Eric Clapton: The Autobiography

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Sober reflections


There is a question I have been pondering ever since, as a teenager, I first heard the extraordinary album John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton. How was a white kid from rural Surrey, barely 21, able to play blues guitar with such command and intensity? Nothing like it had ever been heard before - and seldom since – from anyone who wasn't either African-American or schooled in the juke-joints of Texas or Mississippi.

Though little the guitarist has recorded in the forty-five years since Bluesbreakers has topped that record’s blinding brilliance, the chance that my question might finally be answered was enough to prick my curiosity about Eric Clapton: The Autobiography.

Disappointingly, Clapton’s own account of the making of Bluesbreakers does not approach the Damascus dimensions I had imagined. While acknowledging that the record helped seal his reputation, Clapton, now 62, simply credits its remarkable intensity to the fact that it was recorded quickly, almost live, and his own insistence on playing with his amp up full. As for the near-supernatural quality of the performance – the way he sounds as though he is trying to play himself out of his earthly body - he gives no explanation.

The chapters leading to this point, however, contain hints of what may have led the guitarist to this moment, though his measured prose leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots.

Details of his childhood suggest a few reasons why Clapton might have had such an affinity for the blues. While not marked by poverty or racism – the background against which blues music originally evolved in the southern United States – Eric’s childhood was spent in the shadow of his early and traumatic discovery that he was illegitimate.

He describes how he bonded early with music, mostly via the radio, and at thirteen acquired he his first guitar, a Hoyer, which he recalls lovingly (“very shiny and somehow virginal”). You see this slightly lost, oddly self-possessed young man, seeking solace and discovering his identity in his instrument.

But also, from his mid-teens, he begins to seek escape through alcohol. And ultimately his relationship with alcohol is as much the subject of the book as his relationship with music. In fact, after years of drug and alcohol dependence, dysfunctional relationships, assorted therapies and eventual recovery, he finds it far easier to discuss the nature of addiction than the impetus behind his art. By the final chapter of the book he has become the worst advertisement for sobriety: the crashing bore. Teetotal and smoke-free, he fills the final pages with tedious accounts of hunting, fishing and Christmas shopping.

Far more exciting are the years when the graffito ‘Clapton Is God’ first appeared on London walls (he admits that he liked it); when he was conquering America with Cream, the first supergroup; buying a rural mansion in order to escape from an obsessed drug detective; totalling his Ferrari or pursuing a doomed affair with Patti Boyd, the then-wife of his best friend, Beatle George Harrison.

And yet such spectacular stories are recounted in an oddly muted tone, as though the sheer quantity of extraordinary events have somehow cancelled each other out.

Even the tragic death of his son Conor, age 5 (he falls from a 49th floor window), receives a measured treatment, as Clapton describes his own peculiar detachment from the horrific episode. In the end, he concludes that simply being able to remain sober under such circumstances is the best way to honour his son’s life.

The flat pacing and almost incidental treatment of the music undoubtedly has something to do with Clapton’s co-writer, Christopher Simon Sykes, better known for his jottings on the British aristocracy than his dabblings in music. But it also reflects Clapton’s state of mind today as he looks back, in his own words, ‘sober… virtually deaf’ and ‘a complete curmudgeon’. 

Tags: bluesbookseric clapton

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