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A guitar god finds salvation

Special to The Times

Clapton is God.

It was 1965 when these three words were defiantly splattered on a tube station wall just outside London. In the short time it took for the demonstrative message to spread to walls throughout the city, guitarist Eric Clapton had been transformed from a promising young blues player into a rock ‘n’ roll deity.

Then a 20-year-old hired gun with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Clapton was a purist who teetered uneasily on the pop pedestal. At best reluctant in the spotlight, he dealt with adulation like many music heroes -- by ingesting copious quantities of booze and drugs. It can be reasonably argued that the decadent trail Clapton blazed is as much a part of rock’s mythology as his most memorable licks.

However, it wasn’t only the burden of expectation that plunged the guitarist into the heart of darkness, he explains in “Clapton,” his autobiography. Finally telling his story at age 62, he describes a life of profound sadness and dysfunction, in which an ugly combo of chemical abuse, toxic relationships and old-fashioned narcissism nearly killed him as they served to fill in the empty spaces between the one true love and salvation of his life: “For me, the most trustworthy vehicle for spirituality has always proven to be music.”

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Despite his fame, Clapton modeled himself after blues players Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and the like, letting the music do his talking. As such, he’s still an enigma after more than four decades. Even the most casual fans likely know the basics -- the hits, the virtuosity, the crippling addictions, the tragic death of his 4-year-old son -- but Clapton fills in many gray areas, recounting his highs and lows with a thoughtfulness often lacking in rock memoirs. Methodically he whittles away at the larger-than-life rock god until a vulnerable, messed-up mortal emerges.

When you strip away the expensive houses and art, the cars and boats, stacks of guitars, beautiful women and the applause of millions, what’s left is the humble man from the Surrey County village of Ripley in southern England. Two decades after walking out of a Minneapolis rehab clinic, a still-sober Clapton reflects on his past with dead-eyed clarity.

Born illegitimate in 1945, he long believed that his grandparents were his parents. He would later learn that his sister was really his mother. The musician traces his problems with intimacy on this traumatic family fib.

After a stint in art school, Clapton bought a guitar and practiced obsessively, studying the licks of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Muddy Waters. But it was tortured Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson whose music seared his soul. “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense,” he writes.

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At the height of British Beatlemania, Clapton was a blues snob playing with the Yardbirds. He recalls looking down on the Liverpudlians for their matching suits, their haircuts and their grip on the British populace. He made a hasty exit from the Yardbirds in 1965 after recording the band’s first hit single, “For Your Love,” which, to Clapton, signaled a drastic shift toward pop. “I felt it was a dreadful waste of what had potentially been a good rock blues band.” This established a career-long pattern repeated with such groups such as Cream and Blind Faith.

By the end of the 1960s, success wasn’t the only thing messing with his head. He’d fallen for Beatle George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. “I also coveted Pattie because she belonged to a powerful man who seemed to have everything I wanted -- amazing cars, an incredible career, and a beautiful wife.” His torment over his then-unrequited love inspired “Layla,” recorded with Derek and the Dominoes in 1970. While with the Dominoes, he began using heroin, which appealed to him because it was steeped in the blues: It connected him to junkie musicians like Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson and Ray Charles. For more than two years, he fell firmly in the drug’s grip. When he finally did kick, he found his solace in cocaine and alcohol, an indulgence he shared with Pattie, whom he’d finally won after her divorce from Harrison.

Clapton had the occasional hit -- 1974’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” 1977’s “Lay Down Sally” -- but by 1979, he was drinking up to two bottles of booze a day. Though he’d married Boyd in 1977, the thrill seemed to fade once he’d won his prize. He was unfaithful on the road and sexually unresponsive at home. In a last-ditch effort to save his marriage -- and himself -- Clapton entered the Hazelden Clinic in 1983 to dry out. But the guitarist was more interested in getting through the problem than getting well. “My fear of loss of identity was phenomenal. This could have been born out of the ‘Clapton is God’ thing, which had put so much of my self-worth onto my musical career. When the focus shifted toward my well-being . . . and to the realization that I was an alcoholic and suffering from the same disease everybody else was, I went into meltdown.”

He didn’t quit in earnest until 1987, after the birth of his son Conor, whose mother was Italian model Lori del Santo. The intimacy-challenged musician was initially cautious around his son but slowly began reaching out to the boy. In 1991, the 4-year-old fell from the window of a New York City apartment to his death. A numb, grieving Clapton was determined to stay sober. “At that moment I realized there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”

Conor’s death spurred a spiritual awakening: Clapton wrote his most inspired music, including the wrenching “Tears in Heaven,” for his son. By 1998, he’d opened the Crossroads treatment center in Antigua and a year later met Melia McEnery. They wed in 2002 and have since had three daughters. The road, once his sanctuary, became a grind as he pined to spend time with his family. “My God, everything was becoming so normal in my life.”

Less a god than a fool on a hill, the musician describes finding happiness only when he came down from his solitary mountaintop. Whether you’re a fan of his music or not, “Clapton” is an absorbing tale of artistry, decadence and redemption. It’s also an important reminder of the guitarist’s imprint on rock music, as a sideman, solo artist and bandleader. Not bad for a blues snob from Surrey.

Erik Himmelsbach, a writer and TV producer, is at work on a book about radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) and the alternative-culture revolution.


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