Eric Clapton walks alone into the light and sits down. Wearing a blue shirt and khaki pants, cradling an acoustic guitar, he starts picking Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" for a rapt crowd of 6,800 at the Forum in Copenhagen. The rhythm of Clapton's left foot, thumping the floor, is strong and clear. So is his voice. Two days short of his fifty-sixth birthday, Clapton sings Broonzy's travelin' blues, cut in 1941, with the leathery authority of one who has been on the road almost as long.
The next two hours are a soulful roll with his five-piece band through Clapton's own life story: "Tears in Heaven," "Bell Bottom Blues" and "Layla"; the autumnal pop of his new album, Reptile, dedicated to his late uncle, Adrian Clapton. Then at the end, after a gleaming "Sunshine of Your Love," Clapton sits down again with the acoustic guitar and plays an unexpected blues: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from The Wizard of Oz. Swinging slightly behind the beat, Clapton digs into the song with juke-joint force. But there is an exhausted melancholy in his performance too, the sound of a man nearing the end of his highway.
"It was born on holiday," Clapton says the next day in his kingly hotel suite, still wearing those khaki slacks, this time with a 1970s-vintage Stevie Wonder T-shirt. On a recent trip to the Caribbean, Clapton — who never travels anywhere without a guitar — learned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," purely "to test my musical intelligence." He kept fiddling with the tune in tour rehearsals: "The sound guys were going, 'What the fuck is this all about?' "
But the song, Clapton says, "insisted itself into the show." As a youngster in Ripley, England, a village in the Surrey countryside outside London, Clapton went to the cinema with his uncle, usually on Adrian's dates with his future wife, Eric's Aunt Sylvia. "I was their chaperon," Eric recalls. "We would see movies like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, High Society and Carousel. The music from that period was so powerful.
"As I get into my old age," he continues, "those songs are coming up. I may have to do another couple of albums to get these things out of my system — before I can lay down and rest." Clapton delivers that line with a laugh. But he means it. Clapton's current world tour, he says, is his last.
Now in his fourth decade of recording, Clapton enjoys a unique, continuing relevance. He is virtually alone among his classic-rock peers in terms of his work rate — Reptile is his fourth studio project in five years — and sales. Last year's Riding With the King, Clapton's record with longtime idol B.B. King, sold more than a million copies. Personally, Clapton declares, "I'm in a good space with my domestic life." He is expecting a child by his girlfriend of the last two years, Melia McEnery, a twenty-five-year-old graphic artist from Ohio.
Yet Clapton admits that as he was planning this tour, which began in England in February and ends on August 18th in Los Angeles, "I was musing that it might be the last time. Now I'm going, 'This is definitely the last time.' It's hard. It doesn't work for me anymore. I get indigestion. I get tired." He grins. "Just talking to you — I'll pay for this.
"I will leave the door open for a couple of projects, to play the odd theater," says the guitarist, who has two albums left in his Warner Bros. deal. "But I'd say this was near the end.
"Anyone I talk to about it goes, 'Oh, you'll never stop.' I won't, in truth. I will always want to express something. But," he insists, "I don't need to do it like this anymore."
It's been ten years I've been doing this with Eric," says Clapton's rhythm guitarist, Andy Fairweather-Low, over coffee before showtime. "And I still haven't figured out why when he goes" — he makes a screaming-guitar sound — "it has that effect on you.
"I have one bit tonight that I do — I'll mull over what I'm going to do when it's my turn," says Fairweather-Low, a buoyant Welshman who sang with the 1960s group Amen Corner and made several fine solo LPs in the 1970s. "But Eric doesn't even think. Jump on him at any time, say 'Go!' and he'll take you to another level. Then if you say 'Once more,' he'll take you even higher.
"Jump on me," Fairweather-Low adds, "I'll freeze."
At the Forum with Fairweather-Low, bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd, keysman David Sancious and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, Clapton plays with compact fire. In the 1970s, he could roll out diamond riffs for a quarter hour in a single blues like T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday." But tonight's high points include the precise shiver of Clapton's break in "River of Tears," from the 1998 album Pilgrim, and his gabba-gabba burst of wah-wah in the Reptile cover of J.J. Cale's "Travelin' Light." "I can't play long solos anymore without boring myself," Clapton contends. "I think it's important to say something powerful and keep it economical. That wasn't available to me as a younger player. I was motivated by ego. If I thought I was doing something good, I would do it all night."
Backstage, Clapton is a man without any visible superstar pretensions. In the band lounge, he greets visitors warmly, fixes his own cappuccino and tries to coax band mates and crew members into table-soccer matches. (It's a tough sell; Clapton is an ace player.) The owlish spectacles he wears offstage, combined with his close-cropped hair and grayish beard, lend him a professorial air. But it suits his encyclopedic passion for music. During the opening set by guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and his band, Smokestack, Clapton cocks an ear at a quote in one of Bramhall's solos. " 'Stone Free,' " Clapton says quickly, referring to the Jimi Hendrix song.
Clapton is "definitely a fan of music," says the Texas-born Bramhall, who contributed songs and guitar to Reptile and Riding With the King. "I grew up playing the blues. I know some obscure artists. I thought I would hip him to some: Louisiana stuff like Lightnin' Slim." Bramhall laughs at his audacity. Clapton "knew all about them: the artists, the other people who played on the records, the producers."
Clapton talks of his own career with a directness that reflects years of acute study. Asked whether there is any misconception about him as a musician that he would like to clear up before he retires, he simply says, "That I'm any good, really." Even in front of the most adoring audience, he goes on, "I'm just trying my best to sing in tune. I'm focusing with all my might to get the next note on the money."
But Clapton is not embarrassed by acclaim. "It was great support," he says of the legendary graffiti, "Clapton Is God," that appeared in London during his 1965-66 tenure with bluesman John Mayall. "It was instrumental in giving me the confidence to push forward. When I left the Yardbirds, then John Mayall and Cream, these were all scary decisions to make. I could have stayed and cleaned up. But I used that support to say, 'I must be doing the right thing.' "
Clapton is fearless about assessing his earliest successes, how the immediate superstar dom that came in the 1960s with Cream and Blind Faith both fed and masked his emotional insecurities. "I was so disappointed," he says of listening to the disc of unreleased jams that came with the recent reissue of the Blind Faith album. "At the time, I thought these were magnificent things we were doing, just jamming away. But I was a kid. The only personality I had was within my fingers. I could play it, but I couldn't say it. When we didn't have a song, I'd just think, 'Let's get stoned.' Which we did when we didn't know what we were doing."
Clapton looks back on his records from the mid-1970s — after his recovery from heroin addiction and as he sank into a drinking problem that lasted into the mid-1980s — with the same honesty. "My attitude was anti-guitar playing, and I thought I was doing the absolute right thing," he says. "A lot of it was wrapped up in my alcoholism. There was a denial in the way I was approaching those records: One in Every Crowd, Another Ticket, Backless. I got a lot of flak, and I wouldn't listen.
"Since I got sober, I've just been trying to develop ..." – Clapton pauses, searching for the right phrase – "a career with dignity, records where I can say, 'I finished it, it's complete.' Whether or not it's up to the standard of the current thing, it's complete."
Eric Clapton was born on March 30th, 1945. His mother, Pat, was sixteen and unmarried; she left Eric in the care of her mother, Rose, and Rose's second husband, Jack, who raised Eric in Ripley. Pat later married a Canadian serviceman and had three more children, a boy and two girls. Clapton is still not certain who his own father was: "My father, I think, was Canadian," he says. "I'm not 100 percent sure." But in Pat's brother Adrian, Eric found a valuable paternal influence, one he celebrates in conversation as well as on Reptile.
The album title, Eric explains, is local Ripley slang, "a put-down, but only in a way that you would say to someone you really like." To Eric, Adrian was indeed a reptile, an endearing rogue who taught him much about the world.
"He was a rebel, a local James Dean," Eric says. An old photo in the Reptile CD booklet — a handsome, raffish Adrian with Sylvia at a British seaside resort — confirms Eric's description. Adrian was an engineer for a motor company. He was also an atheist and a science-fiction enthusiast ("He had all of the early Kurt Vonnegut books," Clapton notes). Adrian played the chromatic harmonica and introduced Eric to jazz and the swing music of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. "I started getting to the blues from other people," Eric says. But "hearing that dance-band stuff — messages were coming through."
At fifteen, Clapton got his first guitar; by eighteen, he had dropped out of Kingston College of Art and was in the Yardbirds. Over time, the bond between uncle and nephew "got lost," in Clapton's words. When the guitarist stopped drinking, he broke off nearly all contact with Adrian. Eric deeply regrets that now.
"When I got sober," he says, "I had to reevaluate all of the old people, places and things, see how dangerous they are to staying sober. My mother and uncle were big boozers. I deliberately removed myself. I became very anti-social and hardly spoke to him at all. For the last ten years of his life, I was not there." Adrian died in the spring of last year.
Reptile did not start out as a memorial to Adrian. Clapton set a date to start recording, showed up, then realized, as he puts it, "that I didn't have an idea what I was there for." He took a break to visit his half sisters, who live in Canada, and spent a lot of time with them talking about Adrian: "I went, 'Of course, that's what's going on in me, and I'm not attending to it.' " Clapton had already been working on a country-blues shuffle, "Find Myself." "The chorus didn't make any sense," he says, "until I wrote the verses about my experiences with my uncle and the way I felt about him. I had the musicians, I had the studio time. Then I got the message: 'I need to sing about this area of my life.' "
Nightly, onstage, Clapton revisits specific, painful chapters of his past: in "Bell Bottom Blues" and "Layla," his desperate and, at the time, unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, ex-Beatle George Harrison's then-wife, whom Clapton eventually married in 1979; in "Tears in Heaven," the 1991 death of his first son, Conor, in a fall from a high-rise apartment window in New York. Clapton accepts that these songs are hits, that he is obligated to play them at every show. But it has not been easy.
He remembers going on tour in 1992, after "Tears in Heaven" went to Number Two. "I'd walk out, start playing that, and the applause ... they would drown me out," he says. "I would get furious. Afterward, offstage, I would be inconsolable. I was feeling vulnerable and exposed — and they'd be chanting and yelling and whistling. I was raw and not able to make sense of it.
"I don't go back to that specific event when I perform the song now. I honor the way I was, try to reflect on it and do a good performance. It isn't difficult now. It's good fun."
Clapton made Reptile with the same intention. Much of the record is given over to pure pleasure: covers of "Come Back Baby" by Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder's "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It," in which Clapton admits, with a wink, that he is "honoring my own taste."
But Reptile commemorates the individualism Adrian passed on to his nephew. "That's why I had such a great love for him: You could not bat him off course," Eric says. After Adrian died, Eric learned that his uncle never begrudged Eric for being out of touch.
Adrian "never tried to contact me or ask for anything," Eric says. "And from what I've gathered, he wouldn't hear a word spoken about me in criticism. People would say, 'How come Eric hasn't been around to see you?' He'd say, 'Well, that's his business.' He'd stop 'em short. A wonderful man."
In the band lounge at the forum, after his second Copenhagen show, Clapton is talking about retirement again. "I've been retiring since I was seventeen," he exclaims cheerfully. "It was imminent. When I left the Yardbirds in 1965, it was over!
"I think I've always been looking for the journey to end," he adds with more seriousness. "My life in music is eternal. But the notion of trying to fit into an industry that I no longer have any admiration for ..." His voice trails off, not in disgust or weariness but sadness.
Clapton already knows what he wants to do on his last two Warner Bros. records. One will be a collaboration with the Impressions, who contributed backing vocals to Reptile. The other will be "soulful rock blues, like an old Tony Joe White record."
And he is clearly thinking about the end of the road. Asked what he would like to play as the final encore of his last-ever show, Clapton recoils in mock horror. "God!" he exclaims. "What a leading question." He has an idea, though. "There's a great song that I discovered on a Nat 'King' Cole trio album that I'm going to learn, 'For All We Know.'
"The first verse goes, 'For all we know/We may never meet again.' I know this from the mortalities that have happened in my life. The real shock was my son. What I learned from that was that every moment is precious. Either one of us could walk out of this room, and I would never see you again, for one reason or another. We have to get the max out of every moment. So me doing a tour — it really is a good idea to think about it as, 'You and I may not do this again.'
"People think it's a drama-queen attitude," he says. "It's a reality check. This is probably the last time, guys. So I'm going to try and give it my best shot.
"And I hope you can make it."