Monday, March 30, 2015

Slowhand at Seventy

Having turned seventy years of age today, Eric Clapton, the King of the British Guitarists, is still going strong.

And he's survived a lot of odds to get this far. A child of illegitimate birth, he felt alienated in his formative years.  His mother was sixteen years old when she bore him, and his biological father was a Canadian solider who fought in World War II and was stationed in England before leaving for home toward the end of the war; Eric would never meet him.  Eric was raised by his maternal grandmother in Surrey, England.  When he first picked up a guitar, he had trouble learning it and put it aside.  However, when he revived his interest in the guitar as he began listening to American blues records, he found his calling, mastering blues chords on his guitar and playing effortlessly and fluidly. After a stint with the Yardbirds - the same group that spawned ace guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page (Creem magazine called Clapton, Beck and Page the "Unholy Three") - he developed a national reputation in Britain for his intense playing and his stinging solos as a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Soon, graffiti appeared all over London announcing a new revelation: "CLAPTON IS GOD!"
It took America a little while longer to discover this divine guitar hero, but with Cream, the three-piece blues-rock band he formed with Ginger Baker on drums and the late Jack Bruce on bass, rock rediscovered its blues roots and became more substantial; Cream practically invented the heavy-rock style of the seventies and beyond.  
Sadly, Clapton's achievements came at a price.  Clapton didn't just play the blues; he lived them.  A dependence on drugs and drink, brought on by the demands of Cream's success and the eventual implosion of that band, and a fractured personal life rooted in his childhood fueled his music with some of the hardest and rawest playing few could match, most notably on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the first (and only) Derek and the Dominos album.  In addition to having a troubled romance with Pattie Boyd (his best friend George Harrison's wife), he saw a good deal of friends die in the early seventies as rock was burning itself out - Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman were among them - and he dulled the pain with heroin as he slipped into isolation.  The intervention of the Who's Pete Townshend enabled Clapton to kick his drug addiction (he would later stop drinking) and make a remarkable comeback with his famous Rainbow Theatre concert in London in 1973. 
His subsequent solo work has been somewhat erratic, as he's vacillated between polished pop and straight blues, but the pain has never gone away completely. He broke up with Pattie Boyd in 1987 after an eight-year marriage when he fathered a son by another woman. His four-year-old son's death in an accidental fall in 1991 and his long obsession over his biological father came to the fore in his music, producing the respective songs "Tears In Heaven" and "My Father's Eyes," and he's continued to lose friends (George Harrison, Jack Bruce, J.J. Cale). Through all of that suffering though, he's been able to raise a family with his current wife and continue to pour his life into his guitar.
And for all his woes, music is why he's here today. "I almost subconsciously used music for myself as a healing agent, and lo and behold, it worked," he once said. "I have got a great deal of happiness and a great deal of healing from music."
Happy birthday, Old Slowhand.

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