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 Blvd. in Golden Beach are celebrating a different South Florida 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 just south of Hallandale Beach.
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 'n' roll royalty to living-legend status, spent barely a month living at 461 Ocean Blvd. 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 South Florida sojourn that he not only titled that album 461 Ocean Boulevard but 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, 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 '70s. 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 was bundled off to Miami by his manager. Criteria studio (now the Hit Factory Criteria) was a popular recording spot, and 461 Ocean Blvd. 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 trans-Atlantic 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 Stone in 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 on-stage, 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 that so many of 461 Ocean Blvd.'s visitors seem to be seeking. Unfortunately, a quest for holiness invariably brings out the hustlers looking to make a buck.
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Tobin began receiving phone calls in the early '80s 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 housesitter.
The telegrams have stopped, but Tobin still receives overdue hospital bills from around the country. These delinquent patients' home addresses? Why, 461 Ocean Blvd. Occasionally, mail will arrive for some of the other famous inhabitants who've spent time in Tobin's abode before him: The Bee Gees loved the area's vibe so much that they never left, subsequently buying homes in Miami Beach; the Eagles lived there while recording Hotel California; Liza Minelli and Barry Manilow are also 461 alumni, though presumably with fewer noise complaints from the neighbors.
But it's the Claptonites -- not crazed Liza devotees belting out show tunes -- who keep knocking on Tobin's front door. One woman recently arrived clutching a copy of 461, which had been inscribed to her husband, who had just passed away. "I want you to have this," she tearfully insisted, thrusting the record into Tobin's hands. "I guess it reminded her of her husband too much," he says. Tobin wasn't sure just what he was supposed to do with the karmically endowed piece of vinyl, but the woman appeared to have suddenly achieved a sense of closure. She had a good cathartic cry, received a comforting hug from Tobin, and then peacefully went on her way.
"It's like having an extra part-job time, caring for all these people," Tobin muses. "They're a bit like a cult." He pauses, perhaps becoming conscious of the fact that despite 26 years of these strange visitors, he's never felt the need for an extra security fence. With a touch of tenderness in his voice, he corrects himself: "They're a very respectful cult."