Eric Clapton has long been considered one of rock’s best guitarists. On its 2015 list of the 100 greatest of all time, Rolling Stone ranked him second, behind only Jimi Hendrix. Writing for the magazine, fellow rock star Eddie Van Halen called Clapton “basically the only guitar player who influenced me” and added that he considers Clapton’s style “the core of modern rock guitar.” Known for blues licks and emotional, melodic solos, Clapton’s career is unprecedented — he holds 17 Grammy Awards and is the only musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times.
That career also might be coming to an end.
In an interview with Classic Rock Magazine, the 71-year-old musician revealed that he was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in 2013 and that playing guitar, which once came so easy to him, is now “hard work.”
In a 2014 interview with Uncut magazine, the rock guitarist had said he was “looking at retirement” and that touring had become “unbearable,” Rolling Stone reported. In that same interview, he hinted at his condition — when asked if he would stop playing guitar, he said, “Maybe. It might be that I can’t, if it hurts too much. I have odd ailments.” — but this weekend’s interview is the first time he’s named it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, peripheral neuropathy refers to damage in one’s peripheral nerves and often results in stabbing, burning or tingling pain in the arms and legs. For Clapton, the pain came in the form of “electric shocks.”
The symptoms often “appear suddenly, progress rapidly, and resolve slowly,” according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which also noted that it can be debilitating but is seldom fatal.
“I’ve had quite a lot of pain over the last year,” Clapton told Classic Rock Magazine. “It started with lower back pain and turned into what they call peripheral neuropathy, which is where you feel like you have electric shocks going down your leg. And I’ve had to figure out how to deal with some other things from getting old.”
Treatments mostly focus on pain management and include pain relievers, anti-seizure medications and various therapies. Some patients are able to manage their pain, but some live with it for life.
“One thing I had to realize was that this particular condition I’m living with isn’t necessarily going to get better,” Clapton said. “Like sometimes things do – you might catch something, and it will get better. Not this.”
Still, he seemed to be in high spirits in the interview, saying he’s simply happy to be alive and healthy. One of the possible causes of peripheral neuropathy is alcoholism, according to the Mayo Clinic, and Clapton is a recovering heroin addict — which likely also bars him from being prescribed many effective pain killers — and alcoholic. In 1998, after going through rehab himself, he founded the Crossroads Centre rehabilitation clinic in Antigua, Rolling Stone reported.
“Because I’m in recovery from alcoholism and addiction to substances, I consider it a great thing to be alive at all,” he said. “By rights I should have kicked the bucket a long time ago. For some reason I was plucked from the jaws of hell and given another chance.”
In the interview, he expounded on just how close to death he came, citing a particular instance in the 1970s when he was rushed to a hospital on his deathbed:
I don’t know how I survived, the seventies especially. There was one point there where they were flying me to hospital in St. Paul [Minnesota] and I was dying, apparently – I had three ulcers and one of them was bleeding. I was drinking three bottles of brandy and taking handfuls of codeine and I was close to checking out. And I don’t even remember. It’s amazing that I’m still here, really.
The news comes on the heels of the release of Clapton’s 23rd studio album, titled “I Still Do,” which was released on May 20. He did not mention if he plans to release more music, though he said he still loves playing guitar, difficult as it is.
Clapton isn’t the first rock guitarist who struggled to play his instrument of choice in later years. According to the Guardian, 75-year-old Bob Dylan has trouble playing guitar onstage due to arthritis, so he mostly sticks to piano. And, shortly before his death, 89-year-old B.B. King was diagnosed with dehydration and exhaustion, which caused him to cancel several remaining shows.