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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Entertainment Host Reviews Eric Clapton's Autobiography

Clapton: The Autobiography
By Eric Clapton
New York: Random House, 2007



Reviewed by Wesley Britton. Originally for Wesley Britton’s Entertainment Scrapbook


Every once in a while, I have time to pick up a book not related to radio interviews or my other projects. As a result, this review is a bit behind the curve. Well, perhaps your own bookshelf is like mine—here is a pile of must-reads, here are titles that just arrived in the mailbox, and over here are books I’m eager to read when I’m caught up with all the obligatory work. Ah, the desk is clear tonight—why not spend a few hours with ole EC who, even if he’s not God, is at least in the pantheon of those who once seemed to be messengers from above?

Of course, the story of Eric Clapton is more than well known—and he’s not alone. Memoirs of rock stars, especially those written by icons of the ‘60s, tend to follow a similar arc. First, we’re often told about the working-class backgrounds of young boys sparked into life when they heard the records of their idols. For British youth, these usually meant blues masters like Robert Johnson or early rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Then, the autobiographies trace how the devotees bought their first instruments, practiced diligently on them, knocked about with friends in various ensembles, and then recount how they came to fame with hit records and life on the road.

Then, too often, fame brings the excesses of sexual, alcoholic, and/or drug addictions. Years, decades go by with music taking a back seat to the pursuit of the highest highs accompanied by the lowest lows. Finally, the addictive cycle is broken and the musician finds peace, stability, self-awareness, and rehabilitation. And gratitude they survived at all.

Such is the tale of Eric Clapton who candidly admits, again and again in his memoirs, that his road was one paved with bad choices. Sharing all but the most graphic of details, “Slowhand” (who gives new meaning to the moniker by revealing he typed out the MS using one finger on his computer) talks about his painful childhood as a virtual orphan raised by his grandparents and how the blues became his lifeblood. From his earliest days, Clapton was a mix of a strong ego—being such a purest he left the Yardbirds when they went commercial—and a man plagued with deep feelings he was unworthy of romantic relationships that could blend sex with friendship. The latter would become a recurring pattern in his life, resulting in a string of liaisons doomed by first heroine and then alcohol.

As a result, the story of Clapton’s life begins with a slow building of energy filled with youthful excitement, idealism, and then stories of playing with the legends of his day, Cream, John Mayall, Jimi Hendrix. The rise in his fortunes hits its top with the Delany and Bonnie-inspired first solo album and the powerful creativity of Derek and the Dominoes. From that point forward, twenty years go by as nearly as painful to read about as they must have been to experience. One wonders how Clapton was able to produce any music at all during these years and it’s not surprising much of his output from the late ‘70s forward was so lean and limp in both the studio and on stage. Clapton himself expresses little pride in much of his work during this period. For example, he spends more time talking about his affair with Yvonne Elliman than the hours he spent in the studio producing 461 Ocean Boulevard. Then again, considering the amount of intoxicants in his system, it’s difficult to see how much he could remember as his abilities declined and his obsession with Patti Boyd Harrison went every which way but right.

Finally, with age comes wisdom and freedom from the old patterns. After kicking his sexual and substance dependencies, Clapton turns his attentions to helping other addicts and investing time and money in genuinely making this world a better place. Once again, Clapton’s writing style takes on an uplifting tone even if the final chapters are filled with descriptions of sailing, beaches, and fly-fishing that read like extended blog entries.

Frankly, this is an autobiography likely to interest Eric Clapton fans and few others. Fortunately, Clapton has legions of admirers and rightly so—but they’d be better rewarded playing the music than delving into the missteps of an obsessed lover who confesses to sleeping with an overweight “witch” because she claimed to have the power to return “Layla” to his bed. Did we really need to know this? Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not interested in the details of sexual dysfunction—it’s the music I want to know about. There are nuggets, as when Clapton shares the humorous origins of “Wonderful Tonight,” his response to Patti taking too long to get ready to go out. But the humor dissipates when we learn Clapton had difficulty playing the song after his break-up because of its associations with “Nell”—the name Clapton gave Patti to distinguish his Pattie from the person once wedded to George Harrison. I was happy to learn Clapton thought as little of “I Shot The Sheriff” as I did, a song I never thought was worthy of the airplay it earned. Of course, it’s impossible not to feel the pain Clapton suffered over the death of his son, Conner. But such anecdotes and revelations are scattered in between lengthy descriptions of revolving bed-mates and drinking binges, making much of the book easier to skim than digest whole. In the end, I was filled with relief—both for Clapton himself and for me, the reader

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Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton is co-host of online radio’s “Dave White Presents” which features interviews with a wide range of entertainers. Past programs are archived at www.audioentertainment.org/dwp. He is also author of four books on espionage and runs www.spywise.net. Wes teaches English at Harrisburg Area Community College.

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