Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Eric Clapton: The Autobiography


When I started teaching myself how to play guitar when I was ten years old, my teachers (apart from a handful of lessons I took at the local music shop) were the records I listened to from my parents' collection. Stuff I'd grown up listening to, like the Beatles, Who, Allman Brothers, and more were my gateway into learning how to play, sing, and later on, write songs. Armed with a chord book and these records (or the cassette copies I made of them so I could listen on my Walkman), I spent hours strumming along and figuring out how to play what I was hearing. Of all of the great guitar players I learned from in this manner, like Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, and more, there was one who captivated me like no other. He was the first one who's style, tone, and touch I became obsessed with; it was Eric Clapton. Between his work in the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith, and especially Cream and Derek and the Dominos (of which the last two blew my mind), I couldn't get enough of his playing. However, for all the fiery intensity and attack of his playing then, I couldn't reconcile that he was the same person I was then hearing on contemporary radio in the 1980s and 90s playing this softer rock stuff. Combined with the fact that he was a private person who was hard to get much info on, there was always a striking dichotomy, in my mind, between EC pre-1973 and EC-post 1973. Everything I was able to learn about him was from various music magazines and books I was able to track down over the years (at least in the pre-Internet era). Thankfully, after finally reading his book and getting the story from the man himself, I understand why this is. 

When this book came out in the late 2000s, I was really excited about it, but for some inexplicable reason I never got around to reading it until now. I'm glad I did. Going in to the book, I was told by many fellow fans that it was one of those books where, if you liked the musician a lot before you read it, afterward you would be disgusted. I'm happy to say that that is certainly not the case, and I'm still scratching my head as to why so many people have thought that.

The book starts off, naturally, with Eric discussing his childhood and his years growing up in Ripley, Surrey. From a pretty early age, he was able to glean that there were some secrets being kept in his family and eventually, he discovered that who he thought were his parents were really his grandparents and that his "sister" was in actuality his mother, while his "brother" was his uncle. This caused him to become quite withdrawn and emotionally confused, traits that carried over into his adulthood. Eric moves rather quickly through his teen years and all of the fun he had before he eventually began a short stint as an art student at Kingston College of Art and became involved with playing the guitar and the beatnik/folk music scene in and around London. Eventually, he discovered the blues, which would become his lifelong passion. Finding his way through various semi-serious groups, he eventually joined the Yardbirds in 1963, drawn by their raw blue and R&B sound as a response to his own aversion to the pop sound that was then exploding via the Beatles. However, their push to a more commercial pop sound by 1965 led Eric, as a rather pretentious purist even at such a young age (something he acknowledges himself) to quit and join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. It was during his tenure in this band that the "Clapton is God" graffiti began appearing around London, as his overdriven tone and revolutionary approach to playing electric blues (not to mention his exquisite technique) totally changed how rock guitar could and would be played. Again, his restless spirit led him to take a sabbatical and travel Europe, eventually ending up gigging in Greece, with a ragtag bunch of musician friends labelling themselves The Glands. After a short stint back in Mayall's band (where he would first play with Jack Bruce), he and Ginger Baker decided to form a new band, and brought Bruce on board to form what was, of course, Cream in 1966. This is where Clapton's biggest fame came from and the combustible mix of the music, the live performances, and the personalty clashes between Bruce and Baker are all discussed in detail elsewhere, including Ginger's book that I recently reviewed, as well as Bruce's book (which I will review in the near future). As would become a pattern in his life, Eric grew bored with Cream after a year or so but lacked the forceful personality to do anything other than hang on for the ride until it reached a breaking point. Moving on from the break-up of Cream to the ill-fated Blind Faith in 1969, Eric then moved on to what I believe was his last great work, the band Derek and the Dominos in 1970. Again, the history of this band has been fleshed out a bit more in Bobby Whitlock's excellent book (my review here), and my first criticism of Eric's book is that he seems to only skim the surface of his time in these seminal bands which arguably were the years that gave him the fame and name recognition he has sustained to the present day. I can understand him not wanting to get into all of the underlying drama...that's his call whether or not to delve into that. But he skips over even fairly well known events and spends more time criticizing the music he was playing in Cream and especially Blind Faith. There was also very little said about Duane Allman's contributions to the Layla sessions, other than that he loved Duane as a person and a musician and the band wasn't as good when they went on the road without him. A bit more enlightening were his memories of his friendship with Jimi Hendrix, which were really nice to read and shed a bit more light on the mutual admiration society they had. Likewise with his various mentions of his lifelong friend George Harrison and the complex relationship they had, as well as his experience playing on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from the White Album, which is one of the finest solos of his career.



However, he did spend a lot of time from this point through almost the entire remainder of the book discussing his addictions, first to heroin (which he curbed by the mid-1970s) and his much more crippling alcoholism, which consumed his life for nearly twenty years. Strangely enough, I found this stretch of the book the most compelling, even though it coincides with my least favorite phase of his musical career. This was mainly because he was quite candid and self-reflective at his abhorrent behavior, not to mention that the amount of booze and cocaine he was putting away at the time beggars belief. Various dalliances with women, even after he finally won Pattie Boyd away from George Harrison, playing gigs where he could barely stand up, and ending up in hospital with massive life-threatening ulcers caused by his drinking weren't enough to get him to go to rehab until he had a son with his mistress in the mid-1980s. This son was, of course, Conor, who tragically died in the early 1990s after falling out of a window in New York City. Eric poured his grief out into the huge hit single "Tears in Heaven" and was able to somehow keep it together and remain sober through this trying time although the emotional detachment at the time, which he describes as a coping mechanism, still seemed a bit cold to me. The remainder of the book is quite uplifting and finds Eric finally coming to terms with almost everything in his life, both emotionally and musically. He married his wife Melia in 2001, he has four daughters (one from a previous affair in Montserrat), a great career, and has been sober for over twenty years. More than that, he found spirituality again in the depths of his despair as an alcoholic and has maintained this presence throughout his sobriety. He's also channeled much effort, time, and money to his Crossroads Centre treatment clinic in Antigua in order to give back and help others with substance abuse problems. I couldn't help but feel happy for him after finishing the book.

If you've never heard this, it's one of the greatest live concerts of all time with some of Clapton's most incredible guitar work

As I touched on above, Eric unfortunately gives short shrift to some important events in his life, another being the Cream reunion in 2005. In this case, I wanted to know what it was about the span of time between the London shows in May and the New York shows in October that caused the reunion to sour...we all know something happened as it's been alluded to and hinted at by all three of them in the ensuing years, but what exactly it is has never been disclosed. He also shied away from a topic I was keen to learn more about from his own words, which was his infamous drunken and racist rant onstage at a late 1970s concert. He barely touched on it, only saying that he was "accused of being racist" after saying something onstage which was provoked by someone of non-British extraction making a lewd comment toward Pattie. While I don't think Eric is racist, I would have really liked to have listened to his side of the event.  On the other hand, Eric was very open about his family, not shying away from either the problems or the love and affection he has for all of them. The overall theme of the book seems to be his personal journey and quest for his total identity beyond just that of a "guitar hero," and this underpinning thread running throughout the book is one of the major contributors to it being as enjoyable as it was. As for the things contained within that many claimed would turn any fan of Eric's off from him after reading the book, I don't understand what they were talking about. Yes, he did a LOT of drugs and drank a LOT of alcohol, and he was less than faithful (if I'm being charitable about how I put it) during his marriage to Pattie, as well as before he married his current wife, but I didn't read anything that was any worse than what I've read about many other musicians, and in fact I've read worse than what Eric presented.  The book was written in a very honest and emotional manner, and when Eric describes things that embarrassed, excited, saddened, or scared him, it really comes across as being from the heart. Again, many have criticized his style as "bland" and "lacking personality" but I didn't think this at all. Knowing what I know about the man and how private he is, I felt he conveyed everything in a completely appropriate and fitting manner.

The lack of detail into some major events notwithstanding, Clapton's autobiography is a great book and one that I'm sure to read again. As someone who has been in love with his playing for almost my entire life, to finally learn more about his journey from the man himself is a real treat and gives me a greater appreciation of all of the pain, suffering, joy, and elation that has gone into his music and has come across in his playing for so long.

MY RATING: 9/10

4 comments:

  1. Good book. I wanted to hear more about his time in cream and blind faith though. Even some more in depth discussion about the songwriting process. Once the book got past the 70's though it was a lot about his family and very little about the music. I wanted to hear more about the cream reunion too

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  2. I agree. It seems that, just as in real life, in the book Eric seemed content to only discuss the surface of so many important issues and hold his true feelings back. He's a super private person and I did find the fact that he shared so much about his battle with addiction really revealing and I commend him for that. But he's still closed off when it comes to Cream, Blind Faith, and the Dominos and it's too bad because he's in such a unique position to shed light on all of that.

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  3. I read an article about Graham Nash today concerning his new album and privacy, which is similar to Clapton and his privacy. Maybe that would be a good example for us all? I'd wondered about the Clapton book, and I saw it used not long ago and wished I had bought it as he's a musician I still enjoy and I think due to his privacy not a lot is known about him. Yet I'd like to know more.

    Perhaps in smashing the illusions of being a rock star, tell-all books are good or bad about that. Neil Young's first book, Shaky, was similar in mode. He has since cleaned himself up, though I don't think he did heroin, not that he didn't do other harder drugs.

    I wondered if Clapton didn't go into the Cream reunion as it probably got ugly due to the riff between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Baker these days strikes me as a bitter old man, and still uses from the way he seemed in his documentary DVD, Beware Mr. Baker. Perhaps he still struggle with it? I wondered about Clapton's rehab center in Antigua and why not have one in LA or London? It just seems like Antigua would be a VIP place rather than the common type person, but it's his funding and either way serves a positive purpose.

    Overall though I'm glad Clapton could clean up and enjoy his life. He seems all the better for it.

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    1. Clapton is indeed an interesting fellow...private yet at the same time there's a lot known about his life (especially pre-1990s) and frankly, a lot of it is pretty ugly. Not all of it, but there are some definite low points. To his credit, in this book he doesn't shy away from them and he doesn't try to rationalize or excuse any of them.

      The Cream thing is a shame because they were so damn good in the 1960s and in 2005. Clapton was close with Bruce and with Baker, but Bruce and Baker just could never stand each other. Mutual respect, but personality-wise they were a horrible mismatch. But it made for some amazing music, didn't it?

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