Eric Clapton: The Rolling Stone Interview
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.
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