Lili Fini Zanuck’s documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars follows the guitarist as he pursues a single-minded mission to raise the profile of the blues in popular culture. During the Sixties, he moved through bands at a reckless pace in search for the right combination of blues aficionados – he joined, scored major hits and then left and/or dissolved the Yardbirds, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek the Dominos in less than a decade. Collaborators were just a means to an end; Clapton’s commitment to the form was total.
Life in 12 Bars also grounds Clapton’s drive in an early childhood trauma: His mother left him to be raised by his grandparents, a rejection that would haunt his subsequent romantic difficulties and decades-long struggles with substance addiction. The documentary is relatively low on talking heads, preferring voiceover narration from Clapton or old video footage: Cream wreaking havoc during a live performance in the U.S.; home-movie footage of the musician and his friends goofing around during the recording sessions for what would become Derek and the Dominos’ one hit album; Clapton struggling to maintain equilibrium during a drunken show in the 1970s; and then playing songs from his triumphant, Grammy-winning MTV Unplugged album in the 1990s.
It’s Clapton’s steadfast interest in the blues, however, that serves as the film’s through-line. “When it came to blues, there was no one like him,” says Mayall. And the doc, which makes its broadcast premiere on Showtime on February 10th, makes a strong case for why that music has kept him going through highs, lows, good times and some seriously bad times. Here are 10 more takeaways from the movie.
1. He first encountered the blues through a radio show that played music for kids.
Clapton was raised by his grandparents and “was a bit of a loner at times,” says his grandma. But he found solace in the BBC children’s show Uncle Mac. “Uncle Mac was on the radio Saturday morning, and he would play a variety of music for kids,” Clapton remembers. “And then every now and then, he’d play some different music: [the blues]. You didn’t hear that anywhere else. And I thought, this is for me … it took all the pain away.”
But it brought some pain to those around him when he bought a guitar and practiced at home at all hours. “I used to suffer agony at night,” Clapton’s grandmother remembers. “Three in the morning, he’d be up playing Big Bill Broonzy.”
2. A pop career didn’t interest him.
In 1964, Clapton played a Christmas event with the Yardbirds. The Beatles were also on the bill, and seeing them had a profound effect on Clapton. “When the Beatles came on, [the fans] would just start screaming so you couldn’t hear anything,” he explains. “We would watch from the wings and I could see how pointless these guys thought it was already. George was clearly an innovator. But the sad part was that no one listened.”
He thought he was safe in his band – which turned out not to be the case. “I thought the Yardbirds had a real understanding about what it was all about, and it wasn’t about being famous or getting on TV or having a hit,” he says. But then came “For Your Love,” a hit for the group in 1965. “It was pop!” Clapton exclaims. “All the material that we were doing was blues music that hadn’t even filtered through to the mainstream yet. We were pioneering something. I noticed they were deliberately growing Beatles’ haircuts. I thought, we sold out. I’ve sold out, I gotta get out of here.” He left the group high and dry with a major hit to promote and no lead guitarist to play it.
3. Clapton’s influences extend outside of guitarists.
Though he’s known for six-string wizardry, Clapton looked to other instruments for inspiration. “I listened to [the Indian musician] Bismillah Khan a lot,” he says. “I wanted my guitar to sound like his reed instrument. One of the biggest influences on what I wanted to achieve with the guitar was Little Walter, the sound he made with the harmonica playing through an amplifier. It was thick and fat and very melodic.”
4. He influenced recording techniques as well as guitar-playing technique.
When Clapton went into the studio to record as a member of John Mayall’s group, he was frustrated by technicians “that just came up to your amp with the microphone and just stuck it two inches away from the front of the amplifier,” he says. “It seemed to me that if you wanted to get the atmosphere we were getting in the clubs, you needed it to sound like you were in the audience 10 feet away, not three inches.”
Clapton moved the mics – and aspiring musicians took notice. “That changed everything,” Roger Waters says. “Before Eric, guitar playing in England had been Hank Marvin of the Shadows, very simple, not much technique. Suddenly we heard something completely different. The records sounded unlike anything we had heard before.”
5. Cream was aesthetically stimulating but personally frustrating.
When Clapton formed Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, the musical results were undeniable. “They played songs that are not absolutely on a 12- or 8-bar form, but had a blues feel,” Atlantic Records legend Ahmet Ertegun explains. “It was a new music, especially when Eric played the guitar.”
But the friction between group members meant the trio was ultimately untenable. “There was a constant dispute between Jack and Ginger every day,” the band’s manager remembers. “It didn’t matter what they were arguing about really, just that they were at each other’s throats.” The band dissolved in 1968. Clapton had already moved on.
6. Clapton had a complicated relationship with George Harrison.
Clapton became increasingly close with the Beatles’ guitarist as Cream was falling apart. Harrison co-wrote the song “Badge” from Cream’s final album, and he returned the favor by playing on the Beatles’ “White My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “They were harsh judges,” Clapton says of the Beatles. The two then worked together again on Harrison’s first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass.
But despite being friendly with the guitarist, Clapton became increasingly infatuated with Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. He eventually wrote her a letter that she remembers was “bursting with passion.” “Eric started to phone me and say, ‘Come one, you obviously aren’t happy, come away with me,'” she adds. “I would say, ‘No, I can’t, I’m married to George’ … He was fond and awake and alive; it was the most wonderful temptation. I could only compare him to George, who could be very cold and would just turn off.” The two eventually married, but not until 1979.
7. Clapton’s unrequited love and a Persian fable helped inspire “Layla,” one of his most iconic songs.
During this period, when Clapton was unable to be with Boyd, he connected with an “absolute tragedy of doomed love,” the Persian story Layla and Majnun. “I saw myself in that,” he says. “I saw the whole experience with Patty as tragedy.” He started what would become “Layla” in England. “But I couldn’t finish it,” he adds.
8. The addition of Duane Allman was crucial for finishing the Derek and the Dominos album.
Clapton and his new band went to Miami to record Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, working in the legendary Criterion Studios with the Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd. But despite a talented group and sunny weather, “two weeks into the session, we got stuck,” Clapton says. “We hit a brick wall.”
Dowd took the outfit to see the Allman Brothers, and the performance had a galvanizing effect. “I was completely blown away by this band,” Clapton remembers. He also struck up a friendship with Allman, who joined Clapton and co. in the studio. “He was the catalyst we needed,” Clapton adds.
9. Clapton’s drug and alcohol addictions worsened after the death of his grandfather.
Still reeling from the Boyd situation, Clapton was hurt again when his grandfather Jack Clapp died. He became increasingly reliant on drugs and alcohol. “The attitude back then was that alcohol was ok, but for me, alcohol was much worse than heroin,” Clapton says. “Eric discovered Courvoisier and Remy Martin and just went into it,” adds guitarist George Terry. “If he got a hold of something, he’d hit at it until it was gone.”
Clapton struggled with addiction for years before getting clean. He eventually founded his own institution to help addicts, the Crossroads Centre Antigua.
10. He regrets his racist tirade.
A series of racist comments Clapton made onstage in 1976 were part of the reason that the first Rock Against Racism concert took place in the U.K. “When I realized what I said, I was just so disgusted with myself,” Clapton says during Life in 12 Bars. “… It was shocking and unforgivable and I was so ashamed of who I was.”
He blames these comments largely on his alcoholism. “I was becoming not only chauvinistic but fascistic too,” he recalls. “I was kind of a semi-racist, which didn’t make sense. Half my friends were black … I listened to black music and championed black music. It didn’t matter at all … as long as I had the bottle.”