Excerpted from Clapton: The Autobiography, by Eric Clapton, to be published this month by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.; © 2007 by E.C. Music Limited
For most of 1985, apart from August and September, I was out on the road promoting Behind the Sun. In the early part of that summer I got a phone call from Pete Townshend, asking if I would play in a charity event being organized by Bob Geldof to raise money for the victims of famine in Africa. It was to be called “Live Aid” and to consist mainly of two concerts played simultaneously in London and Philadelphia on July 13 and broadcast live on TV across the world. As it happened, on that date my band and I were to be in the middle of a North American tour. We were booked to play Las Vegas the night before, with shows in Denver on either side, so there were some pretty big leaps involved. I told my manager, Roger Forrester, to cancel the Las Vegas show, and called Pete to say we’d do it. Thank God we were in good shape, with the band playing really well, because had we just started our tour, I might have had second thoughts.
Landing in Philadelphia the day before the show, one couldn’t help but get swept up in the atmosphere. The place was just buzzing. The moment we landed, you could feel music everywhere. We checked into the Four Seasons Hotel, every room of which was filled with musicians. It was Music City, and, like most people, I was awake most of the night before the concert. I couldn’t sleep due to nerves. We were scheduled to go onstage in the evening, and I sat watching the performances of the other acts on TV during most of the day, which was probably a psychological mistake, as seeing all these great artists giving their best made me a hundred times more psyched out than I would have been for a regular gig. How could I ever match the performance of a band like the Four Tops, with their fantastic big Motown orchestra and all their energy?
By the time we got out to the stadium, I was tongue-tied. It was also boiling hot, and the whole band felt faint. In fact, bassist Duck Dunn and I later confessed to each other that we’d been close to passing out. The tunnel that we had to walk through from the dressing rooms to the stage was crowded with security, which was unnerving in itself, and things weren’t helped by the fact that we had been given different guitar amps from those specified by my roadie, who was subsequently screaming bloody murder as we reached the stage. To say the whole band was jumpy would be an understatement. As I climbed onstage, I luckily saw the reassuring presence of my old mentor, Ahmet Ertegun, who was standing in the wings, smiling broadly at me, and giving me a big thumbs-up sign.
Things got off to a shaky start. When I moved up to the microphone to sing the first line of “White Room,” I got a great big shock off it, further unnerving me, and meaning that I had to sing the rest of the show with my mouth not quite touching the mike but still close enough to hear myself, since the monitors weren’t very good. We played two more songs, “She’s Waiting,” from Behind the Sun, and “Layla,” and then we were off and it was all over. Phil Collins came on, followed by Led Zeppelin, then Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I remember very little after that, other than being herded back onstage at the end to join in the finale, singing “We Are the World.” I think I was just in a state of shock.
The autumn of 1985 found us touring Italy. From my initial visit there, a few years earlier, when I was first exposed to its architecture, fashion, cars, and food, I had had a fascination with the country and its lifestyle in general, but I had never dated an Italian woman. I was explaining this to the Italian promoter, who told me that he knew a really interesting girl and would introduce us. (I was still married to Pattie Boyd then, but things were rocky.) We were playing a couple of shows in Milan, and after one of them, he brought along a strikingly attractive girl named Lori del Santo to dinner. Born in Verona, Lori was the second daughter in a poor Catholic family. When her father died young, she was sent to a convent school while her mother worked all hours to make ends meet.
As soon as she left school, she made the decision that she would never be poor again. She went to Rome with the intention of making a career in modeling and TV, and by the age of 20 had gotten parts in various television programs. She had also become the girlfriend of the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. By the time I met her, seven years later, she was famous throughout Italy as one of the stars of a popular TV show called Drive-In, which was the Italian equivalent of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. With her long, rich, dark, curly hair, strong bone structure, and voluptuous figure, she was a real Southern Italian–style beauty, and I was immediately smitten.
Lori had a powerful personality, very confident and flirtatious, and I was flattered by her interest in me. Indeed, the energy between us was very strong, the kind that exists only when you meet someone for the first time. It was also very playful, a quality that had disappeared from my relationship with Pattie. When the tour ended and I went back home to her, we made yet another halfhearted attempt to rekindle our marriage, but it didn’t really catch. I realized that my attentions had shifted. I had been home just a few days when I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving—I had met somebody in Italy and I was going to go and stay with her. I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions. I had persuaded myself that, since I had just turned 40, I was going through a midlife crisis and that that was the explanation for everything.
I turned up on Lori’s doorstep in Milan, right out of the blue, and told her I’d left Pattie and was coming to live with her. In an odd way, it was almost as if she were living an existential life herself, because she didn’t bat an eye. Her attitude was “Come and live here and we’ll see where it takes us.” It was an extraordinary moment for me. I just thought to myself, I’m going to start my life again from scratch here in Italy, without any idea at all of where it is going to go.
We lived in Milan for a while, where Lori was starting a new career as a fashion photographer. She was doing work for the big fashion houses that were going strong then, and it was through her that I became friendly with the Versace family, particularly with Donatella’s husband, Paul Beck. I was already a huge fan of Gianni’s. I had been buying his things and thought of him as the best designer in the world. His ideas were revolutionary, but simple at the same time. I loved both Giorgio Armani and Gianni, but at that moment in time, in my opinion, Gianni was the rock ’n’ roll tailor.
For a while I became Lori’s model, and spent quite a lot of time doing shoots with her. As our relationship developed, we began to discuss the possibility of having children together. I told her that I had always wanted children, but that Pattie and I had been unable to conceive. (I had a daughter, Ruth, who was born on Montserrat in 1985, but at that time she had not yet become a part of my life.) I suggested to Lori that the two of us would make such perfect babies. Looking back on it now, it seems like childish nonsense, but at the time it made total sense. She agreed and said that she would stop using birth control.
The façade crumbled when we were in Rome, where Lori had another apartment. One day she went out and left me on my own, and I started to poke around, which was not a great idea. I opened a cupboard and found a pile of photograph albums, which I took out and started looking through. They were full of pictures of Lori with famous men—footballers, actors, politicians, musicians—anyone with any kind of notoriety. I noticed that she struck the same pose in every photograph, wearing the sort of smile that wasn’t really a smile at all. I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I went icy cold, and my hair stood on end. At that moment I knew we were doomed.
However much I might have wanted to walk out at this point, I realized that I had already set in motion something that was out of control, particularly because of the conversation we had had about pregnancy. So I put this experience on file, as a reason why the relationship would never last, and started disassembling the whole thing, mentally and emotionally withdrawing. I stayed in Rome for a while, and then we both flew to London and stayed a couple of nights in the Connaught before moving into an apartment I had arranged for us, in Berkeley Square.
Filled with doubts as I was about my life, both past and future, it was a hard time for me. After years of living at Hurtwood, my house in the English countryside, I hated the noise and traffic of the city, so to distract myself I filled the apartment with recording equipment to make demos for my next album. I could think of little else besides Pattie, so it’s not surprising that only two or three weeks after I moved in with Lori, I told her that the relationship just wasn’t working for me anymore and that I had to go back to my wife. “That’s not good news at all,” she said, “because I’m pregnant.”
At that moment, I couldn’t really take this in. I remember getting into my car and driving down to Hurtwood to see Pattie, who had been living there since I had left. Somewhere in my mind was the idea that she might be waiting for me. When I arrived it was nighttime, and there were lights on all over the house. I peered in through the kitchen window and saw Pattie and her boyfriend making dinner together. It was as though I’d come home to someone else’s house. I knocked on the door and said, “I’m back, I’m home!” Pattie met me at the door and said coldly, “You can’t come in here right now. This is not the right time.”
“But this is my home,” I said, to which she replied, “No, you can’t do this.” Suddenly, my world was absolutely in tatters. I was disenchanted with my now pregnant mistress, and I’d lost my wife. I was in conflict and I was bewildered, and I felt as though I’d opened a vast door into an empty chasm. At some point during this period I decided that the only answer to my problems was suicide. I happened to have a full bottle of blue five-milligram Valium tablets, and I downed them all, the whole bloody lot. I was convinced they would kill me, but, astonishingly enough, I woke up 10 hours later, stone-cold sober and full of the realization of what a lucky escape I’d had.
As soon as Lori came to understand that she could never get me to commit to anything, she went back to Milan, where it was possible for her to make a living. I stayed in England and tried to clear up the mess I’d created by, first of all, telling Pattie about the pregnancy. Considering how much she had longed to have our own child, and her deep disappointment at her failure to conceive, it was a dreadful thing to have to tell her. She was utterly devastated, and from then on our life together at Hurtwood was hell.
We hacked along for a while, sleeping in different rooms and living pretty much separate lives until, several months later, on her birthday, March 17, I had a complete meltdown and threw her out of the house. It was a cruel and vicious thing to do, and within a few days I regretted it. I kept replaying our early days over and over in my head, desperately wondering why we couldn’t recapture that essence again, but I knew that I had crossed a serious barrier this time and that I would have to leave her alone for a bit. Pattie found a very nice apartment in Kensington, and things actually settled down. I visited her once a week, and we were quite civil to each other. I stayed out at Hurtwood, drinking in as controlled a manner as I could, but occasionally going on massive benders. (It had been four years since I’d left Hazelden, where I’d sought treatment for alcoholism.) It was like being in limbo again, not quite knowing where things were going or what the outcome of all of this would be.
I escaped to L.A. to record songs for a new album, which was to be a collaboration between Phil Collins and Tom Dowd. I had asked Tom to co-produce it, because I didn’t feel confident that Phil really knew my musical background well enough to do the job single-handedly, and with Tom involved I felt I could oversee the production. We worked at Sunset Sound studios, in Hollywood, with the basic band consisting of me on guitar, Phil on drums, Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, and Nathan East on bass. The horns—Michael Brecker on sax, Randy Brecker and Jon Faddis on trumpet, and Dave Bargeron on trombone—were overdubbed in New York, and Tina Turner and I duetted live on “Tearing Us Apart.”
For me, these were pretty drunken sessions, and looking back, I don’t know how I got through them. Nigel Carroll, who went with me to Los Angeles and was my personal assistant there, had rented us a place on Sunset Plaza, and secretly I would drink and do coke until about six in the morning. Then, at about 11, I would go into the studio and somehow stay sober during the day. So from midday till about six in the evening, I would try to work while hung over, doing the best I could, until I reached a moment when I felt able to say, “O.K., we’ve had a great day. Let’s call it quits,” at which point I would drive back to the rented villa and hit the booze and coke again. I hardly slept at all. I was trying my hardest to hide my drinking from everybody, unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Nigel had gotten me a rental car, which didn’t have a proper license plate, so some of the crew, unbeknownst to me, had made a tag out of cardboard that read captain smirnoff.
In the months before Lori’s baby was due, I came to realize that this was the one thing in my life that something good could come of, and I had been making some attempts to restore the relationship with her. On my return from recording in L.A., I went to visit her in Milan several times, and a few weeks before the birth she returned to London, having told me that, since I was English, she felt the baby should be born in England. I rented a small house in Chelsea for her, where I visited her every day.
Conor was born on August 21, 1986, at St. Mary’s, Paddington. As soon as I heard that Lori had gone into labor, I rushed to the hospital, determined to be there for the birth, though more than a little frightened about what I was going to experience. As it happened, the baby got stuck upside down, so they had to perform a last-minute Cesarean. They put a screen around the bed, and a nurse came and stood beside me. She told me that men often faint in these situations. I was determined to be present for this. I just had an incredible feeling that this was going to be the first real thing that had ever happened to me. Up till that moment, it had seemed as though my life had been a series of episodes that held very little meaning. The only time it had seemed real was when I was challenging myself in some way with music. Everything else—the drinking, the tours, even my life with Pattie—all had an air of artificiality to it. When the baby finally came, they gave him to me to hold. I was spellbound, and I felt so proud, even though I had no idea how to hold a baby.
Lori spent a couple of days in the hospital. While she was there, I went down to Lord’s cricket ground. I saw the great English cricketer Ian “Beefy” Botham, whom I knew through David English, the former managing director of the Robert Stigwood Organisation, and after the match Botham raised a glass of champagne in honor of Conor’s birth. By that time it had begun to sink in that I was a father, and that it was time for me to grow up. I considered all my previous irrational behavior to have been reasonably excusable, because it had been conducted with consenting adults. Whereas with this tiny child, who was so vulnerable, I suddenly became aware that it was time to stop fucking around. But the question was: How?
Conor’s birth was commemorated with the release of the new album, which I called August, and which has turned out to be one of my biggest-selling solo albums. It had a hit single in “It’s in the Way That You Use It,” which was featured in the Paul Newman film The Color of Money, and also included “Holy Mother,” which I had dedicated to Richard Manuel, the great keyboard player of the Band, who had hanged himself in March 1986. One song I had decided not to include was “Lady from Verona,” which I had written specially for Lori. That might have been too much for Pattie to bear.
Lori returned to Italy soon after the birth, the idea being that I would go over and visit her and Conor for a few days whenever possible. The problem was that my drinking had become full-blown again, and I was finding it harder and harder to control. I really loved this little boy, and yet, when I went to visit him in Milan, I would sit and play with him in the daytime, and, every second of that time, all I could think about was how much longer it would be before Lori would arrive to feed him and take him away to bed so that I could have another drink. I never drank in his presence. I would stay white-knuckle sober all the time he was awake, but as soon as she put him in his crib, I would get back to my normal consumption, drinking until I passed out. I did this every night until I went back to England.
This was the pattern of my life over the next year, which reached its climax when I was touring Australia in the autumn of 1987. By then there had been such an erosion of my capabilities that I couldn’t stop shaking. For the second time, I’d reached the point where I couldn’t live without a drink, and I couldn’t live with one. I was a mess, and as far as my playing was concerned, I was just about scraping by.
One day, cooped up in my hotel room, a long way from home, with nothing to think about but my own pain and misery, I suddenly knew that I had to go back into treatment. I thought to myself, This has got to stop. I really did it for Conor, because I thought, no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that. I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then. I called Roger and told him to book me into Hazelden again, and on November 21, 1987, I went back into treatment.
My second visit to Hazelden was, on the face of it, much like the first, but, on a deeper level, it was very different. This time I had no reservations about why I was there—I had tried to control my drinking and failed—so there was no more debate, no more gray area for me. Also, my life had become very complicated and completely unmanageable during my relapse. I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to; a broken marriage; assorted bewildered girlfriends; and a career that, although it was still chugging along, had lost its direction. I was a mess.
My counselor this time around was a great guy, and having first established a strong bond with me, he employed a sort of ridicule method. It threw me completely. I had grown used to people treating me with a certain amount of reverence, maybe just out of fear, and here was this guy laughing at my pomposity and arrogance. I didn’t know how to deal with it. It caught me off-balance and helped me see myself as others saw me, and it wasn’t pretty. I was captivated, and tried to engage him as much as I could, but he was rarely available, or made it seem that way. He had something I wanted, something I knew I needed. I was like a blade of grass in the wind; one day I would be blown up, scornful, and full of myself, and the next I was in a pit of despair. But I kept coming back to the thought of Conor, the reality of his life and what it required of me, and the horrible possibility that if I didn’t get it right this time history would probably repeat itself. The thought of him going through all that was what finally made the difference. I had to break the chain and give him what I never really had: a father.
Nevertheless, I stumbled through my month in treatment much as I had done the first time, just ticking off the days, hoping that something would change in me without my having to do much about it. Then one day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected. The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.
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 whom I thought I was talking to—I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, and I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, that 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. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and, with my ego, this is the most I can do.
If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you: because it works. It’s as simple as that. In all the time I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I had found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.
I came home from Hazelden for Christmas, to Lori and Conor at Hurtwood. There was a lot to be done, a lot of wreckage to clear up, and Lori was very supportive. I think she knew intuitively that I was not ready to make a decision about our situation yet, and she seemed reasonably content just to see where things would lead. The first person I wanted to see on my return was Pattie. We had parted on such bad terms, and I wanted to see if there was still a spark there, even if it was only friendship. We met for lunch, and it was great. I couldn’t feel any enmity from her, and we were able to speak without manipulation, which for me was a miracle.
There was work to throw myself back into, beginning with a continuation of a project that had started in January 1987, when I agreed to play six shows on successive nights at the Royal Albert Hall, in London. It was to become a tradition, with the number of gigs increasing each year, peaking in 1991 with 24. With a band that included Nathan East and Greg Phillinganes from the August sessions, Steve Ferrone and Phil Collins on drums, and the addition of Mark Knopfler on guitar, the performances had gone so well that we decided to make it a regular booking.
I had always liked this venue and enjoyed going to see people play there. It’s comfortable and has a great atmosphere, and the management has always made sure that it sounds good. It’s also one of the few places where you can see all of the audience when you’re onstage. They were fantastic shows, and one night for an encore Frank Zappa’s keyboard player Don Preston, known as “Mother Don,” broke into the hall’s organ keyboard, which was locked behind two glass doors, and played a raucous version of “Louie Louie” that brought the house down.
The best times I had in those early years of sobriety were in the company of my son and his mother. It was the closest that life ever got to being normal for me. Conor was a good-looking boy with blond hair, like mine at that age, and brown eyes. I’d seen pictures of my Uncle Adrian as a little boy, playing in the woods with my mother, and Conor bore a strong resemblance to him. He was a beautiful child with a wonderful, gentle nature who was walking by the time he was a year old.
As soon as he could talk, he began calling me “Papa.”
But however deeply I loved this little boy, I had no idea where to begin with him, because I was a baby trying to look after a baby. So I just let Lori raise him, which she did brilliantly. She would come and stay with her sister Paola, who also worked for her as her assistant, and occasionally their mother accompanied them, and for a few weeks we would live a very peaceful, family kind of life. I used to watch Conor’s every move, and because I didn’t really know much about how to be a father, I played with him in the way a sibling plays, kicking balls around on the terrace for hours and going for walks in the garden. He also got to know my mother and grandmother, and Roger too. Anyone who came into contact with him adored him. He was a little angel, really—a very divine being.
From the beginning, there was always a certain amount of fear involved in my relationship with Conor. I was, after all, a part-time father. Small children can be quite dismissive and unintentionally cruel, and I tended to take this very personally. However, as the duration of my sobriety increased, I began to be more comfortable with him and to really look forward to seeing him. I was very much in this mood in March 1991, when I arranged to see Conor in New York, where Lori and her new boyfriend, Silvio, were planning to buy an apartment.
On the evening of March 19, I went to the Galleria, an apartment block on East 57th Street, where they were staying, to pick up Conor and take him to the circus on Long Island. It was the very first time I had taken him out on my own, and I was both nervous and excited. It was a great night out. Conor never stopped talking and was particularly excited at seeing the elephants. It made me realize for the first time what it meant to have a child and be a father. I remember telling Lori, when I took him back, that from then on, when I had Conor home on visits, I wanted to look after him all on my own.
The following morning I was up early, ready to walk downtown from my hotel, the Mayfair Regent, at Park and 64th Street, to pick up Lori and Conor and take them to the Central Park Zoo, followed by lunch at Bice, my favorite Italian restaurant. At about 11 a.m. the phone rang, and it was Lori. She was hysterical, screaming that Conor was dead. I thought to myself, This is ridiculous. How can he be dead? And I asked her the silliest question: “Are you sure?” And then she told me that he’d fallen out of the window. She was beside herself. Screaming. I said, “I’ll be right there.”
I remember walking down Park Avenue, trying to convince myself that everything was really all right … as if anyone could make a mistake about something like that. When I got near the apartment building, I saw a police line and paramedics on the street, and I walked past the scene, lacking the courage to go in. Finally, I went into the building, where I was asked a few questions by the police. I took the elevator upstairs to the apartment, which was on the 53rd floor. Lori was out of her mind and talking in a crazy way. By this time I had become very calm and detached. I had stepped back within myself and become one of those people who just attend to others.
By talking to the police and the doctors, I established what had happened without even having to go into the room. The main sitting room had windows along one side that went from floor to ceiling, and they could be tilted open for cleaning. There were no window guards, however, since the building was a condominium and escaped the normal building regulations. On this morning the janitor was cleaning the windows and had temporarily left them open. Conor was racing about the apartment playing a game of hide-and-seek with his nanny, and while Lori was distracted by the janitor’s warning her about the danger, he simply ran into the room and straight out the window. He then fell 49 floors before landing on the roof of an adjacent four-story building.
Lori was not about to go down to the mortuary, so I had to identify him on my own. Whatever physical damage he had suffered in the fall, by the time I saw him they had restored his body to some normality. I remember looking at his beautiful face in repose and thinking, This isn’t my son. It looks a bit like him, but he’s gone. I went to see him again at the funeral home, to say good-bye and to apologize for not being a better father. A few days later, accompanied by various friends and family, Lori and I flew back to England with the coffin. We went to Hurtwood, where the Italians all wailed, openly expressing their grief, while I remained quite detached, in a permanent daze.
Conor’s funeral took place at the St. Mary Magdalen church in Ripley, where I had grown up, on a cold, bleak March day shortly before my 46th birthday. All my old friends from Ripley came, and it was a very lovely service, but I was speechless. I looked up at his coffin, and I just couldn’t talk. We laid him to rest in a plot right next to the church wall, and as his coffin was lowered into the ground, his Italian grandmother became completely hysterical and tried to throw herself into the grave. I remember feeling a bit shocked by this, as I’m not very good at outward emotion. I just don’t grieve that way. When we came out of the churchyard, we were faced with a wall of reporters and photographers, about 50 of them. The curious thing is, while a lot of other people were very upset and insulted, because they considered this a lack of respect, it didn’t impinge on my own grief in any way. I just didn’t care. All I wanted was for it to be over.
After the funeral, when Lori’s family had all gone home and Hurtwood was quiet and it was just me alone with my thoughts, I found a letter from Conor that he had written to me from Milan, telling me how much he missed me and was looking forward to seeing me in New York. He had written, “I love you.” Heartbreaking though it was, I looked upon it as a positive thing. There were thousands of letters of condolence for me to read, written from all over the world, from friends, from strangers, from people like Prince Charles and the Kennedys. I was amazed. One of the first I opened was from Keith Richards. It simply said, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” I’ll always be grateful for that.
I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the 12-step program. I would go to a meeting and people would quietly gather round and keep me company, buy me coffee, and let me talk about what had happened. I was asked to chair some meetings, and at one of these sessions, when I was discussing the third step, which is about handing your will over to the care of God, I recounted the story of how, during my last stay in Hazelden, I had fallen upon my knees and asked for help to stay sober. I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and, as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered. Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.
A woman came up to me after the meeting and said, “You’ve just taken away my last excuse to have a drink.” I asked her what she meant. She said, “I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that, if anything were to happen to my kids, then I’d be justified in getting drunk. You’ve shown me that’s not true.” I was suddenly aware that maybe I had found a way to turn this dreadful tragedy into something positive. I really was in the position to say, “Well, if I can go through this and stay sober, then anyone can.” There was no better way to honor the memory of my son.
The first few months after Conor’s death were a waking nightmare, but the shock prevented me from completely breaking down. I also had work commitments to deal with. For one, Russ Titelman was sitting in a studio with a pile of tapes from the 24 shows I had done at the Royal Albert Hall in February and March. I couldn’t engage with the music at all and didn’t really want to be there, until he played me the version of “Wonderful Tonight.” For some reason, listening to that song had a very calming effect on me, and I went into a deep sleep. I hadn’t slept for weeks until then, so it was a very healing experience. I think it was because the song took me back to a reasonably sane and uncomplicated point in my past, when Pattie and I were happy and all I had to worry about was her being late getting ready for dinner.
I couldn’t stand sitting alone in Hurtwood after what had happened, so I asked one of my oldest friends, Vivien Gibson, to come around every day to check on the mail. Viv and I had been friends for many years, starting when we had an affair during the 80s, and she was now working full-time as my secretary. She was also one of the only people I wanted to have around me at this time. Somehow she understood my grief and was not afraid of it. It’s amazing how many so-called friends disappear in the face of this kind of tragedy. She is a truly courageous person with tremendous compassion. I also felt I needed a complete change of scenery, so with Roger in tow I drove around London looking at houses until I found a beautiful one in Chelsea. Set back off the road on a side street, it was perfect. It had a courtyard to park in and a small walled garden.
At the same time, with the help of Leo Hageman, a developer in Antigua, and Colin Robinson, his friend and architect, I set about designing and building a villa within the grounds of a small resort hotel on Galleon Beach, in English Harbour, on the south coast. What was I doing? I was running, in several directions at once. The governing factor in all of this, though, was motion—keep moving; under no circumstances stay still and feel the feelings. That would have been unbearable.
I was three years sober, with just enough recovery to stay afloat but no real experience or knowledge of how to deal with grief on this scale. Many people might have thought that it would be dangerous for me to be alone, that I would ultimately drink, but I had the fellowship, and I had my guitar. It was, as it always had been, my salvation. Over the next two or three months, in England and Antigua, I stayed alone, going to meetings and playing the guitar. At first I just played, with no objectives. Then songs began to evolve. The first to take shape was “Circus,” about the night Conor and I went to the circus, our last night together. Later, in Antigua, I wrote a song linking the loss of Conor with the mystery surrounding the life of my father, called “My Father’s Eyes.” In it, I tried to describe the parallel between looking into the eyes of my son and seeing the eyes of the father I had never met, through the chain of our blood.
The most powerful of the new songs was “Tears in Heaven.” Musically, I had always been haunted by Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and wanted to borrow from that chord progression, but essentially I wrote this one to ask the question I had been asking myself ever since my grandfather died: Will we really meet again? It’s difficult to talk about these songs in depth—that’s why they’re songs. Their birth and development is what kept me alive through the darkest period of my life. When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. I played them to myself, over and over, constantly changing or refining them, until they were part of my being.
Toward the end of my stay in Antigua, I chartered a boat for a two-week trip around the islands with Roger and his wife. I have always loved being by or on the sea, and although I have no ambitions to be a sailor, I find the scale of the ocean very calming and revitalizing. The start of the trip, however, wasn’t a great success. Roger and I were at loggerheads over various things, and the atmosphere was chilly. Later we were joined by Russ Titelman, and then by my daughter Ruth and her mother, Yvonne Kelly, whom I had met and had a brief romance with six years earlier. This lifted the mood, and the cruise took an upward turn.
Among the letters that had come in about Conor was one from Yvonne in which, to help me in my loss, she had offered me the opportunity to become fully acquainted with Ruth as her father. It was an incredibly generous act and gave me some direction until the fog cleared. This little sea cruise was in fact the first of many small visitations that took place to test the waters for this idea, and it worked. It was great to be in the company of a child again—my child. I will always be grateful to Yvonne for giving me this second chance. It was a lifeline in a sea of bewilderment and confusion. Over the next couple of years I visited them on Montserrat, slowly establishing a rapport with my daughter, until Yvonne decided that in order for Ruth to get a proper education and spend more time with me they would come home to Doncaster, the Yorkshire town where Yvonne had been brought up.
As far as helping me cope with the death of Conor, developing a relationship with Ruth was, at first, no more than a Band-Aid solution. It wasn’t until the pity was taken out of the equation and we started to have fun that it became a real thing for me. It took time because, first, I had a lot of work to do repairing myself, and until that was done, my ability to be emotionally intimate with my daughter was seriously limited. As for discipline, I had a lot to learn and was very unsure of my entitlements with her. But slowly, bit by bit, we got to know each other, and I learned through therapy how to express my disapproval when necessary. Looking back on those years, I realize what a profound effect she had on my well-being. Her presence in my life was absolutely vital to my recovery. In her I had again found something real to be concerned about, and that was very instrumental in my becoming an active human being again.
In the early summer of 1991, I took a trip to New York to look at a film being made by Lili Zanuck, wife of the American movie producer Richard Zanuck. Called Rush, it is based on a semi-autobiographical novel about a female undercover narcotics agent who becomes an addict herself. Lili was a big fan of mine and wanted me to do the score for the film. I had never taken on an entire project like this before; most of the film work I had done had been supervised by the American arranger and composer Michael Kamen. We had gotten together to do music for an English thriller TV series called Edge of Darkness, and then the Lethal Weapon films. In all honesty, from what I had seen thus far, I had no great passion for the movie industry. I love film and am a real movie buff, but being behind the scenes left me cold.
Nevertheless, I took the job, mainly because I liked Lili. She was outrageously funny, and I loved and identified with her views, whether on movies, music, or just life. At the end of the summer I took up residence in L.A. and started working on the film. At some point I played “Tears in Heaven” to Lili, and it was at her insistence that we put it in the movie. I was very reluctant. After all, I was still unsure about whether or not it should ever be made public, but her argument was that it might in some way help somebody, and that got my vote.
The song was released as a single and became a massive hit. The film didn’t do so well, although it deserved to. It’s since become something of a cult hit, and I’m extremely proud of the music. I finished up the year by touring Japan with George Harrison (my friend and Pattie’s ex-husband). He and his wife, Olivia, had been really kind to me over the last few months, and I wanted to express my gratitude.
During the trip, Lori showed up out of the blue and just checked into our hotel. Her boyfriend, Silvio, had faxed me, warning me that she was coming to see me. They had broken up, and he was worried about her. I couldn’t handle it. I was barely holding myself together emotionally, and there was work to do. Curiously enough, George stepped in and took control. He and Lori traveled around together, and he seemed to have a calming influence on her. I felt very guilty about not being able to comfort her, but I was experiencing tremendous feelings of anger and sadness, with no real idea of how to cope with them and her at the same time.
The year 1991 was horrendous on the face of it, but some precious seeds were sown. My recovery from alcoholism had taken on a new meaning. Staying sober really was the most important thing in my life now and had given me direction when I thought I had none. I had also been shown how fragile life really is, and, strangely enough, had somehow been cheered by this, as if my powerlessness had become a source of relief for me. The music, too, took on a new energy. I had a need to perform these new songs about my son, and I really believed that they were meant to help not just me but anybody who had suffered or would suffer such extraordinary loss. The opportunity to showcase them came in the guise of an Unplugged show for MTV. I had been approached to do it and wasn’t sure, but now it seemed like the ideal platform. I sat in my house in Chelsea and worked out a repertoire for the show that would allow me to revisit my roots and present these new songs in a safe and careful environment.
The show was great. The guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and I did quite a lot of bare acoustic work on some Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy material, and we performed “Tears in Heaven” and “Circus,” although I later vetoed that song on the grounds that it was too shaky. I also enjoyed going back and playing the old stuff like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which was how it had all started so long ago.