Guitar god Clapton finds healing and hope in the blues
The legendary musician has a very down-to-earth view of his messianic image, writes Barry Egan
Elvis Costello once sang he couldn't stand up for falling down. That, however, wasn't Eric Clapton's problem. "I did one gig lying on the flat of my back with the microphone lying down beside me," he told Melvyn Bragg in 1987.
"Because you couldn't stand up?" asked Bragg.
"Because I could stand up," the legendary creator of Layla and Wonderful Tonight answered.
"I tried to stand up to begin with and then lay down and I thought: 'Well, they don't care, so why should I care. They had a good time." Clapton, very self-evidently, wasn't having a good time. It was the end of his drinking career.
"When it gets to two bottles of brandy a day," he remembered, "it's beyond having a good time. That's punishment." In January 1982, he checked himself into Hazelden Foundation, a rehab facility in the US. He didn't stay sober. He went back again in 1985 and has been clean ever since with the assistance of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. He has been talking about the negative effects of alcohol ever since. Clapton is not just a rock star banging on. In February 1998, he opened the Crossroads Centre, a rehab facility for drug and alcohol abuse in Antigua.
In 2007, the former Yardbird and Cream godhead said how his entire life could be summed up in three parts. "Until my 20s, I was skating on thin ice now and then, but it wasn't really an issue. Then there's this long, long period until my early 40s when I was in the grip of all kinds of compulsions, and powerless. Then, the last 20 years -- sober." Those compulsions made Clapton for many years "helpless and hopeless". He was, he recalls, "compelled to do whatever my instincts drove me to do. Sex, drugs, relationships, with absolutely no inclination to disengage -- just go for it."
He said that when he came from his first treatment for alcoholism, "I couldn't sleep with my wife. I just couldn't perform. I didn't understand it. Then it just occurred to me I'd never had sex without being stoned. Ever. In my life. If I thought about having sex with somebody, I'd get drunk first. Usually I'd be guided through it. And when drink was removed, all of those things which are normal everyday things to most people become impossible."
Asked how his music has changed since he's been off drink and drugs (when he kicked his heroin addiction in the early Seventies, he swapped it for alcohol addiction), Clapton said he was lucky to find a direction early on "which stood me in good stead -- the blues. And I still rate them as being the most powerful healing agent. The blues had an incredibly restorative effect on my teens and my 20s and I put that in the bank, I draw on it. I never really get far from it. When things got so bad, it was just there, waiting to be picked up again."
Clapton certainly needed that healing agent more than ever when tragedy struck on March 20, 1991. His four-year-old son Conor fell from the 53rd floor window of his mother Lory del Santo's New York City apartment. "My body almost started moving without my mind registering it," he said at the time. "I kind of went on hold, I think, psychologically. I just kind of started to shut down bit by bit. I could feel reality slipping away."
Clapton also said he found some form of release from the pain in writing Tears In Heaven. "I couldn't do the public grieving thing. It's not English, is it? I was trying to console myself by writing these songs and they got me right and started some sort of healing. 'Would you know my name, would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?' The thing of an afterlife is a mystery to me. I live in the moment as much as I can but I do half-believe that we've got to be moving around in some other area, that all this energy just doesn't stop."
For Clapton, that energy has never really stopped since he got his first guitar (a German-made Hoyer with steel strings) at the age of 13, as legend has it, and was kicked out of the Kingston College of Art at 16 after playing guitar instead of doing his class-work. There are other legends about him of course: that he is God is chief among them. At a time when, as far as guitarists went, there was only two worth talking about -- Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix -- an adoring fan painted the words 'Clapton is God' on a wall in London's Islington Tube station in 1966. The image was photographed and it has endured to this day.
"It's a funny picture," Clapton is reported to have said in 2003. "At the bottom of the picture there's a dog peeing against the wall. That kind of sums up my attitude to it."
Clapton is god for what he did in Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker (and Derek and The Dominoes with Jim Gordon, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock from Delaney & Bonnie's band). "It was a very arrogant kind of -- we actually saw ourselves as this, as the cream of the crop, you know?" Clapton told Larry King on CNN a few years ago. "We were the main musicians on the English rock scene."
In 2005, Clapton, Baker and Bruce re-formed Cream for four very magical reunion shows at London's Royal Albert Hall. It was made that bit more special because it was where Cream had played their farewell shows 37 years earlier, in November 1968.
Eric Patrick Clapton, who was born on March 30, 1945, in his grandparents' home in Ripley, Surrey, England, is also a god for what he does on stage with his guitar. That's where the real messianic magic comes from.
Eric Clapton live at the O2, Dublin, May 9, 2011; Live at the Odyssey, Belfast, May 10, 2011. Tickets on sale now, Dublin tickets priced €70.70, €81.25; Belfast tickets £60. Fully seated.
See www.ticketmaster.ie, booking line (0818) 719-300