This is the story of a girl who loves one silly little piece of music so much that it hurts.
Pictured: Humble me posing with my namesake album.
Until very recently, no one knew me as Layla.
On paper, my name is Abigail. I’m Abby to strangers on the internet and those closest to me. But I believe one of the most special things someone can do is name you. It’s a privilege usually just for parents, so to get that from somebody else is exceedingly rare and special. It’s like being gifted a jewel. But instead of it being passed down through the generations, it’s passed between memories of people you may never meet.
This is the story of how unassuming Abby from the grips of suburbia became Layla, a hopeful writer and wannabe muse.
It was all in the music, to begin with.
One January afternoon, a 19-year-old college girl wearing glasses and Doc Martens set off in her dad’s work truck. Our ingenue’s noble quest: to purchase an entire record collection from a man her mother knew through work. The nice man she’d met at the address provided had been there for all the interesting stuff, man. He’d seen The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on TV in middle school. He'd bought all the great rock-and-roll albums the weekends they came out. And here all those great albums were, waiting in an unfinished basement like the freakin' Holy Grail. He asks her, “You like guitarists, right?” She shrugs and agrees; who doesn’t like guitarists? He rattles off a few names, noting one Eric Clapton. Girl is clueless.
But I guess something about her musical naïevité charmed him. She drove off with those 250-some-odd albums (filling any and all room in the truck) for the low, low price of FREE.
As soon as she gets home, she rifes through the albums to see what she got. She was promised The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. (Spoiler alert: neither were in those boxes!) Always one to be meticulous, every last record is entered into a database. God, what a nerd. She finds Pink floyd: standard for the collegiate stoner crowd she flies with. There’s the Stones, it’d be sacrilege if she didn’t keep those. There’s so many groups she heard of only in passing. The Grateful Dead. The Steve Miller Band. The Allman Brothers Band. The Band. So many “the”s!
Bob Dylan? He seems cool. Fleetwood Mac...but wait, where’s Stevie Nicks? There's some Three Dog Night; what's that circus inside the gatefold? And who the hell is Robin Trower?
Pictured: All the records spread out on the living room floor on that fateful day! It took two whole days to sort through them all. I took this photo to send to my boyfriend at the time, I was so excited that I found his favorite Zeppelin record. Clearly the guy didn’t last but I’m pretty glad I saved this photo.
It gets to the point where she starts keeping albums just for the art because there’s no band name on the jacket. Not a bad move for an art student like herself.
One is screaming orange with fair-haired children frolicking in the mountains. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy. Another, hot pink with the most twisted scream since Edvard Munch. In the Court of the Crimson King, of course. And the third, in mustard yellow, is a painting of the most beautiful cat-eyed woman. Platinum hair, blue eyeshadow, and red lipstick. Glamorous, mysterious, enviable.
Picture this: you’ve just received hundreds of albums you’ve never listened to – for free! – from this guy you barely know. You have never heard of Eric Clapton. You don’t really know much about George Harrison, you certainly don’t know who he was married to, and you definitely don’t know how George Harrison knew this Clapton dude.
And then you put Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos on your little turntable.
American music critic Dave Marsh stated that “Layla” was a rare moment in rock-and-roll history “where a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or suicide.” In less words, there is life before Layla, and life after Layla. The words to describe exactly what I heard that night still evade me. What cuts through the fog, though, was listening to the title track three times in a row. That’s 21 unbroken minutes of "Layla." I was so blown away by the dueling guitars in the first seven minutes that I had to give it two more passes under the needle to even catch any of the lyrics:
"Tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down.
Like a fool, I fell in love with you,
You turned my whole world upside-down."
I was mystified. How could a line be so scathing yet so beautiful? The longing felt worn-in, like an old blues man’s shoes. It had traveled the world a thousand times over before it ever graced my ears.
Finally, the third listen. I made it through the verses all right, though the gravity of the lovers’ situation was starting to sink into my young mind.
It was in the final chorus that hit me, exactly two minutes and three seconds in. Blink and you’ll miss it, it’s just before the song spills into the chaos of the first guitar solo. A full-bodied wail of the name repeated so many times before, but so loaded with pain that it tumbles out of the song’s driving time:
It’s infatuation descending into madness. The cry of unrequited love. And it is now seared into 19-year-old me’s memory. She is fragile, and this breaks her. She crumples, head between her knees, and cries for two strangers. And lord, those guitar solos added insult to injury! Way to tear those heartstrings apart.
There is life before Layla and there is life after Layla, and there was no going back.
Once I regained my composure, I decided I had to find out everything there was to know about the rock-and-roll love story of the ages. And oh boy. Layla was very, very much real.
Pictured: The real-life Layla herself, Pattie Boyd. This might just be my favorite look of hers! Not sure where/when this was from, but my best guess places this photo sometime in 1968.
Her name is Pattie Boyd. In her prime, she was one of the most sought-after fashion models of the '60s. And she managed to capture not just one, but two of the all-time great guitarists’ hearts! It’s the classic story of boy is rockstar, boy meets girl, they marry, then boy’s best friend who is also a rockstar also falls in love with the girl! Pattie told of this legendary dynamic in her memoir, Wonderful Tonight. At surface-level, this love affair was the stuff of my wildest dreams. The life of a student is mundane outside drinking your face off Thursdays through Saturdays, so to put myself in Pattie’s shoes was an exciting escape. Before long I absorbed every. Last. Detail. I possibly could.
This star-crossed love story sparked the want to be something. Something that wasn't the art school girl armed with trusty platform boots and drawing paper that stood all the way up to her shoulders. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being that girl, mind you! But my feet felt wrong in those shoes. It just wasn’t me and I couldn’t kid myself into thinking it was anymore. This new hunger couldn’t be satisfied by sulking to American Football.
Yes, there already was a real-life Layla. But she wasn’t really Layla per say. She’s Pattie Boyd, a real woman with real accomplishments that far and away eclipse some guitar-wielding buffoon’s dedication to her. Her relationship with Eric wasn’t too great. I didn’t want to encapsulate Pattie, Pattie already did that.
Instead, I wanted to bottle whatever lightning was in that song and use it to light up my existence. I wanted to live the crushing vulnerability AND the wild freedom. So I set about a quest to be that girl. The one with heavy bangs, a wicked smile, and that certain “I-don’t-know-what” that could bring great minds to their knees. That could make titans fall. I traded Doc Martens and Joy Division t-shirts for inch-and-a-halfers and thrifted paisley blouses.
The chase for that girl had begun.
Over two years and a good many heartbreaks, I clung tight to Layla. It was one of the few constants in my life. For lack of a better term, your early 20s will suck. Everything is temporary: boys, friends, hair – you name it! But wherever I went, I took my beloved copy of Layla with me. It even came along to dorm rooms the size of a shoebox; traveling in a black plastic milk crate from Walmart. In those years I’d consumed just about every piece of media related to the ill-fated Derek and the Dominos. On one fateful road trip to South Carolina (a story for another post) I listened to Layla front and back, over and under and sideways. I made sure to show it off whenever someone dropping by my dorm room wanted to see my record collection. The “Little Wing” cover was the soundtrack to kissing many, many guys. The live shows? All listened to. Johnny Cash Show performance? Seen it a hundred times. Hell, I’d even heard “Devil Road”!
But little did I know my love for this album was about to go to a whole new level…
Pictured: Some of my prized possessions: copies of the logs from the Layla sessions from the 20th anniversary CD box set. Pictured are the sheets from recording “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and the title track. My dad gave me the box set for my 21st birthday.