By Michael E. Miller
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They aren't nearly as morbid as the tourists who swarm to the entryway of Gianni Versace's South Beach mansion, taking snapshots of each other on the very spot where the fashion designer was gunned down in 1997. But then the steady stream of pilgrims arriving at 461 Ocean Boulevard in Golden Beach are celebrating a very different Miamian cultural moment, one far removed from Versace's catwalking whirl of leggy young women and even leggier young men.
"My name may be on the deed, but it's still Eric Clapton's house," laughs Herbert Tobin, current owner of the spacious five-bedroom home. In local circles Tobin may be known alternately as a shrewd real estate developer, a generous philanthropist to the Jewish community, and not least, the former mayor of Golden Beach, a mile-long strip of expensive homes nestled between the towering condo canyons of Sunny Isles Beach and Hallandale.
Yet to the seekers who keep turning up at his front door since he bought the home in 1978, Tobin is simply The Guy Who Won't Let Them Talk To Eric Clapton. "They ring the bell and really expect him to be here," Tobin sighs good-naturedly. "We have people fly in from Japan! They stand there pleading with me -- 'We came all this way, please let us in!' Some of these guys show up in tears. I almost hate to tell them Clapton is long gone."
Indeed Clapton, whose bluesy guitar-hero moves have propelled him from rock and roll royalty to living-legend status, spent barely a month living at 461 Ocean Boulevard in the spring of 1974. But while Clapton himself has long since crossed over into milquetoast balladry and bloodless professionalism, the album he recorded during that month clearly retains an otherworldly hold on the musician's more obsessive fans.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Clapton was so enamored of his Miami sojourn he not only titled that album 461 Ocean Boulevard, he even decorated its fold-out jacket with bucolic, sun-dappled photos that captured him relaxing in the home's living room, and sitting in its backyard, gazing dreamily out at the Atlantic. Barefoot, bearded, bathed in soft white light, and with his shirt open to his navel revealing a large cross necklace hanging upon his chest, Clapton looked less like a rocker than a certain carpenter-cum-prophet.
So is that the magnetic draw all the way to Japan? Are these images -- wedded to the album's ten songs -- conjuring up an enticing vision of heaven on earth?
Tobin has some theories: "There's something about his words and music that is relevant to people who are lost -- especially in the Seventies. He was an artist who seemed real. It may also be the appeal of the drug culture. Not drugs per se, but escapism."
All of that can certainly be heard on 461 Ocean Boulevard, which (tell Tobin to unplug his doorbell) has just been reissued by Universal Records in an expanded CD package. What emerges foremost is a man literally putting his life back together: After recording 1970's Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, an anguished, unrequited valentine to ex-Beatle George Harrison's wife, Patti Boyd, Clapton retreated to his bedroom. He then spent the bulk of the next four years behind closed shades, doing little else besides shooting heroin, even being voted "Most Likely to Die" by the British press.
After a 1974 stint in rehab, Clapton's manager bundled him off to Miami. Criteria studio (now The Hit Factory Criteria) was a popular recording spot, and 461 Ocean Boulevard was often rented out by a Hollywood producer to moneyed artists looking for a secluded spot to lay their heads.
The combination obviously clicked for Clapton. After a few transatlantic phone calls, Patti Boyd left her husband in England and jetted off to Golden Beach. Then, surrounding himself with a band of mostly unknowns, "the routine was days of sunshine and evenings of recording," he gushed to Rolling Stonein 1974. Gone were the wailing pyrotechnics that had fans of his earlier work spray-painting Clapton Is God on London walls. Now came grooves built for comfort, not speed, with Clapton crooning laid-back odes to Patti, saluting the rolling tides of "Mainline Florida," singing "Dear Lord, give me strength to carry on," and introducing America to Bob Marley with a cover of his quasi-Biblical "I Shot the Sheriff" that became Clapton's first number-one hit here.
In fact the erstwhile rock god seemed to have found a new gospel. Recalling one of the last concerts he'd performed in 1970 before retreating into self-exile, Clapton spoke of having dropped acid onstage, watching his guitar solos physically spin out into the air. "Every bad lick I had, every naughty lick," he explained, "turned the audience into these devils in sort of red coats and things. And then I'd play a sweet one and they all turned into angels. I prefer playing to angels, personally."
Angels, demons, pleas to the lord -- Clapton certainly sounded like he'd found The Answer so many of 461 Ocean Boulevard's visitors seem to be seeking. Unfortunately a quest for holiness invariably brings out the hustlers looking to make a buck.
Tobin began receiving phone calls in the early Eighties from young women hoping to shore up the details of their new jobs as caretakers of Clapton's home. The phone calls then became a slew of telegrams. The FBI investigated, eventually tracing it all to a scam artist working out of his Michigan prison cell, running bogus ads in newspapers across the country: If you had a security deposit, Eric Clapton's Miami hideaway needed a house-sitter.