The Rocker's Hard Places
By Elliott Vanskike,
who is a writer living in Silver Spring
Wednesday, November 21, 2007; C05
By Eric Clapton
Broadway. 343 pp. $26
The articulate, thoughtful rock-and-roller faces a dilemma when he sits down to write his autobiography. Does he give fans what they've come to expect by wallowing in the excesses of sex and drugs? Or does he write an intelligent, reflective book that actually assesses his life in the spotlight? Eric Clapton's autobiography leaves little doubt that he lived the rock-and-roll lifestyle, but there's hardly a trashed hotel room or sordid tryst to be found here. Chastened by his experience as a recovering alcoholic, Clapton writes in a restrained, self-critical, even humble mode.
The early chapters, in which Clapton discusses his childhood in rural England in the late 1940s and through the '50s, are the richest. From whispered conversations among relatives, young Eric pieced together that his mother and father were actually his grandparents. His mother had given birth out of wedlock and left him in their care. She told him when he was 9 that he couldn't call her Mummy and that she didn't want to be part of his life.
His mother's rejection compounded Clapton's feelings of isolation and impelled him toward music, a healing force in which he lost himself. His first guitar was so wondrous it was "like a piece of equipment from another universe." He practiced alone in his room, taping himself over and over as he tried to approximate the players he heard on records. Clapton's enthrallment with the blues began when he heard early-20th-century guitarist Robert Johnson. The intensity of songs like "Hellhound on My Trail" repelled Clapton at first, but he came to find the music "primitively soothing" and, as a teenager, realized he would devote the rest of his life to playing the blues.
As Clapton recounts being seduced by the blues, his story brims with the excitement of discovery. His descriptions of his first years on his own in London have a loose-jointed energy that captures the welter of creativity around him. He sought out other blues enthusiasts in Beatles-mad England, read Kerouac, attended Pinter plays, watched Japanese movies, dated a "Top of the Pops" dancer and started bands. After he was kicked out of his first real band, the Yardbirds, the graffito "Clapton is God" began to pop up all over London.
Oddly, just as Clapton's musical career gets into high gear, with the seminal blues-rock bands Cream and Derek and the Dominos, his narrative starts to sputter. At times the book becomes a blur of session men, albums, producers, concert halls and tours that may test the patience of even ardent fans. Clapton has played with dozens of gifted musicians in blues, rock and pop, including his guitar heroes Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. He is plainly awed by his good fortune and wants to pay tribute to his collaborators and friends. When Clapton says offhandedly that he was sitting next to George Harrison when the Beatle wrote "Here Comes the Sun," readers may want to linger at that scene, but Clapton has an anecdote about Steve Winwood waiting in the wings, so off we go.
If the blues helped shape and sustain Clapton, sobriety became the driving force of his later life. He kicked heroin in his 30s, turning to alcohol instead, and was soon drinking two bottles of liquor a day. The second time through treatment, Clapton had a spiritual awakening. He had always found God in the blues; now he kneels and prays daily for sobriety.
The culture of recovery also becomes the touchstone of the latter part of his autobiography. This turns out to be a double-edged sword. The unsparing self-examination required in 12-step programs doubtless prompts Clapton to reveal details that a less forthcoming author would have suppressed, but it also occasionally swamps the narrative with therapy-speak. Readers may grit their teeth through Clapton's grating tendency to interpret all relationships with women through his absent mother. But the payoff comes in frank episodes such as Clapton's tale of his bizarre relationship with a spiritualist who persuaded him to bathe in herbs, cut himself and sleep with her -- all in the hopes of saving his first marriage.
Clapton's portrayal of his music and his recovery is ultimately most trenchant when he discusses the accidental death of his 4-year-old son, Conor. Only three years sober, Clapton had to identify the body of his son after the child fell from the 53rd floor of a New York apartment building. In the months that followed, Clapton holed up by himself, playing his guitar with newfound purpose. That his fragile recovery survived such heart-rending loss is a miracle.
Clapton wrote this autobiography from a place of contentment. A world tour has just concluded, he is surrounded by his second wife and three young daughters, and he hasn't had a drink in decades. His son's death can never be far from him, though. One of the songs he wrote in the wake of the tragedy, "Tears in Heaven," was a worldwide hit, his most popular song ever.