Faith was a supergroup formed in 1969 by Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood after Cream and Traffic broke up. They made one album and toured a little, then split less than a year after forming. All three men would go on to well documented, long and winding career paths in which their virtuosic musicianship caused them to be vagabonds, drifting in and out of various fleeting band configurations and solo incarnations that never quite felt authentic or natural. Along the way they all produced quite a few spectacular moments; creative crescendos emerging out of mottled bodies of work ranging from the wildly innovative to sterilized pop.
Winwood wrote “Can’t Find My Way Back Home,” possibly inspired my watching so many of his former and current bandmates descend into drug addiction[i], and it became Blind Faith’s first and only hit. Clapton had supposedly dissolved Cream because of the ego clashes between Baker and Jack Bruce, which played out in the music of a band that often sounded like three musicians battling for supremacy rather than meshing together. While fans revered him and often just wanted to hear him solo, Clapton longed to find bandmates he could fit in with. In later years, Winwood would describe Clapton as reluctant to assert himself and dominate a band’s sound, saying “[Clapton] was very much more a listener, perhaps in the same way Hendrix was.”[ii] The two icons’ union was perhaps doomed from the moment Winwood convinced Clapton to bring the volatile alpha male Baker into the fold, but the fragile bond stayed intact long enough to create at least one great song.[iii]
With Clapton’s classic riff of rapidly ascending and descending notes resting comfortably on Ric Grech’s simple and steady bassline, and Winwood’s brilliant organ playing perfectly in the spaces between them, Baker’s aggressively inventive percussion is free to push its way into the foreground (right where he wants it to be). Winwood’s tenor has never sounded better (he hasn’t yet reached the outlandish blue-eyed soulfulness of his “Higher Love” days, his voice sounds boyishly rough, right in line with the song’s firm yet laid-back groove). I prefer the live versions where Clapton goes electric and Winwood stays out of his higher register to the gentle and intricate acoustic arrangement on the album.
Maybe the reason the song seems so familiar and universal to me is because it has been covered hundreds of times by dozens of performers. It has stayed a part of both Clapton and Winwood’s live repertoires through the years[iv], but has also inspired a wide variety of performers across genres. It is frequently interpreted by female vocalists, including Bonnie Raitt, Allison Krauss, and Yvonne Elliman.[v]
Perhaps my favorite cover version is by the pioneering and label-resistant group Swans. The song appears on their 1989 album Burning World, in which they eschewed their highly experimental (and frequently and intentionally abrasive) early style for a tone that was equally shocking in its eerie beauty. Vocalist Jarboe turns the tune into a sonic canvas spotted with Tablas, cymbal splashes, and Michael Gira’s layered guitar work and production:[vi]
Here is Blind Faith doing the song at one of their first-ever live performances, at Hyde Park in London in 1969:
[i] Clapton told Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer in 1970 that Winwood had described the song as being about “the addict’s struggle to get back on track and back to being himself.”
[iii] I thought about Blind Faith back in 2011 when Lebron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with Dwayne Wade to form the Miami Heat. Commentators had visions of a basketball dream team that would win 75 games a season and a decade’s worth of championships. But the simple math of taking three great pieces and expecting them to multiply each other’s effectiveness doesn’t always pan out. That kind of thing is tough to sustain, like the nucleus of an atom with too many strong forces.
[iv] Winwood often plays the song with frequent collaborators Widespread Panic. One interesting thing is that Winwood is steering clear of the organ and piano and mandolin these days and has shown himself to be a pretty solid guitarist in his own right. Check him out jamming with Clapton and Derek Trucks at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Fesitval.