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Recently I have read and reviewed a biography of Eric Clapton's late 1960s 'supergroup' Cream, and also the memoirs of Pattie Boyd, who was married to George Harrison and then left him for Eric. Sadly George is no longer around to tell his story, but this, co-written with Christopher Simon Sykes,does provide another side of the triangle, figuratively speaking.
Eric's often tortured life was troubled from the start. He was born out of wedlock in Surrey in March 1945, just before the end of World War II, his biological father a Canadian airman. For some years he believed that his grandparents were the ones he called Mum and Dad. When he realised the truth, it hit him hard. On asking his mother in front of the family whether he could address her as 'Mummy', she told him that she thought it best he went on calling his grandparents Mum and Dad, something which he said made him feel totally rejected.
Discovering music via 'Two Way Family Favourites' and 'Children's Favourites' became a kind of healing process and escape at the same time as he retreated into himself. The blues, particularly artists like Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, became an abiding influence, and at the age of 18 he joined the Yardbirds. Dismayed at their moving away from the blues to more commercial pop, he left them about eighteen months later to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, prior to helping to form Cream, and then Blind Faith - which was when the 'Clapton is God' legend got too much for him.
By this time his life was in a mess on a personal and professional level. Much has been made elsewhere, in other books as well as in the press, of what virtually amounted to wife-swapping between Eric and George Harrison (and even George and Ringo Starr - but that's a separate issue entirely). Eric' s version of events is that George and Pattie's marriage was already on the rocks, and who is the reader to argue? To cut a tangled story short, factor into that as well Eric's role as very reluctant superstar and guitar deity, not to mention the heroin habit, and it was no surprise that by the time he had recorded the Derek and the Dominoes album in 1970, things looked bad. It was the kind of situation from which others never found their way back (think Brian Jones, Hendrix, Jim Morrison for starters). A spell in rehab followed, before his return to playing on a regular basis, unless you include his half-hearted participation in the Bangla Desh benefit gig of 1971 and the one-off Rainbow concert eighteen months later, staged largely by his musician friends to try and bring him out of seclusion before he was really ready.
The problems did not end there, and as he says, one addiction was replaced by another. This time it was alcohol, and it culminated in at least one close brush with the grim reaper. There was one particularly unhappy Christmas when Pattie, whom he had married in 1979, angrily put him to bed and told him in no uncertain terms that she and the guests were going to enjoy the festive season without him. Not long after that he realised that he had hit rock bottom, called his manager and admitted that he needed help.
If this was a novel where we did not already know the basic story, by this stage we might have been wondering whether the central character would make it to the end. Despite the collapse of his marriage to Pattie and various other affairs, not to mention relapses, he managed to put it all behind him.
There is something poignant about when he comes to write about the death of his four-year-old son Conor after falling from a window in a high-rise apartment - and the fact that it did not send him back to the booze. This was the incident which inspired his song 'Tears in Heaven'. Ironically, it proved to be far and away his most successful single ever as a solo artist. And although his account of the tragedy seems a little detached, I think we have to accept that different people have various strategies for dealing with bereavement. (Apologies if that sounds mildly pompous - not intended).
Much of the story is about his affairs and addictions, yet told with a rather gentle, even endearing self-effacement. After reading other reviews online elsewhere I was prepared for page after page of self-pity, but in my view he steers a sensible course away from that. However I felt that he could have written rather more about his guitar playing. There is little about the formation of and recording with Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, as if they were painful times in his life which he is anxious to summarise briefly for the sake of completeness and then move on. It almost comes as a welcome relief when he discusses his heroes, albeit briefly, such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Yet the book ends on an optimistic note. He no longer touches alcohol or nicotine, and tells us in the Epilogue that the last ten years have been the best of his life, 'filled with love and a deep sense of satisfaction.' Married again with a family and small daughters, it seems that he has found contentment at last.
The book comprises about 360 pages of text, and I found it an easy read. I'm inclined to suggest that a discography of some kind would have been useful if not essential, although in view of his lengthy career, it would have had to be very brief if it was not to make the book considerably more bulky, so I'll let that pass. There are two sections of plates in colour and black and white, plus a black and white photo at the beginning of each chapter.
Although it has its flaws, I would recommend this wholeheartedly to any fan.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
For fans of Slowhand this book is a must read. Clapton gives a great account of his whole life, from band to band, his drug addictions and relationships. Anyone looking for a good read without being a huge Clapton fan should read this too. Reading this got me more and more into his music.
The whole book contains so many interesting facts about Clapton's life, from the origin of Slowhand to his unusual family situation. As with a number of other biographies, Clapton is very much focused on drug addiction. Clapton chronicles this from his first experiences to various trips to rehab and finally sobriety.
Of course we also get a lot of insight into every aspect of Clapton's musical career. Clapton describs getting his first guitar at the beginning and towards the end he's describing the Cream reunion and his Crossroad's charity. There is just so much contained in this book for the music lover. We get a lot of insight into Clapton's friendship with George Harrison and his relationship and love for George's wife.
Clapton relates what happened with painful honesty. In other rock stars, such plump contentment might seem hypocritical, even vulgar. But with Eric Clapton, you feel that a little comfort is the least he deserves.