In 1992, Eric Clapton released his acoustic album “Unplugged,” which included a stripped-down cover of his own work: 1971’s “Layla,” performed by Derek and the Dominos.
I was born in 1982 and I had never heard the original. The acoustic cover charted and played seemingly everywhere. I was 10 and I had an FM radio before I managed to score a Walkman through school-based athletic bribery. I listened to whatever was on. I loved “Layla.” It had a groove to it, even as a smooth adult contemporary tune. I sang along with it on the radio.
My first mother was adept at ignoring me. I could not get her attention at all when I wanted or needed it, so it was always a surprise when she took an interest unprompted. This song did it. She heard me singing along to “Layla” and she lost her entire inventory of chill.
She couldn’t even really explain herself. She was agitated but amused, telling me I’d never heard Layla, that I had no idea. This wasn’t the real Layla. She would introduce me to the real Layla.
There was no YouTube or Spotify back then, so this took weeks to coalesce. Whenever the song would play on the radio, she’d get this sly look. You’ll see, she told me. You don’t even know.
The tension was delicious, addictive. She was not playful with me, never coy. She did not hint about presents or rewards or play that ‘how much do you love me’ baby game. We didn’t connect. I can count on one hand the number of times she was this interested in me, or this open. She wanted me to know something. She wanted to show me. I wanted the moment to last forever.
Finally, in some thrift shop or used music outlet, she found the song on vinyl. We were too poor to keep the lights on, but we had a great stereo. It was all mismatched: the black and chrome receiver unit sat stacked on top of the wood-paneled mixer that was three inches wider. Miles of stereo wire wadded up behind led to four-foot tall Kenwood speakers on either side of our living room, their delicate fabric webbing torn out and woofers exposed to the poking fingers of children. We had this for the same reason we had a big Magnavox TV and a Sega Genesis: because the drug dealers in our neighborhood occasionally took goods in trade and fenced them out again. My mom picked up home appliances and the old paper food stamps for fifty cents on the dollar about once a week. It was a strange life; all feast and famine.
She put the glossy black record on the turntable and dropped the needle. That incendiary opening riff ripped its way out of the speakers and she watched the song hit me in the solar plexus. I saw her observing me, saw that she wanted me to feel it. I felt it, showed it on my face, I let her have it. She let me have her pleasure and satisfaction back, not hiding her feelings or refusing me eye contact for one brief, fragile moment. This song reminds me of the person my birth mother might have been. I think I saw her, for a whole minute of a seventies rock song. I don’t know that I ever saw her again.
I wrote “Find Layla” about the relationship I had with my mother and the kind of person that helped me grow up to be. The title comes from one fleeting moment of connection in an old song. I can play this song any time at all and feel young again, feel like it’s possible to shed an old skin and find myself new underneath.
Today, Layla is out in the world. She’s for motherless children and adults who still don’t know the way home. She’s for people who grew up poor but came out of it with more gifts than anyone might think. She’s for anybody who wants to know what it was like to grow up with almost nothing. She’s for anybody who was bullied. She’s for anybody who was out on their own too young and is still raising themselves. She’s for me and you.
I hear it fast, and I hear it slow.
What’ll you do when you get lonely
And nobody’s waiting by your side?
You’ve been running and hiding much too long
You know it’s just your foolish pride