Nineteen ninety-one was supposed to have been a holiday for Eric Clapton. After spending the better part of the past two years on the road, playing everywhere from Africa and South America to the United States and Europe, Clapton was ready for a rest. More important, though, he was going to spend some much-needed quality time with his son, Conor.
That all changed on March 20th, when the four-and-a-half-year-old boy fell to his death from the fifty-third floor of the Manhattan apartment where he lived with his mother, the Italian actress Lori Del Santo. Clapton was in New York at the time of the accident, but he retreated shortly thereafter to his home outside London, where he remained in virtual isolation. Toward the middle of the summer, however, he began venturing back into the public eye. He was photographed with Tatum O’Neal, taking in John McEnroe’s match at Wimbledon. The tabloids have also kept a running tab on his alleged liaisons, most recently linking him with Cher. “It’s very funny,” Clapton said, when a copy of the paper was spotted in a wastebasket during the course of this interview. “In the English papers, it said, ‘Cher finds her bel ami,’ or something. I mean, we had dinner! I had read an interview in England where she said she liked listening to my music, and I’d seen her on TV, and she seemed like a very settled, coherent lady. So we had dinner. And that was it.
“But I think these journalists probably feel sorry for me,” he continued. “They’re trying to marry me off. If they see me with a girl, they think, ‘Ah, Eric finds happiness.’ There’s a side of it that is very sweet. And I kind of feel touched by it, because I’m not really sure that I’m looking for comfort or a steady relationship. I just like the company of beautiful women. I have a weakness in that department. And I suppose because I am fairly well off and a famous musician, I’m up for grabs. And that makes me an eligible bachelor in the press.”
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Sitting in the same hotel where he’d been when he heard the news of his son’s death, Clapton chain-smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee as he talked publicly for the first time about the tragedy. Dressed in a green polo shirt and jeans, he seemed healthy and relaxed; he answered every question without hesitation.
The interview came at a time when Clapton was resuming his musical career with a flurry of projects. A few days earlier, it had been announced that he and his longtime friend George Harrison would be undertaking a joint tour starting this December in Japan. The tour would mark the first time the former Beatle had been on the road since a nightmarish solo jaunt in 1974.
In addition, Clapton is due to release a new live album, 24 Nights, this month. The two-CD set, produced by Russ Titelman, was culled from his 1990 and 1991 performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall Since 1987, Clapton’s multiple-night stands at the hall have become annual events, with the guitarist fronting a variety of musical ensembles. The tracks on 24 Nights feature his regular band (keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, bassist Nathan East and drummer Steve Ferrone), an expanded group with backup singers, a star-studded cast of bluesmen and London’s National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Michael Kamen. (Though not included on the live album, this year’s Albert Hall shows featured performances of Kamen’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra. A studio version of that work, featuring Clapton on guitar, is expected next spring.)
Finally, Clapton has been writing the music for Rush, the film version of the Kim Wozencraft book about a female vice officer who becomes involved with drugs. The movie, which was directed by Lili Zanuck and stars Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is due this Christmas. “I saw the film and was impressed by the low-key documentary style of it, especially seeing as it came from Hollywood,” Clapton said. “I thought it would be a good thing for me to come back with.”
Clapton admitted that because of his own history of drug addiction, he related to the movie’s plot. “I was very concerned with the drug aspect of the movie,” he said, “that it be authentically depicted and not done in any romantic sort of way. I mean, it’s pretty grim, and I think that’s essential.”
Though Clapton has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the past four years, he did admit to one new addiction: Nintendo. Sitting on one of the end tables in his hotel room were two hand-held Nintendo Game Boys. “I’ve been playing for about two years,” he said, as he prepared to demonstrate his skills at the game Tetris. “It’s very therapeutic.”
Let’s start with the George Harrison tour. How did that come about?
George and I have been friends for a great long time, and we’ve always seemed to be around when one of us needed the other one. And when I was on tour last year, especially in the Third World and South America and places like that, people kept asking me about George, about how he was and what he was doing. And when I got back to England, I reported all this to George, and we started talking, on a very lighthearted level, about going out on the road. And then, when I looked at my schedule for this year, I saw that I was deliberately not planning to work very much, but I had all this stuff standing by, like lights and sound, and the best band in the world. And I thought, “Well, why not?” And I put it to George that he go out with us. All he’s got to do, essentially, is walk out on the stage and strum an acoustic guitar, and we’ll do everything else. Nothing for him to worry about. And I put it to him, and he was delighted and scared at the same time – really scared to death. Because it’s been a long time, I mean fifteen years or so, since his last American tour.
Which he didn’t like very much.
He had an awful time. I think he lost his voice on day one, and there was a lot of dope and drink and all kinds of mad stuff going on, which didn’t help him to recover his voice. But I think everything is different now, and I think it will be great. But he changed his mind about five different times, saying he’d do it. and then he wouldn’t do it It was almost definitely off, and at the last minute he changed his mind, so now it’s back on again.
Why are you starting in Japan?
On the practical level, it’s the most efficient country in the world for putting on shows. And somehow it’s a bit out of the way, so that he can go onstage and get over his stage fright without being right in the international spotlight. I think if he came to the U.S. and he saw one bad review, he’d go straight home.
What’s the nature of the show? Is it a George Harrison show or a George Harrison-Eric Clapton show?
It’s George Harrison. I’ll probably do two or three numbers and then just step back, and we’ll do everything from, say, “Taxman” up to the present. I think it would be great to do some of those old Beatles songs, like “If I Needed Someone.”
You and George go back a long way. Tell me about your relationship.
We jostle a lot. It’s a very jostling relationship. He’s about a year or two older than me, and because he was there first, there’s a bit of swagger that never goes away. I love him very dearly, and I know he loves me, but it’s like we’re always testing each other. At the same time, there’s this total support. He’s like my older brother, really. When I’m around him, I always feel like I’ve got to do a bit better than I normally would.
Do you remember when you first met him?
I was in the Yardbirds, and we were playing a thing called the Beatles Christmas Show at the Hammersmith Odeon, in London. The Yardbirds were on the bottom of the bill, but all of the acts in between the Yardbirds and the Beatles were sort of music-hall, English rock & roll groups. And the Yardbirds were an R&B band, or even a blues band. And so there was a bit of, like, What’s this all about? He was checking me out, and I was checking him out to see if he was a real guitar player. And I realized that he was. But we come from different sides of the tracks. I grew up loving black music, and he grew up with the Chet Atkins-Carl Perkins side of things – blues versus rockabilly. That rockabilly style always attracted me, but I never wanted to take it up. And I think it’s the same for him. The blues scene attracts him, but it evades him somehow. He’s much more comfortable with the finger-picking style of guitar.
What about the period when you were in love with his wife, Pattie Boyd, who eventually left him and married you? Didn’t that put a strain on your relationship with George?
Unbelievable. And it’s still there. It has something to do with the way we wind each other up. I mean, there’s always a little barbed comment somewhere in any conversation. I mean, that devastated all three of us. It was fun at the time. It really was like one of those movies where you see wife swapping – Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. And everyone was saying: “Oh, it doesn’t matter. We can write our own story on this.” Because those were the times.
But it took years, and it’ll never go away, the way it affected our lives. We’re still very much the same in the way we think about and feel about each other. Pattie is still there in the picture for all of us.
Was there a period when you and George didn’t talk?
No, not really. We always talked. Some of it was very LSD-type conversation and very esoteric, sort of cosmo-speak, especially from George. And he would show up from time to time, when Pattie and I were living together. He came around once, and it was all very trippy. It got quite hostile at times, but we always cared for one another.
I’ll probably get my knuckles rapped for talking about all this. I’ll go home, and I’ll see George, and he’ll go, “Oh, running off at the mouth again.” But I find it very hard not to talk about it, because it’s a part of my life.
So will you be playing “Layla” on the tour?
Yeah. [Laughs] That’s always been a bone of contention. Every time I play it and he’s in the audience, I’ve always wondered what the hell goes through his mind. But I don’t know, we could play it. We’ve got a sense of humor about it.
You and Pattie divorced in 1989. Are you still friendly?
Very much, yeah. I don’t think I’ve had a relationship that has ended with any sour effects. I’m very lucky in that the people I’ve loved still love me and I still love them. I think most people will find that even if they’ve broken up under the worst circumstances, the things that draw you to another person will always remain, and the bad stuff just seems to dissipate. ‘Cause what else have we got, you know, if we haven’t got one another on this earth?
Did the events of the last year play a role in your decision to go out on the road?
Actually, I went the other way, for a bit. After my son was killed…it’s funny, but I didn’t really feel anything. I went blank. As Lori has observed, I just turned to stone, and I wanted to get away from everybody. The Italian side of the family…well, Italians are very dramatic, and it was all out in the open, this wailing and gnashing of teeth. But for me, from the way I was raised and being English, well, we go inside ourselves and keep a stiff upper lip. We pretend that we’re okay, and we take care of business. But inside it’s a different story.
At first I was going to do nothing. I had planned to just stay at home and reflect. That was my way of putting it, but I think it was actually wallowing. But then, after a while, I was scared that I wasn’t suffering enough, and I had to go into analysis to sort that out a bit.
Given your history with drugs and alcohol, were you ever tempted to go back to that? Never once, no. I’ve been in a program of recovery for nearly four years, and that helped me tremendously. It was somewhere for me to go and talk about it. I may well have gone back to something or other if it hadn’t been for that.
I mean, there’s no way to prepare for what happened. After it happened, I got letters and letters from people who’d suffered a similar situation. And they all said the same thing; they all said you won’t believe it for quite a long time. But if you let nature take its course, the pain will go away. You will never forget any of this, but the pain will get better. But you have to go through the suffering. You can’t anesthetize it in any way.
Do you remember what you thought when you first heard what happened?
Well, the same as I do now; I didn’t believe it. I mean, I was here in this hotel when it happened, only about ten blocks down the road. And the phone rang and I picked it up and Lori was on the other end, and she was hysterical. She said that Conor was dead. And I thought, “Well, this is ridiculous. Don’t be silly.” I said, “Are you sure?” I mean, what a silly question: “Are you sure?” And then I just went off the edge of the world for a while. I ran down there, and I saw paramedic equipment everywhere, and ambulances and police cars. And I thought, “This is true.” And then somehow I went into another mode. I took charge. And then right after that I started going to a lot of AA meetings and talking about it. And it’s helped.
Were there any people who were particularly supportive?
Funnily enough, the first person I heard from was Keith Richards. He wrote me a fantastic letter, and I called him right away. He just said, “Well, I’m here, you know, if there’s anything I can do…. “
And Phil Collins. I heard from a lot of people who I don’t see much of, but who are my closest friends.
What did you think of the media coverage?
I try to look at it in a positive way. I mean, for such a small young man, he had this incredible impact. He was famous overnight. I mean, I got letters from the Kennedys and Prince Charles about my son. It blew me away.
When we buried him, there was a wall of reporters and photographers right there in the church. And it was beyond me to react to that. A lot of other people were very upset and insulted by the lack of respect. But it didn’t impinge on my own grief in any way.
Given your own childhood, which I know was difficult and has had a big impact on your life, I would assume that you wanted it to be different for your own son.
Yeah. It was a big challenge for me to try to put my life in order so I could make my son’s life more settled. And it was getting to the point – before he died – where we could really look at raising my son in some kind of balanced way.
Did you actually live together as a family?
We tried it a couple of times, but I think my inability to settle down – which is something I’m still working on – prevented that from ever happening. It seems to be almost impossible for me to find myself in a relationship without wanting to get away at some point, wanting to run away and go and be a little boy again and play the guitar and misbehave. I don’t know whether I’ll ever grow up, but I mean, it seems to be my goal now, to try to grow up gradually without losing the things that I enjoy in my life.
Are you and Conor’s mother still close?
Very much so. And I’m happy to say that she is pregnant again, in her new relationship. And I think that will do more than anything to help restore her to good health and prosperity. ‘Cause she was very close to my son. She adored him. She was a great mother.
You’ve also had to deal with the death of another person who was close to you – Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash following a show you did together. How did you react to that tragedy?
Much in the same way as I did to my son’s. I mean, there were more people involved, and the death of my son was a directly personal situation.
Your agent, Bobby Brooks, also died in the crash.
Yeah, Bobby was a tremendous guy, a very funny man. He was in the helicopter with Stevie Ray, as were Nigel Browne and Colin Smythe of my crew. There was a convoy of helicopters, about five of them, and they had to go back through this very thick fog up to about 100 feet above the ground. And once we came out of that, we just took off for Chicago. And when I got back, I went straight to bed. And I was woken about seven in the morning by my manager, Roger Forrester, saying that the helicopter with Stevie Ray and our chaps hadn’t come back. And then a bit later, someone discovered the wreckage. That was it.
I had a meeting with all the bands and the managers. And all the crew had gone on to the next show, so we got them on the phone, and we tried to come up with a unanimous decision about whether we should go home or whether we should go on. And the vote came out, after hours of discussion, that we should go on. It was clearly felt that if we packed up and went home, the whole thing would just be unbearable. So we went to…I think it was St. Louis, or somewhere in the Midwest, and we were almost in shock. I could hardly remember any of the words. I don’t know how we got through it. But it was the best tribute I thought that we could make – to carry on and let everybody who was coming to see us know that it was in honor of their memory.
The worst thing for me was that Stevie Ray had been sober for three years and was at his peak. When he played that night, he had all of us standing mere with our jaws dropped. I mean, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan and Buddy Guy were just watching in awe. There was no one better than him on this planet. Really unbelievable.
It really does make you wonder – the whole karma of it.
Yes. Yes. Well, there’s just no way to make any sense of it.
Over the course of your life, you’ve had to deal with what seems like an extraordinary number of tragedies. Do you ever wonder, “Why me?”
I wonder, “Why me? Why have I survived?” I have to look at that as the positive. I have survived these things, and therefore I’ve got some kind of responsibility to remain positively creative and not dwell on the misfortune of it.
A few years ago, in an interview with Musician magazine, you said, “Every day I find something I’m going to suffer about.” Do you still think that way?
I think I’ve moved on a bit since then. I try to look on every day now as being a bonus, really. And I try to make the most of it. I don’t think I’m negative like that anymore. I seem to have come full circle. I mean, the death of my son, the death of Stevie Ray, taught me that life is very fragile, and that if you are given another twenty-four hours, it’s a blessing. That’s the best way to look at it.
Let’s talk about your new album, 24 Nights.
Yeah, well, we recorded my shows at the Albert Hall this year and the year before, and we’ve amalgamated it to make a live record, which is … well, some of it is superb, and some of it isn’t superb. It’s good, but…
What don’t you. like about it?
I’m very critical about my own performance. I tend to think when I walk offstage that it was brilliant, and then when I listen back to it, I’m not that satisfied. I never am.
Is that what happened last year? I understand the album was finished, then you pulled it from release.
After listening to it, I didn’t think my performance was satisfactory. And so we did it all over again this year, every night. We recorded twenty-four nights! And in hindsight, I see that I was very tired. I had done a whole year of touring, and I wasn’t really up to it. And so we had to scrape the barrel a lot to come up with a good selection that worked. I mean, it is good, but I’m just so bloody critical about it.
I think the songs with the nine-piece band come off the best. I think they’re more relaxed because that was the band that had been on tour all year, and we were so much more comfortable than with the other lineups.
I agree, though at first I was surprised there were so many songs from Journeyman on the album.
That didn’t make sense to you? I thought that would be the obvious thing. Quick – put out live versions of the latest studio stuff.
But it’s been more than ten years since your last live album.
Has it been? My thing is, how many times can you listen to a live version – or any version – of ”Wonderful Tonight” or “Layla”?
Yes, but in fact, “Layla” hasn’t been on any of your live albums, and “Wonderful Tonight” was on the last one, as well as on this one.
“Layla” wasn’t on the last one?
And it’s not on this one. Oh, dear. Well, you never know. I mean, now they’re thinking of putting out “Wonderful Tonight” again as the single. You never know.
What’s the idea behind the orchestral material?
It’s a thrill. It’s a selfish thrill to play with an orchestra. But it hasn’t really clicked. It’s a very hit-or-miss process, because they play in a different time scale. They hit the beat just slightly after the conductor’s baton comes down; they play behind the beat, in effect. I play right on the beat or sometimes in front of it. I like pushing the beat, and so the marriage is very difficult. It’s a challenge to get it right. But more often than not, it’s a very painful disappointment. But it is a great sound live, to hear all that moving air coming from the violas and cellos, double basses and fiddles. And to have an electric guitar in the middle of that, quite hard, it’s a tremendous feeling.
You also play three Cream songs on the album. Are you more comfortable with that material now?
Much more, yeah. I think it’s safer. I started playing “White Room” again, thanks to Paul Shaffer, when I sat in with him on the Letterman show. He said, “Let’s do ‘White Room,’ ” and I said, “God, no.” But it sounded good, and it’s been back ever since. Maybe some others will come back, but I don’t know. It’s tricky to predict these things.
It’s like another life, another world, and I don’t want to dig up too many skeletons. But if you can breathe new life into these songs, they change character and become fun again.
Over the years, the idea of a Cream reunion keeps popping up.
Well, it’s still a possibility, as long as we’re all alive. But it hinges on how much people change, and how much they don’t change. If we got back together, how far back would it go into the misery of what we experienced? Would that come back with it? It scares the living daylights out of me, because there was a lot of hostility, a lot of aggression and a lot of unpleasant personality clashes. But I was speaking to Robbie Robertson recently about Ginger [Baker], and Robbie’s had some great experiences working with Ginger. But we’d have to do it for love and out of the desire to have a good time. Not for money.
Are you in touch with those guys?
Yeah. I spoke to Ginger a couple of months ago, in fact. I mean, it’s a bit like a marriage that you walked away from. Something about these people gets under your skin, and they’re part of your life. It’s like I said earlier, relationships don’t end necessarily. They’re always there, running parallel.
Your new album also has a blues side, with guests like Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, Johnnie Johnson. What do you think of the state of the blues today? With the success of Cray, and of the Robert Johnson box set, people keep talking about a revival. I think talking about it is one thing, but I don’t see it happening. The blues seems to be dying a slow and graceful death. I mean, how will it survive? All the players are disappearing. It’s really down to Robert Cray. He’s the only player I know who is absolutely, totally authentic.
I mean, the Robert Johnson thing … it’s funny, but you can bump into society people who will drop the name of Robert Johnson at a dinner party. I find that all quite faintly ridiculous. But no matter who bought the Robert Johnson box, there will always be only a minority of people who can truly identify with it, for some reason. Some people find it like listening to a voice they’ve always heard. I do. I mean, when I first heard it, it was so shatteringly intimate for me that it was almost unbearable. It was like when I first tasted alcohol, I felt like I was born to taste alcohol. And when I first heard Robert Johnson, it was like a voice I’d heard way, way back. But I don’t think it’s ever going to be that way for all people.
You’ve often talked about making a blues album. Is that something you still might do? It’s still something I have in mind, but things keep happening to put it on hold. Right now, I’m dead set on making a record to recognize what my son did to my life. I’ll probably dedicate it to him or make it about him. I’m not sure. I’ve already written two songs about how I felt. Neither one of them is blues. They’re both very strange – a different music. I play them on Spanish guitar, and they’re almost like sambas. They’re sweet little songs, almost like folk songs, and I feel the need to play them, to have people hear them. So it seems that things always seem to happen to put the blues record off. It seems to be something that I’ll never get around to. It’s just an ideal.
Do you listen to much new music, like the stuff on the charts?
I’m very out of step at the moment. The only thing I’ve really liked is a guy called Lee Mavers, who sings with the La’s. He’s got a stance and a style that I think is tremendous. I saw them do a thing on TV with him and an acoustic guitar and the bass player with an acoustic bass, and they did that song “There She Goes,” and it was so strong.
I think that’s what it’s about for me – the craft I mean, the packaging leaves me cold, and so much of music today is the packaging and the presentation, the video and the promotion, and you’ve got to unwrap everything to find out if the craft is there. To me, music is either good or bad if it makes me feel something. If it doesn’t make me feel anything, I’m just indifferent to it. Like Madonna is a phenomenon that I recognize, but she doesn’t make me feel anything. I can’t identify with her on any level, because all she is, is production and packaging.
Are there any musicians who you admire?
Well, Mark Knopfler, I think, is totally unique. He’s a great craftsman, which brings it back to that. I mean, with Dire Straits, if you listen to any of their albums the first time, it sort of goes by you a bit, then gradually it just gets better and better, and it stands the test of time. They’re fantastic craftsmen.
Sting has that same quality. Soul Cages was exactly the same thing for me. I liked it the first time, but it was a bit esoteric. And then it grew and grew, and for a period of time it was all I listened to, over and over again. I would listen to it in my car in a CD cartridge, along with Mozart and Puccini and the Band and Muddy Waters. And it stood up on its own, amongst all those other classic things.
You do a lot of sessions for other artists. Recently, for example, you played on a new album by Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi, and an album of Buddy Guy’s. Obviously, given your stature, that’s not something you have to do.
I find it to be a very humbling experience. I walk around with this impression in my head that I am this great journeyman, this wandering musician with fantastic capabilities. Like in New York, for instance, I walk down the street, and it’s “Hi, Slowhand. Nice to see you.” And I’m on a cloud with all this respect and admiration. Then you put me in the real situation, in a studio with a tape recorder and someone who expects the best, and I’ve got to come up with the goods, and it’s never there.
Richie really put me on the spot It was a nightmare. I got a very sweet, dedicated letter from him, and I was deeply touched, my ego was pumped up. And I thought, “Of course, I have to do this.” And I never actually listened to the song, I never acquainted myself with it. I just went in on this little fantasy about how easy it was going to be.
And then Richie came to London with the tape, and I showed up at the studio, and he gave me a gift, which was a massive twelve-string Taylor guitar with my name on it. And it was magnificent. And then he put the tape on, and I realized instantly that I was completely out of my depth. The song wasn’t what I expected it to be, and I had to sit down and go down to the bottom of my socks and pull up whatever I had to make it work. And it took hours, and I sweated buckets. And Richie was sitting there, watching me go through this. And it was the kind of thing you would like to go off and do in private, because you’re going to make all your worst mistakes right there in front of everybody. So there goes your reputation right out the window. Reality comes in the door.
Last year, PolyGram released a three-CD set celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Layla. Did you go back and listen to it all, the jams and the outtakes and everything?
I couldn’t listen to all that. I tried, but I couldn’t. There’s so much personal history involved that it’s quite painful to go and relive it, which is what happens if I listen to it. Nostalgia, for me, is always painful. I mean, I think nostalgia is actually Latin for ‘return to pain.’
When one looks back at what happened to the people in Derek and the Dominos, it seems as if it was an awfully star-crossed group.
The way it started was so anonymous, being Derek and the Dominos and doing a tour with no one knowing who we were. And then it was finally discovered, and we peaked so quickly and made so much money. And these guys, who were basically from the South – like [keyboardist] Bobby Whitlock and [drummer] Jim Gordon – were suddenly thrust into all this money and drugs and women, and it just cartwheeled, took off and blew up. It was like a massive car crash, and scary, scary, scary. We couldn’t even talk to one another, we were so wound up and drugged out and paranoid. It was doomed, really. I don’t think it could have been salvaged by anybody.
Jim Gordon is now in jail, I believe, for murdering his mother. He was diagnosed as an acute paranoid schizophrenic. Have you been in touch with him?
I’m scared to death of that. A part of me says I owe it to him to try and get in touch. But I’m scared. I was scared of him at the end of Derek and the Dominos. One of the reasons we broke up was the rapport between me and Jim, which had always been so good, had broken down. And in the middle of a session when we were trying to do a second studio album, I said something about the rhythm being wrong for the song, and Jim said something like “Well the Dixie Flyers are in town. You can get their drummer.” I put my guitar down and walked out of the studio, and I didn’t speak to him again.
But I had no idea that he had a psychotic history of visions and hearing voices, from an early age. That was never apparent when we were working together. It just seemed like bad vibes, the worst kind of bad vibes. I would have never said that he was going mad. To me, it was just the drugs.
Carl Radle, the bass player, ended up dying from alcohol poisoning.
Carl was like my brother. He brought me out of my seclusion when I was taking heroin after the Dominos broke up. He stayed in touch, and he found Dick Sims and Jamie Oldaker and said this could be our new band. And it was. And then drugs got into that, and booze, and it created a monster again. I broke up that band because we were all fucked up, we were killing one another, fighting onstage. And it was all drug related. And within six months, Carl was dead. At that point, I was doing two bottles of brandy a day, and I couldn’t lift a finger to help anybody. Now I look at it all and see what a waste and what a great player he was, and I’m sad. I mean, drugs have got a lot to answer for in my life.
When you look back over your career, which albums are you proudest of?
I think the John Mayall album [Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton] is very powerful, because I had a definite rebel stance about the whole thing. I was on top of my craft, and I was completely confident, and I didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought. I mean, we made that record in two days, and I told the engineer where to put the microphone, and that’s the way it went. If you didn’t like what I was doing, then you weren’t on the same planet as me.
I like Slowhand. I like No Reason to Cry. I think that’s a very good album, because it’s sort of rambling. There was no producer, and it was just a party. But I’m proud of them all, I’m glad to say.
You did the Dylan song “Sign Language” on No Reason to Cry. Do you ever see him anymore?
[A] The last time I saw Bob was when I was making Journeyman. But I had a great year with Bob this year. I bought the bootleg album, and I haven’t stopped listening to it. And I’d forgotten what a master he is. I think he is the best. I mean, that song “Series of Dreams” is a masterpiece. It blows me away. The sound of it, the voice, and the general atmosphere is scary, beautiful.
And then I saw Bob getting his Grammy, and it blew me away. George [Harrison] showed me a video of it, actually, not long after my son died, and what Bob said in that acceptance was so profound, it took my breath away, brought tears to my eyes. It’s one of the greatest things I ever heard anyone say on a live TV show. I don’t know if anyone really got it, but I thought it was magnificent. It proves to me that the man is head and shoulders above everyone else. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I’d love to. It’s just that I don’t quite know how to give him what he’s given me. I feel kind of inadequate.
Are there any other people you feel that way about?
Yeah, the same with Robbie Robertson. If I sat down and thought for ten minutes about what he’s given me, I wouldn’t even be able to have coffee with him. I’d be awe-struck. I was devoted to the Band, and every song that he ever wrote for the Band had a profound effect on me. The story of the relationship in the song “The Moon Struck One” is so profound. It brings back so many memories of my own childhood that it seems like Robbie must have been there. And when I see him, I just have to throw all that out the window and be who I am.
After Music From Big Pink came out, you went to Woodstock and visited the Band.
Yeah, I bumped into Robbie in L.A., and he invited me to meet the guys in Woodstock. These guys looked like characters from the Hole in the Wall Gang. It was like Jesse James or something. Rick Danko showed up covered in plaster from his waist to the top of his head, as he’d just driven his car into a tree. These guys were the real thing, and I was touring with this band of psychedelic loonies. And it made me reevaluate everything I stood for.
It seems like you’ve been through another period of reevaluation, and you’ve emerged fairly strong.
Well, I’ve had to be, you know. It’s been a pretty spectacular couple of years for me. Someone wrote a book about me called Survivor! [the book, by Ray Coleman, was retitled Clapton! in America], and it wound up in the early Eighties. Well, you could write it all again. In the last couple of years there’s been more action in my life, and drama, than I would have wished for. But I think I’ve learned something from it all. I can’t say tangibly what it is, except that I’m happy to be me and to have survived.