Clapton: the autobiography
By Eric Clapton
New York: Broadway Books
Reviewed by Mike Foster.
Blues music is laced with legend and lore, and the darkest one is the myth of the young man who goes down to the crossroads at midnight and summons Satan, who tunes his guitar and gives him the art and craft to play it like no one else. The price: his soul.
That’s the story of Robert Johnson, and so, too, the story of one of Johnson’s popularizers and most gifted disciples, Eric Clapton.
Except Clapton got his soul back.
Clapton: The Autobiography rarely flinches when the author details all the soul-staggering blows, many self-inflicted, that he suffered. The first was discovering that his “Mum and Dad” were really his grandparents; his “sister” Patricia was truly his mother. Impregnated at age 15 by a Canadian airman stationed near Ripley, Surrey, she bore him clandestinely on March 30, 1945, at home.
Except for that family secret, young Eric’s early years parallel the lives of many another rock musician’s: discovering Elvis and Buddy and Jerry Lee and Chuck; the first guitar, an unplayable aberration; the first song learned on it: “Scarlet Ribbons.”
Finally and foremost, he fell hard for American blues. “There is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.” He educated himself on Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmie Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and, finally and fatally, the Robert Johnson album King of the Delta Blues Singers, recordings cut in 1936-37.
“At first, the music almost repelled me, it was so intense. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. I realized that I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.” His chronicle reveals that he was always seeking a musical ideal that forever eluded him with bands like the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Cream. London underground graffiti stating “Clapton is God” only reminded him that he wasn’t. A literate fellow who fancied Tolkien, Hesse, and Kenneth Patchen, he also kept a diary, like the Rolling Stones’ erstwhile bassist Bill Wyman, and this autobiography has the concrete authenticity of contemporary account.
He captures the heady (pun unavoidable) atmosphere of mid-‘Sixties London in vignettes, describing his first LSD adventure while listening to an acetate pressing of the then-unreleased Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band with the Beatles.
But harder times and harder drugs were hellhounds on his trail. He fell in love with Patti Harrison, the wife of his best friend George and the inspiration of that Beatle’s best ballad, “Something.”
“Layla,” Clapton’s soaring, searing duet with slide guitarist Duane Allman, captured his heroin-fueled heartache. Eventually he wooed and won her and she divorced Harrison. They married in 1977.
But they did not live happily ever after, as Boyd likewise reveals in her autobiography, Wonderful Tonight, titled after a song Clapton wrote for her before his lifestyle killed their love.
The most dangerous drug for Clapton was alcohol, usually two bottles of brandy a day, chased with cocaine. After long years of deadly drunkenness and sordid sprees, he completed one rehab, then backslid hard, and finally went back to Hazelden for a second try. Standing at the crossroads, he believed he was sinking down.
“It shocked me to realize that I here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair. At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion of who I thought I was talking to, I just knew I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.
“Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety.”
With the hard-edged factuality of a 12-stepper, he reveals the trials that his addictions wreaked on him and those close to him. But the horrific death of his four-year-old son Conor in a 49-story fall from a high-rise window in 1991 did not send him diving back into a brandy bottle. “I had found a way to turn this dreadful tragedy into something positive. I was really in a position to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober, then anyone can.’ I realized there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”
After much misery, he is a saved soul with a good marriage, a loving family, and a commitment to helping other addicts through his Crossroads Centre in Antigua.
Forty-six years after writing “Presence of the Lord,” Eric Clapton has finally experienced it:
“I have finally found a place to live just like I never could before.
And I know I don’t have much to give, but soon I’ll open any door.
Everybody knows the secret, everybody knows the score.
I have finally found a place to live in the presence of the Lord.”