I’m not a great fan of Eric Clapton’s music anymore.
When I was younger, in my early teens, I thought some of his stuff was pretty cool, especially the experimental Cream, with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, and the Derek & The Dominoes Sessions box set, with Duane Allman on guitar. Clapton’s other solo works, such as 1977’s ‘Slowhand’ and later works like ‘August’ (1986) and the slightly superior ‘Journeyman’ (1989) were enjoyable in a good-but-not-amazing, yet-still-listenable manner where I tended to like certain songs like ‘Cocaine,’ ‘Behind The Mask,’ and ‘Old Love,’ but not the whole album.
I don’t precisely know what triggered my estrangement from Clapton’s music but my appreciation gradually declined as my twenties faded. The main reasons were that I found his guitar playing to be really boring and just not engaging enough. The music was also beginning to sound repetitive and formulaic while the song choices were mostly covers, which would still be bettered by the shining blues-based originals.
The reason I like both of these albums is that Clapton focussed on the purity of his one true musical influence – the blues. And here he was able to narrow down the essential musical factors – no cheesy keyboards or nasty production styles – the blues doesn’t require any of that rubbish. ‘Unplugged’ is a great album because it is mostly just Clapton playing acoustic guitar and the highlight being his beautiful, elegiac lullaby to his tragically lost son, Connor.
After a while I did start to really detest ‘Unplugged’ - not because of the music, but its sheer, utter ubiquity was really getting on my nerves – it was seemingly everywhere; on TV, in coffee houses, airports and of course it became what I dread the most in music – a blasted hi-fi test disc. Along with 1985’s ‘Brothers In Arms’ by Dire Straits (the one with ‘Money For Nothing’), 1981’s ‘Face Value’ by Phil Collins (the one with ‘In The Air Tonight’) and 1983’s ‘90125’ by Yes (the one with ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’), ‘Unplugged’ was kidnapped and taken away from me by countless dem-room sessions along with just those other three examples – and it is always those other three examples - at hi-fi dems in dealerships, perhaps with a smattering of Tracy Chapman’s debut for good measure.
So with ‘Unplugged’ gone, it was simply ‘From The Cradle’ that remained as my last vestige of youth via Clapton’s music. And due to its purer, more abrasive nature and mostly live recording method, its an album that doesn’t lend itself to easy listening – and its all the better for it – with great sound quality as a result, unlike Clapton’s compressed Pro-Tools mush of recent years.
So, if I wasn’t so keen on his music, what has brought me onto ‘Eric Clapton The Autobiography’? Well, I was fascinated to learn more about his earlier life and now contrasted present than a few magazine articles and television appearances on talk shows (notably, Frost On Sunday) through the years could provide. It is a mostly very good autobiography, but for completely the wrong reasons.
One aspect I thought Clapton would write more about was his infamous and alleged racist remarks made during a concert in Birmingham, in the seventies, with reference to the controversial MP, Enoch Powell. However, both Powell and this event get barely a line or two and are swiftly dispatched without any form of reflection whatsoever. This is, I think, a missed opportunity as it seems like Clapton made those remarks during his mad drink & drug years and I can only imagine how unreal situations can become, especially when you are famous, wealthy and in front of a live audience - and in a foul or frustrated frame of mind – its not really very clever to be reactionary and spur-of–the-moment when ‘loaded.’ So, I can only hope that if true, it was the drink talking.
A quirky, modest charm
Clapton’s autobiography is rather interesting in other areas though – his writing ability, while naturally falling pretty far short from the quality benchmarks of Mailer, Tynan and Ballard (not many of us, myself definitely included, are that talented anyway), does have a quirky, modest charm to it. If you have ever seen him interviewed, he writes like he talks. And as such, the writing is clunky, with minor spelling and some grammatical mistakes, but I like that – it reinforces my feelings for Clapton as I read through his various life-phases where he appears to be, in essence, a down-to-earth kind of guy, who doesn’t (well, not always) like to boast about his talents.
There’s no self-aggrandising, no musical ‘luvvie’ name-dropping and best of all no endless my-music-is-so-amazing clatter that many famous musicians are so keen to regurgitate, however slyly. Clapton does mention famous names, though this is unsurprising considering his longevity and success in the music business, but when he does so, it is in a reverential tone, especially near the end when he talks about his heroes like Ray Charles, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.
Clapton clearly respects Hendrix, but ...
there is a reticence in his appreciation of, for me, the living embodiment of the electric guitar – Hendrix will never die, so long as his music is played. And as such, someone as important to modern musical history like Hendrix, who I think is the one, true master of electric guitar, towering above a handful of virtuosos, barely gets a mention. If you are interested in an alternate musical and social commentary on the relationship that Hendrix and Clapton had with music and their subsequent meetings, then I would suggest reading the outstanding ‘Crosstown Traffic Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop’ by Charles Shaar Murray.
It is the middle sections of the autobiography however that are compelling and they make sense of the isolation and rather harsh life that Clapton had in his youth, where his parents turned out to be his grandparents. He didn’t know his father, and his mother lived abroad for much of his youth. In his famous, successful years, Clapton went through one massive alcohol and/or drug crisis after another, clearly exacerbated by his lost childhood and a need for comfort with a succession of doomed love affairs and reckless behaviour. Unlike me, if you are interested in Clapton’s love-life, you might get an alternative view point in Pattie Boyd’s autobiography.
Clapton was clearly still a lost boy, even in his ...
adulthood and accordingly couldn’t ‘function.’ He talks about curling up in a foetal position and then there were suicide attempts with a shotgun and a bottle of pills. This is harrowing stuff, but not the worst I have read; for instance Motley Crüe’s biography ‘The Dirt…’ deals with even worse levels of degradation and addiction.
Fortunately Clapton made it alive and says he has been sober for twenty years. He still attends his twelve step addiction programme and believes in & prays to God. And as such the end chapters bring him forward into a well-rounded person, and according to his writing style and words, he seems to have retained his matter-of-factness and un-showy qualities where he wants what most of us would like – to spend time with our children, friends and family; to simply live a quiet life, well, at least sometimes.
In summary then
This Clapton autobiography does feel like there have been lots left out, such as a deeper analysis of his long term friendship with George Harrison and more insight into his music – but I’m not really bothered about that and if this book is simply useful for someone to relate and find strength from Clapton’s journey into recovery then it’s a good one. It is especially meaningful where Clapton recounts how at the time of the death of his young son, Connor, that he was newly sober and it was the real test of his ability and resolve to survive without sinking back into his past addictions.