Clapton: the Autobiography

“Clapton Is God,” wrote the London graffiti artists in the ’60s; if the message wasn’t strictly accurate, it was more concise than “Eric Clapton is the leading innovator of blues-based lead guitar in rock ‘n’ roll.” In Clapton: The Autobiography, our guitar-hero narrator confesses to some youthful ambivalence about this praise, before allowing that he thought it was “really quite nice.”

Those three words typify the diffident tone of Clapton’s memoir. When he remembers acclaim, it’s bashfully. When he describes the various ways in which he made a disaster of his life, he sounds rueful rather than wracked with grief. Given Clapton’s status as one of our most stoic rock stars — he rarely unburdens himself in interviews — the detailed history in this book will make it essential for Clapton worshippers and a pleasant surprise for casual readers.

Clapton may have been valorized by at least some of those graffiti writers for the wrong reason: his sheer instrumental virtuosity. One unfortunate side effect of his career is the notion that guitar wankery is heroic, culminating with such dubious rock icons as Steve Vai and Yngwie Malsteen. But unlike many of his successors, Clapton learned lessons from blues music that extended beyond guitar prowess, and pursued mastery in both singing and writing songs. That’s what let him sustain a connection with the public across the decades, even if fans thought they were just genuflecting at the feet of a guitar god. Compare Clapton with the nimble-fingered Jeff Beck, who followed him as the Yardbirds’ guitarist, and who, similarly, was never able to stay with one group for long. Beck, however, needed a vocal foil like Rod Stewart, and is now more vaguely admired than loved.

One version of Clapton’s life is the musical odyssey from passionate young innovator to a self-styled “journeyman” churning out pop mush to a dignified third act as an aging bluesman. But the central narrative of this book is Clapton’s battle with addiction: He spent years using heroin, and then moved on to alcohol. His art was marked by his virtuosity and control; his personal life, he makes clear, was where everything got messy. Clean today, he has devoted some serious personal resources to building treatment centers for alcoholism.

Clapton is clear-eyed about many of his bad choices and their consequences: Describing his junkie lifestyle, he writes, “The doors remained closed, the post went unopened, and we existed on a diet of chocolate and junk food, so I soon became not only overweight, but spotty and generally unfit. Heroin also completely took away my libido, so we had no sexual activity of any kind, and I became chronically constipated.”

He’s less forthright about some other aspects of his life, not addressing, for example, his decision to endorse Michelob while struggling with alcoholism. He also glosses over his years-long support for British anti-immigrant politician Enoch Powell as quickly as possible, deploying a rapid-fire series of excuses, pleading the effect of drink on some of his public statements and defending himself against charges of racism by asserting (for example) his sympathy with the plight of Jamaican immigrants, and mentioning that his girlfriend “had just been leered at by a member of the Saudi royal family.”

Clapton has apparently been keeping a diary for at least some portion of his life; no coauthor is credited on The Autobiography, which reads smoothly if a touch blandly. (It presumably wasn’t Clapton, however, who thought it was a good idea to add parenthetical notes for American readers explaining that “quid” means “pounds” and “crisps” are known to us as “potato chips.”)

Clapton: The Autobiography is at its most vivid when he’s describing road trips: the inside of the van he rode around in with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (Mayall built himself a bunk bed); a hippie adventure across Europe with a pickup band called the Glands (they got so hungry in Greece, they ate raw meat at a butcher shop); a whirlwind trip to Canada to play a rock festival with John Lennon (when they arrived at the Toronto airport, Lennon and Yoko Ono jumped into a limousine, leaving the rest of the band to travel with the luggage in a van).

At times, Clapton’s prose can devolve into a dull list of British blues musicians. Better are the sections that unearth quirky details about his family, such as his uncle’s invention of a vinegar dispenser that he could hide inside his clothing, with a tube coming down the sleeve. And Clapton deftly evokes the unique intellectual horizons of the 1960s, when Baudelaire and Tolkien seemed equally mind-expanding to him.

Perhaps the most emotionally potent aspect of the book deals with the great passion of Clapton’s life (other than blues music), the fashion model Pattie Boyd. Boyd was married to his good friend George Harrison — the Beatle who, like Clapton, was more comfortable expressing himself with a guitar than in conversation. “I think initially I was motivated by a mixture of lust and envy, but it all changed once I got to know her,” Clapton writes. He wooed Boyd away from Harrison in 1974; they married in 1979 and divorced in 1989.

The Boyd/Harrison/Clapton triangle has become one of the mythic tales of rock — not because it was particularly unusual for rock stars of the era to tumble in and out of each other’s beds but because Clapton wrote one of the greatest rock songs ever, “Layla,” about Boyd and his then-unrequited love for her.

As it happens, Boyd has recently published her own memoir, Wonderful Tonight (named for another song Clapton wrote for her — there are many more, including “Bell Bottom Blues,” inspired by some jeans he brought her from Miami). Public interest in one of rock’s greatest muses hasn’t flagged — the book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

It’s not often that two books about a love affair that ended almost two decades ago come out within weeks of each other, and it provides a rare opportunity to play rock ‘n’ roll Rashomon, comparing the two accounts. Clapton and Boyd agree on most major points (allowing for some details being a touch fuzzy due to the passage of time and the prodigious amounts of drugs and booze they were consuming), but the differences are telling.

Some of the variances are just things that it’s easier to judge from outside. While Clapton remembers that he won a school prize for “neatness and tidiness” (!), it falls to Boyd to report that as an adult, Clapton “was not a naturally tidy man?. The bedroom carpet was lamb’s wool, and filthy, and the bath was full of his sweaters and shirts — that was where he stored them.”

Clapton is fuzzy on exactly when and how he began seriously pursuing Boyd, but she can pinpoint it: a passionate letter in the spring of 1970 “in small, immaculate writing, with no capital letters.” Assuming it was from a crazed Beatles fan, she initially laughed it off, even showing it to Harrison.

They both say that Clapton ended up giving her an ultimatum: If she didn’t leave Harrison for him, he would become a heroin addict. “He did as he threatened,” Boyd says. But Clapton makes it clear that he was just bluffing: “In truth, of course, I had been taking almost full-time for quite a while.”

Clapton didn’t treat Boyd well, they agree. Aside from the cruelty of telling a loved one that your heroin addiction is her fault, once he had successfully wooed her, he almost immediately started screwing around (bedding, among others, his backup singer Yvonne Elliman, who went on to have a No. 1 single in 1977 with the Barry Gibb composition “If I Can’t Have You”).

One of the most arresting turns of phrase in Clapton: The Autobiography concerns the state of Harrison and Boyd’s marriage, which had become rocky after the Beatles returned from studying with the Maharishi in India: “hey were living in virtual open warfare at Friar Park, with him flying the ‘Om’ flag at one end of the house and her flying a Jolly Roger at the other.”