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Rock History 101: Derek & the Dominoes’ “Layla”

on February 08, 2009, 11:00am

The beauty of Pattie Boyd has given birth to some of music’s finest songs. Boyd claims that The Beatles’ “Something”, written by the late George Harrison, is about her. By all accounts, Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” was written for her, as well.

There is yet another song written by Clapton from his time in Derek & the Dominoes about rock’s finest muse. “Layla” is the pinnacle song of wanting someone you can’t have, and Clapton’s “Layla” was Pattie Boyd. By the time of this song’s composition, Clapton was a well-established artist, having risen to fame with the band Cream. He could have had any woman he wanted, but he was infatuated with Boyd. There was but one problem: Pattie Boyd was married to the aforementioned George Harrison. To complicate matters further, Harrison was one of Clapton’s best friends.

To have ownership of something that powerful is something I’ll never be able to get used to. It still knocks me out when I play it.

– Eric Clapton

Clapton couldn’t very well call his new song, “Pattie”, but why did he choose the name “Layla”? The answer comes from a story that has been told for the past 1,400 years about a problem that we still face today. No, it is not a story of war or politics, but of unrequited love. A friend of Clapton’s told him of this tale, the legend of “Layla and Majnun”.

There are parallels between this legend and Clapton’s situation. The legend tells of a man named Qays, a poet, falling for a woman from his community named Layla. The story of Clapton, a songwriter, has him falling for a woman in his music community named Pattie Boyd. Qays wrote poetry for his muse, but unlike Clapton, he called his beloved by her actual name.

layla majnun Rock History 101: Derek & the Dominoes LaylaQays was refused marriage to Layla by her father, and what followed sent the lovesick poet off the deep end. After she Layla married another, Qays became known as “Majnun” (Arabic for “madman”). In our modern times, Clapton can’t marry Boyd because she is already married to Harrison. Both men were devastated, and therein lay the crux of how the title “Layla” came to be.

The outcome of the legend and the outcome of the Clapton story are completely different. While both men roamed the wilderness for years (Clapton symbolically by way of heroin), Qays never got the girl. Clapton, however, did. Nine years after the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is released (and two years after Boyd and Harrison’s divorce), Clapton and Boyd were married.

In Qays’s legend, Layla dies of an illness, Qays of loneliness, leaving only the first husband alive. In Clapton’s story, it is the first husband (Harrison) who dies of an illness, while Boyd and Clapton continue on with their lives, albeit separately. Despite spending all of the seventies yearning for someone he couldn’t have, the magic of Boyd had worn off, and the two divorced in 1989.

Will someone tell the story of “Eric and Pattie” 1,400 years from now? You have read the legend of “Layla and Majnun”, now read the lyrics to Clapton’s “Layla” (recalling the kick ass breakdown at the song’s conclusion):

What’ll you do when you get lonely,

Nobody waiting by your side?

You’ve been running

And hiding much too long;

You know it’s just your foolish pride.

Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.

Layla, I’m begging darling, please.

Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind.

Tried to give you consolation,

When your old man had let you down.

Like a fool, I fell in love with you,

And turned my whole world upside down.

Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.

Layla, I’m begging darling, please.

Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind.

Let’s make the best of the situation

Before I finally go insane.

Please don’t say we’ll never find a way,

And tell me all my love’s in vain.

Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.

Layla, I’m begging darling, please.

Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind

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