Eric Clapton is one of the greats of the 60’s and 70’s; a guitar legend who crossed genres of blues, jazz, country, reggae and rock. He has led an extraordinary life full of incredible highs and lows and the love-triangle between himself, George Harrison and Pattie Boyd is one of those stories that colour the history of rock. He also dove right into the sex and drugs lifestyle of the time and is one of the few to have survived it. His autobiography is one of a survivor who left his ego behind; frank and stripped of the mythology fans want to associate with him.
I am not usually one to buy or read celebrity memoirs but I do have a few of them on my shelves by people I am fans of (André Agassi, Tina Fey, Dave Grohl), people who have had interesting lives (Ranulph Fiennes) or people who write very well (Stephen Fry). Eric Clapton’s autobiography is one that I’ve had hanging around for a long time, my interest waning as time went by and, not wanting to put it off any longer, when drafting my 2015 Reading List I decided ‘let’s get it over with’. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
My interest in Clapton’s life is partly because I am a fan of his music, though he is a little before my time, but mostly because he has had an interesting life. There’s the difficult upbringing in a poor small town, the unusual family arrangements, his rise to stardom on the back of a virtuoso reputation, a mythologised love affair with Pattie Boyd, a deep descent into alcohol and drug dependency and a return to top form. Coinciding with his story are the times he lived in, crossing paths with members of The Beatles, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac and just about every musical icon of the 60’s and 70’s you can think of.
There is also the story I heard, though I cannot now find a reference for it, that Clapton had written this autobiography twice. The first time, he read it back to himself and realised he had taken no responsibility for what had happened in his life; it was always the drugs, the booze, the circumstances and other people; what he refers to in the book as his ‘blaming mechanism’. So he started over, this time without passing the buck. The problem of subjectivity is something no autobiography can avoid, but in this anecdote a reader could not be blamed for hoping for something a bit more earnest and, whether it is real or not, I think it does read that way.
Beginning with his childhood and adolescence, Clapton is already foreshadowing the themes that will play a large part in his later life. He describes the trauma of realising that the couple he thought were his parents were actually his grandparents, his brother was really his uncle and his absent sister was really his mother. His attempts to dissolve this hurtful charade only left him feeling rejected and angry and he decides early on that he can only trust himself.
Teenage rebellion predictably follows. Early sexual fumbles leave him associating sex with punishment and shame. The casualness of the period means he assumes that all relationships are like that. Otherwise he shows tendencies to regress and obsess. Though his family was quite musical, young Clapton lacks the work ethic to learn and practice, but once he hears Chuck Berry, Terry and McGhee, Elvis and Buddy Holly he feels a calling of sorts and begins learning to play guitar by ear. Finding art school too commercial, he begins working for his master carpenter grandfather and learns the value of hard work that feeds his perfectionist and obsessive nature. Though he also begins to learn of his tendency to lose interest in something as soon as he attains it.
Playing in pubs to affluent beatnik audiences, he starts learning the trade – practicing, performing, recording, touring. Modest success soon sees him rubbing shoulders with Beatles and Stones, opening for them, even standing in for Mick. Their success is both alluring and off-putting. He feels both sorry for and jealous of The Beatles during Beatlemania – their art being drowned by the screaming of their sheep-like fans. Most of the artists he was a fan of died penniless and alone. Integrity becomes something vitally important to him as he becomes something of a blues fundamentalist. Just as he seems to have cracked popular success, he leaves The Yardbirds feeling that they are heading in a commercial direction. Though he briefly loses direction, on turning 21 he feels that he had come of age and was ready to make his mark:
Looking back, it felt like I had closed the door on my past, I had little or no contact with my old friends from Ripley, and my new family ties felt very weak. It was as if I was starting a brand-new life, where there was no room for any excess baggage. I was very confident of my abilities, and very aware that this was the key to my future. Hence I was extremely protective of my craft, and ruthless in cutting away anything that stood in my path. It was not a path of ambition, I had no desire for fame or recognition, I just needed to make the best music I could, with the tools that I had.
Cream, it is often said, was the first ‘supergroup’. But Clapton describes the inherent difficulties of such an arrangement. Without the sort of fraternal origins of most bands, the trio did not necessarily all get along and they probably all had different ideas of what the band was supposed to be. The idea of a guitar-bass-drum trio was ‘outrageous’ for the time and required a different technique and application. The band’s demise for similar reasons is not surprising. Clapton cites their lack of openness with each other, their inability to share ideas and grow creatively.
But I think there is another element to it.
Clapton is, famously, the only person to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times – once as part of The Yardbirds, once as a part of Cream and once as a solo artist. That fact speaks to his impact on the history of rock music, but also to the lack of staying power of the acts he was part of. Some of that is due to Clapton who, at this stage of his life, is still somewhat withdrawn, avoids confrontation and lacks the confidence to be a leader. Though he has very firm ideas of what sort of music he wants to be a part of, he is reluctant to put his foot down, stamp his authority and take the lead of the band, even when the band asks him to. It is a feature of this phase of his life and his time with Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos.
It is also during this period that Clapton grows obsessed with his friend George Harrison’s wife; Pattie Boyd. An obsession that leads to depression and a heroin addiction.
The Clapton-Boyd-Harrison love triangle is one of those famous affairs of the era like Taylor and Burton or the Fleetwood Mac permutations. But Clapton is keen to remove the aura from the story. It is a recurrent theme of the book. He is equally keen to dispel the notion that he is any sort of virtuoso on guitar, perpetuated by the prevalent ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti. He frequently cites numerous examples of others he admired, looked up to and emulated.
And so, he strips the romantic myth from the story of Pattie, George and himself to show a relationship based on possessiveness and jealousy and his frequent drug-taking. It is not easy to dispel the mythology. Especially when he describes meeting with Pattie for a secret liaison, only to crash his Ferrari on the way back, flee the scene and find himself running through a graveyard in the middle of the night. It is the sort of drama and imagery biopic films are made for.
Clapton’s life goes into a steep decline, ignited by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and his grandfather, his unrequited feelings for Pattie and fuelled by heroin. When he comes out the other side, he finds that he and his musicianship has fallen far behind where his contemporaries are at. This too is something that would recur over the years whenever he emerged from the haze of his addictions. The emergence of punk and later Brit pop, for example, surprised and intimidated him and left him feeling old and out of touch. In the 80’s he even found Phil Collins to be cutting edge compared to where he was at!
As well as taking full responsibility for his failings and denying the legendary status bestowed upon himself and the events of his life, Clapton’s autobiography is notably void of the defensiveness and evasions, clarifications and attacks normally associated with the celebrity memoir. There are only a couple of instances where Clapton does feel the need to offer an explanation for something he has been accused of. The main one being the issue of his vocal criticism of Caribbean immigration to the UK.
Having spent an increasing amount of time in the Caribbean, even to the extent of being influenced by reggae enough to record a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sherriff, Clapton was upset at the way immigration to the UK was being promoted to Caribbean Islanders by some organisations. On arrival in the UK, these Islanders were being mistreated and found a very different situation to what was promoted and promised. In his naiveté, Clapton condemned these practices and found himself accused of being a racist. Not knowing much about politics, the lesson Clapton took from that experience was to stay out of it. It’s a refreshing contrast to modern celebrities who seem to confuse their ability to influence with a responsibility to speak out on matters on which they are a long way from being experts.
In addition, there were not many surprises in this book but there was one thing I did find surprising – his love of fashion. Clapton does not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the figures of the era who became iconic in both look and sound. But in his autobiography, Clapton shows he was keenly aware of the need for the right look. In fact, he probably spends as much time discussing fashion, fashion trends and where he shopped for clothes as he does guitars, music trends and where he shopped for records.
Even as Clapton reclaimed his sobriety, failed relationships, the death of elderly family members and the tragic death of his son, threatened to send him back down. The final chapters of his autobiography tell of his challenges in accepting his nature, his past and his failures; being grateful for his survival; his attempts to give back through his charitable efforts and finally finding happiness in a new marriage and family.
Clapton is no great writer and his book is not trying to be literary. But it was still an interesting read. The plain-speaking, matter-of-fact style suits the blameless, myth-busting themes and the ego-destroying nature of rehabilitation. The drawback of that style is that it is a bit dry and the book could use some lightness, some humour. There were a few moments of it, such as when he talks of the inventiveness he perceived when writing Let it Grow, only to realise years later that he had inadvertently ripped off Stairway to Heaven, though he had been a harsh critic of Led Zeppelin. Or when he relates that the song many perceive as very romantic, Wonderful Tonight, was in fact written in anger and frustration at waiting for Pattie to get dressed before they went out. The book could have used more of this humour.
Otherwise it was interesting and enjoyable insight into the life of one of the few greats of the 60’s and 70’s who drank deeply from the well of sex, drugs and rock and roll and lived to tell it.