Eric Clapton: Susceptible to the Truth
January 7, 2008
Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the highroad to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.
If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Ladies and gentlemen, in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Samuel Smiles, and Margaret Thatcher, I give youEric Clapton? The maxims are Thatcher’s, but the sentiments are all Clapton. In Clapton: The Autobiography, the artist unthreads with surprising success the strung-out, blasphemous, and profane mantle of celebrity to reveal a profoundly conservative Englishman who almost incidentally wielded the iconic ax of the sixties counterculture. His life was a mess, but his instincts were sound, and, like the character in a good Victorian novel, it all came right in the end. Like most successful conservatives, he also had talent.
Clapton’s early life was utterly conventional. Instead of the angst-ridden blues purist who took the London scene by stormthe point where most music histories pick up the threadone learns that he was a happy, mischievous boy, raised in rural England by conscientious working-class parents, Rose and Jack, who loved him, instilled in him a strong work ethic, and saw to it that he had his share of childhood treats. By age six or seven, however, he had already sensed that there was something unusual about his place in the family, and at nine finally learned that he was quite literally, as his Uncle Adrian joked, “a little bastard.” At fifteen his mother, Pat, had had an affair with a Canadian airman stationed near their hometown of Ripley; the decision was made to have her parents raise the boy as their own. The great trauma for Clapton was not living without love but learning how to cope with illegitimacy in the context of working-class culture. When nine-year-old “Ric” met his mother again, he naturally was attracted, and one day mustered the courage to ask, “Can I call you Mummy now?” The future of the blues hung in the balance.
The “total rejection” Clapton felt at her polite refusal is easily comprehended. What is less well understood, but gently evoked here, is the accumulation of emotions and behaviors that contributed to a dysfunctional lifestyle that long predated his fame. In addition to his psychological trauma, he was at the bottom of what struck him as a Dickensian social structure of haves and have-nots. The preadolescent Clapton coped by fashioning an alter ego in Johnny Malingo, a “suave, devil-may-care man/boy of the world who rode roughshod over anyone who got in his way.” This seemed harmless enough when it only meant “scrumping” apples at ten, but it eventually led to shoplifting and vandalism and set a pattern for more destructive behaviors. Clapton never excuses himself but does reveal that most English of cultural conundrums, the simultaneous resentment of the establishment while embracing its values.
Clapton’s early musical influences were diverse and help explain his later proficiency as a balladeer and tunesmith. The radio was always on, Rose played the piano, and he heard music in pubs, in church, and in the homes he visited. He loved “old, beautiful English hymns” like “Jesus Bids Us Shine,” popular standards, and what seemed in the early fifties to be the “outlaw music” of the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman. He was strongly influenced by two weekend radio programs. On Saturday mornings, he tuned in to Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites, an eclectic mix of children’s and novelty songs that inexplicably turned up tunes by Chuck Berry and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. While having a “really good Sunday lunch of roast beef, gravy, and Yorkshire pudding,” the family would listen to Two-Way Family Favourites, the music and meal together providing “a real feast for the senses.” Here he heard opera, classical, rock and roll, jazz, and pop music, which helped him develop a love for “any music that was a powerful expression of emotion.”
By the time he turned sixteen, in 1961, Clapton was a competent guitarist but had no style of his own. Initially he had loved Elvis and Buddy Holly. But he was gradually drawn into the blues, first to the accessible Jimmy Reed and Big Bill Broonzy, then to Muddy Waters, and finally to the mysteriously dangerous Robert Johnson. In early 1963 he heard Freddy King’s “Hideaway,” and it all made senserock and roll was just a new model of the electric blues, which had its roots in the country blues of the rural American South. By the time Clapton joined the Yardbirds, in October, he understood the blues idiom as few white Americans or Englishmen did, and it didn’t take long to attract a following on the club scene. But two days before the release of what would become their first number-one hit, “For Your Love,” Clapton quit the group, dissatisfied with the pop direction it had taken. At nineteen he had a reputation but little money and no prospects.
His artistic integrity was rewarded three months later when John Mayall, twelve years his senior and a real blues aficionado, invited him to join the Bluesbreakers, a band that nourished his unparalleled instinct for blues phrasing. Together they produced one of the great albums of the sixtiesBluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (1966). The white public in Britain and America had never heard anything like it, with echoes of Freddy King, Otis Rush, and the elemental Robert Johnson. “Clapton is God” was scrawled on the wall at Islington Station by an anonymous fan with a can of spray paint, thrusting Clapton to the front of the burgeoning blues-rock underground. He didn’t deserve deification, but he was a true hero who had risked all reasonable hope of wealth and fame for a fierce commitment to the purity of the blues. His unexpected elevation was sweet revenge, for, as he recalls, it invested him with instant credibility. “After all,” he recalls, “you can’t muck around with graffiti. It comes from the street.”
From there, the general outline of Clapton’s career is well known. With Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker he founded The Cream, whose high-energy blues-rock took America by storm in 1967, preparing the ground for later blues-based groups like the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. Operating in the mode of the itinerant Delta bluesman, alone against the world, he became successively disenchanted with Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos; enchanted with his best friend’s wife (Patti Harrison); and addicted to heroin. When he got clean in 1974, he lapsed into alcoholism. The eighties were his wasteland, trying to get sober, losing Patti in the process, and uneasily navigating the new musical terrain of the synthesizer era. But for Clapton, 1986 to 1987 was a turning point. A son, Conor, was born to girlfriend Lori del Santo. The relationship didn’t last, but Clapton realized that, for his son’s sake, he had to stop drinkingand he did. Through the next twenty years of sobriety, he endured excruciating loss, when Conor fell to his death from a fifty-third-floor apartment window; enjoyed the greatest commercial successes of his career; released sixteen albums, including five devoted almost exclusively to the blues; and finally made a family, with Melia, and their four daughters.
Clapton’s continuing relevance is rooted in his conviction that music is a healer, an agent of change that ought not to be compromised for the sake of celebrity. When he filled stadiums with Cream, Blind Faith, or Derek and the Dominos during the late sixties and early seventies, his blues reflected pain and a quest that seemed to have no end. When he began to trade in ballads and pop songs, old fans were perplexed. At the time they couldn’t imagine what polished productions like “Running on Faith” and “Change the World” had to do with the wailing twelve-bar blues that had made him famous. But the circumstances of his life were changing. The key for Clapton, in both blues and ballads, was the essential truth of the music, expressing in song what could not be uttered in ordinary language. In 1970, when he emptied his soul to ask, “Have you ever loved a woman, so much you tremble in pain?” there was no doubt that he didit was Patti Harrison. Twenty years later, when he pathetically whispered to Conor, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?” it was hard to deny even a blues god the right to give rein to a more gentle hope and tune.
Clapton was always susceptible to truth. From the time he was a boy, he knew when he had done wrong and never excused his sins as the rites of a new moral code. When Delaney Bramlett confronted Clapton on acid, and warned him that “God has given you this gift, and if you don’t use it he will take it away,” it stunned him because he knew it was true. He knew that loving Patti Harrison was wrong, which explains the agony he felt and the circumspection he practiced. After failing so often to kick his addictions, he finally turned to God for help and got it, and now kneels to pray every morning and evening. “In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”
This autobiography is successful in two ways that don’t always go hand in hand. First, it has been a surprising commercial success, selling more than half a million copies in less than two months. In a field where the written word has seldom made inroads, these figures reveal an interest in Clapton that confirms his status in the high pantheon of popular culture. Second, and more significantly, it succeeds as a satisfying explanation of a complex life. All secrets are not revealed, but he has chosen, generally, to dwell on the weightier matters of his life. Although he recognizes music as an elemental force of nature, which “needs no help, and suffers no hindrance,” he discounts the value of his own musical gift. Music, for Clapton, has not been the end but rather the means for getting beyond his own selfishness and into a higher realm of existence where love, family, and integrity trumped sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Admitting this is dangerous territory for a rock icon. When Clapton finally dismissed his ghostwriter, he became the foreman in dismantling his own mythic image. He always was susceptible to the truth.
John Powell is associate professor of history at Oklahoma Baptist University.