Book Talk: “Clapton”

“It has taken twenty years of nonstop sobriety for me to acquire any kind of maturity, and to be able to enjoy wearing the mantle of responsibility…”

“Clapton: The Autobiography” by Eric Clapton (2007)

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I found this book at a Saint Vincent de Paul thrift shop a few years ago. I thought it was an interesting find so I took a flyer. Recently, I started reading a book on jazz that I had owned for maybe 20 years and unfortunately found it unreadable. Although I almost never do this, I bailed on it and picked up Clapton instead.

Clapton_PortraitHDC007I realized as I read this autobiography that I’ve always been a huge fan of “Eric Clapton” perhaps more so than a fan of his music. I’ve always loved Cream and, mostly because Steve Winwood is my man, Blind Faith. I owned Eric’s 1989 album Journeyman and always liked it, particularly when he brings in my favourite harmony vocalist, Daryl Hall, for “No Alibis”. And I was reminded early on reading Clapton that there can be a stark difference between “biography” and “autobiography”. I had encountered this years ago reading Songs My Mother Taught Me, Marlon Brando’s autobiography; not a whole lot of detail about particulars of an artist’s career and instead more personal remembrances.

It took only until page 6 of this book for me to be dumbfounded. Here Clapton relates his birth and childhood in terms similar to the origins of Bobby Darin. Eric’s mother, Patricia, was only 16 when she gave birth to Eric. The father was Edward Walter Fryer, a 25-year-old soldier from Montreal. I was floored to learn that Eric Clapton is half-a-Canadian! As Eric grew up – and here’s where his story is the same as Darin’s – he was told that his mother was his sister; Clapton was raised by his beloved grandmother, Pat’s mother, Rose. To top it off, years later, Clapton’s mother was married – to another Canadian soldier! She obviously knew good men when she met them. Subsequently, Clapton has a step-family in Toronto, where your humble blogger is from. Maybe EC and I will hang out one day.

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Clapton and his grandmother, Rose, who raised him as her own. Surrey, 1970.

Clapton’s book is honest. While he may not go into detail about all of his career milestones, as you read this book you get the feeling that Eric is coming clean about who he really is; he is blunt about his addictions and the times he has fallen short as a band mate, a son, a father, a guitarist and as a person. In the latter stages of his life, it’s nice to hear about his happiness as a husband and a father. The story he tells in the final pages is very human and it’s one we can all relate to. It’s pleasant to hear him discuss Christmas with his kids, homesickness while on tour, domestic life and dealing with potential sons-in-law.

The fact that he wrote this book by himself without professional help is apparent sometimes in the sentence structure but to me that just helps to ground the story. It’s an engaging read and Slowhand comes off as a proper bloke. He is certainly a survivor and overcoming his addictions is to be commended.

Some highlights include: Clapton says the first record he ever bought was The ‘Chirping’ Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. After seeing Buddy on TV as youth, EC says “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven”. Eric talks about his guitar inspirations and they are all blues men, natch. But I was pleased that he also mentioned Presley sideman James Burton and Memphis Boy, Reggie Young who played on King’s seminal sides from 1969.

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As I’ve said, I’m a big Steve Winwood fan so I was fascinated to read that, in the earliest days of Cream, EC wanted to add Stevie to the band and have his keyboards in the mix. And Clapton heaps the highest praise on Winwood; “…he seemed to know his way around the (blues). I think he was only fifteen at the time, but when he sang “Georgia”, if you closed your eyes, you would swear it was Ray Charles. Musically, he was like an old man in a boys’ skin”. Clapton and Winwood have enjoyed a lasting relationship. In 2008 and 2009, the two played a series of shows at Madison Square Garden, releasing a live CD and DVD. Interesting to think of Winwood in Cream.

Clapton laments telling John Mayall he was leaving the Bluesbreakers. Mayall was “like a father” to EC and was “upset”, “pretty angry” and “sad” when Clapton left. Eric recalls being in a London club when the Beatles came in with an acetate of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Later that night, the Monkees came in and began handing out pills! And with whom did Eric Clapton have his most rewarding musical relationship? Buddy Guy.

George Harrison and his wife, Pattie, would hang out at Clapton’s estate, Hurtwood, where George wrote “Here Comes the Sun” and where Clapton fell in love with Pattie. There’s the heartbreaking story of the death of Clapton’s son, Conor. Interesting to note that when Conor was born, Eric was inspired to kick his substance abuse habit. Once he was clean, Conor died.

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Mick Jagger shows up – to steal Eric’s girlfriend – while conversely its reported that Keith Richards sent Eric a note after Conor’s death that said “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know”. And I said that Clapton is honest in his book. He relates an episode during a time later in his life when he had to face an old girlfriend that had been with Eric in the dark days of alcohol abuse. Clapton had cleaned up but the girl had not. In order to help her achieve sobriety, it was suggested by counselors that she vent her frustration on Eric in person. She unloaded on Eric for over an hour: “it was terrifying to realize the damage I had done to this poor girl…it was a humbling experience…the saddest part for me was knowing that she had held on to all this poisonous stuff for over twenty years in order to fuel her need for oblivion”.

Eric’s pure approach to music is echoed in his book – little fluff, little pictures and very little disingenuous emotional rubbish as he finishes his story. The “Acknowledgments” page is only 3 lines, confirming he has done this on his own.

While I may have realized that I feel that little of his music is essential to me – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, a few Cream tracks, Journeyman and the albums on which he wails his blues heart out come closest to being necessary in my life – I had it confirmed that I really like Eric Clapton, I respect him. He is a survivor and a seemingly down-to-earth guy. And the Canadian connection certainly doesn’t hurt.

I can highly recommend Clapton: The Autobiography. It can be easily got for cheap at Amazon and AbeBooks.

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2 comments

  1. I read this a few years ago myself. I was aware of Eric Clapton as everyone is, but I confess I didn’t realise just what a big star he was in his own right. I found the book fascinating as well, and I was interested in your observation that he had written it by himself, and hence it had an imperfect authenticity. I felt the same about Brian Wilson’s recent memoir – the narrative was quirky and a little disordered at times, not in a way that would reduce your enjoyment of the book, and actually as a result was very much in his own voice.

    • I need to be better at going in with the right attitude. You won’t get specifics from a autobio – you won’t get an artists cultural significance or sales and chart positions, etc. But you will often get a lot of warmth. And oftentimes an artists real personality will shine through. For example, I have really fond memories of reading Ann-Margret’s book. She just came off as really pleasant. Whereas two actors I really like – both Canadians, actually – came off as people I wouldn’t like to hang with. Michael J. Fox and Jason Priestley.

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