“Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton” by Philip Norman reveals the complex character behind a living legend. Norman is perhaps one of rock music’s foremost biographers, and fans of Eric Clapton and rock history in general will not be disappointed in his latest work.
Norman reveals little that is unknown about Clapton’s life and music in this biography, written with Clapton’s consent and making use of Clapton’s own confessional autobiography written ten years ago. Norman draws on conversations with the guitarist’s friends, music associates and family, most notably his former wife, Pattie Boyd, the ex-wife of his friend and Beatle George Harrison, to chronicle Clapton’s rise to fame. The book goes from his early years in art school to rock’s highest pinnacle, winner of 17 Grammys and the only three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
His mother’s parents, whom he believed for many years to be his mother and father, raised him. The truth came out eventually, that his mother had become pregnant out of wedlock during the war by a Canadian soldier. His mother would marry another Canadian soldier and return to Canada with him, abandoning Clapton to his grandparents’ care. His mother eventually returned to England later and hover on the periphery of his life. His father never laid eyes on him and never knew what his son accomplished. His grandparents, however, spoiled him rotten, and thus he never developed the strength of character and the habits that would hold him in good stead when the temptations of rock ‘n’ roll’s hedonistic lifestyle beckoned.
Norman chronicles in great detail Clapton’s early years and how he developed an intense love and respect for America’s blues music as a young teenager. By 1965, he had already been a guitarist with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Clapton was determined to expose the music of the American South to a new audience in England in as pure a form as possible, and he captured on his guitar the raw emotion of the sound he loved. Early on, he was such an accomplished blues guitarist, transfixing young listeners. His reputation grew quickly, and signs soon began appearing around London that proclaimed, “Clapton is God.”
After leaving the Bluesbreakers, Clapton moved on to join Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream, then formed Blind Faith, joined Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and then formed Derek and the Dominoes. Finally realizing that he had difficulty fitting into bands, he launched his solo career that, at its height, earned him six Grammy awards in a single year and a record-breaking run of 24 nights at the Royal Albert Hall.
Norman provides very little critical analysis of Clapton’s music; rather he focuses on Clapton the man. He follows Clapton through his early life of reckless rock ‘n’ roll excess and his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Clapton treated the women in his life as badly as he treated himself. In 1969, in love with the married and unavailable Pattie Boyd, he took solace with Alice Ormsby-Gore, a 17 year-old aristocrat, with whom he shared a heroin habit. They remained together for five years, even getting engaged, but eventually ended their relationship in 1975. She struggled with mental health and drug addiction her entire life, and died in poverty in 1995 at age 42, having taken six times the fatal dose of heroin.
Clapton finally married Pattie Boyd in 1979 after she divorced George Harrison, but they both struggled with the marriage and drank heavily. Even though she was his inspiration for “Layla,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Old Love,” he admitted to being an alcoholic, often violent and repeatedly unfaithful to her. Boyd left Clapton in April 1987 and divorced him in 1989 following his affair with an Italian model, which resulted in the birth of his son, Conor.
In 1991, just as Clapton was getting his life together and treating his addictions, Conor fell to his death from an open window in New York City, and Clapton expressed his grief by writing “Tears in Heaven.”
In 1998, Clapton met 22-year-old Melia McEnery at a party given for him after a performance. They married in 2002 and have three children. He lives a quiet, almost reclusive life now except when he performs.
Norman does a masterful job of reporting Clapton’s elevation to a deity in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon.
He arrived on the scene with Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, all heavily influenced by the blues, all becoming renowned lead guitarists, and all still performing over more than 50 years later.
Despite the bad years of self-destructive behaviors, he managed to write heartfelt songs that exposed the turmoil and love in his life. “Clapton” is the story of unarguably one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest guitarists and singer-songwriters, a survivor and a man who achieved the pinnacle of success despite his extraordinary demons.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.