David Browne
February 19, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

It all comes down to pain and work. You’re tormented by some emotional calamity, you feel dazed and confused, and rather than degenerate into human Jell-O, you bury yourself in whatever it is you do best — a profession, a hobby, or just busywork. If you don’t, the awfulness of the situation could prove overwhelming. Many of us have been there, and few more poignantly than Eric Clapton in January 1992.

That month he taped a segment of MTV Unplugged, and the one theme running through his life at that point was death. On Aug. 27, 1990, Clapton lost two members of his road crew and his booking agent in the same helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then, on March 20, 1991, his 4-year-old son, Conor, fell 49 stories to his death — a tragic accident from which many parents might never recover. Yet there was Clapton on an Unplugged soundstage near London, back at work. Looking dignified and professorial in tortoiseshell glasses and beard, he led his acoustic band through a strolling set of laid- back blues shuffles (and ”Tears in Heaven,” a lament for and conversation with his late son), and you couldn’t help but be impressed. The man deserves a Grammy for heavy mettle alone.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons — logical, music-business ones — why Clapton will walk away with at least a few of the eight Grammys for which he has been nominated, including Album, Record, and Song of the Year (”Layla,” remade on the album as a slinky acoustic ballad). Unplugged was a major career boost for the guitarist: The TV segment was a ratings hit, and the album has sold 4 million copies.

For an audience of baby boomers who grew up with Clapton’s guitar leads as life’s soundtrack (and who, most likely, are the leading Grammy voter bloc), the album was reassuring. The ”unplugged” format recalled a time when men roamed the earth and played real, honest-to-God instruments, and the music made for downright pleasant listening. ”It was the new version of ‘Layla’ (that sold the album),” says Jahn Summers, record-sales manager of Tower Records’ Chicago branch, which itself sold an impressive 1,800 copies of Unplugged last year (compared with 400 of Pearl Jam’s Ten). ”For fans of ’70s music who are less energetic, it was a beautiful version to relax at home with.” Grammy voters will also be impressed by another factor: Unplugged is a truly cross-generational event. ”Twenty-year-olds walk up to us and say, ‘I really love that new Clapton song, ”Layla,””’ says Van Toffler, senior vice president of programming enterprises at MTV.

If Unplugged had been another boring comeback by yet another weathered ’60s rock geezer, we could say take the Grammys and good riddance. But something about it lingers long after the climactic jam on Muddy Waters’ ”Rollin’ & Tumblin’.” It has to do with resilience and, yes, that work-pain ethic.

Clapton has had a long and distinguished career, from his early years as guitar hotshot with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds through fondly recalled ’60s groups like Cream and Blind Faith. Then, starting in 1970, came Derek & the Dominos and then a solo career that has had its share of highs (enduring albums like 461 Ocean Boulevard) and lows (the sad sight of Clapton shilling for a beer company in a 1987 TV commercial). It has also been haunted by seemingly relentless pain — an early ’70s bout with heroin addiction (on the heels of his unrequited love for George Harrison’s then wife, Patti, whom Clapton eventually married), the murder conviction of drummer Jim Gordon, an ex-Derek & the Dominos bandmate. Then came his affair with Lori Del Santo and the birth of their son, Conor, which ended his marriage to Patti — and finally the deaths of his coworkers and then his only child.

Each time Clapton has rebounded — putting his nose to the grimstone, as it were — and Unplugged found him doing it once again, facing down one of the worst imaginable horrors by flinging himself back into his job. Clapton didn’t acknowledge his loss on the show, but he didn’t have to; the way his eyes were half-closed during the forlorn ”Tears in Heaven” spoke volumes. In search of salvation, he instead looked to the past, playing a set that relied heavily on obscure blues songs he learned as a child. Certainly that’s not enough to erase anyone’s inner pain, but judging from the few smiles that slipped across Clapton’s face during the show, it came close. Unplugged did more than make Clapton seem human; it was optimism incarnate. In a simple, unassuming way, it said that if he could get through this mess, then so could we.

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