Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Notes: Autobiography, Eric Clapton

When I turned the final page of Eric Clapton's autobiography, my immediate thought was, "how on earth is this man still alive?" The fact that in 2017 he is returning to London's Royal Albert Hall for a series of gigs with his band, seems almost miraculous when one reads about how much of the 1960s he spent stoned, how much of the 1970s he lost to heroin addiction and how much of the 1980s to a serious alcohol problem. When you add to that the chaos of his relationships with wives and a staggering array of women, his survival is extraordinary.
The tone of the book is unusual, in that it is predominantly a confessional. Autobiographies of notable people, are usually replete with intricate details of their achievements. Politicians like to recount their key moments brokering deals, or bringing parties to the negotiating table, sportsmen like to dissect their greatest moments, with lessons for the reader on technique, training and tactics. There are no guitar lessons in Clapton's autobiography however, no speculations about the roots of, of enduring appeal of the blues, or explanations as to what he feels has enabled him to reach the heights of his profession and remain there for a half a century. Rather, we discover that he was massively screwed up as a kid, when he discovered that his 'parents' were actually his biological grandparents - and had to face maternal rejection. He found solace first in music generally, then in blues guitar. Then he says that he was lost in drugs and alcohol for so much of his life that he basically didn't ever mature beyond being a young teenager; despite having access to all manner of adult pleasures and pastimes. When looking back at the way he treated his first wife, he says things such as, "my moral health was appalling". He also documents several of his failures and misjudgements with the women and relationships in his life (as well as simply missing out several others who inexplicably do not get a mention in his tale). He spares the reader few insights into how badly he treated and used the women who came and went from his life, his drug binges and his bed. Perhaps this is carthartic writing; perhaps seeking some form of public absolution. Intriguingly, aside from his childhood issues and lack of sobriety he offers almost no explanation, or intended justification, for some of his shoddy behaviour.

The basic facts of his musical life are in there, John Mayall, Graham Bond, Cream, Blind Faith, and all his solo work. All the albums, and his collaborators are mentioned, as well as what was going on musically at the time, be it blues, raggae, folk, rock, or pop. However, for obvious reasons many of these are rather vague in their recollection of detail; as the main story is all about the state that Clapton found himself in at the time, and his tempestuous relationships. If you open this book hoping to find the definitive story of the Baker/Bruce feud that broke Cream, then you will be disappointed and left with little more than the acknowledgement that they didn't always get on (who knew?!)! 
The relationship between musical creativity and chemical intoxication is a curious one. The Beatles recorded some of their very best and absolute worst music when heavily drugged (personally I refer the more colourful LSD fuelled Pepper material to the heavier drugs which seem to undergird the White Album). Reading Clapton's autobiography, I was interested to note that the music of his which I admire most has been that in his most sober and controlled periods. While there were certainly plenty of chemicals flowing in the 1960s, behind much of the music of Cream through to Derek and the Dominoes, he wasn't out of control in that most productive era. However, I didn't really like a lot of what he did from then until the Journeyman/Unplugged era - which is when he finally completely sobered up. In terms of his own playing and musicianship, he freely admits it suffered badly during his periods of heavy addictions.
One of the tragedies of the book is that Clapton got to know the great Muddy Waters, but was unable to really develop the musical or personal relationship as it coincided with his heavy drinking days. The other is the awful story of the death of Clapton's four year old son Conor, the effect that the loss had on him, and how he dealt with it. This is painful and difficult reading, and Clapton is very open about this devastating part of his life.
Like great musical biopics of recent years, like "Ray" or "Walk the Line", the great plot of this book is about the fact that the central character doesn't end up dead like one of his girlfriends, a Jimi Hendrix, a Janis Joplin or a Phil Lynott; but conquers his addictions - and emerges from the rubble with a coherent and decent life. In fact, the final chapters of this book are all about Clapton's last two decades of sobriety, which have enabled him to build a happy marriage with his second wife and their three daughters. He also details the way in which he has been able to invest so much of his time and fortune in his Crossroads Addiction Recovery Centre.

One of the intriguing things about Clapton's tale of escape from alcoholism was of his encounter with the 'higher power' known to all aficionados of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He talks rather candidly about his scepticism about organised religion and its doctrinal systems; yet, about reaching a point of 'surrender' before God as being a critical step in his recovery. He also suggests that his previous attempts to reform himself failed as he didn't ever reach that point. This is actually an essential element of the book as without this, it would end as an overdose of smugness; self-rescue and self-promotion. With it, it seems that hitting rock-bottom, he was lifted up by a hidden benevolent power. The book then ends positively, with a sober man, with a content family life, still playing the music he loves. There is an enduring note of sadness in it all however; a trail of debris from the damaged relationships, painful splits and some who never made it alive through the drug-fuelled frenzy. Also, somewhat skirted around is Clapton's ill advised anti-immigration outburst in the mid-70s that sounded racist, from a man who spent his time hanging out with BB King, Muddy Waters and playing Black people's music. Perhaps the confession about dreadful state he was in at the time is the best explanation for that sorry episode that we are likely to get.

Clapton's autobiography is a fascinating, if not at times, a rather bleak read. It does provide an intriguing insight into the guitar man behind such enduring classics as Steppin' Out, Layla, White Room, Sunshine of Your Love, and being the prime contemporary exponent of such blues standards as Crossroads, or Born Under a Bad Sign.

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