Clapton, guitar god on the run

By Alberto D. Prieto

Back then, Clapton was already a god. But only for a select group of weirdoes and the odd groupie. His mission down here on Earth, at least the parts of it in which His Majesty moved, was to spread the word of the purest of blues. And this had instilled in him the most incredible vanity, to the need to go bouncing around from venue to venue, from group to group, preaching the truth of the blues and the ensuing discord if it went away. Eric Clapton always believed that his path was a straight one and that his job was to leave behind him this trail of spontaneous encounters.  

Back then, he had already left his impression that Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page would foster and develop with the Yardbirds and a blues-rock bible in the 'Beano Album' so that John Mayall could always look to it when, decade after decade, his ever-changing line-up needed to get back in the right direction.  

was revered as the guitar god. So said some graffiti on a urine-stained wall behind the Islington railway station, and so he himself proclaimed every night. Walking through the empty London streets after the last gig (be it his or someone else's) and the 'one for the road' shot of whisky at the Marquee, he talked about his insecurities and vanities, his breath pluming out in the cold morning by the Thames. Without a home to lie himself down in, low on self-esteem, proud in his musical refuge, with whose obsessive virtuosity he managed to reproach the world for all his maladjustment.
That's how he was, and most of the time drunk or getting there. 


That's how Clapton was when the day after England lifted the Jules Rimet Cup after the World Cup final at Wembley – the no-goal against Germany, the generational revenge for post-war hardship, the shut it, I invented football and that's all there is to it – that night, with England's head still spinning from its patriotic hangover, Cream made their debut in style at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival in front of 15,000 people. It was the summer of 1966 and Clapton, Baker and Bruce were unknowingly the closing act of a bill that included the Who. With just three songs, they sent the crowd wild. After various encores and the odd improvisation, both the audience and the critics concurred that if Clapton was god, Cream were the Holy Trinity.  
Just seven years earlier, Clapton was shocked by the news of Buddy Holly's death. At 14 years of age and in a permanent bad mood, just a few days beforehand, he had seen the singer while watching 'Saturday Night at the London Palladium' on television, with a Fender round his neck, his floating image shining out at him from the television screen. Vacantly wandering around the schoolyard in Ripley, Clapton loved music, a place he could lock himself away in, a private world, away from an absent mother, an unknown father, poor social skills and zero interest in kicking a football around in the wastelands left by the German bombs.    

"That Fender was the future and I wanted to run from my past, that's the way it is", and so Rose and Jack, his grandparents, bought him his first guitar, a humble Hoyer acoustic. He played it to death. With that usual faraway look in his eyes, he played along to any singles he could get his hands on. Over and over. Behind the closed door of his bedroom, pulling at the hard, steel strings whose action was far too high, Eric started learning to feel through the chords he played. Alas, he had nobody else to talk to him.  

The son of an American soldier shipped over to England during the Second World War, Clapton grew up thinking that his adolescent, abandoned and above all mostly absent mother was his older sister, and that who in fact were his grandparents, were his parents. It's not difficult to imagine the effect it had on the nine-year-old when he found out, and how the shocking revelation affected his behaviour.  
His early years with the Hoyer gave him the habit of hitting the strings hard. From there, his nickname "slow hands", for the tardiness with which he would change the broken strings of his cherry red '64 Gibson ES-335 between songs; let them wait if they want to hear good blues. In time it would seem downright madness that Clapton refused to appear in a front-page photo and leave the Yardbirds because of the wayward poppiness of the very song that made them a hit, 'For your love'. It's funny really, that the stratospheric success of someone considered the best guitarist in history was achieved while being so intolerant of the impurities of the passing musical trends.  

But Eric Clapton (Ripley, Surrey, England, 1945) was young and proud; he knew that he was a virtuoso and had nothing to lose when he told Chris Dreja and friends where to go and went on his way. His ingrate, restless soul had put him back on the road.  

's early years on the music scene were lived like a jezebel. Perfecting his technique along the way, he gave his eternal love to great bands and renowned musicians before suddenly moving on without so much as a good-bye. His road to perfection saw him ditch Cream, turn his back on his adventures with Winwood and company of Blind Faith and of course there was his swift disenchantment with the Dominos after the recording of 'Layla'.  

His sound, the so-called 'woman tone', was born from his cherry Gibson and a Marshall valve amp. Like those that gave it its name- those that rode his haunches forever for a night. Clapton played with a distorted sound, exaggerating the volume's intensity and amplifier's tone to the limit while having the guitar's tone pot rolled back to zero: a reflection of his personal commitment – he giving the minimum expression while the band, or the woman, is pushed to the edge and beyond.  

Then came the desperate heroin and the only transgression that escaped Clapton's control: Pattie Boyd's repeated 'no' to her leaving George Harrison, a faithful and loving friend despite everything.   In those years of easy money and flights of fancy, just before leaving the Dominos, he walked into an old man's shop in Nashville, Tennessee and bought six Fender Stratocasters. He then used the best parts of all six to create 'Blackie', his favourite guitar for playing live. To figure out what to do with the rest, the god of guitars would have to wait to come down from his coke, acid or horse trip. At least, for a while.    

The blues started to give way to reggae and 80's synthesizers, then came the death of various friends and lovers on the backs of horse, Clapton managing to swap the needle for the bottle thanks to the insistence of his friend Pete Townshend, who kept his career going with 'ad hoc' recitals, and his soul with made-to-measure advice.  

In '74, Pattie at last took off to Hurtwood, the residential estate that 'slow hands' had bought years before close to his childhood home. And just when it seemed that on paper at least everything seemed to fit together nicely – love, success, a home, worldwide recognition and a certain maturity (at least in theory), it was clear that his days of running had only just begun.  

Musically, Clapton LPs at that time only had one decent track to them - the rest being nicely produced dead wood. His personal life was the reflection and cause of the terrible mistake of being able to count more liquor bottles than days in the calendar. There began several amorous relationships while he married, cheated on, went back to and finally divorced Pattie. From '79 to '89, Clapton had time to compose beautiful songs for her such as 'Wonderful Tonight' and also confess the existence of two illegitimate children.  

Ironically, it was the tragic death of the second of them in the early 90’s that taught Eric Patrick Clapton to live straight 56 years after himself being born an ashamed bastard in that still morally Victorian Surrey village. Connor's 50-floor fall to an early death stopped his self-centred father's running dead. Clapton swore to never drink again and even stopped smoking. Months spent alone composing in solitude morally cleansed him and showed him the road to travel along. With the public recital of 'Tears in Heaven' during an MTV 'Unplugged' concert, he dispossessed himself of his demons and stopped playing God.  

His return to the hit lists and posterior chance meeting at a party with Melia, his current wife and mother of his three daughters, was the start of his change from tormented guitar god to generous philanthropist, founder of an alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre next to his mansion in Antigua (Caribbean) and organizer of countless charity festivals and several farewell concerts for friends reaching the end of their roads.  

One of them was the same ex-Beatle whose guitar gently wept after a drinking binge - caused by Clapton previously confessing that 'Layla' was in fact his wife Pattie, who he wanted to run away with. George Harrison, together with Steve Winwood and Pete Townsend knew how to walk parallel roads with Clapton, their paths crossing the guitar god's when friends do – to exorcise him with a jam session or a smack up the side of the head. It was to these three that he gave the sisters Stratocasters of 'Blackie', a guitar he bid farewell to in a charity auction, raising nearly a million dollars for his rehabilitation centre, whose name, of course, is Crossroads.

(Pictures: ©CordonPress)