Thursday, July 20, 2017
Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton
Slowhand, warts and all
I’m a lifelong Eric Clapton fan, though I can’t say I like everything he puts out. I am familiar with all stages of his musical career, but prior to reading his 2007 autobiography entitled Clapton I knew very little about his personal life other than disjointed anecdotes here and there. In this book, the guitarist extraordinaire offers a candid look back at his roller coaster life. Overall, it’s a pretty satisfying tour through about a half century of rock and roll history. I may not always have enjoyed the ride that Clapton took me on, but I was always thoroughly engaged by it.
Perhaps the defining moment in Clapton’s life is his much-discussed romance with George Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd, the inspiration for the Layla album and other songs in Clapton’s body of work. That particular episode proves not to be quite as romantic as the music that was composed around it. Here Clapton admits that as soon as he won Boyd’s love he began cheating on her. In fact, Clapton treats a lot of women like dirt in this book, and delves pretty deeply into the psychological hows and whys of it all. To his credit, however, unlike Pete Townshend in his autobiography Who I Am, Clapton doesn’t ask you to forgive him, beg you to like him, or expect you to admire his exploits. He simply relates everything in a matter-of-fact way, as if to say these are some bad things I’ve done, and there’s nothing I can do about them now.
Clapton is equally candid about his substance abuse, and his story of recovery is inspiring. One can’t help but admire the way he eventually turned his life around. Yet the book is frustrating because for most of its length he is still very much an emotional child. He doesn’t really get his act together until his mid-50s, when he marries a woman 30 years his junior. At that point you’re happy for him, but the book also starts to get boring as Clapton becomes your grandpa, talking about “computer culture” (owning a laptop), shopping for shoes in Japan, and the necessity of taking a nap every afternoon.
As revealing and cathartic as all the talk about his drug use and alcoholism may be, the reader is left wishing Clapton had devoted more ink to his music. He covers Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos pretty well, but glosses over much of his solo career. He left the Yardbirds because their music was too poppy and not true to the blues, but he doesn’t feel the need to justify his later forays into easy listening, smooth jazz, and Luther Vandross-style R&B. Some of his greatest albums, like Slowhand, he dismisses as sloppy, drunken playing. His own personal favorite is Pilgrim, an album which critics frequently cite as one of his all-time worst.
A really good rock and roll biography will make me want to go back and dig out that artist’s old albums, thereby reliving some of his or her glory days. This book didn’t do that for me. As much as I love his guitar playing, I’d have to say my respect for the man diminished a bit after reading his life story. Not only were some of his moral choices off-putting, but he just doesn’t come across as intelligent as you might expect a virtuoso musician to be. I’m not here to criticize Clapton’s life, however, but rather to review his book. There’s no denying that Clapton the book is well written and covers a lot of what you’d want to know about the man. It isn’t always fun or exciting, but it’s consistently informative, surprisingly candid, and provides a great deal of insight into the man behind the music.
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