Sober reflections

by Nick Bollinger / 29 December, 2007

There is a question I have been pondering for more than 30 years, ever since my teenage ears were first seared by sounds of the album John Mayall's Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton. How does a working-class lad from rural Surrey, barely 21, wind up playing blues guitar with a command and intensity never found before, and seldom since, in a white musician from England?

Though little recorded by the guitarist in subsequent years has matched Bluesbreakers' blinding brilliance, the chance that my question might finally be answered was enough to prick my curiosity about Eric Clapton: The Autobiography.

Disappointingly, Clapton's account of the making of Bluesbreakers does not approach the Damascus dimensions I had imagined. Although acknowledging that the record helped seal his reputation, Clapton, now 62, simply credits its remarkable edginess to the fact that it was recorded quickly, almost live, and to his own insistence on playing with amp on full.

As for the near-supernatural quality of the performance - he sounds as if he's trying to play himself out of his earthly body - he attempts no explanation.

The early chapters contain hints of what might have led him to this moment, though his measured prose leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots. Childhood details suggest a few reasons for Clapton's affinity for the blues. While not marked by poverty or racism - the background against which blues music originally evolved in the southern US - his childhood was spent in the shadow of his early and traumatic discovery that he was illegitimate.

He describes how he bonded early with music, mostly via the radio, and at 13 acquired his first guitar, a Hoyer, which he recalls lovingly ("very shiny and somehow virginal"). You see this slightly lost, oddly self-possessed young man seeking solace and discovering his identity in his instrument.

But also, from his mid-teens, he begins to seek escape through alcohol abuse. And ultimately his relationship with alcohol is as much the subject of the book as his relationship with music.

In fact, after years of drug and alcohol dependence, dysfunctional relationships, assorted therapies and eventual recovery, he finds it far easier to discuss the nature of addiction than the impetus behind his art. By the final chapter he has become the worst advertisement for sobriety: the crashing bore. Teetotal and smoke-free, he fills the final pages with tedious accounts of hunting, fishing and Christmas shopping.

Far more exciting are the years when the graffito "Clapton Is God" first appeared on London walls (he admits that he liked it); or when he was conquering America with Cream, the first supergroup; buying a rural mansion in order to escape from an obsessed drug detective; totalling his Ferrari; or pursuing a doomed affair with Patti Boyd, the then-wife of his good friend, Beatle George Harrison.

And yet these spectacular stories are recounted in an oddly muted tone, as though the sheer quantity of extraordinary events somehow cancel each other out.

Even the tragic death of his son Conor, aged five (he fell from a 49th-floor window), receives a measured treatment, as Clapton describes his own peculiar detachment from the horrific episode. In the end, he concludes that just being able to remain sober under such circumstances is the best way to honour his son.

The flat pacing and almost incidental treatment of the music undoubtedly has something to do with Clapton's co-writer, Christopher Simon Sykes, better known for his jottings on the British aristocracy than his interest in music. But it also reflects Clapton's state of mind today as he looks back, in his own words, "sober ... virtually deaf" and "a complete curmudgeon".

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