Monday, October 15, 2007

Slowhand is slow with the details about his life

Legendary rock guitarist Eric Clapton's book doesn't put the reader in his shoes

"It's difficult to talk about these songs in depth, that's why they're songs," Eric Clapton writes of "Tears in Heaven," the wrenching song he wrote in the aftermath of the freak death of his young son, Conor, in 1991.

Yes, it is difficult, Mr. Clapton. But as you sit pecking on your computer with one finger "like a demented chicken," as you say, let's remember that you have a book to write here — "Clapton: The Autobiography," released last week — and the occasion calls for, um, writing: serious introspection, context, scene setting, an acknowledgement that one has lived an extraordinary life, the hum and throb of real human emotion.

Unfortunately, Clapton, ever the ambivalent frontman, can't or won't offer that up in "Clapton" and for that, the book joins a vast and deep collection of unsatisfying rock tell-alls. The problem isn't that he doesn't bring his best stuff to the table.

We're talking about a guy who first dropped acid in the company of the Beatles and the Monkees while listening to an acetate of "Sgt. Pepper's"; who openly schemed for years to steal George Harrison's wife, Pattie Boyd (dating Boyd's sister in the meantime), and remained friends with Harrison; who, while in Cream, shared a bill with Tiny Tim (!); who shamelessly shagged birds across the globe; who drugged and drank and courted death for decades before falling to his knees and praying for help to get sober; and who, lest we forget, remains one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of the rock era.

But while he tells us what happened, time and again he pulls away from telling us, in vivid, writerly, you-are-there detail, what it really felt like. This is dancing about architecture, and Clapton, for all his talent, discipline and drive, is no Gene Kelly. It feels very English.

True, we're talking about a man who poured his pain and passion into song — a sustaining and lifelong love for the blues, the soul-incinerating grief of losing a child, the cycle of wretched addiction and denial and the crushing agony of unrequited, impossible love. And no, it's not fair to expect Clapton to have the prose chops to spill his heart out on the page as capably as when he straps on a Strat. Except that he can: In Boyd's own recent autobiography, "Wonderful Tonight" — named for a Clapton song he says he wrote in annoyance at her dallying before a dinner out — she says one of Clapton's missives to her was "the most passionate letter anyone had ever written to me."

When he's lovesick, junk-sick or buckled by grief, the guy can say what he needs to, can connect and communicate. When the transaction involves merely fulfilling a contractual obligation to Broadway Books, not so much.

The one facet of his life where Clapton really lays it out — and the reason he was able to live to tell the tale at all — is in depicting his heroin addiction, followed by even worse alcoholism, two trips to Hazelden, sobriety now at the 20-year mark and his commitment to help others in need. This, he tells us, is his priority in life — above even wife Melia and a house (or mansion, or mansions, oh, and the yacht, about which he's kind of embarrassed) filled with little daughters — and to his vast credit, Clapton has done much more than talk the talk. At great personal expense, he's opened a treatment center in Antigua, organized the Crossroads Guitar Festivals in Dallas and given up for auction guitars from his personal collection that have fetched as much as almost $1 million each. Legions of people wrestle with addictions, and Clapton's example and efforts have doubtless saved lives, which he says is crucial to staying sober himself. This is evangelical zeal of the very best kind.

And the taproot, the "reason," such as there is a single one, of and for this proclivity toward self-medicating and decades of destructive behavior? Clapton chalks it up to his illegitimacy, abandonment by his mother, never having known his father and the fiction of being raised by his grandparents, whom he believed for some time to be his mum and dad.

It's hard to believe that rock stars who travel the world, collect art, designer clothes, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, Patek Philippe watches and manual-transmission Ferraris they don't know how to drive (because George Harrison had one) suffer from insecurity powerful enough to drive them to the precipice of oblivion. But this they do. As he has long since given up taking drugs for taking naps, a much healthier pursuit, it would be at minimum uncharitable to suggest Clapton let his attention stray from the unceasing work that has allowed him, at 62, to be busier and happier than ever before. Maybe that focus means he's written the book the only way he could have.

But like Muddy Waters said, I just can't be satisfied.



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