A profile of Eric Clapton, timed for for his imminent reunion with Cream, published in Word magazine’s April 2005 issue. Parts of this were written for inclusion in my book of London's musical history, In The City.
At the end is a personal Top 20 of recommended Clapton tracks to that date.
Some men are born with a hellhound on their trail. The blues wizard Robert Johnson was one of them. Dead at 21, he became the classic role model for every guitar-slinging romantic. He got his brilliant gifts by selling himself to Satan, said some, in awed whispers. He died of poisoned whiskey from a jealous man who’d caught him with his girl, said others. In blues mythology he is the ultimate troubadour. The wandering genius, charismatic but cursed. The ladies want his babies but the Devil wants his soul.
Many say that Eric Clapton’s greatest record is the Cream version of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. As it happens, Eric Clapton isn’t one of them – he hates his famous guitar solo – but he rates nobody higher than Robert Johnson. The question is: Was Eric Clapton, too, was born with a hellhound on his trail? Or did he just hang around the kennel with a packet of biscuits?
Nowadays when Eric Clapton makes tribute records to Robert Johnson, they’re dismissed as pale, bourgeois copies of the real thing. Maybe they are. Yet Clapton’s own life has packed in drama to rival anybody’s. His African-American heroes, growing up in places like pre-War Mississippi, had misfortune handed to them on a plate (“If it wasn’t for bad luck,” as one song goes, “I wouldn’t have no luck at all’). The pampered white superstars of Clapton’s era had precious little to complain of. But if you had the choice, would you really want Eric Clapton’s life?
He’s had astonishing success, of course, and wealth and the attentions of beautiful women. He was so respected he nearly joined both The Beatles and the Stones. But just look at the debit column. He suffered long years of soul-destroying drug addiction. If he was the inspirational figure behind Rock Against Racism, it was certainly not in a good way. As to his family past, there are so many skeletons in the cupboard that a walk-in wardrobe would be more practical. There are the sexual intrigues, the friendships betrayed, all the unedifying tales of drunkenness and cruelty. And you shall know him by the trail of the dead… If you were superstitious you would say there was something of a curse at work in Clapton’s life. Bad things happen to those around him. Awful things.
Yet he has walked through the valley of darkness and come out the other side – with scarcely a crease in his designer suit. How did that happen?
This is the man who will take the stage at Cream’s reunion in May. The Royal Albert Hall will witness lurching monster riffs, percussive pandemonium and guitar solos of dazzling brilliance. Elderly spectators will look upon them and see the ciphers of vanished decades. Matrons will sigh. T-shirts will be sold to men who really ought not to be wearing them any more. But for all that, the nights will be glorious. And at their centre will stand the human story-board that is Eric Clapton.
Cream departed this vale of tears with two shows at the Royal Albert Hall on 25 and 26 November, 1968. None of the trio felt they played a blinder but they were surprised and gratified by the waves of love they felt from the audience. For a band once arrogant enough to call themselves the Cream, they had fallen prey to a corrosive insecurity.
Admittedly they still looked great. Their drummer, Ginger Baker, was for a few years the most compelling sight in British rock. He’d stride about looking like a magnificently debauched Jacobean duke, then settle down to batter hell out of his kit. All mad, panting, hollow-eyed, many-limbed ferocity, his was an artful blend of frenzy and dexterity. Jack Bruce, the bassist, was not so theatrical but no less intense – hunched up over his instrument, fingers tugging urgently at its four fat strings, face screwed up in agonies of concentration. Then he would raise his head to the mike and let forth torrents of wounded jazz poetry in a Caledonian soul bellow.
And Eric Clapton? The Cream deal was that Ginger was the group’s unofficial leader, if only through sheer force of personality. Jack, the most advanced songwriter and vocalist, was deemed leader in the studio. And Eric was the leader of Cream on stage, signalling with the merest nod or look, the impassive general of his three-man army. For Cream’s farewell at the Albert Hall, he looked more inscrutable than ever, his stance erect and stiff, his eyes hidden behind two curtains of brown hair.
For Baker and Bruce, it was the climax of the most successful time of their careers. For Clapton, it was the end of a two-year nightmare. Anything, he thought, had to be better than the sheer hell of playing in Cream. But that’s the thing about hell. Just when you think you’ve hit the bottom, another trap door opens underneath you.
It had been a short career but intense enough for a lifetime. Baker was a wiry, hyper-active jazz nut from South London, Bruce a formally trained musician from Lanarkshire. They wound up in the same band, The Graham Bond Organisation, regulars on the London R&B scene and featured briefly, you might or might not recall, in an early ’60s film called Gonks Go Beat. In a foretaste of the chaos to come, Ginger seized control of the Graham Bond Organisation when its nominal leader slid into heroin addiction. (Poor mad Bond eventually flung himself under a Piccadilly line train in 1974.) Ginger and Jack would row and fight like savages. Baker fired Bruce but he refused to go. Things came to a crisis on stage one night when Baker hurled his drumsticks at the bassman’s head. The Scot turned around and trashed Baker’s beloved drum-kit.
Eric Clapton played in bands on the same circuit. Nicknamed “Slowhand” (a pun on “slow hand clap-ton”) he’d acquired an awesome reputation. When Ginger Baker, whose professed ambition “was to be hugely successful” heard that Eric was at a loose end he proposed they join forces. Baker was aghast when Eric agreed so long as Jack Bruce could be their bass-player. But humble pie was eaten, the trio was formed and duly announced itself “the cream” of London’s musicians. Which to a large extent it was. A hot-shot manager, Robert Stigwood, took charge of the business side.
On the first day of rehearsals, at Baker’s house in Neasden, a fight broke out between Ginger and Jack. Eric looked on in terror, and realised his two new partners had a history which excluded him. “I admired these guys tremendously,” he said a while ago. “They were from the generation before me, they were on stage while I was in the audience at the Marquee. And even in the band, when it came to fruition, I was still in that place: I was in the audience for most of their shenanigans.”
Needing a lyric-writer, Baker called up a beat poet he knew, Pete Brown. But the poet really hit it off with Jack Bruce, not Ginger. When Cream’s first single appeared, Baker was incensed to find the song, Wrapping Paper, credited to Bruce and Brown only. So they had another fight. Their first LP, Fresh Cream, came out in December 1966 and showed the band finding its way with a fairly cautious mix of blues covers, a few Jack Bruce originals and something interminable by Ginger called Toad. In the Teenbeat Annual for 1967, they were hailed as “one of the most bizarre-looking outfits on the scene,” but also “top contenders for the Beat Championship”.
Cream’s real claim to greatness rests with their second album, Disraeli Gears. Its cover alone is a definitive psychedelic artefact: designed by Clapton’s flat-mate Martin Sharp, the front and back present a baroque hippy collage (the shots of Eric find him on his first LSD trip) and really need to be seen in 12-inch format, to be read as stained glass windows were read by pre-literate peasants. Disraeli Gears’ title came from a roadie’s mis-pronunciation of the cycling term derailleur gears; this arch blend of groovy argot and mock-Victoriana captures the essence of 1967 pop style.
Clapton made his writing debut, helped by Martin Sharp, with Tales Of Brave Ulysees; his guitar part employs the wah-wah pedal he’d discovered that very morning. Bruce and Brown joined Eric in creating a chug-along hard rock classic called Sunshine Of Your Love. A beautifully liquid Clapton solo adorns Strange Brew and Jack’s We’re Going Wrong is as bleakly dramatic as a Beckett play. Whether as studio craftsmen of three-minute pop nuggets or stadium blues improvisers, their range was phenomenal. They could crunch through pyrotechnic 12-bar freak-outs or croon mellifluous tunes you could picture Fred Astaire dancing to.
Under Robert Stigwood’s relentless direction the band played numberless American shows in everything from high school gyms to the Fillmore West. It made them into superstars but crushed their spirits in the process. They got druggier, too. (Their first collective LSD trip saw the trio running up and down Ben Nevis, ending up in a cake shop.) Clapton recalled one gig in San Francisco: “Every bad lick I had, every blues lick, turned the audience into devils in red coats. Then I’d play a sweet one and they’d all turn into angels.”
Many tensions were at play. Baker and Bruce were at loggerheads over songwriting shares. Eric felt the other two were too jazzy in background for his blues taste, but also too easily tempted by the lure of a pop hit. Clapton also resented curbing his ambitions as a vocalist, Bruce having by far the stronger voice. “I decided that I had a very small voice,” he recalled glumly, “a very limited range and it sounded very thin.” For a while the men had bonded in adversity: “We were so tight and loved one another so much,” Eric said. Outsiders were simply blanked. “We were talking in tongues at that point.” But by 1968 they were touring Britain and insisting on separate hotels.
The disillusion is comically evident on a TV clip of Cream on the Smothers’ Brother’s US show. Stonily, they crank out a spiritless version of Anyone For Tennis dressed up in police uniforms, loping through a cheap psychedelic stage set, affecting to play guitar solos on tennis racquets. You could see it was the end game. Their final albums, Wheels Of Fire and Goodbye carried many fine tracks, but were both constructed from scarce studio material and live recordings. Away from the discipline of the studio they could become turgid on stage. “What we were doing was starting to become a circus,” Clapton recalled in 2004, “playing places where the audience were stoned, places where we were encouraged to do silly things, play meaningless, rambling self-indulgent music. I wanted to take it seriously.” He’d been struck by The Band’s album Music From Big Pink, cut to the quick to think that this band was truly reinventing the blues – while he was just dicking about.
Amazingly, Clapton actually fainted when he read a Rolling Stone review that called him a “master of blues cliché”. The worst criticisms are always those that echo our innermost self-doubts. Management and record company conspired to keep Cream on a hamster wheel of work. And their internal strife became unbearable. For a long time Clapton had played, in the words of Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls, “the lukewarm water” between the “fire and ice” of Baker and Bruce. Now his colleagues’ arguments were literally reducing him to tears. A nervous breakdown was beckoning. The group dissolved slowly and painfully. “I just went under,” Clapton recalled. “I was full of hatred.”
The Britain that Cream grew up in was a very different place. We live amid such cultural saturation that nothing affects anyone for very long. Back then, there was cultural scarcity: when young people discovered something exciting, they re-built their whole beings around it. Thus the arrival of blues music in London had a far-reaching effect on English life – a bit like the introduction of tea in 1657.
It’s curious that African-American music born from poverty and cultural dispossession should find a ready echo among the white youths of post-war Britain, but such was the case. In fact the British blues boom proved among the most fruitful of cross-pollinations. This intensity was evident in fans as far apart as Newcastle (Eric Burdon and The Animals) and Belfast (Van Morrison and Them). But in London’s art colleges and jazz clubs the movement hit critical mass, spawning The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things, The Who, The Kinks and hundreds more. From Jimmy Page to Peter Green, Jeff Beck to Rod Stewart, London boys baptised themselves in Mississippi waters and were transformed.
In that light, Eric Clapton was really a prime candidate for conversion. His own identity was fractured beyond repair. Stuck in pale suburbia, his sense of cultural isolation was deep. Here in the blues were roots and passion in abundance. The young Clapton nursed held a romantic admiration for self-destruction, whether in doomed poets of the Rimbaud and Baudelaire stamp, or the heroin-addicted music men like Charlie Parker and Ray Charles. Basically, Eric was up for it. It’s as if he listened to Robert Johnson’s ancient wails of primal despair and thought, How much is that hellhound in the window?
He was born just before the end of World War II, the illegitimate son of Surrey girl Patricia Clapton and a Canadian soldier posted to England, Edward Fryer. The boy never met his father, who disappeared before his birth. Patricia was just 16, and Eric was raised in Ripley by his grandparents Rose and Jack. Until the age of nine or ten, he believed they were his parents and that his mother was in fact his sister – not an uncommon sort of deception in those days, when the conventions of social respectability held greater sway. Discovering the truth about his origins, Clapton has always said, was a trauma that would affect him forever.
His academic progress stumbled and he failed the 11-plus, but later transferred schools through a talent for art. He found fellowship in a clique of rock’n’roll fans, discovered the acoustic guitar and blues music, and at 16 he was a beret-sporting beatnik at Kingston College of Art, on the south-western outskirts of London.
Soon enough, Eric Clapton’s head had been thoroughly turned by the eternal trinity of blues, booze and women. Still, it came as a shock to be dropped by Kingston College of Art; the bruise to his ego was soothed only his tolerant grandmother’s gift of an electric guitar.
He joined the serious minded British boys who worshipped at shrines like Dobell’s record shop in the Charing Cross Road, pouncing on imported blues rarities. Of all the 12-bar shamen who obsessed him, Robert Johnson spoke most deeply to his soul. It was characteristic of Clapton that he felt drawn to the most tormented, star-crossed blues player of them all. The challenge now was reproducing all the soul-scarred beauty of that music, when you and your fellow musicians were callow chaps from the leafier corners of the Home Counties.
One of his first bands, The Yardbirds, took over The Rolling Stones’ residency at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond. In 1963 the band cut a session at the club backing visiting blues star Sonny Boy Williamson. This old gent was a big, mean, Delta-bred snarler, as real as real can be. His oft-quoted verdict on The Yardbirds may be apocryphal but it’s worth repeating: “Those English boys want to play the blues so bad,” he growled. “And they do.”
Next year came another priceless tutorial when The Yardbirds backed some more visiting deities, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Although too awed to play at his best, Clapton took in the essentials: “All I can remember,” he said, “is the closeness that existed between Muddy and Otis. The way they talked and looked at one another, it was like they were married. And they wore the same extraordinary clothes: shiny, hand-spun silk suits with very baggy trousers and jackets that came almost to the knee. They were like angels.”
The eye for the threads is quintessential Eric; by this point he’d ditched the beatnik chic of his early teens for an austere mod style, conservatively hip. But the comment on Muddy and Spann’s closeness is poignant, too. The Yardbirds’ lack of that camaraderie was painfully obvious.
“Everymody loves I Wish You Would” went the music press ads for their first single. The trouble was, “everymody” didn’t love The Yardbirds’ music and foremost among them was Eric Clapton. Appalled by the “pop” leanings of their repertoire he played the purist card and flounced after the fourth single For Your Love: “I left in a very public way,” he said recently. “I threw my toys out of the pram. They wanted a hit and I was very conscious of having a blues mission… I was arrogant, I was like the self-appointed blues ambassador to this country.” Such a puritan disposition was not exceptional in those days.
Clapton’s exit from The Yardbirds, on the brink of stardom, was hot-headed. But he was thrown a lifeline by that tribal chieftain of the London blues scene, John Mayall. To be hired by the venerated leader of The Blues Breakers was all the credibility a 20-year-old gunslinger could wish for, and Clapton was even given co-billing on the next album. Around this time the fabled “Clapton is God” graffiti started to appear on London walls – exactly how much has never been clear (a famously photographed spray-paint example looks to me like a much later PR mock-up) but the fervour of Eric’s following is beyond doubt.
London pop had shaken off its prole teen origins; in the mid-‘60s it was being colonised by middle-class students with aspirations to art. Enter the cult of the musical virtuoso, borrowed from classical and jazz, which found its first pop divinity in Eric Clapton. If anyone deserved it he probably did, for in the setting of Mayall’s band – and after that in Cream – the boy’s genius was now apparent to all. Including, it must be said, Clapton himself.
Once in Cream he started living the Swinging London dream. In Chelsea the pop glitterati met the hip young aristocracy and got along famously. Newly adorned in psychedelic finery, with a model girlfriend Charlotte Martin, Eric took up residence at the Pheasantry, a King’s Road cluster of artists’ studios (it’s now a Pizza Express). In the flat upstairs an Australian girl called Germaine Greer was writing The Female Eunuch. There were boutiques near to hand, from Granny Takes A Trip to Hung On You. An amusing new drug called LSD was making its appearance at parties.
If there was any warning sign amid such lotus-eating splendour that the young Cream star was losing his marbles, it was in his compulsive need to change looks – an old Clapton trait that was now reaching neurotic proportions. Hair long, hair short, hair straight or explosively frizzed, with moustache or impenetrable shades, there was a period of five years when nobody knew for sure what Eric Clapton actually looked like. Perhaps, after all, it’s dangerous to go around getting called God – especially when you’re a slightly fragile cove from Ripley in Surrey.
The first important challenge to Clapton’s supremacy, however, came with the arrival in London of Jimi Hendrix. Diffident characters both, they sought one another’s company and forged a shy sort of intimacy. But their rivalry as guitarists ran deep. Clapton must have watched the American’s triumph with the same inner dismay that led Bing Crosby to say of Frank Sinatra, “A singer like Sinatra comes along once in a lifetime. But why did it have to be mine?”
In fairness to Clapton he has never stinted in his praise for the other guitarist’s talent. Days before Hendrix died in 1970, Eric recorded a moving version of Jimi’s most beautiful composition Little Wing; in fact, he was heading over to present his friend with a surprise gift, a left-handed Stratocaster, when the grim news came through. The impact on Clapton’s psyche appears to have been nothing short of devastating.
But life as an idol went on. Clapton was accorded top-drawer status by his peers, evidenced by his appearances in Pete Townshend’s Tommy film as a rock’n’roll high priest and also in The Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus. Indeed Jagger and Richards approached him to join them after Cream, but he declined. He guested on The Beatles’ “White Album” with a solo for George’s song While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Harrison and he had become close friends as far back as The Yardbirds. Once, after a row in the studio with Harrison, John Lennon suggested to Paul McCartney that they get Eric in to replace him.
That idea was never pursued, sparing Clapton a very difficult choice. After all, he and George were virtually neighbours now that Eric had bought himself a 20-room mansion in Surrey. George lived in nearby Esher with his lovely wife, Pattie. By common consent the prettiest of the Beatle wives, Pattie Harrison was the belle of London’s bright young things. It’s to be presumed that Eric noticed.
In 1969 came Blind Faith, the band Clapton formed with Traffic’s star Stevie Winwood. At the latter’s insistence, Ginger Baker was brought in as drummer, though Clapton worried he was in for a re-run of the Cream fiasco. As it turned out, Blind Faith’s real problem lay elsewhere – in the massive expectations built around the “supergroup” (as any new amalgam of semi-famous musicians was now routinely called). They played a huge show in Hyde Park, made a decent album – though it became better known for the nude 12-year-old girl on its cover than for any of its songs – and quietly disbanded after a US tour.
Eric’s friendship with The Beatles took another turn when he joined John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band for a festival gig in Toronto. Their performance was remarkable for two things – Yoko Ono’s wailed extravaganza Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow) and a brand new song of John’s, called Cold Turkey, that depicted his heroin addiction with harrowing candour. On stage in Toronto, Clapton was high himself, on his new favourite drug cocaine, but he developed the song’s piercing guitar part (and would perfect it in the studio a week later). He was not personally familiar with the tortures of heroin withdrawal. Not yet.
A part of Clapton always craved the anonymity of sideman status. After his guest stint with the Plastic Ono Band he went for another low profile spell with rootsy US act Delaney & Bonnie, and with Delaney’s band made his own solo debut LP, Eric Clapton. With a few refugees from that same band, he then formed Derek & The Dominos. The very name looked like a spotlight-dodging ruse on Clapton’s part (a condition we might term “Tin Machine Syndrome”). Nervous at this wilful sacrifice of brand recognition, his record company flooded London with badges saying “Derek is Eric”.
While the Dominos found their stride they helped George Harrison with his own solo LP All Things Must Pass. George had by now moved from Surrey to a new palace in Oxfordshire, where the sessions took place. But he was still married to Pattie, of course. (As Eric noticed.) Clapton himself was living with a beautiful aristocratic teenager named Alice Ormsby-Gore, the daughter of Britain’s former ambassador to the US, Lord Harlech. It might have been a very agreeable set-up, were it not for two very large flies in the ointment.
One was Eric’s growing realisation of a passionate, hopeless love for George’s wife. The other was the fact that he and Alice had become addicted to heroin.
Paradoxically, the anguish of Clapton’s unrequited love for Pattie Harrison, his best friend’s wife, would inspire the greatest work of his entire career. With the Dominos he decamped to Miami to make an album called Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, its title derived from an old Persian love story whose plotline exactly mirrored his own romantic entanglement.
The Miami sessions were extravagantly druggy, and Eric was feeling no pain for their duration, but the material on the album left no doubt about his turmoil. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad? implored one song. Have You Ever Loved A Woman? asked another. Bell Bottom Blues confirmed Clapton’s emergence as a writer of melodies to match the fluid grace of his guitar lines. The ache of longing pervades Layla at every turn. So does a certain streak of self-pity, epitomised by the cover of an old blues number, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out.
The album was a commercial disaster in Britain and only a modest success in America. This seems extraordinary in hindsight and Clapton was certainly mortified at the time. Add the sudden death of his friend Hendrix and the continuing torment of his love life, and the omens looked bad. As a man so vulnerable to chemical temptations, Clapton could not have picked worse company than the Dominos. Their attempts at a second album collapsed in disarray: “drugs and women,“ said their wry keyboard player Bobby Whitlock; “too many drugs and not enough women.”
A morbid air of doom has always clung to the Dominos’ story. The guest guitarist on the first album was Duane Allman; he was killed soon after in a motorbike accident. The bassist Carl Radle died in 1980 of kidney infection brought on by alcoholism and addiction. The drummer Jim Gordon acquired his own drug habit and acute paranoid schizophrenia; complaining of “hearing voices”, particularly his mother’s, he attacked and murdered her in 1983. He’s been locked away in a prison hospital since then, but is sustained by the royalties he earns through a co-write credit on Layla’s title track. Only Whitlock and Clapton are alive and well.
Clapton has said of his “Derek” period that it was “a make-believe band, we were all hiding inside it... I mean, being Derek was a cover for the fact that I was trying to steal someone else’s wife. That was one of the reasons for doing it, so that I could write that song, and even use another name for Pattie. So Derek and Layla – it wasn’t real at all.” Regardless of Alice Ormsby-Gore’s feelings, Clapton even had a fling with Pattie’s 18-year-old sister Paula.
The tangled ménage of Eric, Pattie and George is one of rock’s most remarkable sagas. It has the claustrophobic intensity of some earlier, more sexually inhibited era – rather like the Bohemian literati of the Bloomsbury set who “lived in Squares and loved in triangles”. To the average rock star of 1970 there was small reason to stop at a triangle – not when you could have a whole polygon. The situation of Clapton and the Harrisons uncannily recalls that of William Morris, his model wife Jane and their friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who enacted much the same scenario in another Oxfordshire manor house 100 years before.
“That’s the problem with drugs and drink,” Clapton reflected later. “They make these things possible. When I was involved in that triangle, drugs were giving me access to propositions which really were quite inhuman.” With Pattie resisting his advances and George either oblivious or moodily silent upon the subject, Clapton withdrew to his own mansion with Alice and lived the life of a semi-reclusive junkie. He recorded no music. He wouldn’t answer the door for days on end. Apparently he made a lot of paper aeroplanes. A rare outing was, ironically, at the behest of George who brought him to New York for the Bangla Desh benefit show. The hapless Alice spent the day running around Manhattan securing some heroin.
Lord Harlech himself tried to help his daughter and Eric; with Clapton’s friend Pete Townshend he organised a 1973 show at the Rainbow in North London to encourage Eric back into the world. Poignantly, the prodigal’s return was delayed awhile by the discovery that he’d grown too fat for his favourite white suit. Once again Alice stepped forward; with the aid of her sewing machine she let the superstar’s trousers out.
Thanks in large part to the Harley Street specialist Dr Meg Patterson, Clapton recovered from his heroin addiction in 1974. The trouble was, he became an alcoholic instead.
At least he was functioning as a musician again, and he made a successful mainstream album, 461 Ocean Boulevard – best known for the hit version of Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff, a cover that helped propel both Marley himself and the reggae genre to wider attention. The year’s other breakthrough was the long-awaited consummation of his affair with Pattie Harrison, whose marriage to George had been becalmed by mutual apathy. George himself was not a stranger to infidelity (among his dalliances of the time was Ringo’s wife Maureen); he and Eric achieved the surprising feat of remaining friends for life. Having shared the painful process of drug recovery with Eric, Alice Ormsby-Gore was cast aside. (Sad to relate, her own story ends in 1995, when she was found dead at her home in Bournemouth.)
Drink became the dominant force in Clapton’s life at this point. He spent a year in tax exile in the Bahamas. “In that year I became a full blown alcoholic,” he told the Sunday Times. “I found, for instance, that booze was really cheap and everyone drank like a fish. There was nothing else to do and after three months I got fed up with the sunshine and I stayed inside the house with the air conditioning on and just drank all day, looking out the window.”
An awful warning of Clapton’s decrepitude came in August, 1976, when he interrupted his show at the Birmingham Odeon to offer some slurred words of praise for Enoch Powell. The word “wog” was used. It wasn’t good at all.
All hell let loose. The summer of ’76 was a time of tinderbox emotions when it came to race. Far right parties were making big gains, while art school punks were flirting with swastika chic. The party in power, Jim Callaghan’s Labour, seemed to represent a stale, exhausted liberalism. It really looked like things might turn nasty. A new organisation sprang into being, called Rock Against Racism. In an angry letter to all the music papers, its founders wrote:-
“When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric. You’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff and you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their cheque books and plastic crap. We want to organize a rank and file movement against the racist poison in music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism.
“PS Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!”
Clapton, alas, seemed blearily detached and repeated his anti-immigration theme in a Melody Maker interview. He argued vaguely that his views were rooted in concern for social cohesion rather than racial prejudice (plus an altercation he’d apparently had with some wealthy Arabs in a London hotel). But the impression lingered of a pampered star, fuzzy of brain, giving succour the vicious rather than the vulnerable. Unluckily, too, the affair coincided with that year’s new mood of punk antagonism towards the rich rock elite that Clapton epitomised. In later years, without recanting entirely, Eric ascribed his Enoch leanings to an “Alf Garnett” phase of inverted snobbery – the working class boy who wouldn’t go to fancy restaurants, play tennis or wear Italian suits.
The drunken years produced at least one great song – the almost comically maudlin Wonderful Tonight. But it was otherwise a horrible time, of “Cognac roadies”, of domestic violence, of random encounters with tramps whom he would bring back to the house, of sleek yet mediocre albums, and a man in his thirties who didn’t know how to get on aeroplanes by himself. He’d go to bed with a bottle of vodka, a guitar, a cassette machine and a loaded shotgun: “I’d put it in the position with the barrel to my mouth where you could take the top of your head off, and I thought, Yeah, but if I did this then I’d not be able to have another drink.”
He finally married Pattie in 1979, though there were already cracks appearing in the relationship. Their wedding party reunited three Beatles on stage – and Lennon later claimed he would have joined them had his invitation arrived in time. A year later Clapton was rushed to hospital in Minnesota, the result of an alcoholic collapse that almost killed him: “I didn’t give a fuck. I just thought, How soon can I get out of here and get a drink?”
The slow climb back to sobriety started in a US rehab clinic in 1982. Three years later, an appearance at the American end of Live Aid restored him to the pantheon of rock’s respected elders. There were occasional relapses, but by 1990, Eric was attending London’s celebrated Priory, not as a patient but as a mentor to other recovering addicts. These were the Armani years, of Albert Hall residencies, of benefit shows for worthy causes, of acceptable if slightly unexciting albums. He divorced Pattie in 1986; he was already involved with an Italian model named Lory Del Santo. She bore him a son, Conor, in August of that year and he christened his new album August in the boy’s honour. It was one of his biggest sellers.
Yet all was still not well. Speaking to Robert Sandall in 1990, he described himself as “an isolated, cold, rather intimidating, generally selfish person to be around. That’s what my occupation has done to me.” He had never lived with Conor or Del Santo; he painted a rueful picture of himself as a man who would drive up to London for dinner with friends and then return to his lonely mansion. “But I’ll go out and create all kinds of personal dramas to keep myself amused,” he added. “My personal life now is chaotic. It should be filmed. It’s like something out of Fellini.”
Far worse was to follow. On a US tour, Clapton and crew were travelling back from a Wisconsin show when one of their four helicopters crashed, killing four of his closest colleagues, including the guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 1991 Eric had just celebrated an historic 20-night residency at the Albert Hall, and flew to New York for a long-anticipated reunion with Conor, now four years old. On 19 March, Clapton took him to the circus. The boy was particularly enchanted by his first sighting of elephants. Eric dropped Conor off at Lory Del Santo’s Manhattan address, a 53rd floor apartment on the East Side. It was arranged he would call again the next day, to collect the boy for a trip to the zoo.
But in the morning, as Conor awaited his father and played hide and seek in the high-rise flat, he ran through a full-length window that had been left open for cleaning. There were no safety guards and the child plunged 700 feet to his death.
“I tend to realise that everything I do in the light of what happened will be a tribute to him now,” said Eric in 1993. “It doesn’t have to be a specific issue or song that relates entirely to his life or his death. My existence on this planet actually is due to him today. My ability to stay sober is due to him.”
The appalling tragedy of Conor Clapton did not sway Eric’s resolve to stay straight. He delved back into his first musical love, the blues, as if to rediscover the healing power at the music’s core. A song composed from his reflections upon the terrible event, Tears In Heaven, has possibly eclipsed Layla itself as Clapton’s most universally loved work.
A bizarre twist in Clapton’s strange family history occurred in 1998, when a journalist traced the fate of Eric’s long-lost father Edward Fryer. The soldier, originally from Montreal, had returned to Canada after the war without ever seeing his newborn son. Having absconded from the army he was given a dishonourable discharge and lived an itinerant existence. He played the piano and sang in bars, clubs and strip joints. My Way was a favourite number. It seems he married several times but never settled. He made spare cash from odd jobs and sign-writing, and lived his final days on a houseboat, sailing between Lake Ontario and Florida, before dying of leukaemia in 1985.
It thus emerged that Clapton had some new relatives he had never known, the children of Fryer’s other liaisons. Far from welcoming the whole episode as an opportunity for “closure”, however, Eric maintained a certain reserve. “For all his efforts, I don’t know if that journalist came up with the right goods,” he told WORD a few months ago. “ For a while I got a lot of satisfaction from having the riddle solved but then I started to feel unsure again… I’ve put it to sleep for a while.”
A large proportion of his time has gone into The Crossroads Centre, an addiction clinic he helped to found on the Caribbean island of Antigua (the scene of several of his debauches in years gone by). He evangelises for abstinence now: apart from anything else, any relapse would damage the reputation of the clinic. He auctioned dozens of guitars to raise funds for the Centre, whereas once he had sold guitars to pay dealers for heroin. In part, this dedication to Crossroads led to a split from his manager of many years, Roger Forrester. The latter had overseen Clapton’s career when “managing Eric” was literally a question of life and death. For the star to step outside of Forrester’s legendarily protective umbrella was seen as significant. Clapton even told WORD he could not form another serious relationship with a woman until he was clear of Roger.
After the awful event of 1991, tabloid newspapers eased up on Clapton’s love life. As he drily noted, they started to say he was being “comforted” by the various beauties he escorted around town. The list is long, but takes in names such as Marie Helvin, Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Patsy Kensit, Davina McCall, Tatum O’Neal and Kathy Lloyd. He has come to recall his womanising in downbeat terms – one more joyless addiction, in fact, rather than a life-affirming romp.
He is today a well-preserved gent of 59. After the excesses of his Versace period, he once again dresses with taste. Like many a working class mod, he discovered an affinity with traditional aristocratic style. He used his wealth to save the threatened Cording’s clothes shop on Piccadilly, an outpost of sartorial sanity in a Britain where men have largely opted to dress like toddlers all their lives. The designer Paul Smith told me: “He has money now, of course, but he dressed well before he was wealthy, which goes to show it’s in his heart. He’s unique in the music world, because generally speaking rock stars are absolutely rotten at dressing.”
And he is now the family man he never believed he would become. A daughter, Julie, was born in 2001 to his young American wife Melia McEnery, whom he met while she worked for Armani. She bore him another daughter, Ella, in 2003. (He has a teenage daughter, Ruth, from an earlier relationship.) He describes himself as a small-c conservative nowadays, and a monarchist who was pleased, in 2002, to receive a CBE. He has for years been fond of fly-fishing and village cricket. A while ago, he even stopped smoking.
There is something solemn at his core, perhaps. His interviews are rare but earnest, typified by the unblinking honesty of someone who’s spent long years in therapy, both as patient and counsellor. In 1994 he blamed his personal instability on “dysfunctional relationships from Day One. From when I was a child with confused family issues.” Depression would stalk him even at the peak of his triumphs. “It can get even worse,” he said, “because once you discover that money and fame and success doesn’t do it, where do you go then?”
Clapton’s recent work has looped back to the blues – a collaboration with B.B. King here, a tribute to Robert Johnson there. The blues, he told Robert Sandall, “has always given me more out of life than sex, booze or any kick you can think of.”
More than sex? And booze? Or any kick at all? Well, you can’t accuse him of skimping on the research.
Almost as soon as Cream disbanded they were logged in rock’s archives as “Eric Clapton’s band”. That’s not the way it looked back then: Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce were considered equally important to the triumverate. Come the solo years, though, the divergence grew as great as Paul Weller’s from The Jam or Sting’s from The Police. Everyone knows about Eric Clapton, but his former comrades are rather overlooked.
This is unjust, especially in the case of Jack Bruce. The bass-player, who had once trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, continued to make albums of richness and diversity. Still with the lyricist Pete Brown, he recorded albums like Songs For A Tailor and Harmony Row that are as good as anything in early ’70s British rock. His output has always ranged from hard, biting jazz to honeyed Celtic soul; his voice commands at either of those extremes. He’s rarely made the sort of commercial music he’s surely capable of, and has ploughed a pretty stubborn furrow. As one third of Cream he could have coasted for decade as a member of the rock aristocracy, jamming for charity galas and all the rest of it. But he never took his place at the high table.
In recent years you might have seen him touring with Ringo Starr’s “All Starr” group, but decades of hard living caught up with him when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. The transplant operation was eventually a success but he nearly died in the process. Like Clapton, he’s also known the pain of losing a child: his son, Jo Bruce, a musician who played with the Afro Celt Sound System, died of an asthma attack in 1997.
“Ginger and I never got on, ever,” Bruce once said. “But perhaps because of the very pain of our relationship, we were the hottest rhythm section I’ve ever played in.”
Like his sparring partner, Ginger Baker left Cream with the kind of status that brought automatic membership of the rock elite – a privilege he exercised by claiming the drum stool in Blind Faith. Thereafter, though, his career has been interesting rather than lucrative. For a man who became a sort of patron saint to heavy metal drummers, he’s preferred to explore his passions for jazz and African music, whether in the percussively-driven Ginger Baker’s Air Force, working with Fela Kuti or building Nigeria’s first modern recording studio (where Paul McCartney made some of Band On The Run).
Since then he’s lived in Italy, Colorado and South Africa, farmed, reared polo ponies, played occasional sessions (including John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd) and made albums with Bill Laswell. At one point in the 1970s, when he was feeling the pinch, he thought a Cream reunion might be just the thing. "I went down to Eric and proposed it,” he said later. “He said he didn't want to do it just because I was broke. This really hurt at the time, but it was also absolutely true. That is not a reason to do something, you know."
But the group were reunited – for one night only – at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 1993. Clapton had been the least keen, but he was persuaded by the event’s musical director Robbie Robertson of The Band (an irony, since it was The Band’s music that encoraged Clapton to ditch Cream in the first place). “I was moved," said Eric, after playing a few numbers with Bruce and Baker. “I was in some other place. It’s been so long since I've been around something from somebody else that’s inspired me. For the last 20 years, it’s been up to me to inspire me.” Indeed he was so moved that he broke into sobs during his acceptance speech.
"Immediately I went off afterwards,” said Clapton, “and started thinking, ‘What could we do? What could we do?’ without it getting into the wrong hands, without it getting out of control.”
Since the split with his manager Roger Forrester, Eric has taken sole charge of his personal and professional life; the 2005 Cream reunion could be one result. He’s been frank in the past about the waning of his powers: “I don’t think I ever topped Layla,” he told WORD’s David Hepworth. “When you’re in your 20s you’ve got something you lose. If I was a sportsman I would have retired by now. You’ve just got a certain amount of dynamism that you lose when turn 30.” He retracted that statement later, but he announced the Cream reunion with these words: “We're all getting on a bit and I wanted to do it before it was too late and while we still have the energy.”
He hardly needs the cash himself, but the concert fees and CD and DVD receipts will amount to a tidy lump-sum for Bruce and Baker as they hit retirement age. As any self-help veteran will, Clapton has talked a lot about “fixing” himself, and Cream is among the last pieces of unfinished business.
Within the symbolism of Cream’s history, the Royal Albert Hall would be the most fitting place on earth for a last act of reconciliation. The venue’s part in Clapton’s own mythology is obvious. And just a few years ago, on 29 November, 2002, it saw another richly resonant affair, the “Concert For George” that Clapton directed for his late friend. That was a supremely well-managed event, considering the emotional minefield that lay between the two men for the remainder of Harrison’s life. Another account, you felt, had finally been settled.
More than that, though, Cream were one of the greatest bands of the rock era. They were never completely recognized, and they were never fully mourned. Come the last notes of the last Cream concert, and it won’t only be Eric’s guitar that gently weeps.
20 Clapton Greats in Chronological order
1. THE YARDBIRDS Got To Hurry
A rollicking blues instrumental, this was Eric’s first recorded composition, but the manager took his writing credit. The Yardbirds’ singer, Keith Relf, was electrocuted by his guitar in 1976. (Single, B-side of For Your Love)
2. JOHN MAYALL & THE BLUES BREAKERS All Your Love
Skilful interpretation of an Otis Rush blues and a high point of the LP famously decorated with a pic of Clapton reading the Beano. (From John Mayall’s Blue Breakers With Eric Clapton)
3. CREAM I’m So Glad
Dexterous version of an old Skip James song from Cream’s tentative first album. (From Fresh Cream)
4. CREAM Strange Brew
Jack Bruce hated this slinky number, grafted on top of his bass part to a different song. Odd fact: Cream’s producer Felix Pappalardi co-wrote the track with his wife Gail Collins, who later shot him to death. (From Disraeli Gears)
5. CREAM Sunshine Of Your Love
Legendary head of Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, signed Cream as a blues band and disliked their lunges into experimental pop. To Bruce’s annoyance he dismissed this one as “psychedelic hogwash”. (From Disraeli Gears)
6. CREAM Crossroads
Incandescent live recording of the Robert Johnson number taken a San Francisco show on Cream’s last US tour. Two outstanding Clapton solos, though neither passes muster with the perfectionist Slowhand himself. (From Wheels Of Fire)
7. THE BEATLES While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Harrison and Clapton’s guitar styles hardly overlapped – the rockabilly picker and the sensuous blueswailer – and George was happy to offer Eric this prestigious Beatle guest spot. (From The Beatles aka “the White Album”)
8. CREAM Badge
A Clapton/Harrison co-write and a wonderfully concise pop single with lovely bass and lead riffs. Nonsensical lyrics are rendered even more vague by contributions from Ringo Starr. (From Goodbye)
9. BLIND FAITH Presence Of The Lord
The first really introspective song Clapton ever wrote, perhaps. Not for the first time, though, he was in a band with a great white soul singer, and he surrenders the vocal here to Steve Winwood (From Blind Faith)
10. JOHN LENNON Cold Turkey
The Beatles deemed this horror-show heroin confessional too extreme for their Abbey Road sessions so Lennon reserved it for his own Plastic Ono Band. Eric’s anguished guitar squalls make it one of the most brutal pop records in history. (Single)
11. DELANEY & BONNIE Comin’ Home
A Clapton co-write with Delaney Bramlett’s wife Bonnie, under the influence of The Band’s organic Americana – delightfully funky in a backwoods kind of way. (Single)
12. DEREK & THE DOMINOS Layla
Though the riff itself is blunted by familiarity, the vocal carries an impressive freight of desperation. And get the full-length version for the plaintive keyboard coda by Bobby Whitlock, entwined with Duane Allman’s slide playing. (From Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs)
13. DEREK & THE DOMINOS Little Wing
A stirring interpretation of the Jimi Hendrix song, lent additional poignancy by the fact of his death a week or so later. (From Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs)
14. DEREK & THE DOMINOS Have You Ever Loved A Woman?
A low-down, broken-hearted blues, the most moving that Clapton has ever played. A cover version, but almost unbearably autobiographical: “All the time you know, she belongs to your very best friend.” (From Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs)
15. ERIC CLAPTON Motherless Children
Galloping beats and keening guitars made this a flamboyant come-back record but note the old blues lyric at its heart, heavy with the melancholy of family fragmentation that has been Clapton’s abiding ache. (From 461 Ocean Boulevard)
16. ERIC CLAPTON Better Make It Through Today
A desolate, little known Clapton gem, seemingly sung in some dark night of the soul. A brandy chaser with that one, sir? (From There’s One In Every Crowd)
17. ERIC CLAPTON Sign Language
Dylan appears on this version of his own composition, along with Robbie Robertson. After a chilly first encounter at a John Mayall session in 1966, Eric and Bob became mutually supportive collaborators. (From No Reason To Cry)
18. ERIC CLAPTON Wonderful Tonight
Penned in a tipsy haze for Pattie Clapton as she dressed for a Paul McCartney party – and is finally prevailed upon to drive her sozzled husband home. (From Slowhand)
19. ERIC CLAPTON Cocaine
Eric’s admiration for the hangdog troubadour J.J. Cale brought two classics to the Clapton canon. One was After Midnight and the other was Cocaine. Boasts a chugging guitar riff you could chop stuff with. (From Slowhand)
20. ERIC CLAPTON Tears In Heaven
The Unplugged experiment gave Eric the biggest album of his life, and the song for Conor is of course its emotional crux. (From Unplugged)