When it comes to musical genres, bandmates, relationships with women and even his place in the rock universe, Clapton has always been driven by an unquenchable thirst for genuine satisfaction, Philip Norman contends in “Slowhand.” It’s a comprehensive and often illuminating account of the life and career of a musician who has had an outsize influence on generations of guitarists.
Norman, a former journalist best known for his 2,000-plus pages of Beatles biographies, opens with a scene at a lunch spot near the English city of Leeds in December 1969. Surrounded by young female fans, George Harrison introduces his pal Clapton as “the world’s greatest white guitarist . . . Bert Weedon,” the author of a popular guitar tutorial. It’s a rare moment of comic relief in a 419-page tome that’s mostly as sober as its subject is not.
The sequence takes place not long after the dissolution of Cream, whose brilliant but brief run yielded sales of more 15 million albums, the third of which, the half-studio, half-live “Wheels of Fire,” topped the U.S. charts and made history as the first double album to go platinum.
That breakup was characteristic of Clapton’s musical wanderings: Nearly every time he joined or started a band, his dissatisfaction or straight-up curiosity about exploring new musical terrain led him to bolt just when the group hit its artistic and/or commercial stride.
Cream, credited with setting the stage for heavy metal, split when Clapton tired of Baker and Bruce’s relentless feuding. The two constantly clashed, and their apparent mutual aggression pact translated into onstage enmity, Norman writes. “In live performance, their individual isolation and apathy were painfully obvious even to the myopically devoted Cream fans.” Ongoing struggles — old grudges, management machinations, musical conflicts between blues devotee Clapton and his jazz-informed rhythm section — doomed the group responsible for “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and other combustible power-trio gems.
Clapton made his name with an 18-month stint in the Yardbirds, whose version of the blues chestnut “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” featured the first truly distinctive Clapton solo. Disappointed by the group’s shift toward pop, he exited about the time “For Your Love” became its first charting U.S. single. His successors in the group included two other artists who would later become rivals for the crown of top British Invasion guitarist — Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
True to form, Clapton joined British blues godfather John Mayall’s band in April 1965 and left a little more than a year later, before the release of Mayall’s “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton,” which became that group’s biggest commercial success; the seminal release, also known as the Beano Album, featured Clapton’s first recorded lead vocal, a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind.” After Cream, the supergroup Blind Faith unofficially began when drummer Baker barged his way into Clapton’s jam session with Spencer Davis Group singer-organist Steve Winwood. The band, with bassist Rick Grech, made its live debut in June 1969 with a free concert that drew 120,000 to London’s Hyde Park. Four months, one big-selling album and an arena tour later, the band broke up, in part because of public pressure to play music by the members’ former groups.
Drawing from his extensive interviews with an array of Clapton’s former music industry associates, family members and ex-wife Pattie Boyd, along with Clapton’s diaries and 2008 autobiography, Norman takes readers on a whirlwind tour of Clapton’s long career. Notably, the author didn’t interview Clapton for the book.
A stint with the rootsy folk-blues group Delaney and Bonnie and Friends was followed by Clapton’s self-titled 1970 solo debut, featuring J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight.” A musically exhilarating collaboration with Allman Brothers slide-guitar genius Duane Allman resulted in the double album “Layla and Other Love Songs,” and the two became fast friends. “He was like the musical brother I never had, but wished I did,” Clapton said. His chart-busting solo singles have included “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Lay Down Sally” and “Change the World.”
By law, rock star biographies must focus on wine and women, along with song. So Norman dutifully details Clapton’s prodigious intake of heroin, cocaine, pills and alcohol. Clapton finally committed to sobriety in 1987. The author spends much time, too, on Clapton’s various infidelities and his wooing of Harrison’s wife, former model Boyd, who inspired the Beatles’ “Something” and Clapton’s “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight.” The ne w couple’s marriage was rocky: “The obsession he had nurtured at a distance for five years began to ebb away the moment he won her,” Norman writes. After that nine-year marriage, Clapton settled into a more stable family life in 2002 when he wed Melia McEnery; they have three daughters.
The book’s darkest passage arrives with the loss of son Conor, 4, who fell from a window of the 53rd-floor Manhattan apartment where he was staying with his mother, Lory del Santo, in 1991. “Tears in Heaven,” written for Conor, became Clapton’s second-biggest single, and “Unplugged,” the album on which it appeared, sold 26 million copies, setting a record for live albums.
Norman’s analysis of Clapton’s music, while often insightful, sometimes veers into unfiltered adulation, as when he contends that the guitarist’s mastery of his instrument “can touch on the sublime as if it comes from somewhere outside his so ordinary-seeming self.”
Exhaustive as it is, “Slowhand” might have delved more deeply into why Clapton’s music has resonated so strongly with the public for so long, and how other rock and blues guitarists now view the playing of the man frequently called one of the greatest six-string slingers of all time. “Clapton is God,” according to graffiti famously scribbled on walls around central London in 1965. Do we still hear the spark of the divine?
The Life and Music of Eric Clapton
Little, Brown. 419 pp. $30