It’s a story often told since the 1960s: A talented, albeit spoiled and emotionally damaged, child ages into a pampered post-adolescent celebrity with substance-abuse issues and a trail of wrecked lives behind him and finally seeks redemption upon reaching adulthood decades later. In the case of guitarist extraordinaire Eric Clapton, it’s been told in elaborate detail—including a 2007 mea culpa penned by the man himself.
Mostly forgotten in these many retellings is the music he was inspired to create despite or perhaps due to his many insecurities masked by a fog of alcohol and heroin, as well as bounteous sex and obsessive relationships with his best friend’s wife, among others. But, unfortunately, the biographical details of Clapton’s life too easily lend themselves to a simple recounting of all the sex and drugs with only a mild seasoning of the rock and roll that subsidized the whole megillah.
It’s all reminiscent of the old BBC “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again” gag wherein an emcee announces, “Ladies and gentlemen: Petula Clark sings!” and another voice responds, “Yes, we know that.” From countless magazine articles and anthology liner notes to previous books by Steve Turner and Chris Welch, tell-all documentaries, the aforementioned autobiography by the man himself as well as another by his ex-wife, it’s all a sordid paint-by-numbers exercise by this point. It seems there’s nothing new under, in front of, or behind the sun.
A Profound Inspiration
That is a shame for me, a guy for whom Cream’s version of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” was a personal theme song throughout high school. Included on a “Best of” anthology left behind by an older sibling (and miraculously spared from the flames that greeted the rest of a rather prodigious vinyl library accumulated by my brothers and sisters and overdramatically destroyed by puritanical parents), I’d play the song endlessly on an Admiral phonograph wired to the speaker of an antique Philco radio with a magnet so thick and heavy, it could’ve buoyed the Titanic on its maiden voyage.
The thundering bass line by Jack Bruce, whip-crack drumming by Ginger Baker and sinewy guitar leads by Clapton served as an aural sign of teenage angst to all beyond my bedroom door: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” much to the chagrin of my baffled and disapproving parental units.
My fascination with all-things Clapton, British blues, and, finally, Chicago and Delta blues was boosted by a high-school friend’s equal obsession with Derek and the Dominos’ double-album of love and loss, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” and the 1972 “History of Eric Clapton” compilation. Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos, and solo? Yes, please. It wasn’t long before I was sneaking the source material from that anthology into my parents’ house after dark lest it be melted in another Fahrenheit 451 music purge.
Clapton wasn’t God for this Catholic-school boy, but he certainly provided a hefty share of my musical upbringing in the mid-1970s, and my entrée to other like-minded artists who shared American blues music as a profound inspiration. If not for Clapton, vocalist and harp blower Kim Wilson corrected me after a scorching 1983 Fabulous Thunderbird’s gig in Chicago, there’d be little to no interest in what some might derisively classify white-boy blues.
This after I ignorantly told him how much I thought the Thunderbirds “blew Clapton off the stage” outside Detroit one year prior. I would add to Wilson’s assessment that it’s also likely there’d be less name recognition of the many black artists Clapton selflessly introduced to a larger audience throughout his career, including Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Robert Cray.
Such insights of the musical milieu in which Clapton traveled, and eventually came to dominate, are to a large extent absent in the latest entry in Dissolute Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Sweepstakes, Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton by Philip Norman. The biographer of Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Elton John, and even the Beatles and Rolling Stones, succumbs to the siren call of drug addiction and love affairs without divulging—much—about the music that propelled Clapton to the celebrity status that concomitantly grants the false impression that most of us care to know more about his personal hygiene (and lack thereof), clothing fixation, drug and alcohol intake, and supermodel sexual conquests.
It’s acknowledged and well-documented that Clapton, for the most part, was a train wreck throughout the 1970s and 1980s and somewhat beyond. But we already knew Petula Clark sings. To be fair, Norman admirably documents the flurry of musical activity that produced some of the 1960s’ most exciting and influential music. Norman is good particularly in this regard when he provides in great detail Clapton’s hiatus from his tenure in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—also recounted in the guitarist’s previous autobiography.
With a group of friends calling themselves the Glands (later, the Faces—having no relation whatsoever with the later British bands the Small Faces or subsequent Faces), the original plan was for them to drive a 1953 Ford Fairline (sic) Country Sedan station wagon through West Germany and Yugoslavia to Greece and points East before winding up in Australia. Clapton and several cohorts returned to London after a comedy of errors—and no small amount of tragedy—in Athens, while the Ford Fairlane wagon finally gave up the ghost in Karachi, Pakistan.
It’s the stuff of great biography, and one desires more of these types of anecdotes. After all, many of the principals in Clapton’s long, colorful story are still living. It wouldn’t have taken much, for example, to ring up surviving members of the Yardbirds to get a more detailed discussion of the group’s recording of its first major hit and last recording featuring Clapton, Graham Gouldman’s “For Your Love.” Or even speak with the song’s guest keyboardist, Brian Auger, who explained to me a decade or so ago that the absence of a piano in the studio led him to improvise on the only other instrument available: the harpsichord that defined the song as a classic of early psychedelic rock.
Given the eventual importance of Cream in the rock firmament despite only functioning as a creative unit for two years, the band and its legacy are given adequate space. Norman quotes some astute commentary from Janet Bruce on what might’ve prolonged the band’s longevity. While Clapton reportedly attempted unsuccessfully time and again to bring Traffic wunderkind Steve Winwood into the fold to sing, write songs, and play keyboards and guitar, the rhythm section and management scuttled the idea.
The easier solution, said Bruce, was to recruit Pete Brown for their tours. Since the poet/performance artist was collaborating successfully with bassist Jack Bruce on the band’s best-known songs, it made sense but, unfortunately, wasn’t in the budget. Subsequent acts such as Procol Harem (Keith Reid), King Crimson (Pete Sinfield), and Elton John (Bernie Taupin) eventually realized this advice with successful lyrical returns.
While simple errors such as misidentifying a classic Ford station wagon are understandable, several other errors are more egregious. For example, Norman credits Albert King with Derek and the Dominos’ cover of “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” A simple online search would’ve revealed it was blues legend Freddie King who first brought wide public recognition to the Billy Myles chestnut.
Likewise, it comes as news that Greg Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident rather than his older brother, Duane. Another major error is claiming Stevie Ray Vaughan was “a tousled force of nature whose drinking and hell-raising [Clapton] could at least enjoy vicariously.” By 1990, the year Vaughan died, he had been reported sober for nearly four years.
One point could be argued—Norman’s assertion that “Layla’s” passionate plea was intended as “sexual tumescence made audible,” culminating in an “extended piano coda, contributed by the Dominoes’ drummer Jim Gordon, a change of pace as complete as a post-coital drink and cigarette.” Really? Perhaps the greatest expression of romantic anguish in the rock/blues pantheon reduced to unrequited sexual urges hardly seems to do the song justice.
As for the coda, it seems more likely to me that the band was attempting to reproduce the temporary relief from emotional pain provided by heroin, which was plentiful in the Miami studio where they recorded it. In any event, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock hated the coda, saying it didn’t fit with the remainder of the song. Norman should be credited, however, with acknowledging Rita Coolidge’s credible claim that Gordon stole the coda’s melody from a collaborative effort between the pair when they were a couple.
Further, I’m not versed in divorce law in the United Kingdom, but Norman’s quote that Clapton’s ex-wife was due a share of the royalties for “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight” is simply bizarre. First, the pair weren’t married when both songs were written and recorded. Second, I don’t think Don McLean received royalties for inspiring Lori Lieberman or Norman Gimble to write the lyrics to Roberta Flack’s hit, “Killing Me Softly,” nor did Marilyn Monroe receive royalties for inspiring Tinker Bell’s physique in Disney’s “Peter Pan.” It just doesn’t work that way.
The Way Home
After chapters of recounting the revolving door of Clapton’s sexual and substance indulgences with nary a mention of his recorded output—all containing much to enjoy and recommend—Norman recounts the death of the guitarist’s son in a horrible accident. This chapter he handles with sensitivity and emotional restraint, but I must admit reading Norman’s account of the inspiration for one of Clapton’s greatest hits (“Tears in Heaven”) was as heart-wrenching as it was when the news first broke in 1991.
Rather than falling apart completely, Clapton heroically used the tragedy to rebuild himself by staying sober and dealing with psychological issues that had hounded him since youth, through therapy and such therapeutic activities as fly fishing and recreational shooting.
A stable home life with a second wife and daughters as well as extensive philanthropic efforts on behalf of addicts and alcoholics have evened out the erratic performances of the 1970s and 1980s. Of the many times I saw him in that era, seldom was he without another guitarist upon which he heavily relied, so it was refreshing to see him the past several times without a human crutch—George Terry, Albert Lee, Ry Cooder, and Mark Knopfler come to mind—who did more of their fair share of the onstage heavy lifting.
It should be added that he actually seemed to be enjoying himself and reveling in the enormity of his talent. It almost seemed he was celebrating as much as those of us in the audience aware of his previous troubles—the multitudes who’d been rooting for years for Clapton to find his way home before winding up another rock casualty.