The music legend made it through the storms and the self-loathing and now counts himself among rock’s hardiest survivors.
Just a few weeks after Eric Clapton recorded a cover of “Little Wing,” his friend, the song’s author Jimi Hendrix, died at 27. “I went out in the garden and cried all day,” Clapton recalled. “Not because he’d gone but because he hadn’t taken me with him.”
Clapton was in a world of despair, and for years it would get worse. He’d fallen in love with Pattie Boyd, who was married to his friend George Harrison, and as Clapton was trying to convince her to run away with him, he moved into a Florida motel with a new band and some large bags of cocaine. Clapton had been transfixed by the guitar playing of Duane Allman and invited him to record something together. Among the collaborations they recorded as Derek and the Dominos were two of rock’s most anguished and devastating love songs: “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues.” “Do you want to see me crawl across the floor for you,” he asked Pattie in the latter song, adding, “If I could choose a place to die, it would be in your arms.” Rock was never more impassioned, more driven, more urgent and desperate and pained. Clapton was handing Boyd, and the world, his whole heart. Clapton and Allman never recorded together again — Allman died in a motorcycle accident a few months later — but their collaboration was a monument in blues-based rock.
As director Lili Fini Zanuck shows in her shattering documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (streaming on Showtime), Clapton took the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs back to England with him and played it for Pattie. “I thought when I heard it that everyone would know it was about me,” she recalled. But it still wasn’t enough. “It didn’t work,” he said. “It was all for nothing.”
Clapton retreated. He disappeared from view for three years and turned his attention first to heroin, then alcohol. In an early Seventies interview, he is seen confessing, “I don’t like life and I’m not gonna live very long.” Of heroin, he said, “It comes first,” adding, “It’s like surrounding yourself with pink cotton wool.” When he went on a comeback tour in 1974, he played half-heartedly and frequently drunk. He would shout at the audience and engage in foolish rants, one of which, in 1976, veered into white nationalism and haunts him to this day. (Every so often, someone rediscovers it and pushes it up the list of trending topics on social-media sites such as Twitter.) “I was so ashamed of who I was,” Clapton recalled. Boyd finally left Harrison and flew to Clapton’s arms after not having seen him in years, and they married in 1979. But he was badly damaged throughout the Seventies. “He wanted to drink all the time,” she said. “He became really seriously unpleasant.” Nevertheless, he wrote yet another gorgeous song about her, “Wonderful Tonight.”
Clapton still hadn’t put his life quite in order when he suffered what few parents would care to contemplate. While his marriage to Boyd was coming apart, he had a liaison with an Italian actress, Lory del Santo, who gave birth to a boy upon whom Clapton doted. To his dad, Conor’s arrival was “the first thing that happened to me in my entire life that really got to my core and told me, time to grow up.” Aged four, Conor plunged to his death when he fell out a window on the 53rd floor of a Manhattan high-rise as his father, who was staying nearby, was getting ready to come take him out to lunch. When Clapton returned home to his country house in England, among the hundreds of condolence notes and cards was a letter from Conor posted weeks earlier. “I love you,” wrote the boy in block letters. “I want to see you again.” Imagining that reunion led to a more anguished song than even the Derek and the Dominos tracks: “Tears In Heaven.” Clapton decided he would live to honor the memory of his son, and founded Crossroads Centre, a drug- and alcohol-rehab facility that he helps fund through charity appeals and from auctioning off some of his guitars.
Next month, Clapton turns 76. He has four surviving children, three of them with his wife since 2002, Melia McEnery. The man who once said, “The only reason I didn’t commit suicide was because I couldn’t drink anymore if I was dead” made it through the storms and the self-loathing. Now he counts himself among rock’s hardiest survivors. Perhaps he is among the happiest, too. He didn’t become a family man until he was past 50, but raising children in a stable environment turned out to be his greatest blessing. “My life,” he says in the documentary, “is completely full.”