Wednesday, October 17, 2007


So, I read Clapton's autobiography. Given what I already knew about him, much of it didn't come as a surprise -- it's the standard VH-1 Behind the Music arc:

Young Eric had a weird childhood -- grew up in a family believing that his grandmother was his mother. (And learned eventually that his older sister was, in fact, his real mother. Never knew his real father at all.)

He was a poor and rowdy kid -- smoked, shoplifted, vandalized train cars.

He learned how to play guitar, got into the blues, became rich and famous. Got stoned, addicted to alcohol, smoked too much, screwed up his relationships, cut a wide swath through groupies and high-profile beautiful women, and was a self-centered boob.

Eventually, after much heartache, Clapton got clean and sober. He settled down, married, had kids, and is by his own lights, finally a happy man, though it took him forty of his sixty-two years to get there.

Redemption, as it were, and better late than not at all.

Along the way, Clapton was in the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, Bonnie & Delaney, not to mention a pretty stellar solo career and playing on friends's albums. Got tagged with the name "Slowhand," for a reason I never knew. Saw graffiti on London buildings that said "Clapton is God!" when he was still in his twenties.

Given that I named one of my dogs after my favorite Clapton tune, I figured it was worth reading the book for that alone. And to hear his version of what happened to his son, Conor, who was the inspiration for "Tears in Heaven," a heartbreaker of a song for anybody who has ever lost a child or worried about it happening.

A few things I didn't know. He's apparently a pretty good fisherman and a bird hunter. The storybook tale of his romance with George Harrison's first wife, Pattie, was anything but hearts and flowers. (He wrote "Wonderful Tonight," for her, a lovely song. How he came to do so was because he was dressed and ready to go out and she kept changing her clothes, and he was pissed off about it. Hey, you look wonderful -- let's go! I love that one.)

On the one hand, Clapton always claimed that the music was the thing, and that he didn't care about having hit records if the music wasn't pure. On the other hand, he was unhappy when his records didn't do as well as he thought they should. No surprise he was conflicted by that.

And probably most interesting to me is that, throughout the book, he downplays his ability as a guitarist, over and over. Doesn't lay claim to any real skill, and in any comparison he makes with serious blues players, always ranks them higher than himself. He is lavish with such praise, from the old delta guys to Jimi Hendrix. By his lights, everybody could play better than he could, even when he was sober.

Before he was kicked out of school, he was studying to be an artist. His signature on the book's cover looks to me like a stylized guitar, and I wonder if he did that on purpose.

Worth a read if you are a Clapton fan -- he doesn't spare himself much, and it's a warts-and-all portrait.


Anonymous said...

Clapton has astounding vibrato. He has something of a unique vibrato style. Other than that, there are many guitarists as good as he is, in my opinion. The blues is a great song but too many bands cover it.

The reason Clapton got the moniker slowhand was out of irony. In the 60s, he truly was one of the fastest pentatonic players around.

He's a great writer and arranger and he's paid his dues. But comparing him to Hendrix is rather futile. Hendrix did bizarre stuff that even today is difficult to play: take a look at Little Wing sometime. Such a sparse melody but it's such a cast iron bitch to play.

Steve Perry said...

Oh, yeah, there are a lot of guitarists who are better, but certainly he was pretty good in his heyday, and there weren't a lot of white boys playing the blues.

B.B. King says if it wasn't for guys like Clapton and the Stones, he'd still be playing the Chittlin Circuit. 'Twas the Brits who brought the blues back to wider American audiences.

"Slowhand" was bestowed upon him by the manager of the club in which he was playing, according to Clapton, as a marketing ploy. Clapton said people started using it because he used light-gauge strings and frequently broke the high E. While he was changing them, they'd start to chant: "Slowhand, Slowhand ..."

Now, I've got to read George Harrison's autobiography covering that period, and Pattie Boyd's, to get the other views of that triangle ...

Anonymous said...

Well, what's "better." That's the big question. How many people know who Yngwie Malmsteen is? I work at a lot of that stuff, but I wonder what the hell the damn point is... it's the whole package that matters, not just the song but the entire band.

If "better" has to do with how many people have enjoyed ones music, Clapton is certainly better.

Steve Perry said...

Like you said, it's a package deal. Lotta shredders can burn up the fretboard, but they didn't write "Layla," or "Tears in Heaven," or, well, a bunch of other songs that either got me out of my chair dancin' or nailed me there unable to move.

Hendrix and Stevie Ray had the chops, and they did some great songs. No telling what else they'd have done, if they'd lived, But Hendrix did himself in, probably by accident, and Stevie Ray picked the wrong helicopter, so we'll never know.

Clapton is still out there, and still writing, and like Paul Simon, his overall body of work is such that given a choice between that and technical expertise, I gotta go with what moves me.