I don’t know who Eric Johnson is, but he plays a mean guitar.
In 1990, Eric Johnson released his album Ah Via Musicom which has the sublime tour de force “Cliffs of Dover” featuring a blistering, melodic lead guitar played by Johnson. No vocals, no backing chorus, just the guitar and his backing band.
Instrumental songs have never been a huge rock and roll phenomenon. Sure, there was “Wipe Out” by the Surfari’s in 1963, which was really nothing more than a reason for a drum solo that every single drummer of the early rock and roll era needed to learn to play. I suppose you could also consider the lovely “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brother’s Band from 1970 (although it goes on for a full half an hour!), and Steve Ray Vaughan’s amazing cover of the Jimi Hendrix tune “Little Wing” released in 1991, not long after Vaughan’s untimely death in a helicopter accident. There are more to be sure, but the examples don’t come tumbling into my mind like examples of great Beatles songs might, or Bruce Springsteen anthems, or cover songs, or…. (the list could go on and on).
I’ll never forget hearing “Cliffs of Dover” for the first time. My wife and I were engaged to be married, and I think we were driving to my uncle’s house for dinner to break the Yom Kippur fast. The sun was getting low in the sky. We were both very hungry after not having eaten for the entire day, fantasizing about the food we were about to engorge.
As our car snaked through the tree lined suburban streets, “Cliffs of Dover” begins to play on the radio. It was a brand new song at the time. We had never heard it before, and with no words between us, we listen. The song begins with a guitar solo that might be a career exclamation point for everyone else, but for Eric Johnson it was just the intro.
The tuneless solo soon finds a melody, and the rest of the band falls in to begin the song. Enjoying the song, we rode in the car waiting for vocals that would never arrive. They didn’t need to. This song was complete with no singer to lead the way.
It’s too bad there is not more good instrumental music to enjoy, at least perhaps outside the worlds of jazz and classical. I love a good instrumental. The lack of a descriptive narrative enables our mind to wander, to explore the space between the notes. We can make up a story. We can hear the world around us. The instruments are front and center.
The song is called “Cliffs of Dover,” and through Johnson’s guitar we can hear the wind, and we can see the water crash on the shore. The guitar sings, it doesn’t scream. I remember mentioning in the car (as if I knew what I was talking about), “now this is what makes a good instrumental. We don’t even miss the vocals.” My then fiance humored me with a smile and a nod as we pulled into my uncle’s driveway.
“Cliffs of Dover” is about nature. No, it is about environmentalism. It is an ode to the generations of his family that came before him. It is a love song. It’s a tribute. A reminder. “Cliffs of Dover” is about all of these things. It’s about none of these things. There are no words. You decide.
In the subsequent years, I have connected with a lot of good instrumental music, but instrumentals are certainly the exception to the rule in a world of pithy lyrics that take us through love stories, troubled teenage years and stories of faith and redemption.
“Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck quartet (needless to say, avoid the version with the lyrics. Whose bright idea was that?). “Skye Boat Song,” a lush cover of a 19th century song about Scottish royalty, by Van Morrison. Signe by Eric Clapton, the amazing track that begins his 1992 Unplugged album. These are all great tracks, and there are tragically too few of them. We need more. We need to be trusted as an audience, as listeners, to be able to hear a narrative when there is none. To be engaged when there is no story, and to be entertained when there is overt personality or ego leading the way.
Nothing to be explained. No stories to be told. Good music. Flawless instrumentation and interpretation. Perfect.
“Cliffs of Dover”
Written by Eric Johnson
Performed by Eric Johnson
Released February 1990