By David Werther.
Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Complete Collection (Reprise: Duck Records, 2007)
Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), 352pp.
Clapton's autobiography and two-CD career retrospective are presented as a matched set with identical cover designs. Clapton the autobiographer is surprisingly detached. A ghost writer would have glamorized and romanticized Clapton's life. He doesn't. Malcolm Muggeridge entitled his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. That caption would work well for much of Clapton's life. His is a great talent greatly squandered in the haze of heroin, alcohol, and unhealthy relationships. And, Clapton is absolutely candid about this.
I found a pattern in my behavior that had been repeating itself for years, decades even. Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it and run the other way. It could be argued that my choices reflected the way I saw myself, that I thought I wasn't worthy of anything decent, so I could only choose partners who would ultimately abandon me, as I was convinced my mother had done, all those years ago. (p. 243)
Clapton's father was an unfaithful Canadian soldier with a wife back at home. His grandparents raised him and he knew them as "Mum and Dad." It was not until he overheard an aunt ask, "Have you heard from his mum?" that he realized he was an illegitimate child. Clapton never met his father. His beautiful song "My Father's Eyes" is about his belief that in the eyes of his own illegitimate son, Conor, he saw the eyes of the man who abandoned him.
Clapton's son Conor (August 21,1986–March 19, 1991) had been playing hide and seek with his nanny. While a janitor was warning Conor's mother about windows being opened for cleaning, Conor fell forty-nine stories to his death. As one would expect, Conor's death marked Clapton (cf. "Tears in Heaven"). Conor's birth did as well. While in a treatment center, Clapton determined to "break the chain.". . . in Antigua, I wrote a song linking the loss of Conor with the mystery surrounding the life of my father, called 'My Father's Eyes.' In it, I tried to describe the parallel between looking into the eyes of my son, and seeing the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood. (p. 249)
The chain broke when Clapton fell down and prayed.But I kept coming back to the thought of Conor, the reality of his life, and what it required of me, and the horrible possibility that if I didn't get it right this time, history would repeat itself. . . . I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had—a father. (p. 235)
At the end of his autobiography, Clapton talks about Muddy Waters calling him an adopted son and asking him to carry on the blues tradition. Humbled, Clapton accepts. The blues has always been Clapton's calling. And, at times he pursued that calling with abandon and left a staggering legacy. Consider that from 1963–1971 Clapton was a member of the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Blues Breakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominoes, and recorded his blistering version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," "Badge" (a song he co-authored with George Harrison), "In the Presence of the Lord," and, with Dwayne Allman, the adrenaline-rushing, heartbreaking "Layla." "Layla" remains the high water mark in rock. In his last tour Clapton played the song with Derek Trucks, a second-generation member of the Allman Brothers Band.It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair. At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion of who I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with . . . so I asked for help, and getting down on my knees, I surrendered. Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that's true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I'd always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all for my sobriety. (pp. 235–236)
The comparatively weak moments on Clapton: The Complete Collection come when Clapton strays from the blues. No matter its chart topping popularity, Clapton's rendition of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," is hard to take, just two cuts after "Layla." The good news is that blues dominates The Complete Clapton, and that late in life Clapton is finding fulfillment as a husband and father of four.