Beyond the Crossroads—The Endurance of Eric Clapton

By Matthew Greenwald 05/03/15

Aside from his brilliance and survivability as a musician, Eric Clapton is a true survivor as a human being.

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Eric Clapton
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Eric Clapton’s durability as an artist and musician hardly needs to be mentioned; he has survived 50 years of rock & roll. Throughout what can only be described as a true music expedition, Clapton has successfully explored such diverse areas as pop, country, r&b, and the blues. Despite his frequent stylistic changes at varying points in his long and illustrious career, Clapton always returns to his true musical calling—the blues. In this context, he remains a master of the genre, rightfully mentioned in the context of the architects of the form, such as Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and later practitioners such as Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Michael Bloomfield, among others.

Aside from his brilliance and survivability as a musician, Eric Clapton is a true survivor as a human being. Clapton not only battled life-threatening addictions with both heroin and alcohol but came through such devastating events as the death of his young son in a horrendous accident in 1991—an event that would have sent almost any recovering addict back to the depths of his disease in short order. For reasons such as these, Eric Clapton is truly a heroic figure. 

Born March 30, 1945, in the town of Ripley, in the British county of Surrey, Clapton’s early life was tainted with uncertainty. His mother abandoned him to the care of Eric’s grandparents when he was born, as she was emotionally and financially incapable of providing care for the youth. For years, young Eric had no idea who his parents were as he grew up in this small town—this caused him to feel like an outsider at a very young age. He later admitted that this was one of the factors that contributed to his desire to express himself as an artist; it also informed his addictive personality. 

While in art school (he was a gifted illustrator), he took up the guitar, and as with most of his interests, he became fanatical. He was instantly drawn to the blues, not only because of aesthetic value, but because “it was always one man against the world…” as he said in a late 1990s Bravo documentary. Some of his earliest heroes were artists like Big Bill Broonzy, who was an acoustic blues artist—one man, up against his circumstances. 

Following internships in a few British pop/rock semi-pro outfits, Clapton joined his first professional band, The Yardbirds. Despite the fact that he already loved and identified with the blues, Clapton’s guitar playing was firmly rooted in Chuck Berry-driven primitive rock & roll at the time. “You couldn’t tell us apart,” Clapton later said of his Berry influence. This suited The Yardbirds' hard-driving rock sound to a tee. The band were starting to become successful during this period, touring constantly, and even having a few records in the lower regions of the British Top 40 at the time (1964-5). Clapton, however, was becoming more blues-influenced. As the months went by, he began exploring the intense tonality of electric blues/rock masters such as Freddie King. 

The Yardbirds, however, were looking to have more mainstream pop success, and began recording what was to be their first bonafide hit, “For Your Love.” Although Eric contributed to the record, he left the band and their commercial pretensions before the single was released. Following his departure from The Yardbirds, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. This band was much more in tune with Clapton’s musical sensibilities—playing strict Chicago blues. It was during this period that he really developed his trademark tone and artistic slant. His playing was nothing like British audiences had seen, and his legend was such that graffiti in London read, Clapton is God. A great example of Eric’s growth during this period can be heard here:

As would become a trademark in his career, Clapton eventually tired of Mayall’s strict blues format. Although Eric would continually return to the blues throughout his career, he was growing restless. There were new avenues of music to explore and by 1966 a new phase had hit the music scene: psychedelic. Clapton wanted to explore different areas of music that were based more on virtuosity and original composition, this is where Cream was born. Consisting of two other masters of the current London blues/rock scene, Jack Bruce (bass) and Ginger Baker (drums), the band tested the limits of musical sanity at the time, frequently performing 20-minute jams often based on their original compositions. By 1967, they became the biggest thing in the world. They didn’t ignore the commercial airways either, having huge hit singles such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and blockbuster albums like Disrali Gears and Wheels of Fire. 

Clapton’s use of drugs usually went along with the current trends of the time, and during Cream’s lifetime, LSD, marijuana and speed were often the order of the day. It should be noted though, that drummer Ginger Baker was a lifetime heroin addict, so Clapton certainly knew of its effects. 

By the end of 1968, the three members of Cream had had enough of the treadmill of constant touring and recording. This, combined with tensions between Baker and Bruce, spelled the end of Cream. The end of 1968 saw Clapton joining forces with one of his favorite musicians in London, the prodigiously gifted Steve Winwood, formerly of The Spencer David Group, and more recently, Traffic. The initial idea of Blind Faith was designed to be a lower-key project, with music reflecting the more organic ideals of the day, especially the laid-back rootsy approach of The Band, Clapton’s current musical inspiration. Winwood and Clapton had ideas of having Booker T & The MG’s rhythm section (Al Jackson and Duck Dunn) back the two of them. Former Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, had different ideas. During Blind Faith’s initial rehearsals, Baker apparently dropped by, set up his drums…and never left. Although Clapton was not excited about joining forces with Baker again so soon after Cream, he relented.

The band’s lone album, Blind Faith, was excellent and did, indeed, reflect Clapton and Winwood’s initial ideals, but the overblown tour to follow left a bad taste in the duo’s mouth. By the end of the tour, Clapton was jamming with the opening act, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, which would have a profound effect on Clapton’s solo career that was about to launch.

During this period, cocaine had become the drug of choice in the rock world, and Eric sampled eagerly. Though his coke dealer had one major stipulation: Clapton had to purchase an equal amount of heroin (the dealer’s other stock-in-trade) in order to have the deliveries continue. After seeing the effect of smack on Ginger Baker (especially during the Blind Faith tour), Clapton was not interested in sampling the drug, and it piled up in a drawer at his country estate.

During the recording for his second solo album Layla and Other Love Songs (under the group name Derek and The Dominos) Clapton had fallen in love with his good friend George Harrison’s wife, former model Patty Boyd (Harrison). Although Patty admitted to having feelings towards Eric, she remained with her husband. The effect of these events and the subsequent heartbreak sent Clapton into a deep, seemingly unending depression. Remember that drawer filled with bindles of heroin at his house? Yeah…

For the next few years, Clapton became a virtual recluse, staying in his house with a girlfriend, snorting copious amounts of heroin. His addiction alarmed his close friends such as Pete Townshend and Leon Russell. Townshend even organized an ill-timed all-star “comeback” concert for Eric at London’s Rainbow Theatre. The subsequent album from the show was released as Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert, a document that has not aged well.

However, Eric was able to break free from the grip of heroin with the help of Dr. Meg Patterson. By 1974, he was off the drug, and even realized another dream when he finally captured the heart of newly-divorced Patty Boyd. The only problem with this seemingly incredible series of events was that Clapton had merely switched one addiction for another: By 1977, he had become a serious alcoholic. Eric and Patty divorced in the late 1980s.

Although his career continued to go from success-to-success with Gold records and endless sold-out tours, Eric Clapton was in sad shape. Finally, in early 1982 Clapton got clean from alcohol at the world famous Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota. While his recording career continued to be successful, his records seemed to be based more in the the pop music landscape, which disappointed some of his fans. However, his live playing was better than ever and his return to more blues-based music at the beginning of the 1990s found him still to be one of the true geniuses of the form. 

In March of 1991, a truly tragic event occurred when his four-year-old son Conor died after falling from a high-rise apartment building in New York City. It was a brutal event to happen any way you slice it, and certainly one that would send most former addicts/alcoholics back to active addiction. Clapton, however, was somehow able to channel his heartache into his music, writing some of the most heartfelt and emotional songs of his career (particularly “Tears In Heaven”). It was a true emotional catharsis that brought Eric Clapton as a true hero of the human spirit to light. 

The 1990s and 2000s have seen Eric continuing to record and perform some of the greatest music of his career—most of it blues-based. One particular project that was especially noteworthy were his shows with Steve Winwood, which brought these two musical friends back together after over 30 years. It was a tremendous achievement for both of them.

Eric Clapton has also shown himself to be a tireless participant of various benefit concerts, most notably the Live Aid and ARMS shows. He also helped form the Crossroads Centre for Addiction in Antigua with Richard Conte, CEO of The Priory Hospitals Group (London) and Transitional Hospitals Corporation (Nevada). Clapton also organizes the annual Crossroads Music Festival in Chicago, which benefits addiction treatment throughout the world. 

Eric Clapton is indeed a hero of the human spirit. His ability to transcend human emotion through his blues is unequalled, however, it’s the arc of his remarkable life that astounds and is a story that galvanizes the soul. His musicianship and survivability beguiles the ear…as well as the heart. 

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last interviewed Grace Slick and her daughter China Isler.

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