File Under: Rock and Roll Diplomacy. According to the Associated Press, a North Korean diplomat confirmed that "officials have invited rock guitarist Eric Clapton to play a concert in the communist state." So the good Mr. Clapton must decide whether to take the gig or not. If he does, he might help bring down a Stalinist state.
He sounds like a diplomat already, judging by the response from his spokesperson. "Eric Clapton receives numerous offers to play in countries around the world," said Kristen Foster. "There is no agreement whatsoever for him to play in North Korea, nor any planned shows there." Perfect, Kristen. That's a denial there is any agreement in place, but one that leaves the door open to future agreements - and does so in a way that gives Eric the upper, er, hand.
(For those of you who might not know, fans and publicists gave the guitarist "Slowhand" as an ironic nickname.)
Could a Clapton gig in Pyongyang really bring down the 60-year-old Stalinist dictatorship? (It's not quite as old as the 62-year-old Clapton - sorry, Eric - but it's still pretty old.)
Not by itself, of course. But I was working on a number of projects in Eastern Europe when Communism fell, and it was astonishing to watch the role rock and roll played in the downfall of the Soviet empire. During my time in Prague I was under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and the World Bank, but my real credibility there - to the extent I had any - came from my background as a rock and roll musician.
I wanted to talk about a peaceful revolution, and they wanted to hear what it was really like to play at CBGB's.
I had given up my dreams of rock and roll stardom and replaced them with hopes of becoming part of some real transformation of the political and economic world.. But who got there instead? Frank Zappa and Lou Reed, who were both senior advisors to Prime Minister Havel in Czechoslovakia. Zappa was even offered a government ministry, although the U.S. government wouldn't let him accept it.
Reed and Zappa, known respectively for "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" and "Heroin." They got rich, then got in on the world-changing excitement. (Bastards.)
Eric Clapton's cut from much courtlier cloth. He dresses in suits and conveys enormous class and dignity onstage. Instead of calling him "Slowhand" they should call him ... well, not the "Statesman of the Blues." That would be B. B. King. How about "Envoy of the Blues," or even "Ambassador of the Blues"? Has a certain ring, doesn't it? And it's a very fair description of the role he's played in bringing blues to a mass audience. (And whichever title Clapton doesn't get should go to John Mayall.)
How did he get this invitation? According to the AP: "Kim Jong Chol, the Swiss-educated son of national leader Kim Jong Il, is reportedly a Clapton fan." Should Eric take the gig? I say yes. Who knows what forces he might set in motion?
But what would he play? "Bell Bottom Blues" might appeal to Kim Jong Il's unusual fashion sense. It's a beautiful song, too - it's the one that goes "I don't want to fade away ..." And he could play "Wonderful Tonight," which I prefer to think of as the "Al-Anon Theme Song." (She's "wonderful" for, among other things, taking care of him when he can't even put himself to bed. Makes a good advertisement for recovery when you hear it these days, now that Eric's clean and sober.)
His only competition for pop entertainment there would be the "Mass Games," a spectacle that involves up to 100,000 performers and can last 50 nights. Instead of that mass display there would just be one singer and guitarist, backed up by his band.
"I always thought," Bob Dylan once said, "that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar, could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing."
Imagine: Kim Jong Il will probably be there for the show. Clapton hasn't shared a stage with anyone who wears glasses like that since he jammed with Elton John. And imagine how the atheist doctrine of North Korea might be tested by a man who was once celebrated with London street graffiti reading "Clapton Is God." And Clapton's 12-step allegiance to a Higher Power stands in stark contrast to the North Korean state ideology of Juche, or "self-reliance."
Not that I care what people do or don't believe. That's up to them. But I care very much when the state tells them what to believe. North Korea, Iran - it's wrong either way.
Eric, if this ever gets to you, I say: Play the gig. When opportunities like this come along there's a reason. As Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backward but it has to be lived forward." So live it, man. Do the job. It's an opportunity to carry a message and be of service. You might accomplish what General Douglas MacArthur failed to do with his legions of armies and warehouses full of weapons.
Remember Douglas MacArthur? He's the guy who said "Old guitarists never die. They just want to fade away."
Or words to that effect.
(Programming note: I'll be co-hosting The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur today at 3 pm EST.)