Eric Clapton, is arguably the world’s greatest guitarist. He’s certainly in the conversation for most influential guitarist. Clapton as been written about for five decades, even writing his own autobiography, so what can I possibly write about E.C. that hasn’t been said many times before? My comments are not judgemental but understanding his life helps to understand his music, and vice versa, as the two are so intertwined.
Eric Clapton is a survivor, literally. He has battled addiction multiple times and survived a rock and roll lifestyle. He’s not quite Keith Richard, but he’s in the competition. Now in his seventies, Clapton not only keeps a busy schedule; he’s making the most of his last chapters. We should all be as reflective, and revisit influential periods of our lives. The Clapton we see in recent years is vastly different than the younger man or mid-life Clapton. Not only has he survived, he’s thrived.
Clapton’s autobiography (2007) covers a lot of personal ground, warts and all. He’s upfront about his failures and mistakes. He laments the cold-hearted firing of long-time bassist Carl Radle, and the man’s death soon after. I believe Clapton’s life today is a direct result of learning from past failings.
By the time he was in his fifties, Clapton had covered all the points of the compass multiple times. He had enjoyed hugely successful periods, lapses into substance abuse and loss, and bad career choices. But he always bounced back and scaled to new heights.
He is now an elder statesman of rock, if there is such a thing. If you have a benefit concert, ask Clapton, he’ll be there. As a blues fanatic as a young man, he is dedicated to introduce classic blues to new generations of fans and make sure the pioneers of the genre are remembered. He recorded and toured with his heroes and former band mates to have late life success and recognition. Asked to help lead a concert to recognize his longtime friend George Harrison, he became the musical director. For a man who admittedly quit his bands and relationships, when he got itchy feet, he was now like the surrogate father in his community of musicians.
“Up until I became a father, it was all about self-obsession. But then I learned exactly what it’s all about: the delight of being a servant.”
In the 1960’s, he built his reputation mainly through bands we played with: the
Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers and Cream, plus Blind Faith. Clapton was well-traveled in the 1960’s, four bands. He quit the Yardbirds just as they released their most commercial record. He wanted to play the blues, not pop. He left the Bluesbreakers because he wanted to front a band, even though it was an explosive union of Clapton, Bruce and Baker in Cream. There was a lot of creative and personal tension within the group which drove them apart. He also said that Cream refused to grow, to incorporate different musical influences he saw exploding in America. In Blind Faith, he took a backseat to the band but found that unfulfilling and quit to become part of Delaney & Bonnie. In the 1960’s Clapton built his reputation. Clapton is God, was the popular saying among fans. As his fame and success exploded, so did excess and “self-obsession” as he called it.
In the 1970’s, he got comfortable with center stage: Derek and the Dominoes ended before it really began, another band Clapton got out of; he battled heroin addiction; he pursued Layla (Patti Harrison) until she finally became his, then he went through years of unhappiness and affairs; he slowly achieved solo success, before he fired his band and started over.
In the 1980’s, he went through alcohol rehab and had rebuilt his musical sound. He staged a major rebound and became an MTV icon. He got fashionable, teamed up with Phil Collins for hits and found a formula pop sound. A sound that would come to haunt him later. His famed marriage to Patti Harrison finally broke up.
The 1990’s brought a series of tragedies, Stevie Ray Vaughn and members of Clapton’s road crew died in a helicopter crash. Then Clapton’s young son died. His Unplugged album allows him to direct his grief, which began another successful phase of his career. In his autobiography, Clapton called the Unplugged experience liberating as a musician, allowing him to literally unplug and rely on an emotional connection with an audience rather than wattage.
In the 2000’s, Clapton gambled, by revisiting the blues in several critically acclaimed albums, instead of continuing with his pop popular. He did finally make an album of original music and began a series of musical collaborations. He also settled into a new marriage and welcomed the birth of his children. He was determined to be more invested in his family than he had previously been. During the decade he collected a large number of Grammy Awards and the beginning of his career and longevity recognized.
His collaboration projects included albums with B.B. King and J.J. Cale, both of whom he revered. He was the musical director for the Concert for George, honoring his late friend George Harrison. While he would release several albums of original material to mixed reception, he also released two albums paying homage to blues pioneer Robert Johnson. At this point in his career, “success” didn’t seem his motivation. Clapton also found lasting sobriety, and that no doubt reset his compass settings. During this time, Clapton parted with his long-time manager, an indication he was looking for a course change.
“No matter how much I thought I might have loved Patti at the time, the truth is the only thing I absolutely couldn’t live without was alcohol.”
Clapton reformed Cream for a short tour and live album, in part to earn needed money for his band mates; and he played several concerts with Steve Winwood, which was also recorded for a live album. He also staged the Crossroads Guitar Festival, continued touring and released some live material from the vault. Now the grand old man of rock, he was the featured guest at benefit concerts and lifetime award events. You could build a concert or event around his name.
In recent years, Clapton announced he was cutting back on touring and that he suffered from peripheral neuropathy which impacted his playing. Clapton also released a Christmas album (2018).
“My identity shifted when I got into recovery. That’s who I am now, and it actually gives me greater pleasure to have that identity than to be a musician or anything else, because it keeps me in a manageable size.”
The one thing about Clapton is he always went his own way, and whatever career or personal setback, he always came back stronger than ever. In the mid-1970’s he came back from addiction and several unfocused albums that sold poorly. He surrounded himself with musicians he felt comfortable with and plowed forward. He also put minimized his guitar theatrics to focus on his writing and being a more accomplished performer.
Clapton was never hesitant to use other writers and to reach into the past for songs that inspired him. He paid tribute to the blues pioneers who weren’t fully appreciated in their time. What big-time rock god would record albums of old blues songs?
“The blues are what I’ve turned to, what has given me inspiration and relief in all the trials of my life.”
Clapton used his greatest gift, his live performances, to connect with audiences and to recharge his batteries. His live recordings serve to capture his and gift. He never lost the ability to hold an audience in the majesty of his fingers up and down the fretboard. Even into his seventies, Clapton was a hot ticket and he didn’t disappoint.
As someone who followed his career since the early 1970’s, I have always felt that Clapton never did what you expected him to do, just like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, you
think they go right, they go left. He rode a difficult wave of following his heart and following current popular style. Sometimes those intersected, other times not.
Clapton in the 1980’s got push-back from his record company who told him to either record some new songs for a planned album or find another record company. He had just noticed his record company had dropped Van Morrison, so he gave in and recorded their suggested songs. They had an investment to protect, and for that period it worked. Clapton was a product. But did that make him happy?
“I think I deliberately sold out a couple of times. I picked the songs that I thought would do well in the marketplace, even though I didn’t really love the song.”
His autobiography is helpful in understanding Clapton’s changing life arc, and especially how he struggled to understand life after gaining sobriety. Staying sober is one thing, rebuilding your life is another. Clapton sought to create a treatment center on the Island of Antigua to include beds for island patients who could not afford the costly treatment. His Crossroads Festivals raise money to support the center.
Clapton’s album releases in the past two decades are an odd assortment. Live albums, collaborations, cover albums, greatest hits, and the occasional set of original songs that tended toward the mellow and sentimental. This phase could be defined as tying up loose ends, giving tribute and looking to satisfy himself. At this point in his career, and life, he was content, and calling his own shots.
“Music became a healer for me. And I learned to listen with all my being. I found that it could wipe away all fear and confusion.”