London -- Talking with Eric Clapton is like handling a sheathed sword. He seems gentle, calm and harmless. But occasionally his protective covering slips, revealing a man so raw and incisive that his words or simply his gaze can be as piercing as a blade.
Mr. Clapton's guitar playing is similar: It sometimes seems as if he's plucking emotions instead of strings. This is one reason some consider him the greatest living guitarist; his fans in the 1960s called him God.
It's also why he seldom grants interviews to the press. In conversation, the English musician, 49, is excruciatingly honest and self-critical, whether he's discussing his passion for the blues, the accidental death of his son or his slow dances with heroin and alcohol.
Mr. Clapton's last album, a recording of his "Unplugged" performance on MTV in 1992, stole the show at the Grammy Awards the following year and sold more than 7 million copies.
It was also a way of grieving publicly: His 4-year-old son, Conor, had fallen to his death from the 53rd-floor window of a Manhattan apartment the year before. On the biggest hit from that session, "Tears in Heaven," Mr. Clapton attempted to come to terms with the accident.
His new album, "From the Cradle," the all-blues record that he has been promising for some time, is part of his recovery. The album, which became the first blues record to go to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, is a return to the blues purism of his years spent with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the mid-60s, except that the arrogance of youth has been replaced by the humility of age.
Mr. Clapton plans to perform at arenas for a month and then return to smaller clubs in some cities. They will be all-blues shows, he said, no matter how many people scream for the hits "Layla," "Cocaine" and "White Room." It's a decision he might not have been able to make earlier in his career.
"What I've done in the past was, I've been a little afraid of sticking to my inner guns," he said. "I probably have chosen to write or play material that I thought would be more acceptable to other people. But with this blues album, as with 'Unplugged,' I was entertaining myself first. I had no idea that 'Unplugged' would be accepted, let alone succeed. At that stage in my life, I probably had very little faith in myself. Since then, I've come a long way in terms of self-belief."
Recorded live and produced simply, "From the Cradle" lives up to Mr. Clapton's definition of the blues: "true music of the soul, without the intellect."
It features his versions of songs by Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Freddie King and other musicians who influenced him as he wound his way through various legendary 1960s groups -- the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith -- before establishing himself as a solo artist and band leader.
For Mr. Clapton, music is not all technique and artistry. It is also a means of communication and healing. Until recently, however, it wasn't the only form of therapy for him.
"Layla," recorded in 1970 as a way of releasing frustration over his unreciprocated love for George Harrison's then-wife, Pattie Boyd, was followed by three years of depression, isolation and heroin addiction. (She and Mr. Clapton were married in 1979 and divorced in 1989.) After he withdrew from heroin in 1974, Mr. Clapton lapsed into alcoholism. He says he hasn't taken a drink since leaving an alcohol rehabilitation center in 1987.
Despite Mr. Clapton's more mature, life-affirming attitude, it's unlikely that he has emerged from the darkness entirely. Besides the guitar and the blues, his only other long-term relationship has been with tragedy.
When he heard about the suicide of Nirvana's leader, Kurt Cobain, last April, the circumstances sounded all too familiar. "He was quoted as saying things that I totally identified with," Mr. Clapton said. "Like being backstage and hearing the crowd out there, and thinking: 'I'm not worth it. I'm a piece of garbage. And they're fools: If they knew what the truth was about me, they wouldn't like me.' I've identified with that a million times."
As in Cobain's case, friends tried to help rehabilitate Mr. Clapton when he was addicted to heroin. But, he said, no one could help Eric Clapton except Eric Clapton.
Mr. Clapton did concede that in the long run, it's possible that "something filtered through because I didn't die." Today, however, he has learned a better method of dealing with his problems: sharing them.
Making his sorrows public with "Tears in Heaven" was valuable therapy. The lyrics -- "Would you be the same if I saw you in heaven?/I must be strong and carry on" -- sound like passages from a self-help textbook.
"When I wrote that song about my little boy, my mail was incredible," he said. "For months and months, just hundreds and hundreds of letters came in from people who I felt had been helped by me, wanted to help me or empathized. Every variation of the sharing experience took place once I put pen to paper and wrote that song and opened my heart. It was important for me because that healing process is that very simple thing of letting other people know what you feel and then receiving their love or receiving the information that they have experienced the same thing and have survived."
Though he has always tried to avoid the limelight, Mr. Clapton has still fallen victim to certain trappings of rock stardom, like a loss of perspective. The death of the son he had with former girlfriend Lori Del Santos was a painful dose of reality.
"Up until that point, I probably still hadn't accepted that I was powerless, really," he said. "I didn't know the true nature of life until that day, and then it was shown to me that everything can be taken away at any moment, and I have to look for the positive. And I was able to do that by continuing to abstain. So it became a gift in a way.
Mr. Clapton's label, Reprise Records, was reportedly opposed to the guitarist's decision to make a seemingly noncommercial album of blues songs. He tells a somewhat different story, and his label stands by him.
More than 300,000 people bought the record in a week, demonstrating that Mr. Clapton's audience isn't so fickle.
The blues, after all, is what he does best. Even though "From the Cradle" is technically a collection of cover songs and homages, Mr. Clapton seems to have an open channel between his guitar and his inner feelings that neither age nor imitation can cut off.
"It's so simple, isn't it? That in a time of trouble some piece of music will take me out of myself or my self-pity or my self-loathing, and I'll be in another place for a little while," he said. "And that's where music became a journey for me. It's an escape that isn't an escape because most of my problems come about when I'm looking at the past or the future through the eyes of fear.
"But when I'm playing well," he continued, removing his glasses and staring with the intensity that makes those near him feel as if they've come too close to a naked sword, "what is there to fear? In the moment, there is nothing to fear. Music, when you give it that opportunity, hammers that home."
To hear excerpts of Eric Clapton's new all-blues album, "From the Cradle," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6169 after you hear the greeting.
When: Wednesday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m.
Where: USAir Arena, Landover
Tickets: $32.50-$45 (sold out)
Call: (410) 481-SEAT