Cars, drugs and mar­riage to Pat­tie Boyd … Eric Clap­ton’s years of ex­cess are the fo­cus of a new life

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Richard Wil­liams

Some time around 1965, when he was 20 years old and play­ing gui­tar with John May­all’s Blues­break­ers, Eric Clap­ton be­came the first British rock mu­si­cian whose in­stru­men­tal vir­tu­os­ity in­spired feel­ings of both ad­mi­ra­tion and lust. His blues-based riffs and so­los im­pressed boys but their ef­fect was par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent on his fe­male lis­ten­ers, which was odd be­cause Clap­ton hardly seemed the ob­vi­ous pop star type. What im­bued him with a spe­cial charisma was his se­ri­ous­ness. On a mis­sion to ex­pose the mu­sic of the US south to a new au­di­ence in as pure a form as pos­si­ble, he cap­tured the raw emo­tion of the sound he loved enough to trans­fix his young lis­ten­ers.

Clap­ton was not alone in this among young British blues mu­si­cians but he was cer­tainly a fig­ure­head. He moved on to join Jack Bruce and Gin­ger Baker in Cream, the trio that es­tab­lished the tem­plate for all forms of heavy rock, and thence to a solo ca­reer that, at its height, earned him six Grammy awards in a sin­gle year and a record-break­ing run of 24 nights at the Royal Al­bert Hall.

At­tempt­ing to bring new in­sights to a fa­mil­iar story, Nor­man has gath­ered tes­ti­mony from a group of wit­nesses in­clud­ing a friend from Clap­ton’s child­hood in a Sur­rey vil­lage, a fel­low mem­ber of his first semi-pro band, a man­ager, a roadie, a per­sonal as­sis­tant and – most sig­nif­i­cantly – Pat­tie Boyd, the for­mer wife who was mar­ried to his best friend Ge­orge Har­ri­son when their re­la­tion­ship be­gan. In the ab­sence of ac­cess to his sub­ject, Nor­man makes ex­ten­sive use of Clap­ton’s by Philip Nor­man, Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, £25 own con­fes­sional me­moir, pub­lished 10 years ago.

The con­se­quences of suc­cess in rock’s boom years – the un­re­strained he­donism fu­elled by unimag­in­able wealth – would choke the lanes of Sur­rey with Fer­raris over­turned dur­ing stoned pre-dawn rides home from the Lon­don clubs where the in-crowd gath­ered. Clap­ton col­lected Fer­raris with an ob­ses­sive en­thu­si­asm that tended to fade as soon as the de­sired ob­ject was in his pos­ses­sion.

It was the same with women. The mod­els and “posh birds”’ step out of the pages of Vogue and Tatler into Nor­man’s nar­ra­tive, some of them – in­clud­ing Boyd, for whom he wrote “Layla”, “Won­der­ful Tonight” and “Old Love” – just about re­silient enough to sur­vive their lover’s treat­ment, while oth­ers, such as the waif-like aris­to­crat Alice Ormsby-Gore, with whom he shared his heroin habit, fared less well. The only one to dump him seems to have been Carla Bruni, the present Mme Sarkozy.

Nor­man ac­cu­rately de­scribes Clap­ton’s char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­pres­sion as one of “wary anx­i­ety”. But he also de­tails the years in which the gui­tarist snorted pow­der through £50 notes, which were then tossed away, only to be qui­etly washed and pock­eted by a ser­vant. Th­ese were rock’n’roll’s Bulling­don years, and there are times in this ac­count when the reader feels that the ex­am­ples of de­bauch­ery are be­ing held up for in­spec­tion be­tween the thumb and fore­fin­ger of a white-gloved hand.

No such close ex­am­i­na­tion is ap­plied to the mu­sic, which is de­scribed in the most cur­sory terms, some­times in­ac­cu­rately (there is noth­ing “atonal” about Cream’s “As You Said”), and with lit­tle at­tempt to place it in a wider con­text. There is a sense that the au­thor can’t wait to get back to the themes that en­able him to end a chap­ter with a sen­tence such as: “Pat­tie could hold out no longer.”

Clap­ton’s un­usual child­hood may have cre­ated the in­se­cu­rity and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity that dam­aged him and oth­ers. He was brought up by his mother’s par­ents, whom he be­lieved for many years to be his mother and fa­ther. The truth came out even­tu­ally, and his birth mother would re­turn decades later, but the bond was never truly es­tab­lished. He had stopped drink­ing and drug­ging by the time the deep­est tragedy struck in 1991, when his four-year-old son, Conor, fell to his death from the win­dow of a 53rd-floor apart­ment in New York.

Now Clap­ton lives qui­etly in the Sur­rey hills with his sec­ond wife, Melia McEn­ery, whom he mar­ried in 2002, and their three young daugh­ters. He is cop­ing with the on­set of pe­riph­eral neu­ropa­thy, a con­di­tion that ham­pers his gui­tar-play­ing, while the Cross­roads Cen­tre, the clinic he founded and funded in An­tigua, con­tin­ues to help peo­ple with ad­dic­tions. Ev­ery now and then he buys a new Fer­rari; some old habits die hard. Clap­ton and Pat­tie Boyd in 1976

To buy Slow­hand for £22 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Slow­hand: The Life and Mu­sic of Eric Clap­ton

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