Slowhand’s autobiography: Sex, drugs and boredom

[23 October 2007]

By Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

So who knew Eric Clapton was such a bore? OK, maybe everybody who bought his last few albums or saw him on his last world tour, which had all the fire and spontaneity of a Fred Thompson interview.

But even that couldn’t prepare us for the snooze that is “Clapton: The Autobiography” (Broadway, $26), which hit bookstores two weeks ago.

The best thing that could be said about “Clapton” is that it’s tasteful, which one might expect from a chap who claims Giorgio Armani as one of his best friends.

Clapton apparently wrote the book himself. It, however, has the unmistakable cadence of dictation, the sort of repetition one often finds in anecdotes recalled on the private jet between gigs.

It has the same distant feel of Miles Davis’ as-told-to autobiography, which turned out to be primarily a rehash of stories well known from another biography, sometimes word-for-word.

As a rule, I don’t read show-biz autobiographies. Where once they were sanitized beyond recognition, in the style of Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” they now have been smutted up and strutted out like rap videos. How many groupies, how many drugs, how many rehabs before one finds inner light?

Ironically, Clapton’s life could make that of any Motley Crue member look like a Unitarian minister.

For starters, his supposed mother was really his grandmother, and his older brother was really his uncle. He lived in relative poverty before acquiring a cheap guitar and learning to play blues by listening to old Muddy Waters records.

By 14, he was earning spending money in a band, and while still in his teens joined the Yardbirds, then quit after one album because the group released a single, “For Your Love,” that he thought wasn’t authentic enough.

Months later, he was holding down the lead chair in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and was called into the studio to record with Bob Dylan, a session he barely remembers that yielded no music.

Then Cream, Blind Faith, superstardom and a crush on his friend George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, that produced the love song “Layla.” At that time he was an unrepentant junkie, but he won her away (he and George had a friendly chat, the substance of which is not revealed here) and he wrote her the beautiful (if slightly nauseating) “Wonderful Tonight.”

The lyric was not written because, as the song says, she looked stunning at a party they attended, but because she would try on dozens of outfits before they went out, making him so crazy he told her she looked wonderful in all of them.

We haven’t gotten to the crazed two-bottle-a-day alcoholism and the death of the son he barely knew, Conor, whom he immortalized in a song first given to a movie about junkies. By the end of the book, he can barely be bothered to recall the last names of all the supermodels he squired before settling down with a wonderful wife and three daughters.

The last chapter is given to a year on the road, which sounds even less interesting than the junkie year spent watching TV and waiting for the man.

It could be that the only passion Clapton ever had was expended in a handful of live shows and recordings - the Bluesbreakers record, Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.”

He notes with some pride that his all-time best -seller was the “Unplugged” CD, which he didn’t feel was worthy of putting out. Then why did he? To prove the point that passion is overrated? That a public that would dig “For Your Love” isn’t worthy of him?

At one point in “Clapton” he does sidestep into his immense talent briefly to explain to us what a blue note is, that bending sound that takes us somewhere deep and true.

Maybe in the second edition he’ll catch that and take it.

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