The idea for this essay came to me when I happened upon the documentary “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars” on Showtime. Then last week a friend took me to Costco which reminded me that I saved this idea in my drafts folder – involving both. I bet you’re wondering how I’ll manage to get Clapton and Costco to intersect. I’m wondering that myself.
I re-watched the documentary last night. The first time I watched it I remember being engrossed in the story of this remarkable musician; at the same time, I felt annoyed and aggrieved, and totally overwhelmed by the gravitas of this man. I had to stop watching and it took three more attempts to finish it. Not because it wasn’t good, it was, but the level of intensity was more than I could handle in 135 minutes.
Forgive me if I am recapping what many people may already know, but most of this was new to me. Clapton’s life story is compelling and his childhood was deeply wounding. His talent emerged early; by 17 he was already part of the music scene in Britain, hanging out with members of emergent bands like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, et al. What a Renaissance! This quiet skinny kid who could play the guitar was right in the eye of the hurricane. On first viewing I thought, yes terrible childhood but he had so much too. I thought of Frank McCourt’s line from the first page of Angela’s Ashes, “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”
Clapton’s anguish was mother-related (what else?), his grandmother and aunt had a hand as well, so trust issues abound as well as a confused idea of women. The woman who he thought was his sister was, in fact, his mother who after giving birth leaves for Canada and starts a new family. Abandonment, rejection, cruelty: it’s all there. From stills and home movies one can see how this betrayal impacted the unsmiling little boy.
I was puzzled by my conflicting impressions of Clapton’s story. Let’s fast forward through the meteoric rise and get to the part, where upon first viewing, was where I had to stop. Perhaps this is Clapton’s story arc as they say in Hollywood: falling in love with Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife and Clapton’s best friend. Bit sticky. Clapton’s obsession with her bore out some of his greatest work. The song “Layla” took inspiration from a Persian tale that Clapton had read, involving Prince Majnun who loves, unsuccessfully, a beautiful girl – Layla. It all ends in tears with Majnun in the desert giving his soul up to Allah and dying alone. The album — which includes the song “Bell Bottom Blues” also about Pattie — is momentous.
While I’m watching this part, the first time, I’m thinking, “there are girls stupid enough to think this is so romantic: this man is writing songs about how much he loves her and how lucky she was….” Boyd appears to have a fairly qualified reaction to this in the documentary. She seems like a nice enough person and someone who let two men push her around. I thought, you know after a week of this guy it’s got to get old, or completely exhausting. How can anyone live up to the ideal he has in his mind? It’s impossible. The pressure alone would kill you. And when they finally “do it,” forget fireworks and waves crashing on the cliffs – nothing less than a supernova – the death of a star – will do.
It wasn’t lost on me that even in all this pain the men have all the fun and all the talent. Apparently, Boyd was a famous model in the ranks of Jean Shrimpton, whom I have heard of, but not Boyd. That’s all very nice but it’s not nearly as good as being in a legendary rock band. So, you’re an ornament, an ideal, the long-suffering wife of the unfaithful George, and the other rock star down the road, literally, is writing you love letters.
Where does Costco come in? Well, I was thinking that as an affair this could work for a short while, but long term, and Boyd and Clapton did get married, how can this sustain itself? The mundane tasks that need doing, or delegating, they kill the perfect picture. I don’t know why I thought of Costco, maybe because I have an allergic reaction to the place, so the question came to mind, how do you go to Costco with Eric Clapton? Every little thing, every moment, has to be so laden with meaning, so pregnant with profundity, so fraught with significance – what happens? Does everyone’s head explode?
While I was at Costco last week, which gave me nightmares, they had on display an entire living room and entertainment center, all appointed as if a family could just walk in and occupy it. I thought, unkindly, that Clapton could buy a new birth family, equipped with a proper mother, and all would be well. Or would it – the prevailing theory is art is born from pain.
And, more pain is waiting. Boyd and Clapton marry, during the depths of his severe alcoholism, and inevitably it doesn’t work out. There’s a long period of isolation and affairs which bore one daughter and one son, Conor. The tragic death of his 4-year-old son is horrifying. Clapton was in New York staying at a friend’s apartment and Conor falls from an open window. I then remembered that my sister’s friend, who was at school in New York at the time, told us that she was walking home up Lexington Avenue near The Armory and she sees a man running madly towards and past her. In the flash of him she realizes that he’s Eric Clapton, and not until she was home and saw the news, that she put it together.
Through Clapton’s grief he creates an album that is a tribute to Conor. All acoustic, it wins six Grammys. More creating, more successful collaborations, awards and honors – they are legion. In an early interview in the documentary, Clapton claims he doesn’t think he will live long. He’s outlived many/most of his friends and peers: Harrison, Hendrix, Duane Allman, B.B. King…
Quite a journey and in some ways a happy-ish ending for a man who, I am sure, does not believe in them. In 2001 he marries his current wife and now has three teenage girls. At 73 he is outnumbered by four women. I wonder if fate has lent a hand here. Without exception, all the fathers of houses of girls whom I have known, especially during their teenage years, just try to get through the day without having a heart attack. Maybe Clapton in his older age can see women for who they are – perhaps still mystifying but definitely human.
Christ, I’m at 1100+ words and I’m getting annoyed again. This guy is still in my head. I’m sick of this whole subject and am returning to my initial mean-spirited feeling which was: wake up and realize how fortunate you are! You have it all! There are millions of people who have it so unspeakably worse, and nothing good happens, or if it does it’s not of this Olympian magnitude. What a lucky man you are.
And ladies, get your own rock band, career, something – don’t just sit in attendance and/or nursemaid these talented men. You know all those romantic songs about “their lady loves?” Well, they are more about them than you. Get over yourself, move on and get a life! Cautionary coda: Google Pattie Boyd now, take a look at her website and attending articles. At 73 she’s living in the past and swiftly approaching an eerie imitation of Miss Havisham.
After all this hammering at the computer I wonder why I ever did this. Life is hard and it’s wonderful and for all the horrendous shit you go through – if you like yourself now, then it was all absolutely necessary.
So, Mr. Clapton, I bid you adieu. Try to be happy, be a good parent and give generously.
PS I never want to talk or write about this ever again!