Slowhand tells life story

The Baltimore Sun

It is one of the most mythic romantic entanglements in rock 'n' roll. At some point in the late 1960s, Eric Clapton fell in love with Pattie Boyd, wife of his close friend George Harrison. Clapton's 1970 masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (recorded with his band at the time, Derek and the Dominos), was an offering and a plea to her; they eventually married in 1979 and divorced in 1988.

The saga sits at the center of Clapton: The Autobiography, published this week by Broadway Books. Clapton's memoir follows the recent release of Boyd's side of the story in Wonderful Tonight, which last month entered best-seller lists at No. 1. Clapton said he had seen excerpts of her book and noted discrepancies between their two accounts.

On the phone from his home outside London, where he lives with his wife, Melia McEnery, and their three daughters, he singled out Boyd's description of a night in which he and Harrison had a "guitar duel" for her hand as being far-fetched. "We each have our different versions of our years together," he said.

His description of his relationship with Boyd, though, offers few excuses for his emotional swings, substance abuse and extramarital affairs that defined much of their decade together. "I just tried," Clapton said, "to take responsibility for all the different phases of my life."

Clapton chronicles the many musical configurations of Clapton's career. He has played in monumental bands (the Yardbirds, Cream); accompanied giants from the Beatles to Howlin' Wolf; and topped the charts and filled arenas as a solo performer.

With his sturdy blues foundation, liquid tone and architecturally structured solos, Clapton, 62, is one of rock's most influential and revered guitarists.

But Clapton's life has also been defined by tragedies and oddities. He was raised by his grandparents, under the illusion that they were his parents; he never met his father and, until the age of 9, believed that his mother was actually his older sister. He suffered through a lengthy, epic battle with alcoholism and drug addiction. In 1991, Clapton's 4-year-old son, Conor, died after falling out of a hotel room window (inspiring the song "Tears in Heaven").

"I wanted to wait until I had an entire life to write about," he said. "Though I don't think I'm quite done yet, my memory was starting to play tricks on me. I realized that if I didn't do it now, I might have to rely on other people's memories, and it might start to lose some of the accuracy."

He first worked with a ghostwriter: Christopher Sykes, a longtime friend. But Clapton was unhappy with this version. "It looked very defensive, judgmental, full of self-justification," he said. "It just looked dreadful."

Charlie Conrad, Clapton's editor, acknowledged that the early drafts were "a bit breathless." He said, however, that even at that stage, "we were fully satisfied; we were actually surprised at how frank and forthcoming it was, but he felt it wasn't truly him."

So in the midst of a worldwide tour last winter, Clapton took over the writing. He worked at it every morning and afternoon.

"I found that I couldn't wait to pick up the thread each time," he said. "It was really fun to learn how to put a sentence and a paragraph together."

What is most striking about the result is the author's measured tone, which never becomes hysterical or sentimental, even when writing about painful, dramatic or unflattering situations.

The biggest curiosity for readers presumably surrounds his account of his marriage to Boyd. Her book incited a tabloid frenzy, particularly a scene of the two guitarists battling for her affection with their instruments like medieval knights.

Clapton remembers the evening. "I went over just to hang out. He got two guitars, and we played," he said. "But we were always doing that, so how do you make an everyday thing into a commodity?"

Boyd said in an e-mail that she and Clapton are friends now but that he "is quite right in saying that we each have our memories of our years together."

Despite his anguish over his initially unrequited love, Clapton says now that the affair didn't seem like such a big deal. "At the time, it was kind of like swinging, very loose and amoral," he said. "I think we didn't give it too much thought. It was really only later that we realized that we treated each other quite badly."

The despair of "Layla," Clapton added, represented a creative choice, not a documentary about his life. "That's the art of writing love songs," he said. "I was desperately obsessed with Pattie, but creating a song is just putting a stamp on a feeling."

Boyd has different feelings about the intensity of their affair. "It was a big deal," she wrote. "Eric was very attractive and persuasive. George and I had many problems in our relationship that had a great deal to do with the enormity of his fame and his increasing passion for meditation and the spiritual life. He frequently simply wasn't there for me, and there were other women."

The change in Boyd's allegiance didn't end Clapton's friendship with Harrison, who died in 2001.

"For George, it was all maya," he said, referring to the Hindu concept of cosmic illusion. "His take was purely spiritual, that we could always get past the physical world."

If Clapton sounds at peace with his personal history, what emerges in the book is a kind of perpetual dissatisfaction in his musical career. In one anecdote, he remembers coveting a certain guitar when he was young. But, "As soon as I got it, I suddenly didn't want it anymore," he writes. "This phenomenon was to rear its head throughout my life and cause many difficulties."

He tells of joining and quitting groups, no matter how successful. He races dismissively through his solo albums from the 1970s (in conversation, they're "unfulfilled and half-baked"). Most recently, he seems happiest collaborating with old friends like B.B. King or the songwriter J.J. Cale.

"My musical identity has taken my entire life to develop," Clapton said. "Now I can sing in a band, play backup, lead, sing a duet - there doesn't have to be a label on it anymore. The most important thing is that I enjoy listening to music, and I still do."

Clapton said he finds his stability in the blues, the music that he first loved. "There's a matter-of-factness, a sense of acceptance about the blues," he said. "Acceptance is a great state of being. It steps aside of hysteria, drama, extreme emotions."

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