[Slowhand] Saga interview

Gaetano Villari gaetano.villari at gmail.com
Mon May 1 09:31:01 EDT 2006


March 2004 issue

Born to the blues

to the blues
Despite decades of success, the rock guitarist and singer Eric Clapton
has endured a life full of trauma and loss. Now, as he tells Jaan
Uhelszki, a new wife and a new family have finally brought him

He's tried drinking, taking drugs, taking his best friend's wife and
even playing cricket. But now that he's a happily married teetotaller
who hung up his cricket bat and pads for the final time last summer,
Eric Clapton has found a new way of spending spare time.

"I've taken up shooting. I'm a country boy so it was inevitable really
that I would start shooting partridge and pheasant. Politically it
can't last much longer. They're trying to do away with fox hunting and
shooting birds will come next. I'm trying to get it in before they ban

This new passion is not as unlikely as it may sound. In the early
Nineties, after conquering addictions to drugs and alcohol, Clapton
transferred the compulsive side of his personality to rod and line,
even choosing his concert venues by their angling potential. "We did a
fishing tour about 12 years ago, when we would only play places near
water all across America," he confesses with a wry smile.

"I was obsessed with trout fishing and I used to go every single day.
I still do fish, and when the fishing season stops, the shooting
season starts, so it kind of works out for me."

Not so long ago, there would have been nothing remarkable about a
wealthy Englishman – Clapton is worth an estimated £120 million –
indulging a love of field sports. Nor would his 50 per cent stake in
the Piccadilly-based country outfitters Cordings, specialists in
hunting, shooting and fishing attire, be anything other than a rich
man's fancy. But in these politically correct days, when rock stars
who rebelled against the old status quo dare not deviate from the new
one, Clapton is taking a considerable PR risk in admitting that he
kills birds and fish. But, he insists, "Anything I catch or shoot, I
eat, so I justify it in that way."

Clapton will have little time to spare for shooting or fishing over
the next few months. The 58-year-old guitarist has recently released a
retrospective collection, Best of Ballads. In May, he will return to
the Royal Albert Hall for a series of concerts that will coincide with
an album of new material. The lyrics were written at his farm near

"I'm always trying to go deeper than before," Clapton says, "and as I
get older, I have to push harder and harder to do that. So I'm here
for a week on my own doing that very thing. I'm trying to write lyrics
where I have to reveal to myself, first of all, what the hell is going
on in my life, emotionally, with my relationships, with everything.
And it's incredibly hard work because I find it really difficult to
connect with myself, to check what's going on.

"I go for drives. And on each drive, I get maybe one line. I'll go
back home and write it down, and then assemble it as the days go by.
I'm not a natural writer so I have to work really, really hard just to
not turn on the TV, or eat chocolate all the time. I don't mind
admitting that I pray for help, and most of the time I seem to get the
help I need."

There is another, happier, reason why Clapton has to be by himself to
work on his songs: it's the only place where, as one of the increasing
band of fiftysomething men with new, young families, he can get some
peace and quiet. "I have two really young girls, Julie Rose and Ella
May, and they don't let me have any time for this. By the time I've
tucked them up in bed, I'm dead, so I can't really work. I've had to
come out here to isolate myself. Now I want to draw on this new
experience and the way that it is affecting my life. Having this new
family has been astonishing, and as much as it hasn't allowed me much
time for creative work, it's where my creative impulses have got to
come from."

Clapton's present contentment has come after a lifetime of emotional
trauma. As he remarked three years ago, "I had what people would now
call a 'dysfunctional' family. I was raised to believe that my
grandmother and my grandfather were my mother and father. I was
illegitimate, so they tried to cover up the mess by adopting me. Then
I discovered the truth and realised that the person I thought was my
brother was actually my uncle, my mother and father were actually my
grandparents and the person who I thought was my sister was, in actual
fact, my mother."

In his twenties, having made his guitar-hero reputation with the
Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Cream, he fell in love with
Patti Boyd, the wife of his closest friend, George Harrison. After
much agonising, he married Boyd, who inspired two of his most famous
songs, Layla and Wonderful Tonight. Years of addiction and infidelity
followed. Clapton fathered a daughter, Ruth, in 1985, after an affair
with Yvonne Kelly, a recording-studio executive. His marriage finally
collapsed when Clapton began another affair, this time with an Italian
TV presenter, Lori del Santo.

In August 1986, the couple had a son, Conor. Del Santo says Clapton
found it almost impossible to adjust to fatherhood (she even claimed
that his manager tried to persuade her to end the pregnancy). Finally,
on March 19, 1991, Clapton met Lori and Conor in New York and took his
little boy to the circus, their first outing together. Afterwards, in
Lori's words, "Eric was so happy and said he wanted to look after
Conor, cook for him and wash him all by himself. He had finally
discovered what it meant to be a father."

The next day, just as he was getting ready to meet Lori and Conor,
Clapton received a horrifying message. Conor had died after falling
from a window of the building where he and Lori were staying. The
little boy was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen Church,
Ripley, Surrey, Clapton's home village. Devastated, he responded by
turning his grief into music. He wrote the beautiful Tears in Heaven,
a worldwide hit that was followed by the massively successful
Unplugged album and six Grammy Awards.

But if his career flourished as never before – by the mid-Nineties,
Clapton was earning £15 million a year – personal happiness eluded him
until 1999. He was in Los Angeles, working on an album with the blues
guitarist BB King, when he met a 23-year-old graphic artist, Melia
McEnery, at a party. Newly arrived from her family home in Ohio, Melia
– who has an Irish-Korean family background – had no idea who Clapton
was, a fact that delighted him.

The couple were married in January 2002, at St Mary Magdalen, Ripley.
Close friends and relations had been invited to the church to
celebrate the joint christening of Clapton's older daughter, Ruth, and
his new arrival Julie Rose. Only when that ceremony was finished did
the vicar announce, "We have two people here who want to get married."
It was a typically low-key gesture from a man who is famously averse
to publicity and self-promotion.

"My work requires that I be honest and write from direct personal
experience," he says. "It also requires that I maintain a private life
so I can reflect on those things. That would be impossible if I were
living a celebrity lifestyle."

When Clapton does venture out, he does so without an entourage. "It's
easy to walk down the street without being harassed. It's the way you
dress, the way you walk. If I try to make eye contact with people,
then they will look back and there may be a spark of recognition,
maybe not. But if I don't deliberately try to make eye contact, if I'm
looking in the windows or looking at the ground, no-one looks at me."

Of course, like any star, he doesn't want to go totally unrecognised.
"Sometimes people come up to you and share their reminiscences about
your music. That's fine and I'm used to it now, but the problem is
that I almost expect everyone to know my story. Then you bump into
someone who doesn't know who the hell you are! And that happens quite
a lot, especially when I meet younger people. Then my ego takes a
severe beating. But that's good too, you know."

This modesty is as English as Clapton's love of cricket. His entire
career has been inspired by a passion for American rock, blues and
soul and he enjoys enormous, enduring popularity on the far side of
the Atlantic. Although he has always lived in his home country, he's
now wondering whether he should move to the USA.

"I've given it a lot of thought. I have an American wife and she's had
to uproot herself to live in England, something I often take for
granted. But every now and then I think, 'My God, what must it be like
for her?' There's such a huge cultural difference. I think it might be
easier for me to live in America than it is for her to live in
England, funnily enough.

"Probably because I was influenced by American music, I feel at home
there. Some people actually think I'm American because I sing with an
American accent. I've had to sign autographs for people sometimes who
were surprised that I was English when they heard me speak. So it does
occur to me more and more that maybe I could move."

Meanwhile, he has another kind of journey to prepare – his forthcoming
world tour. Naturally, he'll spend weeks rehearsing with his band.
But, less predictably, he'll also be dousing his guitar-playing
fingers in witch hazel.

As Clapton explains, "If I have long stretches when I haven't played
much, I have to go through a whole callus-building process, which gets
really painful. I've checked with other guitar players and they never
have that problem. I think it's a metabolic thing. I develop these
calluses and I have to try to preserve them, so my left hand has to
stay out of contact with hot water. It's a nightmare."

Clapton seems calmer, more at ease with himself than ever before. He
usually performs within a musical genre – the blues – that values
experience and worldly wisdom more highly than callow youth. So what,
finally, does he regard as his greatest strength?

He laughs: "Phew, I don't know! I suppose my ability to examine
myself, to examine my motives, the fact that I know who I am now. And
the strength in that is that I'm OK with myself. I like myself enough
to just get on. Self- acceptance, that's it."


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