Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: After the beleaguered lead guitarist of a band responds to heckling by asking if anyone in the audience thinks he can do better, Eric Clapton steps onto the stage and shows him up.
Origins: "Major" Edward Bowes, the impresario of the first and most famous of the anyone-can-be-a-star national programs made possible by the advent of mass communications ("Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour") once said, "All men are at heart critics, and since time immemorial, they have always felt they can run the other fellow's show better than he can." That sentiment forms the core of this tale, a very old bit of humor that has been told both as joke and legend (with differing details, of course) for many, many years.
If we had to put a label to this form, we might classify it as "satisfaction humor"; in this case the abrasive and brash performer getting his comeuppance when he's bested on stage by a mere amateur. It's a scenario that doesn't always take place on a literal stage, nor is the "performance" always of an artistic nature. It's told of many different kinds of "traditional" performers (musicians, comedians, jugglers) as well as athletes (boxers, wrestlers, pitchers), sportsmen (sharpshooters, rodeo riders) and even craftsmen (blacksmiths). Adding to the delight of seeing the professional bested is the upstaging onlooker's membership in an unusual category, as when the one who does the showing-up is a mere woman (or a child or an idiot or even an animal).
The moral here is easy to discern: Don't become so full of yourself that you think you're the best (or can give less than your best). No matter how good you are, you're only a big fish in a little pond; somewhere out there an even bigger fish is waiting just for you. The popular contemporary version of this little morality tale (as quoted above) has an additional point to make about our times, however; one that becomes more apparent when we consider why this version is the one most often told today.
The choice of setting seems obvious enough — the most heavily-attended type of artistic performance over the last thirty years has been the rock concert, and their most admired performer therein the guitar virtuoso. The one who climbs out of the audience to upstage the featured performer is therefore nearly always Eric Clapton, who has reigned unchallenged as rock's premier guitarist for well over thirty years. (Other guitarists may lay claim to the title from time to time, but no one else has approached Clapton's fame and popularity. Jimi Hendrix might have, but he departed this world too early on and was too easily recognizable in appearance to make him a likely participant in this tale.) Although the identity of the heckled band varies a bit, Grand Funk is the one most often mentioned. But why Grand Funk? The choice here isn't based on any real (or even plausible) occurrence: it's hard enough to picture Eric Clapton wanting to attend a Grand Funk concert, much less being able to sit quietly unnoticed in the audience.
The short answer to "Why Grand Funk?" might be that they had one of the lowest talent/popularity ratios of any rock band ever. They acquired a tremendous following after their appearance at the 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival, and they were enormously popular in the first half of the 1970s despite being mercilessly pummeled by the critics. As former Rolling Stone editor Dave Marsh once described them, they epitomized just about the worst of everything in rock:
[Grand Funk] were archetypal Midwestern rock & rollers, long-haired, impolite and sweatyAnd Grand Funk wasn't an act of the cute, well-groomed, sugary variety (like their contemporaries the Osmonds or the Bay City Rollers, or later entries such as the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys) who garnered huge followings by appealing to prepubescent girls or drooling
What does all this indicate? Consider that it was not until fairly recently in human history that a performer could be seen or heard by an audience removed from him in time or place. Sound recording and motion pictures are primarily
Last updated: 6 May 2007
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