Often called one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Eric Clapton has had a long and varied career encompassing no fewer than four all-time classic bands (The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos) and as a solo act. Clapton went all the way to the dark side and back again: after retreating into heroin addiction when his love for his best friend George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, went unrequited, then trading that addiction for a nasty cognac habit that turned him mean on stage and indifferent in the studio, the birth of his son Conor in 1986 brought him focus and sobriety, and his grief over Conor’s death in 1991 led him to the biggest commercial success of his career with “Tears in Heaven.”
All of this is recounted in the new Showtime documentary Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars, and if you are as dedicated a rock and roll scholar as I am, you already know all of it. But that has never stopped me from watching a rock doc, because there is always something I didn’t already know, and this one was no exception:
Clapton had an unusually troubled childhood.
At age 9, young Eric’s mother revealed that she was not actually his mother but his grandmother, standing in for the woman he’d been told was his sister, who had run off to Canada shortly after Eric’s birth. When his mother finally came back, Eric was eager to establish a relationship with her and her two subsequent children, but was coldly rebuffed. This helps to explain some of his antisocial behavior later on.
Success has never quite suited him.
Clapton quit his first successful band, The Yardbirds, the moment they scored a chart hit with the overt pop effort “For Your Love,” a far cry from the pure blues he considered his mission and calling. By 1970, when he had become a rock superstar on the strength of his work with Cream and Blind Faith, Clapton named his next band Derek and the Dominos, deliberately trying to hide from the limelight.
He had some unusual influences.
It’s evident from his work with the Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers that Clapton worshiped blues guitarists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Albert King, but in this documentary we also learn that he wanted to make his guitar sound like Indian reed player Bismillah Khan’s shehnai, and like blues harmonica legend Little Walter’s amplified harmonica.
He is the all-time world heavyweight champion of bad hair.
We all have some hair skeletons in our closets, but seriously:
He played on an Aretha Franklin song.
Everyone knows Clapton worked with the Beatles on his best friend George Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but I did not know that while working at Atlantic Records with their producer in common Tom Dowd, Clapton was invited to play on “Good To Me As I Am To You” from Aretha’s ‘Lady Soul’ album. Aretha reportedly laughed at the psychedelic hippie costume wore to the session, but once he started playing he won her — ahem — respect (sorry).
He has the world’s lamest excuse for becoming a junkie.
Clapton claims that he only started doing heroin because his cocaine dealer refused to sell to him unless he also took some heroin. I think it’s likelier that he took heroin to salve the deep emotional wounds his mother inflicted on him, which in some ways would be understandable. You took the heroin, dude, own it.
The ‘Layla’ sessions were fueled by history’s biggest bag of cocaine.
His greatest artistic achievement, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,’ was a failure.
Despite being overcome with emotion by Clapton’s musical crie de coeur for her, Patti Boyd Harrison stayed with George for another four years. Clapton and Boyd eventually married in 1979.
He eventually found peace.
Despite being pretty much totally awful to everyone he encountered from 1970 to 1986 — which makes for a very compelling documentary — Clapton sobered up when his son Conor was born. Clapton suffered another shattering blow when Conor, 4, fell from a 57th-floor window in New York, but managed to stay sober, processed his grief into an album that won all the Grammys, founded a low-income substance abuse treatment center in Antigua called Crossroads, and became a doting father and very happy family man. Does this cancel out 25 years of odious behavior? I don’t know, but thankfully it’s only the last 5 minutes of the film!
Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars is available on-demand now on Showtime.